“We have a fantastic team”: Despite tough playoff loss to Sporting KC, the Vancouver Whitecaps feel that this is just the beginning of their journey 

The Vancouver Whitecaps took on Sporting Kansas City in MLS Playoff action on Saturday. Here’s our recap from that one, a 3-1 SKC win, one that knocked the ‘Caps out of playoff contention for the 2021 season. 

It was a tough way to go out. 

Having gone on a miraculous run just to get there in the first place, losing just 3 times over their last 25 games to even make the playoffs, the Vancouver Whitecaps were now hoping to make a decent run in the 2021 MLS Cup playoffs, which started on Saturday. 

Faced off against a solid Sporting Kansas City side away, it wasn’t going to be easy, but after what they’ve gone through this season, the ‘Caps felt differently, as they headed to Children’s Mercy Stadium with one thing on their mind – winning. 

But as some will know, not all fairytales have a happy ending, and the ‘Caps learned that the hard way on Saturday, as they fell 3-1 to SKC in a hard-fought game. 

And with that, that put a lid on the ‘Caps 2021 season, leaving them to try and shoot for success in 2022 now, instead. 

After a rollercoaster year, though, one that included several months away from home, a disappointing cup run, a head coach firing, some big midseason acquisitions, a long-awaited return home, and the late run, there’s still a lot for the ‘Caps to be proud of, even despite the result. 

“This season has been crazy,” Whitecaps acting head coach, Vanni Sartini, said after the game. “This result doesn’t change the fact that we did a great job the second half, a fantastic job actually, in just getting to the playoffs. Even if we lost today, even in the playoff game, we showed that we’re a playoff team, because we put in the fight in a very tough stadium until the 93rd minute.”

It wasn’t meant to be this season, but the good news is that for the first time in a while, the ‘Caps have a solid foundation to build on next season, giving them plenty of reasons to be hopeful as they get set to tackle a crucial offseason now. 

“We built something sustainable and good to be proud of,” ‘Caps captain, Russell Teibert, said afterwards. “It’s something the fans are proud of, we think about how much we’ve gone through this year, being away from home for 4 months and all the adversity we’ve gone through, it’s only made us stronger as a club.”

And while they lost this game, we saw some examples of that, because despite going down early, the ‘Caps did well to claw things back to 1-1 quite quickly, keeping up the fight even when they then went down 1 and then 2 goals. 

So with a never-quit attitude, some good players, and hopefully a soon-to-be permanent head coach in Vanni Sartini, there’s a lot for the ‘Caps to look forward to in 2022. 

For now, though, this loss will sting, no doubt, because while the ‘Caps ultimately weren’t full value for the win on Saturday, they still put in a good shift, just unable to match the performance put up by their hosts, SKC, who have tended to have their numbers in recent years. 

Seeing that, however, it was no surprise that to begin the game, it’d be all Kansas, who thanks to the energy of their home crowd, seemed to have wings to begin the game. 

Because of that, they’d come quite close to scoring early on, as they did well to put their opponents under pressure. 

First, they nearly found an opening through their leading scorer, Daniel Salloi, who did well to turn and fire a shot in the 4th minute, but he sent it right at the ‘Caps Maxime Crepeau in goal, making it far too easy of a save for him. 

Then, right after, Gadi Kinda had a nice hit from distance on his left foot in the 6th minute, and it seemed to have eyes, but it sailed just wide of the ‘Caps goal

And thanks to that early pressure, SKC would be able to find their goal not long after, in the 17th minute. 

After a nice switch of play, the ball found its way to a streaking Graham Zusi in the ‘Caps box, and from there, the longtime MLS veteran did well to cut the ball back to a streaking Khiry Shelton, and the SKC striker made no mistake with the opportunity, slotting home the goal. 

It was a backbreaking goal for the ‘Caps, who despite the early pressure, seemed to have weathered the worst of it, but there’s a reason why SKC were one of the best teams in MLS all year long, and they showed it on that goal. 

But the good news for the ‘Caps was that it was still quite early in the match, giving them time to come back. 

And to give them credit, they’d at least try to do that, and came relatively close to doing so in the 18th minute, as Cristisan Dajome had a nice shot from distance, but his attempt just lacked the sort of convention needed to beat Tim Melia in the SKC goal, making it a comfortable save for him. 

Right after, though, SKC would try and wrestle back control of the game, and they’d come close to doing so in the 29th minute, as Johnny Russell had a nice look inside the box on his right foot, only just dragging his attempt wide of the ‘Caps goal. 

A few minutes later, Russell then had another good attempt, this time on the edge of the box with his preferred left foot, but this time his shot would lack the necessary conviction to beat Crepeau, as he’d send it straight at the ‘Caps goalkeeper. 

And then, everything turned on its head for the visitors right in the 37th minute. 

After an innocent-looking cross into the box from a ‘Caps player, the ball appeared to hit the arm of SKC’s Luis Martins, but referee Alan Kelly didn’t see it at first, waving play on. 

But then, though, the VAR official, Drew Fischer, flagged something down to his head referee, and Kelly decided to go look at the video review board, where he then saw the handball, which he deemed to be enough to give the ‘Caps a penalty. 

From there, up stepped Dajome to take the spot-kick, and he made no mistake with the attempt, giving Melia the eyes and sending him the wrong way, tying up the game with conviction.

And that was massive for the ‘Caps. 

Against a team of SKC’s calibre, it’s so easy to lose control of the game as soon as you concede a goal, but that didn’t bother the ‘Caps, who just kept at it, and found an important equalizer. 

Because of that, it put them in a good position as they headed into halftime, giving them a chance to dream of picking up a result. 

Or at least they thought, because then up stepped Kansas. 

Given a free-kick right at the end of the half, SKC whipped in a dangerous ball, one that pinballed around the box before falling to Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, and the Kansas centre back did well to just slash at it, sending it into the back of the net, giving his team the lead. 

And that was huge for the hosts. After a strong start, they were quickly fading, but did well to regain control of the game at a perfect moment, giving them all of the momentum as both teams headed into the break. 

As a result of that, they had all of the wind in their sails as they got set to take on the second half, knowing that they had an edge over their opponents. 

That’d be quickly evident, too, as SKC then wasted no time in adding to their lead in the second half, doing so in the 57th minute. 

After some nice possession, SKC did well to funnel the ball over to Zusi, who as he’d done all game at that point, was expected to funnel the ball forward. 

But from there, sensing that the ‘Caps were expecting that from him, he then decided to square up his body and unleash a right-footed strike, and he unleashed an absolute rocket, one that caught everyone off-guard, ripping into the top corner of the ‘Caps goal, sending Children’s Mercy Stadium into a massive roar. 

Again, much like the 2nd goal, this 3rd goal was huge for the hosts, too, because while the ‘Caps had a good shot of coming back down 1 goal, it just felt like 2 goals was a mountain too large for them to climb, making it seem like game-over. 

Yet, to give them credit, despite being down on the scoreboard, the ‘Caps continued to push, at least trying to go out on their sword. 

Because of that, they actually nearly came close to closing the deficit in the 68th minute, as Brian White found a bit of space in the box, and the ‘Caps did well to find him with a wide ball, one that White made great contact on, but he’d then be robbed by Melia, who did well to get down and palm the effort wide.

It was a massive save, one that very well seemed to put the nail in the coffin for the ‘Caps, as they just needed a break like that, but just couldn’t find the breakthrough on that occasion. 

Then, not long after, White had another good look at goal off of a header in the 73rd minute, continuing a strong sequence of play, but he sent that attempt wide of the mark, continuing his tough match up to that point. 

But the one thing about the ‘Caps pushing up in chase of a second goal was that it left them exposed at the back, and Shelton nearly made them pay for it on a nice counter-attack in the 84th minute, doing everything but put the ball in the net, shanking his attempt wide. 

At the other end, though, the ‘Caps then nearly found a breakthrough in the 86th minute, as Deiber Caicedo did well to find an onrushing Bruno Gaspar, who then squared the ball to a wide-open Lucas Cavallini for a goal, one he made no mistake in finishing. 

From there, though, it was ruled by the linesman that Gaspar was offside in the leadup to the goal, ruling out the tally, keeping SKC in front with just a few minutes to go. 

And after that, that’d pretty much be all that the ‘Caps had to offer up, as SKC cruised to the 3-1 victory, giving their home fans plenty to cheer about. 

It might not have been their best game of the season, but they were very efficient, and made the ‘Caps pay, showing the sort of ruthlessness that it takes to win playoff games in MLS. 

As for the ‘Caps, though, they certainly can keep their heads up, because while the scoreline wasn’t in their favour, they did fight well and made a game of this, just coming up short in the key moments. 

For a team that wasn’t even supposed to really be here in the first place, having done so thanks to a massive push to end the regular season, they showed that they can at least compete in a game like this, which is good. 

Plus, with a lot of core pieces expected to return for next year, that bodes well as they start to prepare for 2022, knowing that they’ve got a team that could potentially do damage next season. 

So while they won’t be thinking about that after a result like this, things are still looking up for the ‘Caps, even despite this 1-game blip on their radar.  

“We weren’t perfect,” Sartini said of this game. “We made some mistakes, but again, the effort and intensity was good, and Sporting Kansas City didn’t overwhelm us, yes, they beat us, but I think the 2 goal difference is too much.”

Player of the Match: Cristian Dajome

Otherwise, it was hard to pick a player of the game in a match like this, but one player who certainly stood out for the visitors was Dajome, who of course scored the goal, but also put up an overall solid performance once again for the ‘Caps. 

First as a forward, before shifting over to wing back, Dajome did his best to make things happen at both positions on Saturday, giving the ‘Caps a bit of life throughout the game. 

So even though the result didn’t go in his team’s favour, Dajome put the cap on what was a strong season for him, showing why the ‘Caps would be wise to keep him around not only next season, but for years to come, too. 

Cristian Dajome in action the last time these two teams met (Keveren Guillou)

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Maxime Crepeau:

Elsewhere, we highlighted Crepeau as a player to watch for the ‘Caps in this one, as he’d done so much to help this team even be where they are right now, and was hoped to help them keep that run going in this game. 

Unfortunately, though, it just wasn’t meant to be for him, as he just wasn’t able to make some of the saves that he’d made all season long. They weren’t really his fault, as the ‘Caps defence in front of him was also uncharacteristically shaky, but you just know that they’ll haunt Crepeau, who is a perfectionist, giving him plenty of motivational fuel ahead of next year. 

So if that comes back with the ‘Caps, or with a new club, possibly one in Europe, you just know that this is the start of what’s to come from Crepeau, who took some massive strides this 2021 season after a rough 2020 for him personally due to injury. 

Maxime Crepeau celebrates a Whitecaps win earlier this year (Keveren Guillou)

Heatmap of the Match:

Moving on, it was an interesting heat map here for the ‘Caps, because as seen above, it was actually pretty good for them, which is nice to see. 

To be fair, they’re also helped by the fact that they were able to keep 62% of possession, as SKC really sat back whenever they had the lead, but the ‘Caps still got into decent areas with the ball. 

If anything, the 2 areas they’ll look back on from here is A) figuring out how they gave up 3 goals despite keeping SKC out of the relatively dangerous areas for most of the game, and B) how they weren’t able to break into their opponent’s box with more regularity. 

xG Plot of the Match:

Lastly, it was another mixed performance in the Expected Goals (xG) plot section for the ‘Caps, who as seen here, actually defended decently, but struggled on offence, at least other than the penalty. 

So when you then add in the fact that they conceded 3 tough goals to give up, it all helps explain the game for Vancouver, as they just weren’t clinical enough at either end, offensively or defensively. 

Looking Forward:

But for now, though, the ‘Caps won’t get a chance to change what they did wrong until next season, leaving them plenty of time to stew on this game until then. 

Yet, that’s playoff soccer for you. As said before the game, there’s no tomorrow in these sorts of games if you lose, unlike in the regular season, where you can just get back out there and fix what went wrong the last game out. 

So now, the ‘Caps will have to let this result settle for the next little while before turning their attention to next season, because as mentioned earlier, the ‘Caps still have plenty to look forward to in 2022. 

Before then, there’s plenty of work still to be done, especially in terms of finalizing a head coach, as well as some contract situations to sort out and some signings to get over the line, but the good news is that a core is finally in place, and that’s always the hardest part, as the ‘Caps will know. 

Hopefully, that can then allow the ‘Caps to take a step on what they showed this year, because no matter how things ended, they’ve got a lot to be proud of, showing what they can potentially be capable of across a full slate of games in 2022. 

“We have a fantastic team,” Sartini said. “We grew a lot this season, and we built something to go into the next year, so this organization can prove again that this wasn’t just a miracle for 20 games to get into the playoffs, but to become consistent playoff participants, (starting) next year.”

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter

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