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Whitecaps dull for 70, inspired for 20, in loss to Crew

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Omar Salgado... scored his first career MLS goal
The final 20 minutes of the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 loss Saturday in Columbus — which saw the visitors throw everything they had at Crew keeper Will Hesmer in a wild attempt to pull another game out of the fire — wasn’t enough to erase 70 minutes of indifferent play.

Don’t let the Whitecaps’ frantic attempt to come back from a two-goal deficit fool you; the Caps came into this game with a very negative mentality.

Through the first seven MLS games of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ season, there has been a constant. The games have been loose, with plenty of good looks on goal — at both ends of the park.

But, with only one win to show for all of the attractive soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps went into Saturday’s date in Columbus with a decidedly different look. Columbus hadn’t given up a goal at home all season. Vancouver was without its leading scorer, Eric Hassli, due to suspension. Atiba Harris, who had been fantastic holding up the ball, is out as he recovers from knee surgery. So, strikers Omar Salgado, making his first MLS start, and Camilo, laid back, refusing to press the Crew defenders. The Whitecaps laid back, allowing the Crew to have the lion’s share of the ball. The goal? To remain tight in their own end of the field; allow Columbus to have possession, but give up little in terms of scoring chances.

It worked over 45 minutes of dull soccer. Accept the fact that you likely won’t create much, so play to keep the home team off the scoresheet. Hope for a break, but he happy with a 0-0.

But, the problem is, asking Vancouver to hang on defensively is like the MLS version of asking Arsenal to defend, defend, defend. The teams don’t have the personnel to do that, especially with Vancouver missing both regular central defenders, Jay DeMerit and Michael Boxall (even though, by now, DeMerit has missed so much time it is rather unfair to call him a “regular”). It all came undone early in the second half. Defender Jonathan Leathers, attempting to break up a Crew attack, tried to steer a ball towards centre back Greg Janicki. But the ball went nowhere near Janicki; keeper Jay Nolly scrambled to smother it, but caught the legs of onrushing Crew striker Emilio Renteria instead. Renteria converted the penalty kick and, by the 59th minute, had scored again, finding a gap to exploit in the middle of the Whitecaps defence.

But, after Columbus went up 2-0, the Whitecaps went back to the team we’ve grown accustomed to seeing so far this season. They pressed, moving the ball forward with a real sense of urgency. And, by minute 69, the visitors had a goal back. Alain Rochat made a great run up the left side, left the ball for Terry Dunfield, who popped a perfect cross for Salgado to head home — giving the 2011 No. 1 pick his first MLS goal.

After that, the only question was: How did the Whitecaps not tie the game?

Just minutes after the Salgado goal, Nazir Khalfan, taking a perfect low cross from Rochat, looked to have the equalizer in the bag, but his far-post tap-in was cleared off the line thanks to a desperate dive from Crew defender Josh Gardner.

Soon, it was keeper Will Hesmer’s turn to play hero, as he made a sensational diving effort to deny Salgado’s try for a second goal.

But Hesmer could do nothing but watch — relieved — as Jeb Brovsky’s 89th-minute low drive from just outside the box skidded inches wide of the post.

The lesson here is a valuable one. The Whitecaps simply don’t have the makeup, the defensive steel, to play a footballing version of rope-a-dope. It is a team that needs to push, to open up the game. Once down 2-0, the Whitecaps were able to do what no other visiting MLS side has achieved so far this season at Crew Stadium — score. Not only that, but the final 20 minutes saw the Whitecaps enjoy a period of sustained pressure. In fact, only some frantic clearances and a diving save from Hesmer denied the Whitecaps the equalizer they so deserved.

So, next time the Whitecaps face what looks to be an impossible road assignment, they’ll start off as a team that has nothing to lose rather than one that’s scared to lose.

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