With a month-long break coming in a matter of days to the MLS schedule, the Vancouver Whitecaps needed a win to counter the small mid-season slump that had been creeping in.
And they got exactly what they wanted with a 2-1 win over Austin FC.
“We played very well against a very good team,” head coach Vanni Sartini said. “We were deserving of the win.”
Sartini went back to the tactical formation that worked so well against LAFC, a high press, aggressive attack.
“We knew that we wanted to play this 3-5-2, very aggressive with the two wingbacks to not let them have numerical superiority when we build up,” Sartini said.
Levonte Johnson continued in the lineup, his second start in as many games. Andrés Cubas also drew back in after recovering from his recent injury suffered against Sporting Kansas City back on July 1.
Wanting to put to rest the negative feelings of last weekend, the Whitecaps got off to an early start. Brian White received the ball in the final third, a great pass from Cubas, but he was being marked by an Austin defender. However, Pedro Vite was streaking up the left, all alone.
White switched the ball over to the Ecuadorian who moved it into the 18-yard box. His shot beat Brad Stuver through his legs, putting the Whitecaps up by one not even half a minute into the match.
The Whitecaps continued their attack, mainly down the left side of the pitch. Sebastian Berhalter, playing along the right, played in an unfamiliar position but conducted himself well.
“Sebastian is a soccer nerd,” Sartini joked. “If you tell him ‘You’re going to play wingback this week,’ I think he went like through every wingback that we play in the last three years and ask our analyst [about them]. It’s the nightmare of our analyst. He calls them all the time.”
But Johnson, who took the left side. excelled. His runs continually broke past Nick Lima as the young Canadian showed not only his pace but his strength on the ball.
“I think [Johnson] did very well,” the head coach said. “So, we knew Levonte never played back-to-back games of this level at this intensity. And this is a bit more intense than the MLS Next Pro. So, he knew he didn’t have the 90 minutes today. We knew that we could, I would say, squeeze his juice for 60. And he did it perfectly.”
The only thing missing from his game in the first 45 minutes was his final pass into the box. Often too far or too high, it was the only element of his game that was absent.
And for all the positive play the first half brought, the Whitecaps were quickly brought down to Earth early in the second.
Austin got a cross in behind the Whitecaps’ defensive line. Takaoka got on the end of it before the player but only cleared so far as Rodney Redes. The Japanese goalkeeper was not able to get back up to his feet quickly enough, and Redes slotted the ball overtop him to tie the match.
Unfortunately, sloppy play and errant passes started to get the better of the Whitecaps in the second half. Where they found space to build up in the first half, suddenly those lanes were closed.
Sensing a need for a change, Sartini brought on Ryan Raposo and Sergio Córdova. Córdova who had been snakebitten all season, was in desperate need of something to go his way.
And finally, it did.
Only on for three minutes, Córdova received the ball with only a single defender to get around. He was calm on the ball and caused the defender to go the wrong way, opening up space for him to unleash his shot, beating Stuver as he collected his first goal as a Whitecap.
“What [Córdova] did, I think, today, I think it was for the first time, probably free mentally. Because instead of trying something, he was very calm and composed and collected in the box and scored a very good goal,” Sartini said.
But with nine added minutes of extra time, eventually stretched to 14 total minutes, the Whitecaps had to hold on to their lead, something they were not able to do against Seattle.
This time, however, they kept their cool. There was one nervy moment where an Austin player got around Tristan Blackmon, forcing the centre-back to take a foul and get a yellow card. There were questions as to whether the foul occurred within the 18-yard box, but VAR put an end to that.
As the final minutes ticked by, there was also confusion in the technical area of the Whitecaps. Sartini, thinking the match was done, went to shake hands. The misstep was enough for the referee to give him a yellow card, his third of the season. It means Sartini will be suspended for the next match against LA Galaxy.
In the final match before the League’s Cup break, the Whitecaps host the LA Galaxy at BC Place. That match takes place on Saturday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m.