By Marc Weber
Thursday's USL-1 semifinal first leg turned out to be as much a mental test as a physical one for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
They can claim superiority in both facets after a 2-1 win over the first-place Portland Timbers at Swangard Stadium that sets up a dramatic second leg Sunday at PGE Park.
Seventh-place Vancouver dominated much of the opening half. They led 1-0 on Charles Gbeke's header goal.
But instead of leaving for the locker room to rapturous applause, it was referee Geoff Gamble leaving to lusty boos — and a pair of projectiles.
Gamble awarded Portland a controversial penalty kick seconds before the halftime whistle that Ryan Pore cooly converted.
Whitecap Lyle Martin was adjudged to have handled the ball at the top of the box on a frantic series that ended with Brian Farber shooting the ball high into the defender, who was a yard or two away.
It seemed more a reaction from Martin to protect his face than an action carrying intent. That it came so late in the half, and after so much one-way traffic, could have sunk the Caps mentally.
Instead, they charged out after the restart and Gbeke played set-up man in the 49th minute, finding Marcus Haber for another great header finish.
But as much as head coach Teitur Thordarson will lament Gamble's decision, he'll be upset with a lack of finish that could come back to haunt his club.
Vancouver could have been up 2-0 in the first half. Luca Bellisomo fired Martin Nash's cross over the bar in the sixth minute and Haber missed a pair of chances by inches.
Second-half substitute Marlon James enjoyed two quality chances but his finish isn't where it was mid-season, before a third leg injury.
Portland finished first during the regular season at 16-4-10 and scored more goals than any team (45). They were an impeccable 6-1-8 on the road, too, but Thursday perhaps showed the rust of coming off a bye week.
Or perhaps Vancouver is simply peaking at the perfect time.
Sunday's game is 4 p.m. on Fox Sports World Canada.
In the other semifinal, No. 5 Montreal beat No. 3 Puerto Rico 2-1 at home.
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