Vancouver Whitecaps 2-2 tie at home to Seattle Sounders on Saturday was further proof of the progress being made by the team. It was a positive afternoon for the second-year MLS club, but as the full-time whistle blew, there was an air of disappointment around BC Place as the home side gave up a late goal to see a win slip from their grasp.
The Whitecaps proved they have the quality to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league, but ended the match knowing they wasted an opportunity to take all three points against a Western Conference foe. When Camilo's free kick gave Vancouver the lead for the second time in the match with just eight minutes left to play, Martin Rennie's team should have been able to close the game out.
A defensive misjudgment led to Fredy Montero having the opportunity to score the game-tying goal in the last minute of play, but the Whitecaps' frustration was also due to their missed opportunities in front of goal.
The 'Caps should have built on their one-goal advantage before Seattle tied the match for the first time just after the break. With the score at 1-0 to Vancouver, Darren Mattocks had two great opportunities to double the lead. The second overall pick in this year's SuperDraft lacked the necessary composure in front of goal, and ultimately the 'Caps were made to pay for those missed chances.
The positive for the Whitecaps from Mattocks' performance was that he was able to get into those positions to have a clear sight at goal. He should have been more clinical with his finishing, but the fact he was able to use his pace and was in the right place to be effective gives a good indication that he can play a valuable role in the future.
Seattle came into the match with the best defensive record in Major League Soccer, having only conceded four goals this season and never having let their opponents score more than one, but Vancouver's first-half play caused big problems for the Sounders back-line.
Mattocks' speed was a big reason for the 'Caps success against the usually solid Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and teenager Omar Salgado was also very influential down the left wing in the first 45 minutes of the match, including an excellent pass to Alain Rochat to start the move for Vancouver's first goal.
After his midweek heroics in the Canadian Championship against Toronto FC, Eric Hassli's omission from the Whitecaps starting lineup was certainly a talking point, but in talking to Martin Rennie ahead of the game about his lineup decisions, it was clear he had a very specific plan of how his team could be most effective against the Sounders. He also has to look ahead right now with Vancouver in the midst of a run of big games in both league and cup.
The 'Caps coach explained that Mattocks had earned his chance to start because of his performances in training. The Akron product has had a tough time during the opening weeks of his professional career being sidelined after burning his arm in a cooking accident, but he had shown the coaching staff that he was ready to be given his chance.
Rennie's plan to use Mattocks' speed to cause problems for the Seattle back-line certainly worked. He also felt Hassli would then have the opportunity to be more effective off the bench by using his strength in the latter stages of the match against a tiring defence.
Although they ultimately ended the game in a disappointing manner by conceding the late equalizer, Rennie's astute use of substitutions gave his team the best possible chance to win.
John Thorrington's introduction for Salgado allowed the Whitecaps to gain more of a grip in midfield at a time when the Sounders had been dominating the possession. Hassli's arrival in place of Mattocks provided Seattle's defence with a completely different type of forward to deal with, and Camilo's goal just after coming into the match is the sort of thing that makes a manager look like a genius.
Rennie is able to put a great deal of thought into which players can influence games because of the options he has available to him. In the club's current busy schedule, it is also easier for him to keep his squad happy even if they aren't starting the match because he is rotating players and they know there is another game just around the corner. However, Rennie admits it might be a different proposition next month when the club has just four matches, and he will then have a better opportunity to play what he considers to be his strongest eleven each week.
Rennie's decisions will only become harder as the season progresses. He still intends to strengthen. The arrival of Barry Robson plus a couple more potential additions will certainly give the 'Caps a boost, but it will likely also lead to some players currently on the team finding their playing time drastically reduced or even leaving the club.
The Whitecaps are far from the finished product, but the building blocks continue to be put in place. Rennie is targeting specific positions for the team to strengthen and is looking much further than simply putting a team on the pitch that can challenge for a playoff position this season.
The Whitecaps have come a long way in a short space of time and Saturday's performance against Seattle was another example of that. There will still be off-days such as the defensive debacle in New England last week, but as long as the 'Caps continue to learn from their mistakes, they will give themselves a very good chance to make it into the postseason.
Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC is live on MLS on TSN, Saturday at 10pm et/7pm pt.