By Marc Weber
The Vancouver Whitecaps beat the Austin Aztex 3-2 Wednesday night at Swangard Stadium to keep pace with the Montreal Impact for sixth place in USL-1.
Montreal (10-10-6) beat the Carolina RailHawks 1-0 earlier in the evening, so the Whitecaps (9-9-8) are still one point back of the Impact with a showdown looming at Saputo Stadium next Wednesday.
Midfielder Kenold Versailles and forward Charles Gbeke staked Vancouver to a 2-0 lead, but Jean Alexandre pulled one back for the visitors before halftime.
Gbeke added his second goal, and sixth in four games, to double the lead in minute 65, and Alexandre again made things interesting in the 75th after a brutal defensive play by Lyle Martin.
There was plenty of positive play early from the Whitecaps, but on the night it came in fits and starts and was mixed with sloppy passing and casual defending. Austin were the better team for much of the second half.
Against the second-worst team in the league, it wasn't the kind of comprehensive, consistent performance from Vancouver that will inspire playoff belief in fans.
Expansion Austin deserved credit for playing with the ball — saving everyone from a repeat of Saturday's punt-fest against Rochester — but that strategy also played into Vancouver's hands early.
The Whitecaps opened the scoring 11 minutes in when midfielder Wes Knight had his long throw-in from the right side headed in by a leaping Versailles.
Versaillles was making his first home start — and second all season — with captain Martin Nash sidelined by a hamstring tweak. Heading into the game, he'd only played 88 minutes this season due to a nagging nerve problem in his leg since training camp.
It was Vancouver's fifth league goal scored from a long throw-in, all launched by Knight.
Gbeke made it 2-0 in the 23rd minute. After a neat 1-2 with fellow forward Marcus Haber, Gbeke basically ran over Haber to finish from 10 yards out.
The goal came just seconds after Jay Nolly preserved the lead with a well-positioned save off Jean Alexandre's booming shot from the top of the box.
Alexandre would get his goal, however, and it was one that caused Nolly to bury his head in his gloves. In the 34th minute, the Aztex forward fired one in along the ground from about 30 yards out.
The Whitecaps' keeper redeemed himself with a great save off Ryan McMahen's long blast in the 61st minute, and Gbeke — now tied for the league goal-scoring lead — netted his 11th of the season shortly thereafter.
Alexandre, who's joined Austin on loan from MLS side Real Salt Lake, stripped Martin of the ball in the Whitecaps box in the 75th minute and calmly rolled his second goal past Nolly. It was the kind of blunder that will have Caps coach Teitur Thordarson that much more eager to get veteran Geordie Lyall back to full health.
NOTES: Wednesday's crowd was 5,081, which snapped the Whitecaps' streak of nine straight sellouts. . . . Vancouver has a short turnaround, playing in Minnesota on Friday. Nash will make the trip, as will talented striker Marlon James (groin), who is expected to be fit for the Montreal game. . . . The Whitecaps handed out their women's team awards on Wednesday, including: Jodi-Ann Robinson (MVP), Randee Hermus (top defender) and Nikki Wright (newcomer).
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