Lightning in a Bottle: Vancouver Whitecaps ride electric last 30 minutes vs Fire to MLS is Back Round of 16

The Vancouver Whitecaps took on the Chicago Fire in a pivotal MLS is Back Group B matchup on Thursday, eventually winning by a score of 2-0. Here is our recap from what was an intriguing match, for a multitude of reasons.

Even after the storm cleared, the Vancouver Whitecaps made sure to bring the thunder. 

In one of the most surprising moments of the MLS is Back tournament, the Whitecaps pulled off an unlikely 2-0 victory against the Chicago Fire on Thursday, becoming the latest team to qualify for the knockout stages at this Orlando tournament. 

With their backs against the wall, and a depleted lineup, it felt like any victory would be huge at this point, but it felt hard to imagine the ‘Caps getting the 2 goal victory that they needed to qualify for the knockout stages down in Orlando. 

But then, after a surprise 90+ minute weather break due to a typical Florida storm at the 60th minute of the match, the ‘Caps took that lightning, put it in a bottle, and came roaring out in the last 30 minutes of play, snatching the victory that they needed in order to advance. 

Now, all of a sudden, the ‘Caps can dream again, as they look to chase the MLS is Back crown. 

It won’t be easy, as some good opposition still awaits them, but as MLS has shown year-after-year, in a knockout game anything can happen, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next for Vancouver. 

To start the game, the Whitecaps made 3 changes from their lineup last time out against the Sounders, as Theo Bair, Ryan Raposo and Derek Cornelius slotted in for Yordy Reyna, David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome, allowing them to shift to a more defensive 5-3-2. 

That extra defensive solidity made a quick difference for the ‘Caps, who started the game conservatively, as Russell Teibert made a nice goal-line clearance off of a corner in the 3rd minute, giving the team a temporary boost. 

Despite that solidity, the Fire carried the balance of chances early on, as they found a way to get into some dangerous areas around the Vancouver backline. 

The Fire’s DP striker Robert Beric was especially dangerous for Chicago, as he came close with a 10th-minute strike that went just wide, before doing well to force a nice Thomas Hasal save from a tight angle in the 19th minute.

But aside from those early chances, there wasn’t much else in what eventually proved to be a quiet first half. The ‘Caps snatched at a couple of half-chances, while the Fire didn’t do much to test Hasal, who looked comfortable in the Vancouver goal. 

To round off the half, the Fire got probably their best chance of the first 45 minutes, as Alvaro Medran, who was among the game’s early standouts, played a spicy ball across the box from the right of Hasal, but the young keeper did well to get a palm to the cross and stop what looked to be a sure Chicago back post tap-in. 

For Vancouver, there most notable moment would probably be when Jhesser Khmiri dragged his knee in the grass, forcing him to come off earlier than anticipated, making the ‘Caps switch back to their preferred 4-3-3, with winger Cristian Dajome coming in for the Tunisian centre back. 

At half time, it was far from a perfect game for Vancouver, but they had so far done what they needed to do, which was to avoid conceding that crucial first goal. They had not done much offensively, which was worrying considering that they needed 2 goals to advance, but it was hoped that the 2nd half could bring more offensive juice, as the ‘Caps started to push for more goals. 

Things didn’t get easier for them after the restart, however, as the Fire came out scorching hot to start the second stanza. A looped ball across the box found Przemyslaw Frankowski at the back post in the 46th minute, and he put a good header towards goal, but he was denied by the post on his effort. 

And after a nice penetrating run from Cristian Dajome created a potential penalty debate in the 50th minute, as he appeared to be taken down in the box, Chicago continued to push. 

Beric came close in the 54th minute, as his shot stung Hasal’s hands from outside of the box, before Gaston Gimenez sent a teasing left-footed effort towards goal in the 56th minute, but his shot sailed just over the crossbar. Soon after, Fabian Herbers came close, but he sailed his right-footed strike just over the goal as well.

But unfortunately, as things started to heat up, the weather started acting up, as some ominous storm clouds sailed over the pitch at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. As a result, the referee called a temporary halt to the match, with the rain starting to pour down, giving both teams a 2nd half time, in a sense. 

For Vancouver, it was both a blessing and a curse, as they had just thrown all of their offensive chips on the table, having brought on Yordy Reyna, David Milinkovic and Cristian Gutierrez, all moves done to give the ‘Caps the offensive juice to push for the 2 goals that they needed. 

With the break, it gave them extra time to sort out their offensive strategy, but you did wonder if they were starting to gain some momentum before things took a pause. 

After nearly 2 hours of waiting, the game would eventually return, however, giving both teams an opportunity to end this game out on the pitch. Given the implications that this match has for both these two teams and some other 3rd placed teams, it was positive to not see the game called off, giving things a chance to be decided out on the pitch.   

And boy did the break prove to be beneficial for the Whitecaps, as they seemed to have captured some of that storm energy and used it as fuel, as they came out flying after the restart. 

In the 66th minute, Ali Adnan, who had been moved out to the wing with the insertion of Gutierrez, latched onto the ball and played a perfect forward pass to an onrushing Yordy Reyna, who took a touch and rounded Chicago’s goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm, giving him an empty cage to slide the ball into. 

All of a sudden, Vancouver had 1 of the 2 goals they needed, and it looked like some magic was in the air, as Vancouver looked a much better team after the break. 

That would pave the way for a surprise second, which would then come less than 5 minutes after the first. Ali Adnan won a header on the left wing, flicking the ball forward to Reyna, who found a pocket in between the Chicago midfield and defensive line, and the Peruvian played a quick ball forward to an onrushing Cristian Dajome, who slipped behind the Fire’s defence. 

From there, 1 on 1 with Kronholm, Dajome would make no mistake, as he slid the ball through his legs and into the goal, giving the ‘Caps the lead that they needed to pull off the unlikely victory. 

Despite their surprise lead, things would be far from over, however, as the Fire ramped up the intensity. As the game delved into a stylistic matchup more akin to a rugby match, Chicago started to pressure the Vancouver defence, who were starting to bend. 

They didn’t break though, as the Fire came close, first with a Beric strike that went over in the 77th minute, then with a Medran strike that rattled the crossbar in the 83rd minute. 

It was there where everything nearly changed for Vancouver, who reacted slowly to that rebound off of the bar. CJ Sapong was first to it, surrounded by two ‘Caps, and he somehow pushed the ball into the goal, seemingly giving the Fire the all-important goal that would save their tournament. 

Luckily for Vancouver, however, VAR would come to the rescue, as it was revealed that Sapong had used his hand to direct the ball goalbound, giving the referee sufficient reason to overturn the goal. 

With that break giving them wind in their sails, the ‘Caps would coast the rest of the way to victory, as the backline held strong, giving Vancouver their first clean sheet of MLS is Back and 2nd total in the 2020 regular season. 

Against the odds, they had somehow gotten the 2-0 victory that they needed to get through to the Round-of-16 at MLS is Back, giving them a lifeline that most surely didn’t expect them to have after 2 rough games to start the tournament. 

It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, and sometimes in this sport, that’s all you need. Can they take some of this magic and conjure it up in the next round, in what appears to be a clash with either Sporting KC or Toronto FC? Who knows, but they’ve gotten a ticket to the dance, and that can be enough sometimes, especially in tournament soccer. 

After a tough start to the tournament, the ‘Caps had learned from their earlier mistakes, defended a lot better as a unit and got the chances they needed to win, and it paid off. Had they executed this game plan against San Jose, another match in which they led 2-0, they wouldn’t have been in this position, but when they needed it most, they did so, so you can give them credit for that. 

Men of the Match: Thomas Hasal and Derek Cornelius

(HM: Ali Adnan, Yordy Reyna, Ranko Veselinovic)

Derek Cornelius defends a corner against the Fire on Thursday (Matthew Stith/MLS)

We’ve never given away the MOTM award to more than 1 player, but considering how crucial these pair of young Canadians were towards keeping the clean sheet, it’s only fair to do so today. 

In goal, Hasal was excellent on his debut, as he was cool, calm and composed, a far cry from what you’d typically expect from a young goalkeeper. 

He was aggressive in coming off of his line, but he also made the stops he needed to, including some pivotal punches at the end of the match. 

If Vancouver is going to have any hope of going far in this tournament, having more performances like that is going to be huge, especially with Maxime Crepeau out for the rest of the competition.

Meanwhile, just in front of him, Derek Cornelius was a rock for the ‘Caps, as he was very solid at the back throughout this game. 

After losing his starting spot on opening day, he came in against the Fire and didn’t miss the beat, as he was always at the right place at the right time defensively. 

For Vancouver to have any hope at advancing from the Round-of-16, they’ll need a strong defensive performance from their backline, with Cornelius likely to play a big role in that happening. 

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Thomas Hasal

Thomas Hasal looks on against the Fire on Thursday (Matthew Stith/MLS)

In the double swoop, Hasal was also our player to watch today, and he delivered, with his clean sheet against the Fire surely putting itself in ‘Caps lore. Great game from the youngster, as he got what feels like the first of many victories in a Whitecaps strip. 

Stats of the Match:

There were a few noticeable stats from this game, so we’ll share some of them. 

First, it’s the play of Hasal, whose strong performances have so far resulted in him not yet conceding a goal through 100 minutes of play, as he enjoys a strong start to life in the Vancouver goal. 

In the other net, however, life isn’t looking as great for Kenneth Kronholm, who had a nightmare tournament for Chicago. He’ll want to have this one back…

But then again, if the ‘Caps are displaying this kind of proficiency up front, maybe Kronholm can rest a little easier. The Whitecaps have not had the prettiest tournament from an offensive standpoint, but for whatever reason, they’ve made it work, despite missing some of their most clinical finishers up top. 

Heatmap of the Game:

Again, the Whitecaps went for a masterclass in being efficient, and it showed. They bunkered deep, and got the result they needed.

It would be nice to see them play with more controlled possession, but considering they have an absence list that’s nearly in the double digits now, they did what they had to do to win. 

At this point, considering how young this team is, the more they can get out of this tournament, the better, as long as they don’t wear down their players too much. 

Disappointment of the Match:

But before the lightning struck at the end of the match, fans who woke up at 6 AM had to sit through a pretty quiet 60 minutes of play before the delay hit, much to the chagrin of those watching. 

AFTN sums it up with their tweet, as many went to go recuperate the sleep lost due to this early wake-up. 

Now let’s hope that those people did eventually wake up from those naps, because if there was a time to forget to get back up, this wasn’t it. 

Good luck charm of the Match:

While he didn’t factor into the match itself, there’s no doubt that Jonathan Sirois was an important piece for the ‘Caps in this one, as they didn’t have to worry about potentially throwing Ali Adnan in goal. 

After seeing the good luck that Sirois has brought to both the Impact and the ‘Caps now, Vancouver will surely like to extend his 1-day loan a little further, now. 

Looking Forward:

The Whitecaps will continue their MLS is Back tournament on Sunday, either at 5:30 PST against Toronto FC, or at 8:00 PST against Sporting Kansas City. Either way, it’s far from an easy matchup, but after their win today, the ‘Caps will feel that they still have more to give. 

It wasn’t the blueprint you’d want to use to qualify from a tournament, but they did what they needed to, which considering the state of their roster, feels like a big victory right now. 

At this point, thanks to this result, it feels like the ‘Caps have turned their rating in this competition from utter disaster to solid experience, all thanks to 6 minutes of play. 

So now, it’ll be curious to see what happens. Knowing that they are massive underdogs against Toronto and Kansas, will we see the Whitecaps come out and surprise? Or will they fall back to earth?

We find out on Sunday. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs either:

Toronto FC, Sunday, July 26th, 2020, 17h30 PST


Sporting KC, Sunday July 26th, 2020, 20h00 PST

Cover Photo by : Matthew Stith/MLS

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