The Vancouver Whitecaps FC and their supporters travelled down the I-5 on Friday knowing that they controlled their own destiny. Lose, and they would finish third in the Cascadia Cup table. Draw, and they would be Runners-Up. Win, and they would complete the Quest for La Quinta by winning the Cascadia Cup for the fifth time in eleven seasons.
But it would take desire, determination, and grit to beat a Seattle side that had already won the Open Cup, is battling Los Angeles Galaxy for the Supporters' Shield, and poised to make a deep run at the Anschultz Cup. In the lead up to the match, the Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC, North End Faithful, and Eastside Supporters were quietly beginning to murmur about an unprecedented Quadruple. Now they can only have a Treble, maybe a Double, and probably only a Single.
But what about Cascadia's other club, Portland Timbers? Well, they made their voice known thanks to Merritt Paulson's permission slip, which gave the Timbers Army permission to root for the Seattle Sounders FC. And why you may ask would the Oregonians want Seattle to win the Cascadia Cup and draw closer to winning the Supporters' Shield? Well, if you haven't been following, the Timbers are currently trying to earn a place in the Anschultz Cup at the expense of the Whitecaps.
But up North, Portland has been all but forgotten as they've turned their attention on overtaking FC Dallas, who currently have a two point lead over Vancouver and a game in hand. That game will be in Texas, but it'll also be against the Galaxy, who can move three points ahead of Seattle with a win over the Hoops on Sunday.
In the Champions League qualification, the Whitecaps also had to concern themselves with Toronto FC's results, but after tonight, they hold a six point advantage and have a more favourable schedule, though Toronto does have a game in hand on Caps.
They have to go to New York to face a Red Bulls side who are hoping to catch Sporting Kansas City and finish third, neatly avoiding the preliminary round altogether, return home to play the rival Montreal Impact, who know that misery loves company, and finish up in New England against the Revolution who will want to finish no lower than second, and still have a chance at winning the Eastern Conference.
Vancouver plays San Jose Earthquakes in the final match at Shaw Stadium, and finish up against Colorado Rapids SC at BC Place, in what amounts to two very winnable matches. Having won three games on the trot, the Whitecaps fancy their chances.
But it wasn't so long ago that a cloud had fallen over Vancouver and its supporters. They lost to Dallas and Portland in successive matches, Toronto looked like they would qualify for the Champions League, and the hashtag #QuestforLaQuinta appeared like it would go on for another year.
Three weeks ago, when things were at their worst after the three goal loss in Portland, we pointed out that there was still the chance that this could become Vancouver's most successful year of the MLS era.
With a win in Seattle, the Whitecaps would retain the Cascadia Cup. Job done.
Win their five remaining matches and they'll finish with 52 points. They already have three wins in the book, and still two games to go. A win in either would give them their best ever finish in MLS.
With a loss by Toronto in New York on Saturday, one point will separate Vancouver from the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. That's one point earned by Vancouver, or one point dropped by Toronto.
But with all the positivity surrounding the Whitecaps right now, it would easy to forget how they won their fifth Cascadia Cup. It wasn't pretty, but they got the job done. And sometimes that's what it takes. Vancouver scored the fewest goals and finished with the worst goal differential. But they got the job done.
"To say I'm lost for words is an understatement," said Vancouver manager Carl Robinson after the match. "I'm absolutely proud of every single one of them today because not many people believed that we could win, but I did, 1,250 fans did, and the group did, which is the most important thing. It's all down to the players today, and I give them all the credit."
Heading into the match, the Whitecaps had a number of injuries and absences to contend with. Gershon Koffie has been out since August with a right ankle injury. Caleb Clarke is still recovering from surgery. Sebastián Fernández, who had scored two goals against Dallas on Saturday, was suspended through yellow card accumulation. Darren Mattocks was with the Jamaican national team for a midnight friendly in Japan. Carlyle Mitchell is with Trinidad and Tobago. Marco Bustos' contract doesn't take effect until next season. And Omar Salgado is still on trial with Mexican side Tigres UANL.
That meant that the Whitecaps had only two fit forwards, Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh, and two midfielders who could fill in up top in Nicolás Mezquida and Kianz Froese.
The Sounders were without the services of fullback DeAndre Yedlin, but were otherwise able to field a full strength starting eleven. The prospect was daunting. In all competitions this year, Seattle's starting line up had scored 50 goals. Vancouver's had less than half that at 24. And when you included their benches, Seattle's total soared to 76, while Vancouver reached a mere 26.
To put it another way, Seattle's 18 had scored three times as many goals as Vancouver's 18.
Sometimes, youth can be an advantage. For they can proudly walk onto a pitch with more than a hundred and ten thousand eyes on them, and think that it's no different than training at Dhillon Field, where they're lucky to have a hundred and ten eyes on them.
One of the elder statesmen of the Whitecaps, Mauro Rosales, made his return to Seattle, where he had Captained the Sounders. But this time, he wore the blue and silver and Vancouver. The colour of his shirt may have changed, but the hair was long and free flowing, as were his passes.
It was the Sounders who struck first, with Lamar Neagle engineering a shot in the second minute, but it was a relatively tame effort from the American, and was easily dealt with by Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted.
Seattle adopted some curious tactics early in the game, setting the pace for things to come, much to their chagrin. In the 14th minute, with the ball still in the air, Obafemi Martins moved away from the ball, putting his elbow into Russell Teibert's chest, and the young Canadian went flying. By the time the ball came back down, Martins had position and was easily able to gain control of the ball. But the incident went unnoticed by referee Jair Marrufo.
A few minutes later, with both players heading towards the ball, Brad Evans shoved Kekuta Manneh in the back, sending him tumbling away from the ball. Once again, it went uncalled. It was clear by this point that such infractions weren't going to be called tonight, and the players adjusted their play accordingly.
The words "home of the 12th man" are painted on the Stadium's walls, and the home supporters took it to heart. A few even tried to get into a verbal sparring match with Vancouver manager Carl Robinson, but he handled it with his usual charm, diffusing the situation with a smile and a witty retort.
Seattle had something of a penalty appeal in the 31st minute, with Michael Azira feeling that he was fouled in the box. But as Steven Beitashour ran with him towards the ball, the Iranian international gave Azira a slight touch, just enough to nudge him to the point where the ball would go out for a goal kick.
Vancouver would have felt quite aggrieved had the referee pointed at the spot for such a minor infraction, especially in light of Seattle's more egregious efforts earlier in the half. Most neutrals would argue that it was a smart move by Beitashour to deny Azira a scoring chance.
The first yellow card of the night came in the 31st minute when Leo Gonzalez performed a professional foul on Kekuta Manneh, deliberating fouling the Gambian forward. Gonzalez was very lucky to have Azira between Manneh and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, or else it would have what used to be called a 'last man' foul.
As the clock ticked towards half time, Manneh's lower back collided with the bottom of Obafemi Martins' right boot. Martins was trying to play the ball, but it could still have resulted in a card, as he did have his studs up. However, there was no intent at place but to play the ball.
He had to leave the field to receive treatment, and while he was off the pitch, Brad Evans pushed forward to exploit the fact that Vancouver were playing down a man. Unfortunately for him, Manneh was able to return to the pitch, and eight seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net. Evans gamble had paid off handsomely for visitors. But Manneh wasn't so lucky. Though he was able to score, he struggled to celebrate, and would not return in the second half.
With few attacking options at his disposal and a slender one goal lead to defend, Robinson decided to blood another of his Rascals, giving Kianz Froese his first appearance with the senior squad. Born in Havana, he spent his youth between Cuba and Manitoba before making a permanent move to Vancouver.
Shortly thereafter, as Steven Beitashour was in the air, going up for the ball, Clint Dempsey gave him an a little shove that sent him spinning. For this, the referee did hand out a yellow card, but Dempsey's reaction was appalling. The Texan emphatically and deliberately raised his hands towards the referee, clapping inches from Marrufo's face.
In most cases, in most leagues, and on most nights, that would have immediately been met with a second yellow card. But Clint Dempsey is the league's Golden Boy, having turned his back on the Premier League to become the highest paid player in the league, or at least until Kaká shows up. Dempsey wasn't even given a verbal warning for his conduct.
Sadly, Kendall Waston earned himself a yellow card in the 75th minute when he kicked out, his shin brushing against Dempsey, and the Texan fell to the plastic pitch as if he'd been shot by some sniper. While Waston was always likely to earn a yellow card against Seattle, the manner in which it came felt strange. He could have earned one for far worse efforts, both before and after. Due to that card, he will miss Vancouver's match in San Jose, but the Caps will get Sebastián Fernández back and they still have Johnny Leverón, Christian Dean, and Carlyle Mitchell to fill in at Centre Back.
On the brink of stoppage time, Martins fouled Ousted in the box. He took his eyes off the ball, instead focusing his attention on the Great Dane. He played the man, and made no attempt to play the ball. That it landed near him was mere coincidence, though not much of one when you consider that Ousted was always going to be near the ball. After some treatment, time was added on, which started out at four, but ended up being nearly seven.
"It's excellent discipline from them," Robinson said of how they finished off the match. "We can set it up for them and give them examples of what we want them to do, but when they cross the line it's up to them."
In the end, Robinson said that his players have "a will to win, a desire to win, you can call it what you want." He went on to say, "we've got a never say die attitude that they've instilled." In winning three times in "the last three weeks, they've taken the responsibility upon themselves."
Finally, he added that "I've given the guidelines and stuff like that, but it's all down to them." But while "today was our day," he knows that there are still two matches to go. For now, "we’ll enjoy the moment, but we still have a lot of work to do."
If Montreal haven't done for them already, Vancouver can qualify for the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League on Saturday at Shaw Stadium in San Jose. And on October 25th, the Whitecaps will return the Cascadia Cup to BC Place when they host Colorado in the final match of the 2014 MLS season.
Man of the Match: Kendall Waston
Referee: Jair Marrufo
45' - VAN - Kekuta Manneh (Pedro Morales)
Shots: Seattle 10 - Vancouver 6
Shots on Goal: Seattle 3 - Vancouver 3
Saves: Seattle 2 - Vancouver 3
Fouls: Seattle 14 - Vancouver 16
Offsides: Seattle 0 - Vancouver 0
Corners: Seattle 6 - Vancouver 2
41' - SEA - Leo Gonzalez
64' - SEA - Clint Dempsey
75' - VAN - Kendall Waston
85' - VAN - Matias Laba
Seattle Sounders FC
24. Stefan Frei; 3. Brad Evans, 14. Chad Marshall, 4. Jalil Anibaba (5. Andy Rose 82'), 12. Leo Gonzalez; 10. Marco Pappa (19. Chad Barrett 62'), 42. Michael Azira (8. Gonzalo Pineda 65'), 6. Osvaldo Alonso, 27. Lamar Neagle; 2. Clint Dempsey, 9. Obafemi Martins
Substitutes not used:
1. Marcus Hahnemann, 18. Djimi Traore, 20. Zach Scott, 33. Kenny Cooper
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
1. David Ousted; 33. Steven Beitashour, 40. Andy O'Brien, 4. Kendall Waston, 2. Jordan Harvey; 15. Matías Laba, 31. Russell Teibert; 30. Mauro Rosales (8. Mehdi Ballouchy 71'), 77. Pedro Morales (29. Nicolás Mezquida 81'), 23. Kekuta Manneh (38. Kianz Froese 45'); 19. Erik Hurtado
Substitutes not used
70. Paolo Tornaghi, 3. Sam Adekugbe, 16. Johnny Leverón, 27. Ethen Sampson