Second-leg win sets up showdown with Puerto Rico
Special to The Sun
Vancouver Whitecaps skipper Jeff Clarke praised his side's resilience after they came from behind to beat the Montreal Impact and book a place in the USL First Division Championship final.
Clarke struck a magical 37th-minute goal to set Vancouver on the way to a 2-0 second leg win at Swangard Stadium on Sunday, Eduardo Sebrango adding the crucial second in the 41st minute.
The Whitecaps were defensively solid on the day, but the team's talisman said the performance of the 10 men in a 1-0 loss in Montreal on Friday -- after goalkeeper Jay Nolly was sent off -- was more significant.
"It started the other night as soon as the red card came," he reflected. "We could have [made] so many excuses then, but we didn't. We battled, kept it at 1-0 and that was the turning point."
Of his stunning goal Sunday Clarke said: "If it wasn't me [getting a crucial goal] it would have been someone else, it was just my turn. It felt good when it left my foot. The ball was bobbling in the field there and it just knuckled in. Sometimes it goes in Row Z and sometimes top corner."
And he added that home advantage for the second leg had been huge.
"If you look at the last 5-6 years, Swangard has been a fortress for us -- [and playing the] second leg at home made the difference [tonight]."
The Whitecaps enjoyed much of the early possession, but didn't get behind the Montreal defence until mid-way through the half.
Alfredo Valente's 23rd-minute drilled cross was crucially cleared by Stefano Pesoli, before Sebrango glanced a header from Ethan Gage's measured centre just wide.
Against the run of play, Mauro Bello tested goalkeeper Tyler Baldock -- in for the suspended Jay Nolly -- from long range, before the home fans were brought to their feet by Clarke's moment of magic.
Picking up possession just inside the Montreal half, he eluded a couple of challenges before unleashing a swerving shot which was destined for the top-left corner the moment it left his right boot.
The Whitecaps skipper wheeled away in celebration, the relief and release of getting his side back on level terms clear for all to see.
Four minutes later it got even better for the home side. This time Martin Nash picked out Charles Gbeke with a raking long ball and the forward beat Pesoli to the byline, before squeezing a cross back into the six-yard box.
With predatory instinct, Sebrango pounced at the near post, getting ahead of his marker to prod the ball past Matt Jordan.
Just after the break Vancouver should have gone three up on the day, Nash threading a ball through to put Sebrango in the clear. However, the Cuban slightly hesitated and his eventual shot was deflected for a corner.
It then became a game of attack and counter-attack, Montreal pushing for an aggregate equalizer, Vancouver content to keep control play.
In the dying minutes substitute Takashi Hirano headed Valente's cross against a post, before Montreal replacement Tony Donatelli flashed a shot narrowly wide against his former employers in overtime. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff, but the home defence held strong and the Whitecaps were back in the USL First Division championship final -- which will be played at Swangard next Sunday (4 p.m.).
The finale was due to be played in Puerto Rico next Saturday, as the Islanders are the No. 1 seed. However, they didn't meet the criteria for hosting a final and so it was switched.
WHITECAPS 2 IMPACT 0
Whitecaps win the playoff series 2-1 on aggregate
vs.Puerto Rico Islanders
at Swangard Stadium
© The Vancouver Sun 2008