Much has been made of the improvement shown this year by the Montreal Impact, Portland Timbers, and FC Dallas. But are the Whitecaps really so far behind? Today, Vancouver sits fourth in the Western Conference. We have earned 25 points from our 16 matches. By comparison, Montreal tops the Eastern Conference with 29 from 15, while Portland and Dallas have each amassed 30 from 17. You may note the conspicuous absence of Salt Lake, which has quietly climbed to the top of the table on the back of their 33 points from 18 matches.
The reality is that that Vancouver is eight points behind in the race for the Supporters' Shield. And while we have a lot of football yet to play, 27 hours plus stoppage time, we are still four games behind. And that’s after a run of five wins, one draw, and one loss in our last seven matches.
And yet, reality is boring. Today I’m more in the mood for fantasy. What kind of fantasy you might ask? Well, how about one where the referee has the benefit of hindsight, one where he has a bird’s eye view, and not just any bird, but a flock of them, from every possible angle. In this fantasy, the referee gets every decision right, and never hears the crowd chant "I'm blind, I'm deaf, I want to be a ref, referee, referee."
The first major controversy of the season came in the 79th minute of Vancouver’s second match. Lee Young-Pyo passed the ball to Kenny Miller. Although it was a close decision, Miller was on side when the ball was passed. The flag stayed down. But while in the box, and beyond the penalty spot marker, he passed the ball to Erik Hurtado. It was an unselfish play. The kind a Captain would make.
Hurtado moved forward to receive the ball, and promptly put it in the back of the net. It was only then that the linesman flagged him for being offside. Hurtado is still looking for his first competitive goal of the season. Despite this, Vancouver won the match 2-1, and collected all three points. But this could come back to haunt Vancouver as goals for is the first tie breaker.
In the 90th minute of our match against Chivas at the Home Depot Center, Kekuta Manneh was fouled by Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy while both were outside the box. As Kennedy was the last man, and denied Manneh a clear goal scoring opportunity, he should have been sent off. At the time, Chivas was leading by one goal and had already used all three substitutes. While this would not have resulted in a penalty kick, the chances of Vancouver managing to score from the ensuing free kick, against ten men, and with an outfield player in goal would be somewhat high. That would have meant at least one additional point, and quite possibly three.
Of course, while there are decisions that go against the Whitecaps, there are those that go in their favour. Alan Gordon and Victor Bernardez left the field of play in the 62nd minute to change their shoes. Less than a minute later, and before they were permitted to return, Corey Hertzog had levelled the scoreline for Vancouver. The Earthquakes were not happy, although their commentators reacted incredulously as "the Quakes voluntarily were playing two men down."
In our first match against Dallas, the Texans scored twice. However, the second should not have counted. Kenny Cooper attempted a shot while Blas Perez was in an offside position. The ball hit Lee Young-Pyo, and ricocheted towards Perez, who buried it. There is nothing wrong with scoring after a ball struck an opposing player, but the play should have been whistled dead when Cooper attempted the first shot. Still, it alone wouldn’t have changed the game, only our goal differential.
As we all know, controversy is not limited to Major League Soccer. It has reared its ugly head in the Voyageurs Cup as well. As much as Camilo Sanvezzo has improved in this regard, it's likely that he deliberately left a trailing leg in the box, so that he would trip over Mallan Roberts' foot, and win a penalty kick. The referee pointed to the spot and he scored from it. At the time, the Rabbits had been leading two goals to one. Although Vancouver did eventually get the winner, it was the Sanvezzo penalty kick that took the wind out of their sails.
Matt Hedges' 47th minute strike in Vancouver's second match against Dallas was described as a 'dangerous situation' by the Dallas commentators because Hedges kicked the ball out of Joe Cannon’s hands, and nearly hit the goalkeeper in the face. Poor Joe, he almost ended up like Alain Rochat. Hedges scored from that kick, but the referee could have just as easily given Vancouver a goal kick, and Hedges a card for dangerous conduct. Instead, the goal stood, and Vancouver would later score two goals to force a draw. But it could have just as easily been a Vancouver win.
When Vancouver met Edmonton for the second leg of the CSA Cup Semi-Final, Adrian Leroy was issued a red card for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity outside of the box. While it was probably the correct decision by the letter of the law, the referee could have exercised his discretion. It was a harsh decision, and for the second time in as many games, the referee had a huge influence on the Semi-Final. They would win the two-legged affair by an aggregate score of five to two. And yet, the Eddies might very well have won if not for the referee.
Already down by a goal, Nigel Reo-Coker was fortunate not to concede a penalty to RSL when the ball struck his outstretched arm. Salt Lake went on to win by two goals, and Reo-Coker’s handball was quietly forgotten, at least for a little while.
When the match against Los Angeles "was crying out for some imaginative flair from one of the players in a Whitecap uniform", it was Russell Teibert who stepped up, and did it. He picked "the ball up with lots of space on the right flank," and he cut "in onto his favourite left foot," created the shooting angle and drove "it beyond the reach of Carlo Cudicini, into the corner of the Los Angeles goal, and the Whitecaps" got a big lead. Apparently Paul Dolan believes that a single goal is a big lead. But we suppose that comes from being a former goalkeeper who expects clean sheets! In the sense of the occasion, and never having beaten LA, it was huge in that sense, especially coming right after the Galaxy came within inches of taking the lead themselves. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the hypothetical presented above and below, but it was the first goal by the Canadian Soccer Jesus, and is thus included anyway.
When Portland came to town, there were two significant controversies. In the 81st minute, Mamadou Danso, otherwise known as Futty, was sent off, presumably for forcibly pushing Camilo Sanvezzo down as the Brazilian was running towards the ball. This would qualify as yet another professional foul, as Futty was the only defender between Sanvezzo and Portland's goalkeeper. Like Leroy earlier in the season, it was a harsh decision.
Red Card or not, the true turning point happened three minutes later as Jose Valencia 'received' the ball on his right arm, then shifted it to his left arm, so that it would drop squarely at his feet while in the box. Portland's commentators described it thus: "he keeps his eye on the ball, he does nothing wrong here; it’s a brilliant control, and then the coolness just to roll it past Knighton."
And of course there was the Andy O’Brien injury against Seattle. Although these things do happen, it’s virtually unheard of to have four centre backs hurt at the same time. Had he remained on the pitch, Greg Klazura would never have come on for him, and Jordan Harvey wouldn't have been deployed as an emergency centreback. In all likelihood, Harvey would not have conceded the penalty that Klazura did. It should be said that Greg did get a piece of the ball, he just also happened to get the man.
On top of that, O’Brien, a man of tremendous experience in his chosen position, would not have been caught out of position the way Harvey was on the winning goal. The O’Brien injury was the turning point in the match. In the span of 19 minutes, Vancouver went from a winning position to a losing one. And we just can’t see that happening with Andy O’Brien commanding the back line.
On Saturday, we finally got a controversial decision to go our way when it mattered. In the 47th minute, Kenny Miller threaded a ball past three DC defenders, into the box, where it was picked up by Matt Watson. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, a homegrown player by the way, came out to challenge Watson. Matty poked the ball away from goal; Hamid got a glove on it, and then took out Watson due to his forward momentum. To his credit, Watson did not appeal for a penalty. He simply got up and began to chase the ball, which was trickling away, as the penalty was awarded. Of course Sanvezzo buried it, and it proved to be the only goal of the match.
If things had played out as we have described above, Vancouver would have 31 to 33 points, depending on the outcome of the Chivas match, while Montreal, Portland, and Dallas would have 29 apiece. Salt Lake would still have their 33, but we’d be right up there with them, and have two games in hand. We would have scored 27 or 28 goals, again depending on Chivas, and a goal difference of at least five.
Of course, there have been other controversies, a free kick here, a corner there, and these could result in goals, but we have chosen to concentrate on the big ones, the deciding factors. And in them, Vancouver has generally come out on top when it did not affect the final outcome, while the errors that have gone against us have cost us goals, and more importantly, points.
Every team has these moments. The teams mentioned above have no doubt had some too, but that's for their writers to look at. At the end of the day, they mean nothing and can't be changed. What is done is done, and that's football, but when you are looking at just how well or how poorly the Whitecaps are competing this season, how well Martin Rennie and his team are doing, these 'what if' situations do help to add a little more perspective.
As the great Bruce Lee once said, water can flow, or it can crash. Only time will tell which way the Whitecaps go from here, but I know what my money’s on. Do you?