CARSON, Calif. – “We had a game plan.”
That was the Vancouver Whitecaps’ M.O. heading into Thursday night’s Knockout Round match with the LA Galaxy, a match in which they were the heavy underdogs and one in which few gave them much of a chance against the defending champs.
Less than three minutes in, Step 1 of the scheme worked to a T. The ‘Caps stunned the Home Depot Center crowd as Matt Watson blazed past Hector Jimenez into the area and cut back to Darren Mattocks, who calmly finished past Josh Saunders for a 1-0 Vancouver lead.
“We had a game plan to execute and we did that very well,” Mattocks told reporters after the match. “I think Matt did a good job down the flank and, as a striker, I just put myself in the box and make [defenders] check away and come back. That’s what I do.”
It was everything the hosts had hoped to avoid. And exactly what Vancouver head coach Martin Rennie diagrammed. The opening goal may have come a little earlier than anyone on the visitors’ bench expected, but the game was unfolding exactly the way a giant upset would.
“We got a goal up and it kind of gave us a little bit of relief and a little bit of belief in our team,” said goalkeeper Brad Knighton. “I’m sure people watching on TV around the world [who thought], ‘Well, these guys might be able to pull it off.’ That’s kind of the feeling that we had.”
From that point on, Step 2 of the game plan was put into effect. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, Vancouver retreated, pulling nine or even 10 men behind the ball to protect their lead and withstand what was sure to be an offensive onslaught.
And for nearly 70 minutes after the goal, that also worked perfectly. Using two tight blocks of four and with Jay DeMerit, Lee Young-Pyo and Andy O’Brien repeatedly retreating into the box, the Whitecaps thwarted the vaunted Galaxy attack time and again.
Knighton held up his end of the deal as well, making several key saves, including a dazzling leaping stop of a dipping David Beckham free kick in first-half stoppage time.
“Credit to the guys for doing our jobs and for making sure the game plan went the way it was planned,” DeMerit said. “And also to keep fighting – to get to 70-odd minutes without really giving them a clear-cut chance is exactly what we were out there to do.”
But it was Step 3 of the game plan where the ‘Caps fell short: Steal another goal on the break. And in the end, Vancouver’s dam finally broke and the quality of the defending champs came through. In four brief minutes in the second half, LA got the momentum back and scored in quick succession from Mike Magee and a penalty kick from Landon Donovan after a questionable call in the box.
Still, Rennie believes his team didn’t panic and stuck to the script.
“We kept calm throughout the game and, when it was 2-1, I thought we took the game to LA and pushed and made the most of the opportunities but didn’t get the equalizer.”
Added DeMerit: “Now the disappointment is what really hurts, because I think everyone thinks we deserved more.”