Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Striking a blow for the USL

Well, perhaps the perfect celebration of Canada Day just occurred: a clash between two of the country's best-known soccer teams, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

As regular OOLF readers will know, this is part of the Nutrilite Canadian Championships to determine who gets Canada's lone berth in the inaugural edition of the CONCACAF Champions League. Before today, Montreal beat Vancouver twice and lost to Toronto once, meaning that a Toronto win or a tie would all but eliminate the Whitecaps. For Toronto, a win would tie them on points with Montreal with a game in hand, leaving them in prime position to qualify. Thus, there was plenty on the line for both sides coming into today's clash.

A Toronto win seemed perhaps a sure thing. TFC was unbeaten at home this season coming in and had put up a string of impressive performances in front of the red-clad masses. Vancouver had the second-best record in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) Division I coming in (7-3-2) and had been an excellent 4-1-1 on the road, but they'd lost both of their previous Canadian championship matches to the cellar-dwelling Montreal Impact (4-6-3 in league play this year) and Toronto beat Montreal 1-0 in their first match of the championships. As Duane wrote at the start of these championships, there's certainly a perception of a huge difference of quality between the leagues as well among many fans:

One only has to look at the evidence of the US Open Cup to see how well USL teams do against MLS sides. Sure, there are upsets from time to time, but on the whole, quality usually wins out. Since MLS teams began to play for the Open Cup, the USL has only won three games against MLS teams in the semi-finals or later (about when MLS teams start to play their full rosters). All three wins were by the same team, the Rochester Rhinos, and occurred more than eight years ago.

Fortunately for the Whitecaps, they didn't seem to realize that they were expected to lose today and came out firing. Tempers were high right from the start, as Martin Nash (little brother of Steve, that other soccer and basketball player you might have heard of) got into a shoving match with TFC's Jim Brennan early on. It proved a perfect Canadian moment for this day: as Eric Koreen of the National Post wrote on his liveblog, "Two Canadian boys, dropping the pretend gloves. All we're missing is Don Cherry. Seriously." Brennan and Nash each earned a yellow card for their trouble. The booking was Brennan's second of the tournament, meaning that he'll miss TFC's next match of the championships (which I'll be in attendance at, next Wednesday in Vancouver).

Things went on from there in low gear for a while: a few set pieces and corners for each side, but nothing to write home about. Toronto defender Marvell Wynne showcased his blinding speed at one point, tracking back a considerable distance to dispossess Alfredo Valente before he could get a cross in. TFC then applied pressure of their own, with wingers Laurent Robert and Rohan Ricketts each creating substantial chances but unable to finish. It was pretty even for most of the first half, but the whole game changed in the 37th minute off a Vancouver corner when Brennan bear-hugged a Vancouver player (the CBC commentators, Peter Mallett of The Globe and Mail and I thought it was Jeff Clarke, but Koreen has it as Valente) in the box slightly away from the play, and was called for a penalty. This was a tough one to analyze at first, as it happened out of the camera shot and off the ball. The Toronto fans were severely disappointed, chanting "[Expletive] the referee" (the family-friendly version Koreen passes on to us), but after they finally found a camera angle that showed the foul, the CBC commentators concluded that it was the right call. It was certainly an unusual one: off-the-ball obstruction calls are rare, especially in the box when the player doesn't take the liberty of flopping to the turf, but it seemed to be the right one to me (although in fairness, I am a Vancouver fan first and a Toronto fan only when they aren't playing the Whitecaps, so my perception may be a tad biased).

In any case, Nash stepped up to the spot with the chants and catcalls ringing in his ears, but clinically converted, drilling the ball low and hard into the right side of the goal. It wasn't perfectly placed in the corner, but Toronto keeper Greg Sutton dove the wrong way, so that turned out not to matter. Vancouver had a hard-earned lead inside the enemy fortress, and BMO Field was suddenly and uncharacteristically quiet.

The goal seemed to shift the momentum to Vancouver's side for the remainder of the half. What had been a balanced match quickly swung the way of the Whitecaps, who kept up the pressure and probably should have added at least one insurance goal by the half. TFC inexplicably left Takashi Hirano, Vancouver's Japanese midfielder, astoundingly open on a run down the left flank, and his blast from 25 yards out narrowly missed the top corner. An even better chance came from a great Valente cross right to Cuban forward Eduardo Sebrango near the top of the six-yard box, who volleyed it right at Sutton. Sutton made a difficult save with his lower leg, but a better effort from Sebrango certainly would have made it 2-0.

Toronto manager John Carver was furious at half-time, and Brenda Irving, the CBC's sideline reporter, later reported that he got into a screaming match with Whitecaps' manager Teitur Thordarson in the tunnel, apparently leading the officials to caution them to stay away from each other. I understand Carver's frustration, but it's not the first time his temper has gotten him in trouble. Those sort of tunnel scrums do happen in English football as well, but it shouldn't be the manager starting them. I think you can be passionate while still being professional (just look at how Roy Keane's been doing with Sunderland: if there ever was a manager you'd expect would create conflicts, it would have been him, but I haven't heard of too many problems from his passion for the game). In any case, Carver might get in some hot water for his comments on the officiating after the match.

In any case, Carver did more than just scream and yell at halftime. He made a highly unusual triple substitution, bringing on Jeff Cunningham, Jarrod Smith and Julius James in place of Robert, Ricketts and Danny Dichio. The move proved effective, and Toronto began to put the pressure on. Vancouver keeper Jay Nolly stood tall, though, diving across the goal in the 48th minute to prevent a sure equalizer off a rebound and making numerous other key saves. Some excellent Toronto chances were all for naught as well, though, as numerous poor finishes saw their attacking players repeatedly launching strikes well over the Vancouver goal and into the stands.

The last 10-15 minutes of the match really deserve a post of their own. Both sides threw everything into the attack and created some beautiful football as a result. It all started when Cunningham slipped through the Vancouver defence in the 80th minute and drilled the ball past Nolly into the open net. He quickly tore his shirt off and jumped into the crowd in joy, failing to notice the linesman's raised offside flag to call the play back. It was a very close play, but in my view, the officials probably got this one wrong: it looked like Cunningham broke through right after the ball was kicked, not before. Still, I can't be too hard on them, as they were bang-on on just about every other call on the day.

The Whitecaps also continued to create offensive chances of their own, and really should have had an insurance marker in the 84th when substitute Charles Gbeke headed the ball past Sutton but rang it off the woodwork. Immediately thereafter, Toronto's star midfielder Maurice Edu sent a beautiful chip into the box for Cunningham, but he couldn't knock it in. In the 86th, a prolonged goalmouth scramble seemed destined to create an equalizer for TFC, but a Smith shot that rang off the underside of the crossbar and stayed out, a superb save by Nolly and a timely block by a Vancouver defender kept the score level. Carl Robinson set up Amado Guevara on the ensuing corner, but he fired the ball "high, wide and handsome," in the legendary call John Motson uses in most of EA Sports' FIFA games. Nash then almost knocked one in for Vancouver, but Guevara redeemed himself with a brilliant last-second sliding tackle to save the day. Steve Kindel came close to clinching the match in the 89th minute, but Sutton proved he's a great keeper as well, making a spectacular save to deny him. In the 90th minute, Brennan almost made up for the penalty he gave away with a superb cross, but Nolly once again came through for the Whitecaps.

The match then went into a tremendously lengthy period of stoppage time. At first, the fourth official signaled two minutes, but this was then amended to four and turned out to be almost five. Both sides kept pressing, and Smith was inches away from notching an equalizer with a powerful late blast, but Nolly again robbed him with a diving punch. That set up a corner in the last minute of added time, and the 6-foot-7 Sutton raced forward to help out. He actually made good contact ball, and came close to knotting the score, but his header went just wide, burying Toronto's hopes as it drifted down to the turf. Vancouver hung on, and earned a historic victory.

The impressive thing from this match is that it will be tough to write it off as merely a fluke. It's not as if Vancouver scored on a penalty and then played eleven behind the ball for the rest of the match to try and hang on to the lead. Indeed, the run of play and the scoring chances for both sides were pretty even by my count. On balance, TFC is indeed the better team: they have more elite players and they regularly play tougher competition. Still, Vancouver looked anything but out of place against them, showing that they're at least the Russia to TFC's Spain.

Perhaps more importantly, on the heels of a superb Euro tournament that drew impressive Canadian TV ratings, this match demonstrated that exciting, attacking soccer can take place in Canada. Don't be fooled by the 1-0 final scoreline: this match was anything but boring (and for my money, much better than that somewhat lacklustre Euro final). As CBC announcer Nigel Reed, a man who's been to plenty of big soccer matches on both sides of the pond, said towards the end, "Honestly, the last four or five minutes, I can't remember the last time I got so excited at a soccer game." If you were watching and you didn't enjoy that, you're hardly a soccer fan in my view.

In any case, this sets up a very interesting final few games of the championship. Montreal still leads with 6 points from three matches (a loss to TFC and two wins over Vancouver), but Toronto and Vancouver each have three points (from two and three games respectively). If Vancouver beats Toronto at home next Wednesday and Toronto beats Montreal at home on July 22, we'll have a three-way tie, which I believe will be settled on goal difference. Montreal has the edge there at the moment, which should encourage Vancouver and Toronto to go for the goals in these next couple of clashes. It should be a fantastic rest of the championships now that everyone's still in it, and it's going to come down to that final Montreal-Toronto game. Don't mourn this year's conclusion of European soccer for too long: there's plenty of great action still going on right under our noses!


John Edwards said...

So, did any GO Trains survive the aftermath?

(Go Whitecaps!)

eyebleaf said...

i was at the game. vancouver was the better team in teh first half, but toronto really came on in the second half. the woodwork saved the whitecaps, but full marks to them on the victory. should be a great end to this qualifying tournament.


Duane Rollins said...

What I said was that USL-1 wins were rare against MLS teams (when MLS teams played their preferred starting XI). I never said that it would be impossible for a USL team to win one of the four games (especially if they had to play against 12 men like yesterday...). However, as I've noted, the format of this tournament works against the USL teams winning. It seems unlikely that TFC will lose both of its next two games. The Cup will be decided in the final game against Montreal. Even if TFC loses against Vancouver in Vancouver (and I wouldn't put too much money on that) they could still win the thing with a win against Montreal.

All that said, what yesterday illustrated was TFC's biggest weakness--scoring (although, as you note, they did actually score a good goal...).

Oh and John...let's not sensationalize, OK. Especially since your "Go Whitecaps" would indicate that you are a soccer fan. A single incident of vandalism (done by casual supporters, since the SGs would have been at their respective pubs at the time it happened) does not equal a trend. No more than does the actions of the idiots in Montreal this spring--a far more violent incident, BTW--why weren't they labeled "hooligans"--reflect the majority of Habs fans.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Duane, I agree that Toronto's still the most likely team to win this, and the format certainly helps: it's just I don't think the gap in quality between the USL and MLS is quite as wide as many claim (especially if you look at how many current USL players have MLS experience). MLS is a higher-quality league overall, but not by a huge amount: as the CBC broadcasters were talking about yesterday, the main difference is the top-end talent. The Whitecaps are a top USL team, while TFC is a middling-to-good MLS side, but I thought the play yesterday was pretty even for the most part. Sure, it's only one game, but it's nice to see for those of us who support "minor-league" franchises...

By the way, agree with you on the hooliganism stuff: it's been considerably overplayed.

sager said...

I always love that 'hooligan' was an Irish name applied to English yobs.

He was a sweet and tender hooligan, hooligan
And he swore that he'll never, never do it again
And of course he wont (oh, not until the next time)

I'm as embarrassed as I should be to be quoting The Smiths on a sports blog.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Also, yesterday was a good day for more than one USL side. The Seattle Sounders knocked Chivas USA out of the US Open Cup for the second year in a row. They've now won three matches against MLS opponents in two years. Granted, it's not in the semifinals or later, which is all that you looked at in your original post due to the supposed strength of the lineup, but I doubt that all of the MLS teams care so little about the Cup that they play an entirely crap squad. Yes, over a long tournament like the Cup or the Canadian Championship, the MLS sides will probably win out in the end, but my point is just that USL teams can compete with them on a reasonably even playing ground. In my mind, a USL side playing a MLS one isn't all that different from, say, Manchester United against Fulham: the team with the vastly larger resources will win the majority of the games, but that doesn't mean that they aren't meant to be on the same pitch.

(Of course, there isn't much difference between Man U - Fulham and something like Fulham - Cardiff).

sager said...

It's almost like the Swiss beating Canada in hockey, or Canada beating the US at the World Baseball Classic. It shouldn't happen. It wouldn't happen more often than not over a long run of games.

It can happen, though.