When you have a balanced schedule, every club plays every other club at home and away. The Major League doesn't have a balanced schedule anymore, they did away with that after the 2011 campaign. The league doesn't even alternate the imbalance. That's how we've found ourselves in a situation where for three of the last four seasons, Vancouver Whitecaps FC's only match against Chicago Fire SC has taken place in the Windy City.
Chicago's Matt Polster was by far the most active player in the early stages. Just over a minute in, he ploughed his shoulder into Mauro Rosales's chest, catching a bit of chin too. There was no embellishment from the Argentine. He was just put flat on his back. Sadly, the challenge was late, violent, and deemed no worse than a foul by referee Fotis Bazakos.
Just under two minutes later, Polster earned a yellow card for trying to wrap his thighs around Kekuta Manneh on the edge of the box. Between what he did to Manneh and Rosales, Polster could count himself fortunate to still be on the pitch.
Vancouver should have opened the scoring in the 10th minute when Pedro Morales and Kekuta Manneh combined to great effect, teasing Chicago's Adailton with some quick passes, but el Capitán's final attempt was high, far too high. We'd forgive most midfielders for it, but Morales is a designated player, he wears the armband, and he is absolutely positively expected to put the ball on target when presented with an opportunity like that.
Despite the questionable state of the pitch, which had only recently had the tarp removed after another long and difficult Chicago winter, the boys in blue maintained a high tempo. When they got the ball, they pressured the Fire. And without it, they didn't give the home side much space. In the 17th minute, Steven Beitashour made a perfectly timed tackle on Joevin Jones. If he had gotten it wrong, it would have resulted in at least a talking to, and quite possibly a yellow card. He had to get it right, and he did. Unfortunately, nothing came of it.
While Chicago approached the match with organisation and discipline (Polster aside), Vancouver responded with speed and quickness. Kekuta Manneh sent the ball across the goal mouth in the 20th minute, but there was no one there to get on the other end of it. Not long after, Kendall Waston picked up his first yellow card of 2015. It will not be his last.
Kekuta Manneh is an exceptional talent. He has speed and skill. He can do some truly wonderful things with his right foot. But the lad, still only twenty, really must work on his left one. In the 23rd minute, he had the chance to go one v one with Jon Busch, but he would have to shoot with his left. So naturally he cut inside.
He did the same thing last week against Toronto. It didn't work then, and it didn't work now. But there is hope for the boy. Camilo Sanvezzo used to do the same thing. O Mágico got over it... eventually. The Caps management can only hope that Scooter doesn't take as long to figure it out as their former Golden Boot winner did.
The Whitecaps chose to spend the last few minutes of the first half down a man. Chicago's Lovel Palmer won the ball, though he had to do so with some dangerous play. At first, it looked like Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson would wait on Rosales, hoping that he could come back in the second half, but after hearing about Rosales' right ankle injury from the medical staff, Nicolás Mezquida was quickly brought in during first half stoppage time.
Pedro Morales got the best chance for either side with the last kick of the half. Octavio Rivero threaded the ball to the Chilean,. And though he did beat the keeper, the same could not be said of the post.
In the second half, Manneh and Mezquida linked up nicely. Chicago's keeper, Jon Busch, made a difficult save look easy, which is just about all you can ever ask of the man between the posts. But Mezquida did himself no harm with his performance tonight. And given the injury to Rosales, the Uruguayan should figure into the starting eleven next week when the Caps visit Orlando City.
At the other end, Chicago's Harrison Shipp and Michael Stephens should have converted after the Whitecaps were all over the place with their defending, but the Fire's attack fizzled out when Stevens couldn't get it on target.
One of the more exciting moments of the match came in the 71st minute, when Mezquida was fouled just outside the box. Instead of going to ground, Mezquida looked for the winner. Even after Busch went for the loose ball, Mezquida continued his run, collected the rebound, and did get a shot off, but he hit the side netting. Still, it was a wonderful bit of play.
Had he gone to ground, Mezquida probably would have gotten the free kick. He may have even been awarded a penalty kick. But that said, we are still glad, nay, proud of Mezquida. He remained on his feet and tried to go for goal. Under similar circumstances, most wouldn't. He is to be commended for sportsmanship.
Speaking of which, last week referee Alan Kelly handed out three cards for simulation in a single match. Today, Fotis Bazakos gave one to Octavio Rivero. It may not have been deserved on this occasion, but we'd rather see a referee issue a yellow card for simulation in error, than to allow that kind of conduct to persist. Obviously, the officials are sending the message that simulation and embellishment won't be tolerated this year. Let's all hope the sentiment lasts.
So instead of a penalty, Rivero got a yellow card. But that's all right. He's good enough to score goals from the run of play, and he did just that. He got his second in as many matches. But it was a team effort.
It began when Steven Beitashour passed the ball up to Mezquida, who lay in wait near the centre circle. Mezquida had to fend off some pressure from Harrison Shipp, so he laid the ball off to Octavio Rivero. Between them, they carved out some space, with a notable play by Rivero to double back and confuse the Chicago defence.
Pedro Morales and Matías Laba would also get involved before Palmer tried to head the ball away. But it fell to the advancing Beitashour, who saw Mezquida, Rivero, and Mattocks in firing positions.
When you have options, you just tend to get it right. Rivero was in the best position, so Beitashour set him up, and the Caps led 1-0 with just over three minutes to play.
It wasn't a very pretty match. It never would be with a pitch that slow. But both sides had their chances to snatch the points. With the Whitecaps stepping up to take the spoils, they can honestly say that they're off to Disney World.
In the first match, Orlando drew the Citizens at home, and followed it up by defeating the Dynamo in Texas. But the Whitecaps were an Anschutz Cup side last year. Will the Lions be up to the task, or will the Caps show them how it's done? Whatever the result, we'll be here to bring you all of the action.
And after their Florida excursion, the Caps have a Cascadia Cup clash to look forward to when the Portland Timbers visit BC Place on March 28th.