Vancouver Whitecaps FC were not given much of a chance to advance to the Knockout Stage at the MLS is Back Tournament even before they lost their first two group matches.
After having their first match delayed due to the withdrawal of FC Dallas, the Whitecaps coughed up a 3-1 lead in a 4-3 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes and then were trounced 3-0 by the Seattle Sounders in Orlando. They came into the final match of the group stage needing at least a two goal win over Chicago Fire FC to advance.
The first 63 minutes were mostly dominated by the Fire, but the score remained 0-0. Then came a 93-minute lightning delay. Within 10 minutes of the restart, the 'Caps had taken a 2-0 lead and went on to win the match and book their place in the Round of 16.
"When we got to the weather delay, it lasted for an hour and 20 minutes, so the first thing we did is let the players breathe, let the players recover, leave them alone," said head coach Marc Dos Santos. "Put some music in the locker room, let them stay away from the game and that's what we did. Then we went into the board and we addressed things we had to do in the last 30 minutes to give us a chance to No. 1 — win the game — and No. 2 — to advance.
"The message was very clear in the sense that we were still alive. With two losses in a row, with 60 minutes played, we were still alive. We were not knocked out yet and we still had a chance. This is when people are tested, this is when your limits are tested as a human being, this is when you're tired and can't go anymore and everything's against you. But you keep pushing, that shows a lot of the character that you have as a person and I think we showed that you today."
Dos Santos' starting XI had already provided a few surprises, with Yordy Reyna, Cristian Dajome and David Milinkovic all were on the bench in favor of youngsters Theo Bair and Ryan Raposo starting up top.
But Dos Santos had a trick up his sleeve. With players tiring out in the heat and humidity in Florida, second halves of games have tended to be more open. Dos Santos knew that well — especially after seeing his side succumb to San Jose late in their first group game — and decided to save his top players for the second half. Dajome entered before halftime after an injury to Jasser Khmiri, while Reyna and Milinkovic were inserted just before the weather delay.
Reyna scored Vancouver's opener and assisted on Dajome's crucial goal that gave Vancouver the goal difference they needed to make the next round.
"It worked guys, it worked. And I say that with a little humility," said Dos Santos. "That was the plan was that we knew that the explosiveness of Yordy and Cristian when it's 9 am, can bring a lot to the team because when the players get tired, get sloppy, it's humid. The important thing was to keep the 0-0 first.
"The process was first, we have to defend very well and once we get that right and we tire Chicago, we knew had weapons on the bench to win."
The 'Caps had already been weathering adversity all tournament. They entered it without five players — including star striker Lucas Cavallini — and saw backup goalkeeper Bryan Meredith leave Orlando after the sudden passing of his mother. Then starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau suffered a fractured thumb against Seattle, leaving 21-year-old Thomas Hasal the only goalkeeper on the roster.
After some troubles, Vancouver were able to secure a one-day loan for Jonathan Sirois from the Montreal Impact. WIth Sirois looking on just in case Hasal kept a clean sheet in his first MLS start, and Dos Santos admitted after the match that the Impact Homegrown probably wouldn't stay with the 'Caps for their Round of 16 match on Sunday.
The manager still had some fun with the situation after the match.
"First I want to congratulate Jonathan," Dos Santos said. "Jonathan became the first goalkeeper in history I think to qualify [for the Knockout Stage] with two teams in the same tournament. Not even Gigi Buffon did that ever in his life."