VANCOUVER— The look on Erik Hurtado’s face was so intense, his face stretched in wild celebration, that you’d be forgiven for mistaking joy for anguish.
The 25-year-old forward had just scored for the Vancouver Whitecaps, putting his team up 2–0 in a CONCACAF Champions League group-stage match versus Sporting Kansas City.
Hurtado has had a rough go of late. After struggling last season in Major League Soccer, he was sent on loan to Norwegian side Mjøndalen IF, and he returned this year with what was supposed to be renewed purpose and vitality. But Hurtado, while occasionally providing a bit of a spark when coming on as a late substitute, hadn’t managed a single goal all year. There were times when his decision-making seemed poor, or his timing was off, or else his luck was just rotten.
In many ways, his struggles have seemed emblematic of his team as a whole: there’s promise there, but the results haven’t been good. On Tuesday, though, the Whitecaps made a statement, defeating Kansas City 3–0. The question now: Will this decisive win provide a boost for the club as they return to league play?
As Vancouver coach Carl Robinson told reporters in his post-match press conference, he’d been trying to send his team the message that hard work will pay off. If the Whitecaps can grit their way through disappointment and get the work done, results will come.
“I said to the guys after the game on Saturday, ‘We’re fighting for our lives here, we’re fighting for your careers,’” he said, acknowledging that Vancouver, currently ninth in MLS’ Western Conference, is going through a rough period.
“Erik had to deal with disappointment last year by going on loan, and realizing it’s very hard, so he’s come back this year with a bit between his teeth,” Robinson said of Hurtado, who’d also set up the first goal of Tuesday’s match. “And he gets his goal tonight, and I think everyone in the stadium was delighted for him, because the amount of work he puts in, not just in games but on a daily basis, is phenomenal.”
Hurtado, who looked sharp throughout his appearance and left the match in the 68th minute to a standing ovation, wasn’t the only player who seemed revitalized. Cristian Techera scored two goals and came close to grabbing a third; he looked like he’d recaptured the form he’d shown last year, in his first season in Vancouver. The diminutive Uruguayan now has three goals in CCL play this year—a tie for most in the tournament so far.
“Hopefully ‘The Bug’ can do that on a more regular basis,” Robinson said. “He works hard in training. And I think people forget he’s a young player, and young players go through confidence spurts. Unfortunately, a number of players were going through that at the same time.”
Whitecaps midfielder Russell Teibert, who’d set Hurtado up for his goal in the 12th minute, echoed the sentiment that confidence has been a problem for the Whitecaps of late.
“I think you could say it has been an issue on the field recently,” he said. “We weren’t playing with the same swagger as we did tonight.”
On Tuesday, Teibert said, the team had an entirely different mentality: “We played like men tonight. We stood up, our chests and heads were high, and you’re a tough team to beat when you have that type of winning confidence, winning swagger.”
With the win, the Whitecaps sit first atop their group in the Champions League tournament, with two matches remaining and an opportunity to move into the quarterfinals for the first time in the franchise’s history. But the focus now shifts back to MLS, where the team’s playoff hopes remain intact, however dire the odds.
“Hopefully we can carry this into the MLS season,” said Teibert, who explained the team’s approach in the face of an uphill battle: “We have eight cup finals to go, and we treated this one like a cup final tonight, and we’ll continue to do so until the end of the season.”
Earlier in the day, the team announced the signing of Brett Levis to his first MLS contract. The University of Saskatchewan alumnus played 90 minutes on the night, and he looked at home with the big club, his footwork solid and his energy lively as he darted up and down the field. The defender, who was converted from midfielder to left fullback with USL side Whitecaps FC 2, said he was pleased with his debut as a bona fide member of the first team.
“There were definitely nerves, a little bit of pressure,” said the 23-year-old, who’d tried to avoid the stream of text messages flooding in as news of his signing had broken on game day.
“I think this game was really important for the club, how they’ve been doing lately,” he added. “Hopefully this’ll give the club a lot of momentum going into league play too.”
Asked whether joining the club at such a tumultuous time in the season—the Whitecaps are winless in their last six MLS matches—has brought challenges for a newcomer, Levis’s answer was mixed.
“It is and it isn’t,” he said. “Everybody’s affected by them losing, right? So even [Whitecaps FC2] and everything—it’s almost like one big club, so we’re all a part of it.”
“I just want to do my best, and hopefully I can help them,” Levis added, noting that the atmosphere at BC Place had been “amazing.”
Of course, the dominant performance helped the atmosphere. The win was so decisive that many of the 16,383 fans in attendance began to stream out in stoppage time, as though the performance was too good—so convincing that, for once this season, there could be no sense that it would all fall apart at the last second.
For his part, Robinson was pleased with the dominant win. Whether it will translate into more results as the season stretches on, though, is hard to say.
“It’s one game,” Robinson said. “Hopefully it will build confidence. We had some players that played very, very well. Like I say, it’s a start for us.”
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