Canwest News Service
VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps rolled with the punch and finally delivered a knockout blow to the resilient Montreal Impact on Sunday.
Playing without standout goalkeeper Jay Nolly, who was red carded in Friday's semifinal opener for allegedly throwing a punch at Impact player Antonio Ribeiro, the Whitecaps rallied from a 1-0 first-leg deficit to defeat Montreal 2-1 on aggregate in front of 4,992 fans at Swangard Stadium.
And if advancing to the United Soccer Leagues First Division final wasn't enough cause to celebrate, the second-seeded Whitecaps - title holders in 2006 - learned after the game that they will host the top-seeded Puerto Rico Islanders in the final next Sunday. Puerto Rico didn't meet the league's minimum requirements for hosting.
"It's the best time of the year and it was our best game of the year, for sure," said Eduardo Sebrango, whose close-in finish from a Charles Gbeke pass in the 41st minute put the Whitecaps ahead 2-0. "I'm so happy, so happy. And happy for Nolly. He worked so hard during the season, gave us a chance. He got a bad call and we did it for him."
Jeff Clarke opened the scoring four minutes earlier with a goal as spectacular as it was surprising. The defensively-minded veteran twice cut toward the middle of the field, then ripped in a shot from just inside 30 yards that beat Montreal goalkeeper Matt Jordan.
"Sometimes that goes in Row Z and sometimes it goes top corner," Clarke said of his strike. "I'm just happy it came in a game like this, but if it wasn't going to be me it was going to be someone else.
"I think it started (Friday) night as soon as the red card came (to Nolly). We could have blamed the refs, but we battled."
The Impact failed to put much pressure on Nolly's replacement, 24-year-old Tyler Baldock, who was making his professional start. When Montreal did come calling in the final 20 minutes, Baldock and the defence was up to the task. Wesley Charles just beat Impact midfielder Tony Donatelli to a dangerous ball in the box in stoppage time, and Donatelli missed from 20 yards out seconds later.
For a month people have been waiting for Montreal's hectic schedule to catch up to them, but the Impact pulled out several improbable wins, including last week's comeback quarter-final victory against the Seattle Sounders.
On Sunday, Montreal's 14th USL-1 and CONCACAF Champions League game since Sept. 2, and third in five days including a trip to Honduras, they looked out of gas.
"Obviously we don't feel good but we didn't have enough to win," said Impact head coach John Limniatis. "I don't think you blame that (hectic schedule) but certainly when you're second to the ball some fatigue has come in.
"The four or five guys that we had that didn't play the last game should have brought more energy and didn't."