Milbrett, Armstrong find the net - The Province

Jim Jamieson

Victory in season finale lets Vancouver host playoff game

It isn't often you see an uninjured starting goalkeeper leaving the game in the 20th minute.

But that line in the scoresheet was all you had to know about the outcome of Sunday night's W-League game between the Vancouver Whitecap women and the Real Colorado Cougars.

In the final regular-season contest for both clubs -- and a game dripping with playoff implications for each -- Real Colorado had an early goalkeeping meltdown that ended up costing them the game.

After the radioactive dust had settled, the Whitecaps were up 2-0 in the 16th minute and went on to a 2-1 victory that allows them to host Seattle in the W-League Western Conference final at Swangard on Saturday. A Colorado win would have put the Cougars into the playoffs against Vancouver, but the loss ended their season.

The Whitecaps' leading scorer, Tiffeny Milbrett, started the horror show for Real Colorado keeper Brianna Schulze.

After running on to a long ball from midfielder Karla Schacher, Milbrett was in all alone at the left side of the penalty area and her attempted pass to teammate Julie Armstrong at the far post sailed over the Cougars goalkeeper and into the goal.

"It was supposed to be a cross," said a chagrined Milbrett, who was coming off a two-goal, one-assist performance in a win over Fort Collins. "Maybe it caught the keeper off guard, I'm not sure. It just floated in just enough that she thought it was going to be a cross, as well. So I just got lucky, but we'll take it because we needed two goals to beat this team."

Just three minutes later, Schulze was in the spotlight again when she couldn't pull down a routine cross from Kaylyn Kyle and the resulting loose ball was hammered in by Armstrong. Four minutes later Real Colorado head coach Brian Haynes replaced Schulze with backup Katie Bell. Haynes defended his No. 1 goalkeeper, who he said was playing on a sprained ankle.

"My goalkeeper has been hurt, but you have to play the players who got you there," said Haynes. "It wasn't because she made a bad play or anything like that. I wanted to make sure I guard her confidence."

After being dominated by Vancouver the rest of the first half -- outshot 8-2 -- Real Colorado came back in the second and launched 13 shots at Whitecaps goalkeeper Erin McNulty. Real Colorado's Nicole Lukens hit the crossbar in the 55th minute and then beat McNulty with a long blast from the right side in the 88th. McNulty then robbed Lukens on a close-in chance in the 90th minute before Vanessa Mais hit the crossbar in extra time.

"I think people got tired," said McNulty of the second half. "We've been on the go for quite a while now with the U-20s. I think we're just starting to get used to each other."

The Whitecaps can take solace in making the playoffs after a topsy-turvy season in which they were denied the majority of their national team players to Olympic preparation and the core of the Under-20 squad for other stretches while they competed in a CONCACAF qualifying tournament. In 12 regular-season games, the 7-2-3 Whitecaps fielded a mind-boggling 39 players.

"It's great to be in the playoffs again," said Milbrett. "Forget the roster stuff. Last year not getting in was a huge blow. To go from winning the championship to not making the playoffs was a very emotional swing."

"I thought we'd have enough more of a challenge this year making the playoffs with the young group that we had, so it feels pretty good," said Whitecaps head coach Bob Birarda.

Birarda said strikers Jodi-Ann Robinson and Amy Vermeulen -- named as alternates to the Canadian Olympic team -- will not be available to the Whitecaps for the playoffs.

© The Vancouver Province 2008