Man down in both legs, Whitecaps lose to worthy winners
By Marc Weber
The Vancouver Whitecaps proved in these USL-1 playoffs what they had been preaching all season long: they are a very good team.
But not as good as the Montreal Impact. And certainly not playing 10 on 11.
In a USL-1 final that featured early controversy and plenty of early offence, the Impact prevailed 3-1 -- 6-3 on aggregate -- to win their first title since 2004 in front of more than 13,000 fans at Saputo Stadium on Saturday.
For Vancouver -- a seventh-place club that was engulfed in a midseason struggle for points and harmony -- it was their third final in four seasons.
"We were able to fight through a lot and make it here, which is a great achievement," said goalkeeper Jay Nolly, battling tears. "We fell short and it hurts. But Montreal's a really quality team."
Too good to beat in a two-leg final when you play 100 minutes -- plus stoppage time -- a man short.
In the first leg, captain Martin Nash was sent off in the 51st for a tackle on forward Roberto Brown. Nash was suspended for the finale, which was bad enough news.
When central defender Shaun Pejic was sent off in the 29th minute Saturday, it gutted the squad and sealed its fate as runners-up.
Former Whitecap Tony Donatelli stepped up to the spot and finished strong to Nolly's right. Pejic stepped off the field and the Caps were finished emotionally.
Vancouver sagged. Montreal surged.
Joey Gjertsen deftly touched in Brown's pass, and Brown added his own exclamation mark -- the goals coming just two minutes apart.
Ansu Toure's header just before the break was of little consolation to Vancouver.
"Down a man and down a goal -- down two [on aggregate] -- on one play," Nolly said of the penalty kick. "It was a huge blow. We tried to fight back."
Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson called the red card to Pejic "ridiculous." He disputed the penalty, too, saying Pejic had cleared the ball before wiping out Brown, though he admitted to not yet having seen a replay.
Impact coach Marc Dos Santos -- who posted a picture of the league trophy in the Impact locker room when he took over from Nick De Santis four games into the season -- saw it differently.
"It was a clear penalty, plus a clear red card," he said. "Mentally, Nash and Pejic made two bad decisions, and in the end, that's not our problem. We deserve to be champions."
It's hard to argue with that.
Montreal lost to Vancouver in both Nutrilite Canadian Championship games early in the season. But the fifth-place Impact won all three league meetings and were convincing in the final matchup long before Nash was sent off.
Their midfield was superior. Their experience showed.
Impact players dressed for the game had 15 USL-1 titles between them heading into Saturday; Whitecaps players had five.
And though Vancouver was defending champion, only two players who started that '08 final -- Nolly and midfielder Justin Moose -- started Saturday.
"They were sharper on the ball, they played better ... that's what it boils down to," said Caps' forward Marcus Haber, the league's rookie of the year. "And we're always going to be chasing, down to 10 men. It's been a good season, but we're all dejected right now."
Saputo Stadium and dejection went hand-in-hand for Vancouver this season.
It was here, on June 18, in the pounding rain, they looked on in disgust as the Impact lost 6-1 to Toronto FC, knocking the Whitecaps out of a CONCACAF Champions League spot.
On a sunny Saturday, they all too briefly felt in control of their destiny.
There was no payback. Only a flashback to the disappointment. And the consolation of a bright future.
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