National Writer: Charles Boehm

Whitecaps eager for Leagues Cup knockout date with "giant of Concacaf" Tigres


The Vancouver Whitecaps had no business beating the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday night. Vanni Sartini readily acknowledged as much.

“At the end, I think we deserved to tie. The win is a steal,” the Caps’ Italian head coach said after his side conjured up two late goals to stun the Gs 2-1 and advance to the Leagues Cup knockout stages. “I don't think we deserved to win, to be honest. I think the real result should have been a tie and then deciding in penalties who was going to go through.

“But it sometimes happens that you lose when you don't deserve to lose, and today, we won probably not deserving entirely to win.”

So much went wrong for the visitors, starting even before the opening whistle. Defender Luis Martins felt tightness in his calf during warmups, prompting a last-minute lineup change with Mathías Laborda taking his place in VWFC’s 3-5-2 formation.

That setup didn’t quite come off, either, as the pass-happy Galaxy picked Vancouver apart in the first half, Riqui Puig pulling the strings and scoring the game’s opening goal, which looked likely to be the first of a few. Things got worse when Caps defender Ranko Veselinovic got hurt and had to be subbed out 35 minutes in.

“We had a big problem tonight because we create all the game plan for having these three guys on the left, playing this 3-5-2 with Martins, \[Ryan\] Gauld, \[Brian\] White, and \[Alessandro\] Schöpf as a No. 8 in order to get possession there, and unfortunately Luis got injured in the warmup,” explained Sartini.

“I didn't want to change tactics at the last minute, so we keep the same tactics for the first 30 minutes, then Ranko got injured. So we went straight back to a back four in our 4-3-2-1, and I think the main takeaway, it's like, if we don't press with the intensity that we're used to do, it's hard for us to win games.”

LA probed and stretched the Whitecaps for long stretches, but failed to apply the proper final touch to the many chances Puig & Co. created, letting Vancouver survive at 1-0.

“The resiliency of the group has been very good,” said Sartini. “We always say to the team to stay in the game. We need to stay in the game, even if we are down … our defensive structure needs to be good and that's what happened in the first 60, 65 minutes. We were down, but it was very hard to break us and to score the second goal.”

Frustration for the Galaxy

So when a hopeful delivery into the Galaxy penalty box caromed off Lucas Calegari for a fluky equalizer in the 81st minute, it set off a familiar sinking feeling for the hosts as Brian White poached a dramatic injury-time winner.

“It's extremely frustrating. I felt like this was a microcosm of some of the games we've had through the course of the season,” said Galaxy head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney, whose team continue to be haunted by the same bugaboos that have blighted their 2023 MLS campaign. “It's not necessarily that we had a lot of shots on target per se – we missed the target, we’re around the area, we get things blocked, we’re just not clinical in the final action. And when you don't do that with teams that you are, I believe, dominating through large stretches of the game, they hover, they hang around.

“They kept hanging around at 1-0, there wasn't a broken spirit. They were always just kind of around. Even in the moments where it seemed like we're dominating, they were still hanging around, because we weren't putting them away.”

So it’s the Caps, not LA, who advance out of the Leagues Cup West 3 group, and they’ll face mighty Tigres UANL in the Round of 32.

Preparing for giants

“I hope that we're going to play Tigres,” said Sartini, “so we're going to have a giant of Concacaf come into BC Place.”

As daunting as that matchup is, it represents a win-win-win for the Italian, who sees this tournament as a useful preparation for not just the stretch run of VWFC’s league slate, but their return to Concacaf Champions Cup in the spring as back-to-back Canadian Championship winners.

“We use this tournament for two main things – well, I would say three,” he continued. “One, try to go as far as we can, so let’s try to win. And the other two things are, we already qualified for the Champions [Cup] winning the Canadian Championship, and we want to do a better job than we did this year, where we were like, was our first dance. So the more experience we have against very strong Concacaf teams, the better it is.

“And the third thing is that every game, including this game, I think it's good – I hope – that it’s going be a good training for our playoff season," Sartini said. "Of course, our main objective is reaching the playoffs in MLS and if we do it, we need to be used to playing games where they're so tight, and even if you're down, you need to stay in the game.”