The Vancouver Whitecaps 2023 MLS regular season came to a close on Saturday, as they drew LAFC 1-1 at BC Place on Decision Day, in a game that featured two missed Whitecap penalties from Ryan Gauld.
With that result, as well as those around them, it means that the Whitecaps finished sixth in the Western Conference, meaning they’ll play the third-place team, none other than this exact same LAFC side, in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Opponent is locked in 🔒
— x – Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) October 22, 2023
Because of that, not only was this meeting between the two sides the fourth of the season, but thanks to the news that they’ll be meeting in the playoffs, this was also the first of what could be up to four straight meetings between the two, as they’ll play at least two more games with the first round being a best of 3 (of which the schedule is not known as of writing).
And that’s good news for both teams, as this match ended up being quite feisty, meaning that there could be some scores to settle over the course of that playoff series.
Especially for the Whitecaps, who were defeated 6-0 on aggregate by LAFC in the quarter-final of the Concacaf Champions Cup earlier this season, this is also a perfect chance to exact revenge on them for that series.
Given that Vancouver also missed a chance to sweep the regular season series in this game, after defeating LAFC 3-2 on the road in their first MLS meeting of the season, they’ll look to make up for that in this playoff series, as well.
Yet, in a sense, it’s fitting that these two teams meet again, as they were already quite familiar with each other even before this string of 2023 meetings.
It’s important to remember that LA’s goalkeeper, Maxime Crépeau, played on the Whitecaps from 2019 to 2021 before asking for a trade at the start of 2022, while LA’s assistant coach Marc Dos Santos, was ‘Caps head coach over that same span (although he left in 2021, instead of 2022). And if you want to go deeper, the Whitecaps were very interested in bringing in veteran Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini before he chose to sign in LA last summer, so there’s that link, too.
Then, on Vancouver, Triston Blackmon is a former LAFC player, as well, adding another connection between the two clubs to the list.
Because of that, there should be no shortage of fireworks across a playoff series between the two, with both teams providing a sneak-peek of that on a day that featured some intense coming togethers, a chorus of boos for Crépeau, and much more.
Returning to that game, however, LAFC got off to a bright start to proceedings in this one, as they pushed to finish their season on a high note.
As a result, they generated a flurry of chances to start the game, as Carlos Vela tested Yohei Takaoka from a tight angle, before Denis Bouanga, the league’s leading goalscorer heading into today, had a good look from inside of the box that would also be denied by Takaoka.
At the other end, the Whitecaps finally pushed forward in the 13th minute, and were nearly rewarded for it. After a good run into the box, Richie Laryea went down after some contact, in what looked like a potential penalty.
And after a VAR review, the referee would eventually agree with that sentiment, pointing to the spot.
There, up stepped Ryan Gauld, who having scored all nine of his previous spot kicks for the ‘Caps heading into this game, seemed like a sure bet to open the scoring on this attempt.
Unfortunately, his success from the spot would come to an end there and then, as after some good mind games from Crépeau, he guessed the right way with his dive and made a fantastic save against his former teammate.
🧱 Maxime Crépeau said NO. 🧱 pic.twitter.com/ZyL0PZ8OM1
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 22, 2023
Eager to make up for that missed chance, though, Gauld tried to set up Javain Brown on the subsequent corner, with the Jamaican’s header sailing wide, before Gauld attempted a shot from distance a few minutes later, just sending a dangerous shot wife of a scrambling Crépeau.
Unfortunately for him, that missed penalty would soon prove to be costly, however – LAFC would then find the game’s opening goal in the 34th minute.
Of course, it’d be Bouanga, too, who’d fire a left-footed shot from well outside of the box, finding the bottom corner with ease to make it 1-0 with his 20th of the season to extend his lead atop the Golden Boot race (which he’d eventually win by three goals).
With that, it’d leave the Whitecaps with a big task, knowing that a win could be so pivotal in terms of their potential playoff opponent.
Because of that, it was going to be interesting to see what kind of response Vancouver could muster up as the game went along, especially after they saw LA nearly make it 2-0 early on a great chance from Mateusz Bogusz early in the second half.
Thankfully for Vancouver, however, that Bogusz near-miss turned to be the catalyst they’d need to find their legs again.
Off the back of that, they’d get back into the math with a very well-worked equalizer in the 58th minute.
After a good run down the flank by Richie Laryea, who arguably had his best match in a Whitecaps shirt yet, he found Ali Ahmed with a perfect ball towards the back post, and the young Canadian would do well to meet it with a creative and acrobatic finish to put the ball into the top corner.
Continuing his great recent run of form, great to see this confident finish from Ali Ahmed, who slots home a huge goal for #VWFC. Perfect cross from Richie Laryea, too
— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 22, 2023
All of a sudden, that gave the Whitecaps new life, with a winning goal once again back in reach.
Because of that, after a flurry of chances, including a near own-goal from LA, the Whitecaps would then get another chance to right some earlier wrongs in the 72nd minute.
Continuing his strong game, Laryea would do well to win yet another penalty, making a great run into the box, giving Gauld a chance for redemption against Crépeau. Given that before this game he’d only missed two penalties prior in his career, it felt like he’d be destined to score, too.
So even as Crépeau and his teammates tried more tactics to try and distract Gauld, with Crépeau earning a yellow for his anticts, it felt like Gauld would find the back of the net with his shot.
Or so most thought, as it turned out that Crépeau would really indeed just have Gauld’s number on the day, as the ‘Caps captain would send this penalty square off the woodwork and out, lacking his usual confidence on his attempt.
Understandably, that would seem to return the nerves into the ‘Caps, who seemed to understand that they’d just missed a great opportunity to grab the lead.
Despite that, they still had time to shake that off and still find a late winner, while still being wary of LA, who reminded them of their danger in the last minute of regular time, as Mario Gonzalez forced a fantastic save out of Takaoka on a breakaway.
From there, however, the Whitecaps late push yielded nothing, leaving both teams to split the spoils, much to their frustration.
And for Vancouver, it means that they’ll enter the playoffs quite frustrated with themselves, as they won one and drew four of their last five games, which meant that they missed out on top 4, and the extra possibility for home playoff games that would’ve come with it.
Nothing would’ve changed on that last point had they won this game, to be fair – they needed help around them that didn’t come anyways, meaning that this matchup would’ve occurred even if they won, but it’ll make those four draws feel that much more frustrating.
The good news, however, is that draws aren’t the worst thing heading into the playoffs, as you can advance and win with that, although that also hinges on the ability to convert penalties, which may be a sore subject after this game for Vancouver, who have otherwise lost both of the other shootouts they’ve had this year.
At the same time, this promises to be a stiff test against an LAFC side that did win last year’s MLS Cup and Supporters Shield, it’s important to remember that, meaning that the Whitecaps are going to need to be at their best to even draw games against them, let alone baet them.
The good news for #VWFC? That might have been Richie Laryea's best game in a Whitecaps shirt, as he was everywhere, and had some great moments in the attack, including his assist and 2 PK wins
Heading into the playoffs, that's exactly what you want to see from him
— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 22, 2023
As they showed in this game, they can certainly do that on their day, but they’ll now need to buckle down and do that in the playoffs, which is a different animal.
Yet, that’s the beauty of them, so to that, the message will be simple from the team, the players and the fans – bring it on.