VANCOUVER—Could this be the year for the Vancouver Whitecaps?
That’s a question you’ll hear fairly regularly in conversations with Vancouver soccer fans, as coach Carl Robinson’s side has flirted with first place in the Western Conference for most of this season.
But on Saturday night, the Whitecaps threw away what looked like an insurmountable lead by conceding three goals in just over 10 minutes to fall 4-3 to Sporting Kansas City on the road.
It was a capitulation of epic proportions, and came after a similar midweek meltdown in the first leg of the Amway Canadian Championship final, when the Whitecaps ended up with a 2-2 draw with the Montreal Impact after allowing the home side to score twice in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
These two games will surely give pause to the dreamers.
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This isn’t to say Kansas City wasn’t full value for the win. Some are calling Saturday’s affair the game of the season in Major League Soccer to date, and for the neutral it was everything you would want to see in a match.
For the local fans who witnessed it, it may be the most memorable match they’ll ever see in person. That’s how spectacular their team’s comeback was on this day. But for the Whitecaps, there’s no magic here, only serious questions.
Is there a focus issue? It’s so easy to mentally coast when you’re in the lead. It’s the natural reaction and it’s difficult to overcome that mentally and maintain intensity when everything in your mind points to a foregone conclusion.
If your team is up 3-1 with 10 minutes to go, that’s mission accomplished in your head. It’s just about going through the motions. It’s certainly the mentality it appears many of the Whitecaps adopted on this occasion, and no doubt there will be an inquest of sorts at training this week to determine what exactly went wrong.
Adding insult to the whole situation for the Whitecaps, Sporting played a very tired group of players, seven of whom started their third match in a week.
That counters with a Whitecaps lineup that was extremely fresh, with many starters in this match seeing no or few minutes against the Impact midweek.
So essentially a group of worn out Kansas City players who had no right to find extra gas in the tank after an exceptionally busy week dug deeper in the last few minutes and the Whitecaps couldn’t keep up.
A major caveat to the criticisms outlined here is the fact Kendall Waston was suspended. While the big Costa Rican international was on the field for Wednesday’s disastrous finish, it’s hard to believe this sort of situation would have taken place against Sporting had he been involved.
While Pa Modou-Kah has enjoyed a very good season, it is Waston who is the star of that central defensive partnership, and certainly the dominant aerial player. His absence was clear as Kah was beaten twice in the air for two of Sporting’s goals.
And while the team’s failure to close this match out will rightfully come under the microscope, it is worth touching on the things that went right.
Fans will be delighted to see Kekuta Manneh continue his coming-of-age season with a brace. There are times when he displays the inconsistency of many young players, but this season he really has shown an ability to give fullbacks nightmares and deliver results rather than just dazzle with dribbling on plays that come to nothing—something that tended to happen in his first two seasons.
His final ball from crosses still needs work if he’s to become a truly effective wide player, but perhaps it will be never be his strength. That’s okay if he continues to be so damaging on the dribble.
Another bonus here was yet another stunning free kick goal from Pedro Morales. The Whitecaps’ skipper continues to work his way back to full health after dealing with a calf injury, and if he can continue being so effective from set plays in the final stretch of the season, that could prove vital.
Ultimately, this game sort of summed up how many people view the Whitecaps: fun to watch, capable of brilliance, but still very raw with a few vulnerable weak spots.
The side’s last two games might just be blips on what has been a successful season, but it’s difficult not to wonder if these late meltdowns are a hint at further problems to come.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter