Vancouver Whitecaps get first win in K.C. to clinch MLS playoff berth

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Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Ali Ghazal tackles Sporting Kansas City forward Gerso as he at the six-yard box during the first half of the match at Children’s Mercy Park.

Denny Medley/USA TODAY / PNG

The Vancouver Whitecaps lost every battle, but they still strolled out of Children’s Mercy Park having won the war.

Eric Hurtado’s 53rd-minute goal stood up as the winner as the Caps clinched a playoff berth and dashed Sporting Kansas City’s 24-game home unbeaten streak Saturday night, Vancouver’s first league win in K.C. in team history.

It can’t be overstated how dominant SKC was. From having 74 per cent of the ball to an 18-11 shots advantage — which, in itself, was a number grossly flattering to the Caps, who only closed the shots gap when Sporting started to press after they found themselves trailing.

K.C.’s Diego Rubio should have had four goals in the first half, but his penalty kick hit the left post, he barely missed on another, and Stefan Marinovic stopped two of his shots at point-blank range.


Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston, front, heads the ball against Sporting Kansas City defender Erik Palmer-Brown, back, during the first half of an MLS soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday.

Orlin Wagner /

AP

When the Whitecaps found themselves with the ball, they failed to string together passes or mount any cohesive offence, and when they were defending, K.C.’s system gave them fits, forcing them into borderline tackles close to the box.

“Sometimes football isn’t pretty, unfortunately,” said Caps coach Carl Robinson. “We all watch Barcelona play or Paris Saint-Germain this season and sometimes it’s about good, honest hard work. And my guys, every one of them rolled their sleeves up and fought today. Yes, we can play a little better but what they did today was an absolutely phenomenal effort.”

A slip and miscue from defensive stalwart Kendall Waston led to the first chance of the game. He chopped down Dániel Sallói just inside the box, and it took video-assisted referee to inform Baldomero Toledo it was a penalty shot instead of a free kick. Rubio stepped up and lasered it off the post, setting the tone for the game: Sporting domination, Whitecaps determination.

Vancouver didn’t even get a free kick until the 79th minute, such was the run of play. Saves were 7-2 overall, but 6-0 at one point, and it was only heroics from Marinovic that kept Sporting off the board. On their heels for the most of the game, the Caps pushed the limits of the phrase “bend but don’t break” to ludicrous levels, getting forced into 30 clearances to K.C.’s four.

Hurtado’s goal, his third of the season, came off a through ball from Jordan Harvey, which ‘Rufio’ deftly volleyed off the outside of his right foot past Sporting keeper Tim Melia into the opposite corner.

The final 20 minutes were an onslaught of Sporting attacks, but the Caps turned them aside each time. Yordy Reyna had a breakaway in the 91st minute, and was hauled down by Graham Zusi just outside the box, earning the Sporting defender — who had been an offensive catalyst all night — a straight red card. But the drama was not done yet, as substitute Christian Bolaños was also sent to the showers after a tussle with Benny Feilhaber was deemed violent conduct a few moments later.

Kansas City was in the midst of the third-longest home unbeaten streak in league history, dating back to last season. Ironically, the last team to beat them at home was Vancouver on Sept. 13, when then-15-year-old Alphonso Davies scored in the 93rd minute to give the Caps a 2-1 victory in their CONCACAF Champions League game.

Vancouver (15W-10L-6D) have 51 points on the season, four points clear of second-place Portland, Sporting and Seattle, who sit third. K.C., however, still has a game in hand.

“The first 20 minutes, we were swimming a little bit,” said Marinovic. “We were having a little trouble dealing. We changed up our formation to deal with it and we dealt with it much better. We got off a little bit easy when the penalty hit the post, but the rest, that’s just what we do, we defend well.

“We talked about it before the game that in seven years in MLS, we haven’t won here. We set a lofty goal that we wanted to do exactly that today and we did. We fought. That’s how we want to be. That’s how we want to play. That’s all we could do is just fight and we did and we won and taking it into the next game is just a little belief that we can achieve the impossible.”

Robinson made eight changes to his starting lineup after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the Sounders in Seattle — centre back Tim Parker was the only player the past three games — and expect more with Waston and Bolaños leaving for international duty, and a busy slate ahead. The Whitecaps travel to New York to visit the Red Bulls next week, followed by a home date eight days later against San Jose, and the regular-season finale against Portland a week after that.

“It’s just one game,” said Robinson. “We have an important game next week at New York Red Bulls. We know that it’s going to be another difficult place. I asked them to rebound after Wednesday because I thought we were a little bit soft … and the response that they gave was phenomenal against a really good team. I’m proud today and really proud of this football club.”

 



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