The storyline heading into last night’s Whitecaps playoffs game tried to reference, in whispers that did not actually invoke it by name, giant-killing in the English FA Cup.
Small teams beat big teams in knockout games all the time, the argument went, using examples from MLS history but calling to mind “the magic of the Cup” used as the selling point in England.
As we know now, that did not happen. Despite a third-minute goal so good it couldn’t be real from Darren Mattocks, the LA Galaxy scored twice in four minutes and took their place in the Western Conference quarterfinal. The Whitecaps were left with the knowledge that they came close, but now only have next year to plan for, and fans now have to wonder what this means in the context of the season.
The self-doubt-defying hope that maybe the ‘Caps could get something out of the fixture was run-of-the mill. But the elation of going up early—and staying ahead ten minutes later, and at half time, and with a half hour left—was glorious. Conceding the lead was like taking a punch, but it didn’t force the same loss of hope that a rout would have done. The reality set in, but the long-term vision seemed promising: maybe we can stop this from happening next year.
That, of course, is the other reality of the FA Cup. In that competition, fortunes vary year to year. One year, you might make a deep run or topple a Champion’s League club or lose in the first game to Cheltenham. Any year you don’t win it, you live with elimination and dive into the challenge next year, feeling the dare that you have a path to the title.
This perspective can be hard for expansion teams. Each year—especially in North America—gets measured in terms of impact or progress; We proved we could make the playoffs, we proved people would come, etcetra. We proved we belonged.
But what this result asks from you is the grand bargain every sports team wants to make with its fans: to get them to stay along for the long haul, not to just come out and see a game, but stick around.
The defeat was a punch in the gut. The whole last end of the season was a punch in the gut. Come back next year, maybe we’ll make the finals, or win the Cup or miss the whole thing altogether. Sometime you’ll get your satisfaction. Come along for the ride.
The match itself was kind of dull, but okay: It’s a shame Jay DeMerit got injured, but Martin Bonjour acquitted himself fine. Darren Mattocks showed his quality. Brad Knighton saved the Whitecaps over and over, and proved the decision to start him was correct. In the climatic miss that broke the Whitecaps’ concentration for just a crucial moment, Barry Robson and Kenny Miller both intensified the scrutiny over their midseason acquisitions.
LA were firmly in command, with 69 per cent of possession and nine corners to Vancouver’s zero, but the Whitecaps didn’t get blown out; they proved both they can make the playoffs and look not too far out of place. So progress as the goal is over; now the franchise is getting into the year-on-year fight. Maybe they can get a little bit farther next year.
I’ll stick around to find out.
Stats after the jump.