For the first foray into a brand-new tournament, it was entertaining, to say the least.
The Vancouver Whitecaps hosted Club León at B.C. Place in the first game of the Leagues Cup for both, playing to a 3-2 for the Mexican side on penalties.
Head coach Vanni Sartini said he was pleased with how his team played, particularly in the second half.
“I’m pleased we put one point on the board,” Sartini said. “And then the penalties, we had twice the chance to win. And we missed the penalty, and you know, at the end it went so long. But okay, we have one point.”
The Whitecaps knew they were going to be put under pressure by León. But without playing a Liga MX club before, it was difficult to have expectations.
Leon was fierce in their quick build-up, working through their right and exploiting Levonte Johnson, the Whitecaps’ wingback on the left.
In the first half alone, the young Canadian was skinned six times. And one of those was enough for León to capitalize on.
In the 23rd minute, the ball was snuck past Johnson, playing in a León player who had ghosted in behind him. The pass into the middle of the 18-yard box found Elías Hernández.
From there, it was a simple tap-in by the far post, away from Yohei Takaoka, who could not react quickly enough.
And the waves of attack continued. Constant pressure was applied by León, but with their goal, they were also more content to hold the ball and eat up time.
“We were a little bit in confusion,” Sartini said of the 15 minutes after the first goal. “León could have scored the second.”
León would have been quite happy to carry a lead into the half, but the Whitecaps denied them the pleasure. In the 44th minute, Simon Berhalter laid out a smart, quick pass into the 18-yard box for Sergio Córdova. The striker, hot in the last couple of matches, levelled the game just before the whistle.
That single moment helped to change the momentum of the match.
To start the second, the Whitecaps brought on Tristan Blackmon and Brian White, switching to a back 4 and relieving Johnson, who did not have the best of nights.
And suddenly, it was the Whitecaps on the front foot.
Within the first five minutes of the half, two golden opportunities came, one by way of a set piece and the other from a whipped ball into the box from Córdova.
Vancouver continued to dictate the pace of the match, pushing forward with the extra man given due to the half-time changes.
“The second was fantastic. The second half, we smashed them,” Sartini said. “The second half, we looked like the Champions League winners.”
In the 57th minute, it paid off.
Ryan Gauld, playing further into the midfield in the second half, won the ball at the edge of the Whitecaps’ 18-yard box. He broke out into a run through the middle as Córdova chased and eventually overlapped the Scot.
Gauld played the ball up to the Venezuelan. And as he has shown he has the capability, Córdova held the ball, getting into a bit of space to the right of the goalkeeper. His shot, while not pretty, was enough to get by both the keeper and defender for the striker’s second of the night.
It was Córdova’s fourth goal in three games in all competitions.
“I think [Córdova’s] position is the position of the second half, when he plays as one of the no. 10s on the right,” Sartini said. “He’s not a no. 9, in my opinion.”
Sartini called Córdova “dominant,” pointing to his other qualities beyond just goal-scoring, his pressing, attacking, tackling and more.
It also forced León back onto the attack. There was an added sense of urgency to their game as they worked to regain control of the match.
And as the tides shifted, they found the net in the 77th minute, an absolutely beautiful laser from Hernández from just outside the 18-yard box.
A few more chances were exchanged, but neither could find the win in regulation time.
This one went to penalties, a feature of the Leagues Cup for any match ending in a draw after 90 minutes.
Now, penalties are routinely five rounds with the team with the most goals in that getting the win. The Whitecaps and León were still deadlocked after those five rounds.
They went through each team’s eleven players on the pitch and still, nothing was decided.
Finally, after 19 rounds and 38 penalty kicks, Luís Martins, up for his second round, hit the post.
That was the final, León winning 3-2 on penalties.
Sartini said it has never happened in his playing or coaching career to go through all players almost twice.
“In the end, we scored 15 out of 19,” he said. “That is more or less 75 per cent. It is the average expected goals of penalties. So, I would say that we did quite well. Unfortunately, again, we had twice the chance to win, and we didn’t do it.”
Vancouver will travel to Los Angeles to take on July 29 for their final match of the Leagues Cup group stage. The match is at 7:30 p.m.