For a neutral, Saturday night’s Western Conference tilt between Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Sporting Kansas City may have been the best MLS game of the season.
Unfortunately for Whitecaps FC (13W-9L-3D), the result was a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in a match that saw Sporting KC (11W-4L-7D) erase a 3-1 deficit within the final 10 minutes in front of their boisterous home crowd at Sporting Park.
Kekuta Manneh bagged a first-half brace and Pedro Morales scored his second free kick goal in as many games, and third of the month, but it just wasn’t enough to end SKC’s 16-match home unbeaten run in all competitions. As a result, the ‘Caps drop to second in the Western Conference – one point back of LA Galaxy and two ahead of Sporting KC.
Aside from calling upon rookie centre back Tim Parker for the suspended Kendall Waston, Carl Robinson kept the same starting lineup from Vancouver’s recent wins over Seattle and RSL – Matias Laba was deemed fit to play after picking up a knock Wednesday against Montreal.
SKC also fielded a strong lineup – the only difference being that most of them also played in a midweek U.S. Open Cup fixture. On the other side, the ‘Caps had to deal with a heavy week of travel, but Robinson was able to rest eight starters midweek.
And it seemed to pay off early, as the visiting ‘Caps came out flying.
Their first chance came just six minutes in, when Manneh picked out Octavio Rivero with a nice ball over the top. The Uruguayan striker muscled off his defender and got in behind but couldn’t beat the rapidly approaching Tim Melia.
Just three minutes later, Whitecaps FC took the early advantage.
The play started when Rivero and Manneh combined to force an SKC turnover in midfield – a common theme in the first half. Vancouver went the other way with a 4-on-1 but Manneh took care of business himself, finishing from inside the box with his left foot.
While the ‘Caps continued to look dangerous on the counter throughout the half, there were a few nervy moments around their own goal.
In the 17th minute, Paulo Nagamura got in behind but David Ousted did well to cut off the angle and come up with the chest save. Vancouver’s all-star goalkeeper was called upon again in the 21st minute, this time denying Krisztian Nemeth from close range before Jordan Harvey delivered a diving, goal-saving block on the rebound.
The rest of the half belonged to Vancouver.
And the visitors doubled their lead in the 41st minute, when Manneh calmly headed in a pinpoint cross from Steven Beitashour, who found acres of space down the right. The assist was Beitashour’s fifth of the season, surpassing Manneh and Morales for the team lead.
The ‘Caps were in control at halftime, but this one was far from over.
SKC pulled one back in the 53rd minute on a short corner. After a scramble in front of goal, Kevin Ellis headed one home at the back post to make it a game.
From there, Vancouver had a pair of clear-cut opportunities from Manneh and Rivero but Melia came up big for SKC on both occasions. Whitecaps FC did manage to get their third goal in the 75th minute, when Morales curled in another spectacular free kick to make it 3-1.
Against all odds, however, SKC scored three goals in the final 10 minutes – one from Dom Dwyer and two from Nagamura, including a stoppage-time winner, to complete the comeback victory.
Saturday’s match was the final meeting between Vancouver and SKC this season. And although Whitecaps FC dropped both encounters, you won’t find many complaining if these two Western Conference heavyweights meet again in the playoffs.
Next up for Whitecaps FC is another massive Western Conference tilt with FC Dallas a week from today at BC Place. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. PT and tickets are still available.
Budweiser Man of the Match: Kekuta Manneh
Referee: Juan Guzman