Mouloud Akloul NCC
Bob Frid

Whitecaps FC win thrilling Nutrilite Canadian Championship semifinal over Montreal Impact

Playing the decisive second leg of their 2011 Nutrilite Canadian Championship semifinal series, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1W-0L-1D) earned a dramatic 1-1 extra-time draw with Montreal Impact (0W-1L-1D) on Bell Pitch at Empire Field on Wednesday evening. With the result, Whitecaps FC won the two-match semifinal series 2-1 on aggregate.

Holding a one-goal aggregate lead after last week's first leg in Quebec, Whitecaps FC were forced into 30 minutes of extra time by their North American Soccer League (NASL) opponents after Ali Gerba struck a penalty late in the second half to make it 1-1 on aggregate, with both teams having scored an 'away goal' each in the series. With the semifinal in the balance, Whitecaps FC pulled off the heroics in the second period of extra time, as centre back Mouloud Akloul scored the decisive winner to take the Blue and White into the two-match championship final. The draw also extends Whitecaps FC's undefeated run in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship to nine matches (4W-0L-5D).

Also on Wednesday, Toronto FC defeated NASL side FC Edmonton 1-0 in their semifinal, second leg, match for a 4-0 aggregate success. That sets up a championship final series for the Voyageurs Cup between Canada's two existing Major League Soccer clubs in Whitecaps FC and TFC. The first leg will be played at Empire Field on Wednesday, May 18, while the decisive second leg is set for Toronto's BMO Field on Wednesday, May 25.

"These games against Montreal are always exciting, and tonight's match wasn't any different," said Whitecaps FC head coach Teitur Thordarson. "I feel that we deserved to go through, though we were a little bit lucky in extra time, as they had two very good chances to score again. This also occurred in a period of the match where we took the initiative to try and finish the series off, which in the end, worked out for us. During the 90 minutes, I thought we played well and had control of the game, as Montreal didn't really have any goal chances before their penalty. While it was a draw tonight, I'm satisfied with the result because we did the job in Montreal and we're through to the final."

Thordarson made two changes to the side that started last weekend's MLS defeat at Columbus Crew. Canadian youngster Russell Teibert returned to play on the left-hand side of midfield by replacing Wes Knight, with Davide Chiumiento moving over to the right flank. In attack, Eric Hassli also returned to partner teenage striker Omar Salgado up front. Impact head coach Marc Dos Santos, meanwhile, started former Whitecaps FC players David Testo and Zurab Tsiskaridze in his line-up in East Vancouver.

On a fine spring night for soccer on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, a passionate crowd of 16,611 saw a typically close affair between these two Canadian rivals, with the midweek contest ending in high drama after it was extended to extra time, with the visitors hitting the post twice before the end.

With the aggregate margin being a single goal, the Impact went about testing the Vancouver backline with a series of dangerous free kicks in the first half. Fortunately for the 'Caps, the Impact's set-pieces resulted in goal kicks for goalkeeper Jay Nolly. Montreal's best chance before the break came from open play, with winger Leonardo Di Lorenzo forcing Akloul into a fine defensive clearance of the Argentine's cross from the left, as the French defender was put under pressure by Gerba.

Instead, much of the first-half action took place at the other end, as Whitecaps FC looked to score an important second goal. On 20 minutes, Impact goalkeeper Bill Gaudette made a routine save to Salgado's goal-bound header after a flowing Vancouver move saw right fullback Jonathan Leathers play in a dangerous first-time cross to the United States U-20 international. Four minutes later, a Chiumiento free kick from the left nearly found Akloul and fellow Swiss international Alain Rochat in front of Montreal's goal.

As the home side started to take control of the contest, the Impact found the notebook of match referee Dave Gantar. Montreal centre back Kevin Hatchi was issued a yellow card for a foul on Chiumiento, while Impact midfielder Amir Lowery was booked for a strong challenge on Hassli.

'Caps centre backs Akloul and Greg Janicki had the final opportunities before halftime, with both sides still in the same position as they started Wednesday's second leg at the break.

With Hassli feeling the effects of Lowery's challenge from the opening half, Camilo replaced the big Frenchman in attack, as the home side went about pressing their lower-division foes. Teibert had two fine opportunities for the 'Caps, but on each occasion, the winger's efforts flew just wide of the target.

On 69 minutes, Shea Salinas replaced the hard-working Salgado for his home debut, and his influence on proceedings was immediate. Three minutes after coming on, the former San Jose Earthquakes and Philadelphia Union man forced Testo into conceding a corner with his knee after getting on the end of Chiumiento's byline cross at the far post.

As time ticked down, a Montreal goal would alter the course of the series. On 83 minutes, referee Gantar awarded Montreal a penalty after adjudging Rochat to have pulled down Gerba in the Whitecaps FC box. The Canadian international stepped up to take the spot kick and slot it high in the back of the net for a 1-0 Montreal lead on the night, with both sides level in the series with an 'away goal' each at 1-1.

The goal caused some tension amongst the home crowd and the 'Caps players, who had seen their aggregate advantage disappear. The Impact, meanwhile, were in the ascendancy and created two fine chances to win the series before the end of the 90 minutes. Lowery just missed the target with a header from a Montreal corner on 87 minutes, while Gerba forced Nolly into a big save with a chance on the break in the 90th minute.

The final whistle from referee Gantar meant a further 30 minutes was needed to determine the winner of this series, with Thordarson using his last substitution to bring on Nizar Khalfan and partner Camilo in attack.

Vancouver maintained their pursuit of a goal in extra time, with captain Terry Dunfield having two fine chances on 94 and 96 minutes respectively, while Chiumiento struck a free kick over the bar just before the end of the first extra-time period.

The drama then increased in the second extra-time period, with Gaudette saving well from a Dunfield strike on 107 minutes, while Montreal were very unlucky not to score again after Janicki inadvertently deflected Philippe Billy's cross from the right off the inside of his own post and away three minutes later.

The match was destined to go either way, and undeterred by their lack of finish all evening, Whitecaps FC created the series-defining moment from a free kick near the edge of the Impact box on 113 minutes. Rochat's curling set-piece was well saved by Gaudette, but the rebound fell for the awaiting Akloul, who struck home from close range to make 1-1 in the match and 2-1 to Vancouver on aggregate. It was the defender's first goal of the season.

While smiles may have been restored by Whitecaps FC, another Montreal goal at this late stage would have won them the series on the strength of two 'away goals'. As the match entered another minute of time added on, Gerba had the hearts of 'Caps fans in their mouths after making an unmarked run into the Vancouver box to meet a well-struck Anthony Le Gall cross from the right. With the entire net at his mercy, Gerba's downward header struck the outside of the near post and went wide.

Mercifully, referee Gantar blew his final whistle to bring this pulsating Canadian Championship match to an end, with Whitecaps FC moving to meet TFC in the final, while the Impact can only think of what could have been an upset at Empire Field.

Whitecaps FC will now turn their attentions back to MLS matters, as they meet Chicago Fire at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, on Saturday night. Montreal will also play MLS opposition in their next game, as they host New York Red Bulls in a friendly match at Stade Saputo next Wednesday night.

Scoring Summary:
83'  - MON - Ali Gerba (penalty kick)
113' - VAN - Mouloud Akloul (Alain Rochat)

Match Stats:
Shots: Vancouver 24 - Montreal 9
Shots on Goal: Vancouver 9 - Montreal 3
Saves: Vancouver 2 - Montreal 8
Fouls: Vancouver 18 - Montreal 23
Offsides: Vancouver 1 - Montreal 5
Corners: Vancouver 9 - Montreal 3

26'  - MON - Kevin Hatchi
30'  - MON - Amir Lowery
59'  - MON - Zurab Tsiskaridze
100' - MON - Ali Gerba

Vancouver Whitecaps FC
18.Jay Nolly; 25.Jonathan Leathers, 14.Greg Janicki, 50.Mouloud Akloul, 4.Alain Rochat; 20.Davide Chiumiento, 7.Terry Dunfield, 28.Gershon Koffie, 31.Russell Teibert (16.Nizar Khalfan 90'); 17.Omar Salgado (22.Shea Salinas 69'), 29.Eric Hassli (37.Camilo 45')

Subs not used: 1.Joe Cannon, 2.Michael Boxall, 12.Jeb Brovsky, 19.Blake Wagner

Montreal Impact
1.Bill Gaudette, 21.Philippe Billy, 5.Nevio Pizzolito, 99.Kevin Hatchi, 77.Zurab Tsiskaridze; 8.Luke Kreamalmyer (28.Idriss Ech Chergui 80'), 12.Amir Lowery, 7.David Testo (23.Antonio Ribeiro 75'), 11.Leonardo Di Lorenzo (30.Pierre-Rudolph Mayard 75'); 17.Anthony Le Gall, 10.Ali Gerba

Subs not used: 22.Evan Bush, 2.Hicham Aaboubou