Whitecaps’ historic Champions League run comes to an end

Vancouver Whitecaps' Alphonso Davies, right, takes a shot on goal as Tigres' Hugo Ayala defends during first half, second leg, CONCACAF Champions League semifinal action in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER—Before the Vancouver Whitecaps faced off against Tigres UANL in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals on Wednesday evening, a group of home-team supporters stood at the south end of BC Place, lifting a sign that read: "Never tell us the odds."

The message was obvious: Sure, Vancouver’s odds of advancing were overwhelmingly slim—the team needed to overcome a two-goal deficit after a loss in the first leg—but so what.

It was the same approach the ’Caps themselves intended to take.

On Wednesday, the Whitecaps managed to make the match versus the Liga MX champions a lively one despite the difficult task at hand—from the 16,258 fans barking and whooping in the stands, you wouldn’t have known that many had deemed the outcome inevitable.

There was even a brief time, early on, when it seemed the home team might be capable of pulling off something spectacular. But it was not to be: Vancouver lost 2–1 (4–1 on aggregate), ending their bid to reach the Champions League final.

"We’ve gone toe-to-toe, and we’ve just come up a little bit short," said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson after the game.

The coach acknowledged that his emotions were mixed: He was proud of his team, which had made a historic run in the tournament, yet it was hard not to rue a series of missed chances.

"When you play against good teams—Tigres are a top, top team with top players and a top coach—you have to make those defining moments and take them chances," he said. "And unfortunately we didn’t."

The Whitecaps had repeatedly stressed the importance of getting that vital first goal on Wednesday, and the game started according to script, with Brek Shea opening the scoring in the third minute following a free kick taken by Christian Bolaños.

Two minutes later, Shea appeared to injure his knee when he and Tigres defender Luis Rodríguez struck the ball simultaneously. Shea exited the game, and according to Robinson, is likely to be out for several weeks.

Alphonso Davies entered the game in the 10th minute in Shea’s place. The teenage winger would stay on for the remainder of the match, which hadn’t been part of Robinson’s game plan.

"We’ve got a wonderful talent on our hands in Alphonso Davies," Robinson said. "But he was tired, and he looked that playing against a top right back in Tigres."

The Whitecaps carried their 1–0 lead into the second half, which began with a good chance for the home team to add another goal: Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán made a dramatic save in the 46th minute, preventing a Bolaños strike from doubling the Whitecaps’ margin in the game—and providing the equalizer on aggregate—as Vancouver showed the same early pressure it did in the first half.

In the 63rd minute, André-Pierre Gignac’s perfectly placed strike—taken from outside the penalty area and delivered directly into the top corner of Ousted’s net—provided Tigres with a crucial away goal, removing the possibility of a tie extending the match beyond 90 minutes and leaving the Whitecaps in need of three goals, with just under 30 minutes in which to get them.

"Great goal, that," Robinson said. "I enjoyed watching that. Unfortunately I’m on the wrong end of that today."

It took a trio of excellent saves from David Ousted to keep the game’s score line level through 80 minutes, with two coming in the 77th minute—the initial shot, and a second save following a Jesús Dueñas strike on the deflection—and one in the 79th. But in the 84th minute, Tigres shut the door on the Whitecaps’ hopes of earning a draw at home with another all-but-unstoppable shot after Javier Aquino sent the ball backward through the penalty area and Damián Álvarez launched it into the roof of the net.

The Whitecaps continued to pressure through the final six minutes plus stoppage time, but were unable to find the equalizer.

"The game plan going into the game was we didn’t want to sit back, because I knew that they could probably score when they wanted to—which, obviously Gignac proved me right," Robinson said. "I wanted to get the first goal and try and make it a little bit nervous for them. We did that."

Robinson added that he’d have been curious to see what might have happened had Bolanos scored and his team gone up 2–0, but the Welshman didn’t really envision a different outcome. "I still had a feeling that when they wanted to step into fifth gear they could," he said.

Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti praised the losing side— "great, great team," he said, smiling. The ’Caps looked like an orderly team, he said—if anything, too orderly, he suggested, noting that he felt the team could stand to add a bit of "disorder" and "malice."

Despite the disappointment of the loss, there was no bitterness amongst Robinson’s group.

"It’s been historic," said Ousted of the experience. "It’s the first time the club has been in a position like that. For us players it’s been huge. To play these kind of teams and being in tournament like this—and we made it to the semifinals. Unfortunately it stops here, but it’s been a good opportunity to show that we can go toe-to-toe with some of the better teams in CONCACAF."

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