HIGHLIGHTS + ANALYSIS: Whitecaps lose Leg 2 but still cruise to Champions League quarter-finals
It was the perfect start to the competition.
They may have made it a tad nervy for themselves in the end, but ultimately the Vancouver Whitecaps ended up progressing comfortably to the quarter-finals of the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League this week, as they defeated Honduran side Real CD España 7-3 on aggregate in the Round of 16.
The first time they’ve reached this stage of the competition since 2017, it’s a big milestone for Vancouver, who have spoken at length in the past of what it would mean to do well in the Champions League. And now, after a result like that, there’s no doubt that they’re on the right track toward making that a reality.
Especially when you look at how they got the job done, picking up a dominant 5-0 first-leg win that easily eclipsed the team’s prior best performance in the competition (a 4-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago side Central FC in 2017), before seeing things over the line with a heavily rotated lineup in the second leg despite a 3-2 loss, you have to be encouraged by those results.
Because of that, it can only make one wonder - could this tie be an indication that this Whitecaps side is finally turning a corner as a team? In the past, it felt like the first leg, a game where Vancouver didn’t actually play all that well for the first 45 minutes, could’ve ended badly, but instead, they overcame that and finished strong, off the backs of strong performances from both their stars and their depth players.
As a result, they were able to head to the second leg confident of progressing despite travelling into a tough environment, allowing them to rotate their squad and still get through comfortably, further leaning on that depth.
That’s key, because in the past, they had a habit of making ties like this a lot more complicated for themselves than they needed to in these sorts of matches (remember the third round of the Canadian Championship vs Cavalry, anyone?), a habit that often left them to play with fire in important moments, where both their stars and their depth pieces often went missing.
Here, though, they showed a sort of ruthlessness not often seen from them, and in the end, they profited off that, both through their progression to the next round, as well as the rest they were able to give to some crucial players.
“I'm happy,” Whitecaps head coach, Vanni Sartini, said after the game. “The qualification was never in discussion, but we were always in the game. At the end I told the guys even if we were a little bit down, we did not lose 3-2 today, we won 7-3, so we need to be happy.”
And now, that should certainly boost their hopes of progressing. It won’t be easy, as they’ve drawn LAFC, one of the early favourites in this competition, but at the same time, that’s the sort of matchup you’d expect in a Champions League environment.
Plus, if anything, they’ll relish this sort of matchup, as these are the sort of games that they’ve long craved being able to play, but haven’t always been able to make a reality. Instead, they’ve made a habit of slipping up in earlier rounds of tournaments, as the Canadian Championship losses to Cavalry and later Pacific showed.
Now, however, they’ve started to shake that label as a team that just shows up in tournaments to leave them soon after.
They first showed it in last year’s Canadian Championship, where they overcame resistance from Valour FC, Cavalry and then York United before beating Toronto FC in the final for their second-ever trophy, also earning qualification to this tournament in the process. It wasn’t always easy for them along that journey, as it took PKs to beat Cavalry and Toronto, and they only beat York by one goal, but in the end, they managed to show their quality in key moments, a key attribute for strong teams.
Then, they further showed that in the win over España, where they showed another key attribute of a strong team - an ability to impose themselves and dominate teams they should beat, something that can sometimes be easier said than done. Heck, you can certainly ask the Whitecaps of a few seasons ago how that used to be for them.
There’s no doubt that they can at the very least go toe-to-toe with teams like LAFC across a tie like this, but they needed the stage, and now, they’ve made that a reality with this recent España win.
So although they still have a lot of work to do now in this next tie, as they must handle a visit to LA’s BMO Stadium, where they’ve got a record of three draws and three losses (and have been outscored 21-7 across those games), they know that just being here is a huge start.
We got an all MLS matchup for #VWFC in the #CCL, as they’ll face defending Supporters Shield and MLS Cup champions, #LAFC— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 16, 2023
Will be a very tough tie, but an interesting battle for a spot in the SFs
Also MDS, Maxime Crépeau and Tristan Blackmon face their old clubs https://t.co/OuQXFEAuxj
Plus, when you add in that they’ve actually been pretty good at home against LAFC, winning three and losing one of their four-ever meetings at BC Place, that’ll at least give them a boost in their hopes of being able to progress to the next round.
Because of that, they’re entering this tie filled with confidence. It’s another tall mountain for them to climb, but as they look to return to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the second time in their history, it’s a mountain they’re happy to climb.
For far too long, they’ve dreamt of games like this, and now, they’re a reality, thanks to the growth that they’ve shown over the last few seasons, of which they showed the latest iteration of against España.
“Yeah, it means a lot,” Sartini enthused. “We are in a quarterfinal now, against LAFC, so it will be a nice clash against probably the best team in North America right now. It's gonna be good, it’s a great stage for us to try to get to the semi-finals, so I’m very happy that we got through.”
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