The kind of heartbreak the Vancouver (Island) Whitecaps suffered at the hands of André-Pierre Gignac yet again on Wednesday can either extinguish your fire or pour fuel on the flames. For Vanni Sartini and the Vancouver Whitecaps, the answer is clear.
“I think we did a very good performance against a very good team, to be honest,” Sartini told reporters after the 1-1 draw in the CONCACAF Champions Cup first round first leg on Wednesday night while still trying to swallow the bitter pill of Gignacian brilliance.
“So we are very confident to go there and try to win in Monterrey. That’s going to be very hard, but I think we’re up for it.”
After Wednesday night’s display, in which the Caps scored once through debutant Damir Kreilach, found the net again through an offside Brian White, and created numerous chances against one of the best teams in Mexico, Saritni’s players concur.
“I think we executed the game plan well,” added White, who assisted Kreilach’s first-half opener. “I think we stuck to the principles and had a good performance. Obviously, we would have liked to come out with a couple more goals, but I feel confident going to Mexico next week knowing that we could come away with a result.”
That the Whitecaps can feel so confident shows just how well they played in their first competitive action since early November’s playoff defeat to LAFC against a Tigres team already in mid-season form in Liga MX.
Sure, there were some signs of rust — the fact that the Caps were only 1-0 up when Gignac lined up his late free kick was the biggest and costliest testament to that. But all in all it was a hugely heartening display and one that spoke to how well Sartini has prepared his team this winter.
“We basically applied everything that we talked about during the week,” the Italian head coach added. “Defensively, we’ve been really, really good. We were always very structured and it was really hard to break us down, and besides the goal they had another big chance in the first half but those are the only two big chances that they had.
“We could have been better, in my opinion, on the ball. The first half, you could see it was our first game in the sense that we always needed an extra touch to do something and that helped them to press. Also, we were a little bit too frantic sometimes to try to break the line immediately… We were in control of the game. And then the second half was actually really good. Unfortunately, you know, the offside goal, but we had another couple chances that were really, really good.”
Not only was the result exciting, but so were many of the individual performances.
Ryan Gauld, wearing the captain’s armband, was his usual industrious and creative self behind the strikers, White was lively, while midfielder Pedro Vite, who impressed for Ecuador’s U-23 national team in January’s Olympic qualifying tournament, particularly caught the eye. “He’s such an intelligent guy,” Sartini said of Vite’s performance. “He really matured a lot last year. I think Pedro, his career if he continues to be like this is going to be a really, really impressive one.”
Meanwhile, veteran offseason acquisitions Kreilach and Fafà Picault both had encouraging debuts, with the Croatian’s goal capping a display that should encourage and excite Caps fans in equal measure.
“Damir was really good,” Sartini enthused. “He gave what we expect from him. He’s not the most dynamic player in the world, but he can combine very well if you play with two strikers with Brian like we did today. He was very calm and collected with the goal, which by the way was top. I hope it’s going to make the CONCACAF highlight reel or something because it’s a great goal!”
The most impressive thing about the Whitecaps’ front-footed, competitive display, aside from the fact it came in their first competitive game in three months against a mid-season Mexican giant, was that this “home” game wasn’t really a home game at all.
Relocated to Starlight Stadium on Vancouver Island because of a clash with the BC Home & Garden show at BC Place, you would hardly have known it given the vociferous nature of the support in a much smaller stadium than the Caps would have liked to play a game of this magnitude.
Sartini was clearly highly appreciative of the way fans showed up in such unusual circumstances.
“I really want to thank all the people that came here today and made this environment buzzing,” he said. “Our fans and the people who came from Vancouver, that came with the ferry, did a lot of sacrifice to come today. But also the ones from the island that were happy to see, I would say, a high-level clash between us and a very good team. They made us feel at home, and they made us feel like we weren’t away from BC Place, to be honest.
“So I really thank all the people that came. We are really happy that this little inconvenience of not having our stadium became an opportunity to engage more people here. So I am proud that tonight we were the Vancouver Island Whitecaps FC.”
From Victoria, it’s now back to Vancouver for Sartini and his men before the seven-hour, 4,000-kilometre flight south-east to Monterrey for Wednesday’s second leg at the intimidating El Volcán. The crowd will be seven times bigger than the 5,700 at Starlight and the atmosphere will be as hostile for a visiting team as they come.
But the Whitecaps have no reason to fear the task, that much is clear. They’ve stared into the eye of the Tigres and lived to tell the tale once already, and they can do it again.