For 88 minutes, it looked as though the Vancouver Whitecaps were going to play David to Tigres’ Goliath.
Leading by a goal at the half in the first round of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the Whitecaps looked like they could cause an upset over the Mexican giants, a team that is in the Clausura stage of Liga MX and only off the top by a point.
And even though they had chances to bury the match with a second goal, it never came. What did come was André-Pierre Gignac and an absolute beauty of singlehanded play to tie the match and send both teams to Mexico for the second leg next week.
Head coach Vanni Sartini praised his players after the match, calling it “a very good performance.
“We applied everything that we talked about during the week and doing our game. To be honest, I think defensively, we’ve been really, really good. We were always very structured, and it was really hard to break us down,” Sartini said.
Vanni Sartini’s side lined up in a 3-4-3, similar to what was seen last year. Only one of the Whitecaps’ new signings made the starting XI. Damir Kreilach took a position beside Brian White at the top.
Still threadbare on the flanks, Luís Martins was called on to take left wingback duties. Ryan Raposo took the right, but it remains a position the Whitecaps will need to address before MLS begins in a month.
As expected, Tigres dominated possession early in the match. Playing as the side obviously in the midst of their season, the Whitecaps remained strong defensively while trying to find holes to counterattack.
“Even if they’re really good and playing this ball in behind the line, and they’re always controlling the ball really well, we were always in numerical superiority, and the interchange was working very well,” Sartini said.
As the match approached the half-hour mark, Vancouver began to find their game. They started to put a few passes together and win balls back to start their counters.
And it paid off in the 32nd minute. Martins won the ball and played it quickly up to Pedro Vite, who hit the single touch up to Gauld on the left. The Scot crossed it quickly to White, who flicked it into the path of Kreilach.
The Croatian attacker calmly passed the ball past Nahuel Guzmán for his debut goal and the early lead for the Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps thought they had doubled their lead in the 53rd minute. Vite laid the ball into a dangerous spot in the 18-yard box, which was poorly cleared. Gauld’s rebound was saved, but White got another crack at it for Vancouver and made it count.
However, VAR deemed Alessandro Schöpf to be offside. The midfielder never touched the ball, impeded a player or interfered, but his presence was enough for the goal to be struck off.
But the mere thought of a second goal from the Whitecaps was enough to scare Tigres into action. They began to wrestle control of the game away from the home side, looking to get something to take back to Mexico.
And if not for a miraculous free kick from Gagnac late in the game, it may have been the Whitecaps on top. Sebastian Berhalter, a late substitute, was penalized with a foul just outside of the 18-yard box. Gagnac stepped up and did what he had done to the Whitecaps a couple of times before.
It was enough to end the match in a 1-1 draw with neither side having much time to try and break the deadlock.
The second leg will take place on Feb. 14 at the Estadio Universitario in Monterrey, Mexico.