VANCOUVER – In a game that was as much a referendum on their coach as his players, the Vancouver Whitecaps finally scratched their seven-year itch in Major League Soccer by winning their first playoff game, 5-0 against the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday at B.C. Place Stadium.
Vancouver coach Carl Robinson, under pressure to advance his team while under fire for some recent lineup decisions, clearly made the right choices as the Whitecaps obliterated both the Earthquakes and the psychological barrier created by three previous one-and-done MLS playoff exits.
Finally unshackled from past failures, the Whitecaps will try to make it two wins in five days when they open the second round of the playoffs Sunday at home against their biggest rivals, the Seattle Sounders. The return leg of the two-game, total-goals series is next Thursday down Interstate-5.
Wednesday’s win had the feel of something bigger for the Whitecaps than a single victory to start the MLS Cup tournament.
"I’m delighted for everyone involved with the football club tonight, everyone involved with the city because we needed a little bit of success," Robinson said. "And we’ve got a little bit of success today. But that’s all it is.
"A win is a win and I wouldn’t have minded how we won today. (But) you saw what it meant to the players and the club. We were so determined to get that first playoff win, and we did. Did we do it in style? Yeah, we probably did, which makes it all the more special."
Robinson made several contentious lineup decisions for Wednesday.
Starting Fredy Montero up front was not one of them. The veteran Colombian led Vancouver with 13 goals in the regular season and is the most dangerous Whitecap striker since Brazilian Camilo deserted the club in 2013, bolting to Mexico despite a valid MLS contract.
Montero has 60 goals in his MLS career but, unnervingly, none in 10 playoff games before Wednesday.
In the 33rd minute, Montero improved that blip on his resume by turning in a header at the far post as teammate Kendall Waston’s header from Cristian Techera’s corner was sailing wide.
It eased tension in the Whitecaps and perhaps Robinson, as both looked nervous through the game’s cautious first half hour.
This was just Vancouver’s second home playoff game in seven MLS seasons and they failed to score in the first one, beaten 2-0 at B.C. Place two years ago when the Portland Timbers eliminated the Whitecaps on their way to the league championship.
Overall, the Whitecaps were 0-3-1 in MLS playoffs, and their 0-2-1 slide this month at the end of the regular season didn’t exactly stoke optimism for the playoff-opener. A win in any of its last three games would have given Vancouver its first Western Conference pennant and a first-round bye.
Instead, the club dropped to third from first in the final hours of the regular season and drew a playoff matchup against San Jose, which surged at the finish line to make the playoffs on a 2-0-1 sprint.
Then Robinson named his starting 11 and left out both heart-and-soul defender Jordan Harvey, a lineup regular who is the Whitecaps’ all-time games played leader with 169, and incumbent No. 1 goalie David Ousted. Robinson also left on the bench 16-year-old phenom Alphonso Davies, but Whitecap Nation has grown accustomed to this.
Instead of Harvey, Robinson chose Canadian international Marcel de Jong, and New Zealand international Stefan Marinovic went in goal ahead of Ousted, who as one of MLS’s top keepers is believed to have priced himself out of Vancouver after this season.
And how did this work out for Robinson?
Marinovic made a spectacular diving save on Anibal Godoy’s fifth-minute free kick from 25 yards, and de Jong had probably his finest game as a Whitecap, getting down left wing and making several unusually deft passes out of defence. Vancouver, which has been vulnerable down the flanks, kept its fullbacks tucked in to prevent passes through the back line.
The Earthquakes rarely tested Marinovic after Godoy’s effort – American World Cup veteran Chris Wondolowski fired a rocket straight at the goalkeeper in the 52nd minute – before Techera made it 2-0 in the 57th.
Oddly left out of the starting lineup in the Whitecaps’ 2-1 loss in Portland in MLS’s "Decision Day" on Sunday, Techera scored with a brilliant left-footed free kick from 28 yards. And seven minutes after that, Waston tapped defence partner Tim Parker’s pass across the goal-line to make it 3-0 after San Jose goalie Andrew Tarbell had saved Montero’s point-blank header.
Substitute Nicolas Mezquida then scored two goals in two minutes to make it 5-0 and cap the greatest victory in franchise history – or at least since the Whitecaps joined MLS before the 2011 season.
One way or another, this game was going to be about Robinson and his tenure. Over his four seasons in charge, Robinson has elevated both standards and expectations but had failed until Wednesday to do what previous coaches couldn’t: win a playoff game.
"Listen, I like proving people wrong," Robinson said. "The thing that pleased me most – yeah, every player in each position performed to their levels – but the heart and determination and the desire to want to win the game… the boys don’t quit. After the difficult three weeks that we had, because we haven’t probably taken care of business (to clinch first place), it was really a statement win for us tonight."