October 12, 2008 - USL First Division (USL-1) - Vancouver Whitecaps
Vancouver Whitecaps FC claimed their second United Soccer Leagues First Division championship in three seasons after a thrilling 2-1 victory over Puerto Rico Islanders on Sunday afternoon.
In front of a sold-out and enthusiastic Swangard Stadium crowd, Charles Gbeke became the Whitecaps hero, as he scored twice with his head in the second half to secure Vancouver's first league title since the USL-1 Championship Final success of 2006 when The Blue & White defeated hosts Rochester Rhinos 3-0 at PAETEC Park.
Despite a Puerto Rico equalizer from the head of Sandy Gbandi midway through the second half, it was the Whitecaps that had more quality chances, as head coach Teitur Thordarson led his side to triumph over this season's regular season champions in his first year in charge. The result also extended Vancouver's undefeated run over the Islanders at home, with the final being the first ever to be contested between two USL-1 clubs that are based outside of the United States.
In what was the club's first championship match at Swangard since the 1992 Canadian Soccer League final, Thordarson made just one change to the side that defeated Montreal in the playoff semifinals. After being suspended for last Sunday's 2-0 win over the Impact, goalkeeper Jay Nolly returned to starting XI in place of Tyler Baldock, who claimed the clean sheet in his first-ever professional start last weekend.
After making six changes for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League Group D defeat to Club Santos Laguna in Mexico, Islanders head coach Colin Clarke made three changes to the side that started last Sunday's decisive second-leg win over Rochester in the semifinals. Defender Scott Jones and midfielder Edwin Miranda both returned from suspension to replace Alexis Rivera and Osei Telesford respectively in the visitors' line-up. In attack, Petter Villegas took the place of Fabrice Noel, as the Ecuadorian-born striker partnered Englishman Taiwo Atieno in the Puerto Rico forward line.
On a sunny and beautiful Thanksgiving Sunday afternoon, a sold-out Swangard crowd of 5,822 included plenty of colour and pageantry, with Puerto Rico fans making the 6,097 kilometer trip to Vancouver to support La Tropa Naranja or Orange Troop in festive fashion, while The Southsiders unfurled a massive Blue & White flag at the south end of the stadium to show their support for the home side.
As might be expected, there was a tentative start to the game from both sides, with USL-1 Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Gaudette needing to collect a Justin Moose though ball on nine minutes, as Charles Gbeke was lurking close by. Four minutes later, Nolly made a fine grab of the ball after league MVP Jonny Steele played a dangerous curling corner from the right to the far post for the Islanders.
At the other end on 14 minutes, Gbeke forced Gaudette to make the first real save of the match from his turn and shot after the former Montreal and Rochester striker had got on the end of a Sebrango forward flick.
On 19 minutes, Puerto Rico created a good opportunity for Gbandi, but the midfielder's header flew over Nolly's crossbar after Steele had found the Liberian with a fine cross from the left. A minute later, Gaudette needed to make an important save with his legs from Sebrango's low shot after Moose had played a exquisite through ball to the Cuban hit-man.
Then just before the midway point of the half, Islanders centre back John Krause needed to clear Gbeke's header off his goalline after Martin Nash played over a dangerous corner from the left-hand side.
Puerto Rico remained a constant threat going forward, with Atieno forcing a simple save from Nolly with a deflected shot from a Noah Delgado cross on 28 minutes, while Steele rolled a volleyed effort wide of the target for the visitors on 37 minutes.
Yet, the final chances of the half fell to the Whitecaps, with Moose hitting the Puerto Rico side-netting on 40 minutes after the winger got on the end of Nash's through ball in the Islanders box before Gbeke had a close-range header saved by Gaudette four minutes later after Alfredo Valente got on the end of Nash's cross from the right at the byline.
It made no difference to the 0-0 scoreline, as both sides went to their respective dressing rooms for the halftime break.
The Whitecaps were the sharper attacking side in the opening 45 minutes, and ten minutes after the restart, they took an invaluable lead from a Valente corner from the right. Whitecaps captain Jeff Clarke made a near-post flick that Gbeke was able to head home at the far post and send the Swangard crowd into rapturous delight.
To their credit, Puerto Rico's response was immediate, but Miranda was unable to put a volleyed strike on target three minutes later, while at the other end, Sebrango came within inches of his first headed goal of 2008 when he knocked Valente's fine cross from the left just wide of the far post.
The Vancouver goal brought a response from the Puerto Rico coaching staff, with Clarke bringing on Haiti international Noel for Villegas. On 68 minutes, Ethan Gage nearly made Whitecaps history as the first Residency player to score a first-team goal, but his close-range shot rolled just wide of the Islanders goal.
It proved a costly miss, as seconds later, Gbandi pulled Puerto Rico level when he headed home Noah Delgado's cross from the left to make it 1-1 and bring delight the traveling Islanders support.
With the final well poised at this stage, the match became a thrilling and emotional contest. On 73 minutes, the Whitecaps restored their lead for good when Moose took Nash's throw-in from the right before playing in a fine far-post cross. Gbeke rose highest to powerfully head the ball past a helpless Gaudette for 2-1 and send the home crowd into raptures again, as the striker ran away to celebrate with Sebrango and the fans at the south end of the stadium.
Down a goal for a second time, the Islanders showed more fighting spirit and kept pushing forward in search of a second goal, with Gbandi having two good chances for the Caribbean outfit. On 78 minutes, Nolly needed to make a diving save to the West African's low drive before the midfielder squandered an even better chance two minutes later when he volleyed a shot over the crossbar, despite Nolly being in no-mans land after he failed to clear a Puerto Rico cross into the Whitecaps box.
Half-chances were then traded at both ends in the final stages, and despite the Islanders bringing on more attacking players like former Whitecaps forward Josh Hansen, they struggled to find another way past Vancouver. Miranda's volleyed effort in the three minutes of stoppage time proved their best opportunity before the end.
The final whistle from match referee Mark Kadlecik brought joyous celebrations around Swangard, as the Whitecaps were once again crowned the best team in USL-1 following their inaugural accomplishment in Upstate New York two years ago.
For his two-goal effort, Gbeke was also named USL-1 Championship Final Most Valuable Player. "Those were the two biggest goals of my career, and I'm pretty happy that I scored those two goals with the Vancouver Whitecaps," he said after the match. "I told my dad when I got traded here from Montreal in the summer that playing with Sebrango was going to bring a lot to my game, and it certainly did today. When I lost to Vancouver as a Rochester player in 2006, I was in tears, but today is a great feeling. As a Canadian, it is very special to me to win this title with a Canadian club."
Thordarson was also in joyous mood, with the Icelandic tactician having capped his first season as a coach in North America in fine style. "I knew it would take time for this team to get used to our style of playing, but as the season went on, things came together," he told reporters after the final. "I'm very pleased with the way we have won it, as we have been trying to play an attacking style of soccer all season. We've been able to do that and win the championship with that style. When the season started, I didn't know what to expect of this season, but the guys here have done a tremendous job all throughout the campaign. I'm delighted for the players, the supporters, and everyone at the club. It's a fantastic feeling right now!"
The Whitecaps thank all of its fans for a memorable 2008 season. We look forward to seeing you all again in 2009!