“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘heartbreaking’ in French? But say it with a Mexican accent.”
Tigres UANL are the most dominant Mexican team over the last decade and a force in continental play for as long as professional Canadian clubs have been competing in CONCACAF. They showed the Vancouver Whitecaps just why on Wednesday night scoring an 88th-minute equalizer to hold the Caps to a 1-1 draw.
Relocated to Starlight Stadium on the outskirts of Victoria because of the BC Home & Garden show at BC Place, the Vancouver Island Whitecaps let a victory slip away in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup tie with the Monterrey-based side.
Related read: Vanni Sartini hails Starlight Stadium, Whitecaps confident of winning in Mexico after Tigres draw
Protecting a 1-0 lead for the better part of an hour, substitute Sebastian Berhalter conceded a free-kick on the edge of the 18-yard box with less than five minutes to play, which is something you just can not afford to do when André-Pierre Gignac is on the pitch. The Frenchman hit a spectacular strike past an outstretched Yohei Takaoka to deny Vancouver what looked like a solid victory.
It was a heartbreaking way for the night to end, and will be a frustrating ferry ride back to the Lower Mainland as the Whitecaps rue their many missed chances to have buried their visitors.
Moments before Gignac’s stunner, Brian White missed a golden opportunity to double Vancouver’s lead when he watched a stellar Pedro Vite cross sail passed him and through the six-yard box. The American looked to the sky with a shocked smile on his face. Little did anyone know that Gignac had some magic in store to wipe the smiles off every Whitecaps backer Wednesday night.
Vancouver could hardly have asked for a better start.
In his first game in a Whitecaps shirt, new designated player Damir Kreilach did exactly what Vanni Sartini and Axel Schuster hoped he’d do when they signed him; capitalize on balls from midfield that Sérgio Córdova didn’t convert last season. The 34-year-old finished a perfect ball in the 32nd minute to put the Whitecaps in front on Vancouver Island and give the Caps fans in attendance something to cheer about as loud as the travelling Tigres fans.
Kreilach played provider in the second half when the Whitecaps looked to have taken the lead before the hour mark as the former RSL man found White in the box. The American tapped home what looked to be his first goal of the season, sending the Whitecaps supporting fans in attendance into a frenzy. But a lengthy VAR check deemed the goal to be offside, reducing the Caps’ advantage back to a single goal and prompting OneSoccer play-by-play man Adam Jenkins to bluntly note that “Tigres get a lifeline that quite frankly they don’t deserve.”
The Mexican side didn’t look like a side capable of scoring a goal themselves for much of the night. In a rare moment where Tigres caught Vancouver in transition, Ozziel Herrera hit arguably Tigres’ best chance of the night but curled his effort wide of Takaoka’s goal. The Japanese goalkeeper likely would have gotten a piece of it had the ball been six inches to the left.
Tigres may have been surprised by how many chances the out-of-season Whitecaps had on Wednesday night. Ryan Gauld hit an exceptional ball from the very top of the box with the outside of his left foot just before the half an hour mark that very nearly picked out the top corner of Nahuel Guzmán’s net.
The Caps could’ve found themselves in front in the 17th minute after some exceptional passing through what was a tight Tigres defense, but perhaps Kreilach isn’t yet used to the quality of pin perfect passes that Gauld can provide because the former RSL man was caught ball-watching in the six-yard box and missed a golden opportunity to stab home Vancouver’s opening goal. Who knows how the match may have played out had he bulged the old onion bag so early on that fast turf.
Fafa Picault also made his Whitecaps debut, coming off in the 70th minute with Sartini hoping his side would not only preserve their lead but add to it. Just three minutes after coming on, the former Nashville SC man lead a brilliant counter attack but neither Gauld nor White could find the open shot the wanted and by the time the ball fell to Vite, the anxiety of the ball pinging around the box led to the Ecuadorian blasting his effort wide of the net.
All in all, it was a positive start to the year for a Whitecaps team missing some key pieces with pre-season just newly underway. The Caps didn’t get sucked into a physical CONCACAF circus, which a frustrated Tigres were trying to bait them into for the last 18 minutes. The Caps kept their shape while protecting their lead and looked much more like an in-season opponent than the Mexicans probably expected.
It was also such a unique experience and one that the 5,700 in attendance won’t soon forget, as MLS writer Charles Boehm so brilliantly articulated on Twitter.
Given the depth of talent that Tigres had at their disposal Wednesday night, from Mexican internationals Herrera, Diego Reyes, Alberto Angulo, Ontario-born and one-time CanMNT-eligible Marcelo Flores, and of course, Mexican soccer’s favourite Frenchman, the night could have gone the way it did when the Whitecaps were beaten at Starlight Stadium in the Canadian Championship by Pacific FC. That defeat in 2021 brought with it the end of the Marc dos Santos era and started this new chapter of Whitecaps history.
A draw is a result many fans would’ve snapped your hand off for before kick-off. But Sartini and Co. will wake up on Thursday regretting their many missed chances, wishing they were walking into El Volcán with a 1-0 advantage next week instead.