Timbers Toppled: Vancouver Whitecaps kick off 2021 MLS season with big 1-0 win over Portland Timbers

The Vancouver Whitecaps kicked off their 2021 season on Sunday, as they took on the Portland Timbers at ‘home’. Here’s our match report from that one, as the ‘Caps picked up a timely goal before cruising to a 1-0 win. 

It was the dream start. 

Facing off against a Portland Timbers team where they were seen as the underdogs, the Vancouver Whitecaps snatched a huge 1-0 win to kick off the 2021 MLS season on Sunday, all thanks to a big 49th-minute Lucas Cavallini goal, combined with a clutch clean sheet defensively. 

After having dealt with harsh predictions and a gloomy outlook from outsiders for much of the week, it was a huge win for the Whitecaps, who for the first time under head coach Marc Dos Santos, managed to take all 3 points away from a season opener. 

They might have done so without the presence of their fans, as usually would’ve been the case in most season openers, but for Dos Santos, that made it all the more important to win this for them, as he made sure to speak about that after the game, immediately highlighting how they miss their presence during a time like this. 

“I really wanted this win for the Vancouver fans, and everybody that is (at) home and not being able to be at the stadium not being able to be with us,” Dos Santos told reporters after the game. “You know when you play Portland, you can only remember all the fans in Vancouver, and that that one is for them.”

As for the game itself, it was a strong performance from the undermanned Whitecaps, who were missing over a half-dozen regulars due to a mix of visa issues and injury concerns. 

Against a Portland side that is fresh off of a big win in the CONCACAF Champions League, where they beat Honduran side Marathon 7-2 across two legs, the ‘Caps stepped up big at the right time, allowing them to grab all 3 points. 

For Dos Santos, to see his team play without so many regulars and still look good is a big positive, as it finally shows that his identity is starting to become ingrained in his roster with each passing day, with this victory being the latest sign of that. 

“It means that the message of what we want to be about for everyone in the roster has become clearer and clearer,” Dos Santos said after the match. 

With a good chunk of players set to return this week, the ‘Caps can feel confident in their chances to make some noise this season, as long as they stick to their game plan and battle hard, as they mostly did versus the Timbers. 

Now, heading into a stiff test next Saturday against a Toronto FC side reeling after a 4-2 loss versus rivals CF Montreal, they’ll have to keep up that momentum, but it was certainly good to see them hit the ground running in this one. 

Shifting to the game itself, the Whitecaps started out positively, as Cristian Dajome quickly found himself in space down the left side, and he nearly made Portland pay. He whipped in a dangerous low cross from just inside the box with his left foot, but it was intercepted before it reached Lucas Cavallini at the back post, getting sent back out of the box with a clearance. 

Not long after, though, Portland sent a dangerous warning shot via Yimmi Chara, who came into this game in form after bagging a hat-trick in the second leg of the Champions League tie versus Marathon. After a nice pass from Felipe Mora, he turned Andy Rose inside out before tucking a ball into the top corner, putting the Timbers up 1-0. 

Or so he thought. 

Luckily for the ‘Caps, Mora was deemed to have been offside in the build-up, denying the Timbers of the lead, but it was an early sign of the threat that they offered on the counter. 

Soon after, the ‘Caps started to find some life, as Deiber Caicedo stung Steve Clark’s gloves with a powerful low strike from outside of the box. Not to be outdone, Portland’s Diego Valeri then found himself in space in the Vancouver box, but he failed to test the goalkeeper with his strike, keeping the game tied. 

And Portland continued to build off of that momentum, as Valeri continued to cause problems for the ‘Caps defence. Just after the 30th-minute mark, he found himself in a 1v1 down the right side, and he whipped in a dangerous cross, one that bounced off of Rose and onto the crossbar, but unfortunately for Portland, it would stay on the wrong side of the bar and squirt out. 

Nearly immediately after, Dairon Asprilla found some space at the edge of the box, and he decided to have a go at Maxime Crepeau’s goal, but the ‘Caps goalkeeper stood tall to the shot from the Portland attacker. 

Portland would then continue their strong end to the half in the 45th minute, as well, nearly breaking the deadlock right before the break. After a great Valeri ball in on a set piece, Yimmi Chara hit the bar with a looped header, and Asprilla just couldn’t redirect the ensuing rebound, sending a bicycle kick well over the bar from point-blank range. 

So for Vancouver, it was more than ideal that they made it to halftime without conceding, as they started to really white knuckle the wheel a bit at the end of that half. Overall, it was a strong half from the ‘Caps, as they kept 55% possession, and had a few good spells with the ball, but they just didn’t do enough with it offensively, which combined with Portland’s growing offensive threat, was starting to cause a bit of worry at both ends. 

But the ‘Caps didn’t seem worried about that at all, as they started out the second half with an early bang, quickly throwing that slow end to the first stanza out of their thoughts. 

Andy Rose nearly found a goal in the 50th minute, as he did well to control a Russell Teibert cross before slipping in a low shot, but he would be denied by the post before the ball went out for a corner. 

On the ensuing corner, however, is where the ‘Caps found their opener, as Cristian Gutierrez whipped in a peach of a set-piece, one that found Lucas Cavallini at the back post, and the ‘Caps DP #9 made no mistake with his finish, thumping home the header for a 1-0 lead. 

For the ‘Caps, the goal came at a perfect time, no doubt, but you had to be happy that it was Cavallini, as well, as he managed to avoid the early goal-scoring drought that plagued him in 2020. With the ‘Caps needing his goals if they’re to do anything this season, to see him get off to a hot start is exactly what they’d want to see, so they’ll be happy to see him get off of the mark already. 

“With Cava(llini), we all know that he’s in a good moment and he’s able to have these moments, he’s a forward with quality, I mean when he’s confident, he’s an important, a very important player for us,” Dos Santos said after the game.

From there, things got really interesting, as the ‘Caps tried to hang on, while the Timbers pushed. Rose was forced to make a really nice block not long after the 70th minute, before Gutierrez made a similarly important challenge a few minutes later, keeping the ‘Caps lead alive. 

Then, at the other end, the ‘Caps found salvation. A wide set piece from Michael Baldisimo found Andy Rose at the penalty spot, and he flicked it on for Cristian Dajome, who buried the chance to double the ‘Caps advantage. 

Or at least he thought he did. 

Much like with the earlier disallowed Portland goal, the goal would be chalked off for an offside, as Jake Nerwinski was determined to have been in an obstructive and illegal position on the goal, allowing VAR to rule it out. 

It was a very confusing call, as Andy Rose also committed a handball offence on the play, which should’ve also cancelled the goal, but MLS’s official decision was that the offside was the reason why the goal didn’t stand, denying the ‘Caps of a commanding lead. 

That didn’t matter to them, however, as they cruised the rest of the way, buoyed by a strong couple of late saves by Crepeau in goal, including one on a five-alarm chance from Felipe Mora at the end, allowing them to snatch all 3 points. 

In terms of the overall performance, it would be hard to describe it as a Picasso, but the battle effort was strong, the defence was stingy and the offence came to life when they needed to, making it a good victory. 

There are still a few concerns to be weeded out tactically, especially in terms of how the ‘Caps generate chances, which is certainly something the team will look on going forward. 

“Not enough, not enough,” Dos Santos said of his team’s offensive play. “I felt that we were able to build up well in the phase one and the second phase, but then when we got into the last third, like I said, we were missing, you know, the key pass, the key run, we could have done better there.”

But with it still being early in the season, you’d have to overall quite happy with what Vancouver did in this one, because as Dos Santos said, there is still work to be done going forward. 

“But again, there’s still a lot of margin for us to progress as a team,” Dos Santos said.”

He later added: “This is only a process, and we’re not done building it yet.”

Man of the Match: Cristian Gutierrez

Cristian Gutierrez in action for the ‘Caps in September of 2020 at BC Place (Keveren Guillou)

But to move to a look at some of the individual names, Cristian Gutierrez was excellent for Vancouver against Portland, and he earns our Man of the Match award, as a result. 

He was very active at both ends of the pitch, assisting the winning goal with a great corner, but he also did some damage defensively, including a lunging block right towards the end of the second half that denied what seemed like a sure goal. 

That strong play was reflected in his stats, as he completed 4 tackles, had 2 interceptions, won 5 out of 8 of his ground duels, and completed 89.7% of his passes, showing his two-way impact. 

For the ‘Caps, that’s huge, as Gutierrez showed the capability of more than being able to step up for Ali Adnan if needed, and even made a claim to sometimes start over the Iraqi with his play. He has to keep it up, of course, but it was certainly good to see him step up, especially with Adnan likely out for a couple of weeks due to visa issues., giving Gutierrez a good run in this squad. 

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Deiber Caicedo

Diber Caicedo takes on Jake Nerwinski at Whitecaps training last month (Keveren Guillou)

Elsewhere, it was an interesting performance for our BTSVancity player to watch, Caicedo. 

He was a bit quiet, but considering that it was his first game in MLS, against a solid Portland team, that was understandable, as he seemed like he was still figuring out the pace of play of the league as the game progressed. 

That didn’t stop him from being completely uninvolved, however, as he had 1 shot, 1 key pass and completed 27 out of 27 of his passes, which are certainly decent numbers for his debut. 

As he’s shown throughout preseason and even in this game, there is plenty to be excited about, he just needs to adapt, but with it still being early days, you feel like it won’t be long until he gets up to speed. 

If what he’s shown so far is to be any indication, he promises to be a promising and exciting player for this team to lean on going forward, and nothing he did on Sunday suggested otherwise.

Heatmap of the Game: 

Bringing back a favourite segment from last year, the ‘Caps didn’t do all that bad in the heat map department in this game, which was surprising to see.

It certainly helped that they finished with 52% possession, but they mostly kept Portland out of dangerous areas defensively, and controlled most of the pitch offensively. 

There is a glaring hole in the final third (#10, anyone?), but that is also something that should be fixed with time, so hopefully we can start to see them improve their penetration in the final third as soon as next week against Toronto. 

xG Plot of the Game: 

Moving onto the fancy stats, the Whitecaps did pretty well in the Expected Goals (xG) department in this game, at least defensively, that is, limiting Portland to 1.2 xG. Considering score effects, as Portland spent 40 minutes chasing the game against a tired Vancouver team, you can’t complain about that sort of defensive output, so kudos to the men at the back for the ‘Caps in this one. 

As a team, the Whitecaps didn’t create much offensively, but they also did pick up a few chances via set pieces, which aren’t favourably represented in these sorts of plots, so it’s not completely indicative of their offensive situation. 

If they can build off of what they showed defensively, and continue to grow their offensive game, that could be a good recipe for Dos Santos to tinker with going forward. 

Concern of the game: 

Lastly, to highlight a slight negative, you do have to wonder about the ‘Caps substitution plan in this game, as they only made 2 changes, both coming in the 92nd minute. 

With a very young bench, one that barely crested an average age of 20, it was always going to be hard for Dos Santos to trust them in this game, but seeing that it was the first match of the season, and how tired some of his starters were, you would’ve liked to see him show more confidence there. 

As competition in the squad increases, Dos Santos should increase the participation of his bench, which is fair, but it would’ve been nice to see some of the youngsters get a long run out in today’s game. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, the Whitecaps will get back to work this week before getting set to play their rivals, Toronto, in Florida next Saturday, in what will be an unusually early game. 

It won’t be easy, as TFC will be hungry after an opening day loss, which coupled with the dogged midday Florida humidity, will make it really tough on the visiting Whitecaps. 

But after this win, confidence will be high in this Whitecap group, and understandably so, so hopefully they can channel that in their next game. 

In a long MLS season, picking up as many points as you can early on in the year can only be seen as a good thing, so it’s good to see the ‘Caps up and running to start 2021. 

As they head into their third year under head coach Marc Dos Santos, they’ll want to prove that they’ve finally taken a step forward after two dark years, and that’ll only come with a strong start to the season. 

They’ve taken the first step in that quest in this game, it’s now just up to them to turn that into a bit of positive momentum, starting next Saturday against TFC. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24th, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT. (Exploria Stadium, Florida)

Cover photo via: MLS/Craig Mitchelldyer

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