Eric Hassli Richard Eckersley
Bob Frid

Whitecaps FC held to first-leg draw by Toronto FC in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship final

In the first leg of the 2011 Nutrilite Canadian Championship (NCC) final, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1W-0L-2D) were held to a disappointing 1-1 home draw by Major League Soccer rivals Toronto FC (2W-0L-1D) on Wednesday evening.

Eric Hassli gave the 'Caps a deserved lead in a second half that the Blue and White dominated with several quality goalscoring chances on Bell Pitch at Empire Field. TFC, however, claimed a valuable away goal when Brazilian striker Maicon Santos scored again in Vancouver to earn The Reds an important away result ahead of next Wednesday's decisive second leg at Toronto's BMO Field. The draw extends Whitecaps FC's undefeated record in the NCC to 10 matches (4W-0L-6D) and their undefeated home record versus TFC to five games (2W-0L-3D).

The result leaves this two-match series in the balance, though TFC have the advantage in their quest to defend their Voyageurs Cup title with that all-important away goal. Whitecaps FC will need to negate Santos' first-leg strike by scoring at BMO Field next week.

"I’m disappointed with the result, but I am proud of the guys," said Whitecaps FC head coach Teitur Thordarson. "I think we played extremely well. I thought we dominated the game for 75 minutes, and it’s unbelievable that we didn’t score more goals. In a way, we made a little mistake on their goal, there is no doubt about that, but I feel like the draw was undeserved. For the second leg, I think our chances are quite good, even if they have an away goal. If we manage to come out with an effort like this today, then I definitely think we will be able to score in Toronto."

The importance of winning this year's Canadian Championship for the 'Caps was underlined by the strength of their starting line-up for the first leg, as Thordarson made seven changes from the starting XI that played at New England Revolution in MLS last weekend. Greg Janicki, Jonathan Leathers, and Alain Rochat returned to Vancouver's backline, while 'Budweiser Man of the Match' Davide Chiumiento and Terry Dunfield were back in the 'Caps midfield. Camilo partnered Hassli in the home side's attack.

It was a gorgeous night for soccer on Canada's west coast, and in keeping with the sunny weather at the start of the game, Whitecaps FC looked a well-rested side on the pitch. They were full of energy in the first half and very dangerous in attack after the break. Knowing the importance of getting an early lead, Dunfield struck an early shot just wide of TFC's far post after taking a forward ball from Chiumiento on four minutes.

The Blue and White had more attacking intent during the first half, and on the half-hour mark, Camilo had Vancouver's best chance before the break. The Brazilian took a forward ball from Chiumiento on the left flank before making an incisive run towards the middle of the TFC box. His low right-footed strike brought a fine diving save from Reds goalkeeper Stefan Frei before TFC defender Dan Gargan did well to clear the rebound for a corner, as Shea Salinas put pressure on the left fullback.

Playing in their usual 4-3-3 formation, TFC struggled to make the type of passing connections they were looking to achieve before halftime. Yet, in Dutchman Nick Soolsma, TFC had a threat on the right flank. He forced Whitecaps FC goalkeeper Jay Nolly into two important saves with fierce strikes on 34 and 45 minutes respectively.

While it was fair that both clubs were goalless at halftime, Whitecaps FC came out in the second half and stamped their authority on the match by creating no less than 10 quality goalscoring chances. This included hitting the woodwork on two occasions after the restart.

The home side had a strong shout for a penalty on 47 minutes when Camilo beat TFC centre back Adrian Cann to the ball on the edge of the box, with the former 'Caps defender clearly taking the South American forward down with his mis-timed challenge. Match referee Silviu Petrescu, however, waved away Vancouver's appeals. A minute later, Hassli was unlucky to strike the base of the TFC post with a fine turn and shot before captain Jay DeMerit agonisingly put a Chiumiento cross right across the face of TFC's goal, with Camilo unlucky not to redirect the ball home on the goalline.

The pressure from Vancouver seemed relentless, and The Reds struggled to keep their hosts at bay. On 53 minutes, Camilo hammered a powerful strike off the crossbar from the edge of the TFC box, while on the hour mark, Chiumiento and Camilo neatly combined to set up the Swiss playmaker for a chance in the box, but his strike flew high and wide of the target.

The attacking efforts of the 'Caps merited a goal, and that reward finally came on 64 minutes, as Hassli scored his fourth of the season with a fine left-footed strike near the edge of the TFC box. Chiumiento's forward break allowed the midfielder to find the big Frenchman and his finish flew past a sprawling Frei for a 1-0 Vancouver lead. It was Hassli's third goal against The Reds this season, with all three strikes coming at Empire Field.

There was delight and some relief that Whitecaps FC claimed the aggregate advantage after dominating the second-half action. Yet, to their credit, TFC began to push forward themselves, knowing an away goal may prove decisive in this series. After creating a couple of chances, The Reds stunned the home crowd with a fine equalizer from Santos on 73 minutes. Soolsma's cross from the right found the TFC captain at the near post. After getting in front of his 'Caps marker, Santos' exquisite flick slipped past Nolly and into the far corner of the goal to make it 1-1. It was the Brazilian's third goal in this year's competition.

The match and the series was back in the balance, and looking to use the remaining time of their home leg, Whitecaps FC created more chances through two of their second-half substitutes. Omar Salgado had a glorious chance shortly after coming on for Hassli, as the youngster rolled a shot wide of the far post on 76 minutes. Fellow substitute Nizar Khalfan then forced Frei into a save on 88 minutes after the home side broke forward from possession off a fine tackle by Dunfield on TFC midfielder Julian de Guzman.

The final chance also fell to the 'Caps in the three minutes of time added on, as Janicki's high ball forward found Rochat in the TFC box. Though he out-jumped his opponents to the loose ball, the Swiss international's header hit the side-netting before the match ended in stalemate.

With no MLS action to prepare for this Victoria Day weekend, Whitecaps FC can focus their full attention on next Wednesday's second leg in Southern Ontario. TFC, meanwhile, travel south to face Colorado Rapids in MLS action on Sunday before hosting Vancouver next week.

Scoring Summary:
64' - VAN - Eric Hassli (Davide Chiumiento)
73' - TOR - Maicon Santos (Nick Soolsma)

Match Stats:
Shots: Vancouver 17 - Toronto 11
Shots on Goal: Vancouver 7 - Toronto 5
Saves: Vancouver 4 - Toronto 5
Fouls: Vancouver 14 - Toronto 14
Offsides: Vancouver 2 - Toronto 2
Corners: Vancouver 8 - Toronto 6

52' - TOR - Dicoy Williams
68' - VAN - Gershon Koffie
77' - VAN - Terry Dunfield

Vancouver Whitecaps FC
18.Jay Nolly; 25.Jonathan Leathers, 14.Greg Janicki, 6.Jay DeMerit, 4.Alain Rochat; 22.Shea Salinas (31.Russell Teibert 83'), 7.Terry Dunfield, 28.Gershon Koffie, 20.Davide Chiumiento; 37.Camilo (16.Nizar Khalfan 78'), 29.Eric Hassli (17.Omar Salgado 74')

Subs not used: 1.Joe Cannon, 8.Wes Knight, 12.Jeb Brovsky, 50.Mouloud Akloul

Toronto FC
24.Stefan Frei; 27.Richard Eckersley, 31.Dicoy Williams, 12.Adrian Cann, 8.Dan Gargan; 23.Jacob Peterson (26.Matt Gold 33'), 6.Julian De Guzman, 22.Tony Tchani (16.Oscar Cordon 45'); 18.Nick Soolsma, 29.Maicon Santos, 7.Joao Plata (20.Ty Harden 76')

Subs not used: 30.Milos Kocic, 3.Nana Attakora, 10.Alen Stevanovic, 11.Nathan Sturgis