Vancouver Whitecaps FC (10-8-10) and San Jose Earthquakes (10-8-11) remain deadlocked in the Western Conference playoff race after the two sides settled for a scoreless draw Saturday night at Shaw Stadium.
A heroic effort from centre backs Brad Rusin, Carlyle Mitchell and Jay DeMerit, who made his much-anticipated return to the line-up, salvaged an important point for Whitecaps FC, who finished the night five points outside the playoff picture.
Dating back to last May, the Caps are now unbeaten in five straight matches against the Champions. They concluded the season series with a 1-2-0 record.
Saturday’s contest was a test of character and depth for both squads. The Earthquakes were without Rafael Baca and Steven Lenhart due to suspension, while Vancouver’s centre back partnership of Andy O’Brien (sore) and Johnny Leverón (calf strain) were side-lined with injuries.
For the second straight week, Martin Rennie’s side was also forced to play without Russell Teibert, who was a late omission due to illness.
In their absence, Rusin returned to the line-up for the first time since suffering a sprained right ankle August 3 against Portland, and Jun Marques Davidson was reinserted into the holding midfielder position.
Midfielder Matt Watson also drew back into Rennie’s XI – as did South Korean right back Lee Young-Pyo.
Despite missing several key players, the visiting Caps got off to a lively start on the campus of Santa Clara University. They dominated possession in the first few minutes and managed to keep their form for much of the first half.
San Jose had the first real chance of the match off a corner kick in the 19th minute, however. Striker Alan Gordon flicked a dangerous-looking header towards goal, but goalkeeper David Ousted made a sprawling save to keep matters scoreless.
Aside from Gordon’s early opportunity, there wasn’t much to give between the Western Conference rivals early. Neither side was willing to give an inch, which was expected given the magnitude of the match.
It was a physical battle from the onset and that appeared to take its toll on Rusin, who was heavily involved in the action early.
In obvious pain, Rusin hobbled off the pitch just after the half-hour mark, which signalled the much-anticipated return of DeMerit. It was his first appearance since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in Vancouver’s March 2 season opener.
The 33-year old centre back assumed the captain’s armband in the second half, but not before his predecessor Kenny Miller nearly opened the scoring in the 45th minute.
After beating Victor Bernardez to the ball and making a run along the goal line, Miller got off a shot in tight but San Jose keeper Jon Busch made the save and the Scotsman sent the rebound over the goal. It was Vancouver’s best chance of the first half, in which they enjoyed 57 per cent of the possession.
San Jose came out of the interval looking a little more energised. Reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski had a pair of opportunities early, but DeMerit and Mitchell managed to keep him at bay.
It was a fearless performance from Vancouver’s centre backs against a San Jose squad notoriously dangerous in the air. With San Jose pressing, DeMerit also prevented a Marvin Chavez opportunity in the 70th minute with a well-timed sliding block. For his efforts, the Caps skipper was named Man of the Match.
Substitute Darren Mattock nearly scored the winner in stoppage time but his right-footed effort from the top of the box trickled just wide of the left post.
With a sell-out crowd urging them on, the Earthquakes applied relentless pressure in the dying stages of the match but the Caps managed to hold them off as the two sides battled to a hard-fought draw.
Whitecaps FC conclude their three-match road swing next Saturday against Canadian rival Montreal Impact (11:00 AM kick-off), before returning home to host Real Salt Lake the following week.