Two teams face 2-1 deficits at home. Can Edmonton once again play tenacious underdog and beat the Impact at their own game? And can the Whitecaps kids build on the promise they showed in Toronto? Or will the big, veteran favourites do their big, veteran favourite thing?
Can Vancouver really overturn a 2-1 series deficit against Toronto FC despite running out a Children’s Crusade lineup and getting slapped around pretty good at BMO Field? Even the positive moral value of playing all those Canadians is diminished today: Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, Mitch Piraux, and Jackson Farmer are down in Florida with the U-20 national team. Can Edmonton really get a result in Montreal against the Impact? It seems like everybody outside Montreal is cheering for the Eddies, because everybody loves an underdog and hates the Impact. (Everybody inside Montreal is ignoring this game because the Canadiens and Bruins are playing.)
Last week I pointed out Montreal was on a run for the MLS Wooden Spoon (non-Chivas USA category); in the seven days since they’ve given even the Goats a run for their money. The Impact are coming off an more-than-usually-embarrassing 3-0 home loss to the Kansas City Wizards in which Montreal was out-shots-directeded 12-4 and had a FIFA 14-style 21.8% of the possession (I know possession isn’t much of an indicator but twenty-one point fucking eight). Then again, Montreal was playing with 10 men for 73 minutes after Collen Warner got sent off. Then again again, the man they were playing without was Collen Warner. And that was just the latest in a long string of games in which Frank Klopas’s charges got the shit kicked out of them. And with the Habs selling out Bell Centre to watch TV it looks like the Impact will be playing in front of their moms and six Ultras.
The Impact are a bad team and getting worse. When FC Edmonton only needs a draw, and we’re talking about the most draw-ish team in the country here, that’s a good sign. But there’s one thing which, even when they’re flipping coaches like Pogs and scouring Serie A for 45-year-old Italians, you can always say about the Montreal Impact: they have a living, beating heart. That heart’s name is Joey Saputo, their greatest weakness and their greatest strength. You saw his tweet, I’m sure, after the Kansas City game, where he stated in cereal-box-approved style that “Our fans deserve better. Changes will be coming, guaranteed.” It’s an old tune but, short-term, in the past it’s worked. Talk all you want about the players tuning Klopas out or the team being pensioners and Jack McInerney; we’ve heard that narrative and seen Impact teams we so casually wrote off coming out with all the fires of Hell lit under their asses in seasons past. Sure, eight times a season Joey does something eccentric, but thanks to him the Impact, alone out of every professional team in Canada, get pissed off.
You don’t want the Impact pissed off. Not when you’re FC Edmonton. Not when you’re anybody this side of Atlético Madrid. There’s still some punch in that old team, a fistful of skill, some diabolical finish, and they don’t need much tonight.
On balance, I think Montreal’s going to win this one and take the tie on the basis of “modest margin and superior team”, but it’s a near-run thing and the Eddies have some advantages. First, the Impact are bad. That’s the easy part. The Eddies are also bad, which is why I remain pessimistic, and Montreal has the Saputo Factor, but a bad team can always find a new way to disappoint you.
Second, Montreal gave its “A” team a good run in that Kansas City game. Brovsky, Ouimette, Mapp, and Bernadello all went 90. Felipe went 70, McInerney went 69. This points to another eleven of mild schmucks along the Blake Smith and Decomposing Patrice Bernier line, which is all to the good for Edmonton. Meanwhile, Colin Miller went with an A- lineup at the seriously-that’s-their-name Indy Eleven. Captain Albert Watson sat out entirely (through suspension). Tomi Ameobi also missed the eighteen. Hanson Boakai was an unused substitute. Neil Hlavaty (45 minutes) got a shorter run. This advantage is tempered by Montreal playing at home while Edmonton was in Indianapolis, but it’s an advantage all the same. The most important of that rested lot may not be Boakai but Watson, who is an excellent centre back for the level in almost every field, but is also physical. If history is any guide, he will need to be very careful to avoid conceding a penalty on some shabby excuse.
Third, Edmonton won that Indy game! 2-1, on a dandy quickfire double by Daryl Fordyce and Kareem Moses (trying to deny Erik Hurtado the title of “Most Implausible Scorer on a Canadian Team That Weekend”). That’s not a thing Edmonton does! FC Edmonton learning how to win on the road is like Happy Gilmore learning to putt. Indy Eleven is winless, with only two draws to their name, but they’re not quite a team of schmucks: everybody will know Brazilian ex-international Kléberson and more people should know dandy Honduran mid Walter Ramirez, who along with Lance Parker and Zurab Tsiskaridze was one of the three good things to come out of Miami FC. Ol’ Mike Ambersley has trundled in goals for more teams than I can count. And the Eddies beat ’em! Away! That, frankly, is a far more improbable feat than that mere “home win over Montreal” ever was.
The street thinks FC Edmonton will park the bus, lump the ball down the field to Jonke and/or Ameobi, and that if any chances come the Eddies way it’ll be through Boakai or Fordyce countering. They’re right. Colin Miller is one of God’s own bus-parkers. Nature imbued him with the power to take any combination of players and have them lumping the ball down to the opposite touchline within ten minutes of kickoff, and that’s in games he’s trying to win, not draw. It’s not even, necessarily, bad tactics. When you’re facing a modest skill deficit but holding onto a lead, the key is to keep the chances down. And, mentally, Montreal is a team that can get frustrated easily. The catch will be making sure the Impact expend energy as quickly as the Eddies do, and that means smart counters and the occasional aggressive sortie to make sure Montreal works for it. It can be done. I’m not betting on it, but it can be done. The trouble is that if Montreal snatches that goal, and Edmonton needs to open up the offense, they run right back into last week’s Hack-a-Jonke without the guarantee of more Boakai brilliance against a defense that now knows what to expect, and without much hope Karl Ouimette will forget how to do a header again.
Then there are the Whitecaps, who are looking to overturn exactly the same deficit as Montreal. But Vancouver is trying to do it against Toronto FC, probably the most talented team in the country this year who is taking this competition sort of seriously.
Here’s the thing. Obviously Carl Robinson doesn’t give a flying fuck about the Voyageurs Cup semifinal. Obviously. All his spin about “oh the kids have deserved it” is just that: if he really thought his young players totally deserved minutes against top opposition then he’d be playing them in the league, not exclusively in elimination Cup scenarios. In the grand story of the 2014 Vancouver Whitecaps, which is the more meaningful game: the home leg of a semifinal or away to the Columbus Crew? And in which game did Robinson run out the best he had? In which game did Robinson give interviews in which he, again, openly discussed which players he’d start? Quite. We’ll see if Robinson sends out the big guns in the final, should the Whitecaps get that far, but for now he’s treating the Voyageurs Cup like friendlies.
Which I would hate a lot more if it wasn’t getting Canadians some much-needed playing time, and if it wasn’t still leaving the Whitecaps with just a shot at victory. Sure, Toronto FC outplayed the Whitecaps Residency pretty hard at BMO Field, but that wasn’t primarily the Canadians’ faults and even that game was fully respectable. Now Toronto is in BC Place with a by-no-means comfortable advantage, and with Bustos, Froese, Piraux, and Farmer away the Whitecaps will be obliged to start an older player or two through sheer attrition. We’ll still see a young crew: Marco Carducci is confirmed to start again in goal, Christian Dean at left back (if he counts as a kid, which he shouldn’t; fuck off, NCAA), and my money says we’ll see Jordan Haynes at BC Place. But there’ll be a few more reservists rather than outright Residency kids.
The FCs have two road wins this year, in Seattle (uh-oh) and Columbus, but neither was exactly a day of glory. In both games Toronto was comfortably outshot, had less than 40% of the possession, and were outpassed by at least a 25% margin. In short, fairly lucky wins. They also got annihilated away by Salt Lake and lost ignominiously in Dallas. Their most recent game was a 2-1 loss at home to New England in which Toronto did not exactly play badly but certainly did little to earn a point.
The Whitecaps even have fatigue problems: Carducci and Haynes both played 90 minutes in a USSDA game in Seattle on Saturday, then Haynes saw 17 minutes for the U-23s in Kitsap on Sunday. Teibert of course got garbage time in Columbus, as did starter-presumptive Nigel Reo-Coker, and I’m sure we’ll see at least one of Kekuta Manneh or Erik Hurtado start up high. Normally the side playing its “B” team has the advantage in fatigue; not so much today, and the use of Carducci and Haynes on the U-18 team when there was really no need is another data point for “the Voyageurs Cup is an afterthought to the coaching staff”.
You gotta like Toronto FC’s chances. (Let me rephrase, Whitecaps fans: you have to think that Toronto FC has better odds of winning the tie.) There remains the Joe Bendik factor. I don’t buy him for a second, I still don’t, and between him and the sketchy Toronto defense they could let Vancouver back into it with a breakdown like the one which gave Vancouver that hopefully-useful away goal last week. They do that sort of thing. With the Whitecaps liable to send out a second-rate offense (no, scoring a beauty against Columbus does not mean Erik Hurtado has suddenly learned how to be a forward), it might be necessary.
Right now I have Toronto and Montreal both going through, which coincidentally would be the result I want least, because I’ve learned by now how the soccer gods like to squeeze my balls.
(EDIT, May 14 10:07 PDT: this article originally asserted that the Toronto – New England game was this past weekend and made assertions about potential TFC fatigue based on that. Toronto in fact had a bye; the NE game was the weekend previous. I knew that, too. Thanks, Duncan Fletcher, for the correction.)
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “Canada M20 setting sights on 2015.” CanadaSoccer.com, May 12, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2014. http://www.canadasoccer.com/canada-m20-setting-sights-on-2015-p156342.
 — Saputo, Joey. “Nos supporters méritent mieux. Il y aura des changements, je vous le garantis. Our fans deserve better. Changes will be coming, guaranteed.” Via Twitter, May 10, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2014. https://twitter.com/JoeySaputo/status/465249666196447232.
 — Timko, Brandon. “Whitecaps FC Residency teams play closely-contested matches against Seattle Sounders FC.” WhitecapsFC.com, May 10, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/05/whitecaps-fc-residency-teams-play-closely-contested-matches-against-seattle-sounders-fc.
 — Martin, Aaron. “Whitecaps FC U-23 draw 1-1 versus Kitsap Pumas.” WhitecapsFC.com, May 11, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/05/whitecaps-fc-u-23-draw-1-1-versus-kitsap-pumas.