Game management key to Whitecaps’ success

Sportsnet's Irfan Gaffar talks with Vancouver Whitecaps defender Jordan Harvey about getting a draw against the Portland Timbers and the excitement of returning to BC Place for the second leg.

VANCOUVER—Had anyone offered Vancouver Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson the scoreless draw his team managed on Sunday afternoon against the Portland Timbers, he likely would have taken it.

The 0-0 result on the road in the first leg of this Western Conference semifinal sets the Whitecaps up well, as the team will get a chance to advance in front of its home crowd at BC Place next weekend.

Sunday wasn’t the perfect result for Vancouver—even a score draw at Providence Park would have been preferable, as it would have given Robinson’s men a vital away goal going into the return match.

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But what this result does do is buy time for captain and Designated Player Pedro Morales to continue his return from health after dealing with hamstring problems. He came on with 13 minutes left to play in this match after somewhat surprisingly making it into the matchday squad, and he looked sharp.

Keeping things basically on the level until next weekend also means there’s a chance more firepower could be available should Nicolas Mezquida overcome his own hamstring problem. And while Mauro Rosales did play around half an hour on this night, the Argentine could be in contention for a start next weekend with this extra week to recover.

On the other side of things, there is an argument to be made that Vancouver could have gone for the jugular and played a more offensive lineup against a Timbers team that played 120 minutes and endured the mental stress of an 11-round shootout—a team that on Sunday also was without their starting goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey due to flu and defensive midfielder Diego Chara due to injury.

While that’s certainly one approach, the Whitecaps didn’t really have the personnel available to really open this game up and go shot-for-shot. There’s also the reality that this Whitecaps side has struggled on the road lately, entering this match with a road record of 0-5-2 since their last away win—a 3-0 thrashing of the Seattle Sounders on August 1.

Bottom line, while Portland entered this game weary and dealing with injuries of its own, this is a Whitecaps outfit that has looked fairly toothless on the road for some time now, in large part due to its own treatment room overcrowding. In this context, the 0-0 looks pretty good.

But all that said, the Whitecaps nearly left this game with nothing—the best chance for the Timbers came in the 89th minute when substitute Max Urruti’s effort beat David Ousted but not the post.

Speaking of Ousted, the Danish goalkeeper likely was the man of the match for Vancouver with an excellent diving save to stop a Diego Valeri free kick that looked destined for the top right corner in the 72nd minute.

The entire backline for the Whitecaps deserves credit for a resolute showing. In midfield, the five players did tend to sit a bit deep at times, especially as the clock ticked down, but this was always likely given Gershon Koffie isn’t a natural attacking No. 10 midfielder.

That natural inclination to sit rather than push a bit further forward may have invited the pressure at times, but the extra body in the centre of the park did mean much of what the Timbers did on this night was kept to the periphery.

Going forward, there is less praise to go around. Octavio Rivero was left isolated for much of this match, and did well to hold up the ball as much as he did with very little in the way of support.

In the first half Kekuta Manneh was lively and created a number of half-chances. Those didn’t come to anything and as the game wore on he was less influential. On the other side, Cristian Techera had his moments, and did act as an outlet at times when the ‘Caps were under pressure.

Ultimately, the team as it lined up on Sunday will always be limited and creatively deficient. It was only when Rosales and later Morales entered the game that the Whitecaps looked to do much with the ball. At least one of those two will need to be fit to start by next weekend for the ‘Caps to have the necessary guile to put the Timbers on the back foot from the opening whistle.

Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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