VANCOUVER - If the Vancouver Whitecaps felt anything stronger than relief Sunday night, coupled with a mild sense of embarrassment, then the organization is as hopeless as the team looked a couple of hours earlier when it lost 1-0 against the Portland Timbers.
Surely, the Whitecaps aren't hopeless. They have done a lot right in their second Major League Soccer season. But while making the playoffs is an achievement, the way they did it was not worthy of celebration.
After their inert performance against Portland, before a crowd of 21,000 that had come expecting to see a historic Whitecaps' win, Vancouver became the first Canadian team to make the MLS playoffs because Dallas FC lost 3-1 in Seattle against the Sounders.
The Whitecaps have one win in their last nine games, piling up the last two months results every bit as dismal as the team's disastrous inaugural season in MLS. Excluding a 4-0 home win Oct. 3 against an awful Chivas USA team, the Whitecaps have just three goals in their eight winless games and haven't won on the road since July 4.
Even bleaker than their result Sunday was evidence that character and leadership and team identity are at least as significant issues as talent as the Whitecaps try to build. They got next to nothing from some of their most experienced and expensive players and mustered no push after falling behind in the first half against a Portland team that hadn't a road win all season.
Marquee "designated players" Barry Robson and Kenny Miller spent much of the second half arguing and pointing to where each thought the other – or ball – should be. Robson threw up his hands in frustration when Camilo was dispossessed while trying an overly fanciful move, stopped in his tracks when he didn't get a call from the referee and ambled back to his half after a shot was blocked and Portland counter-attacked 4-on-2.
These are all players that are supposed to be at the core of the Whitecaps, driving the team and leading by example. Defenders Y.P. Lee and Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien have loads of experience and heart, but they can't lead at the other end of the park.
“At the moment, the team hasn't quite got the culture that it needs,” Vancouver coach Martin Rennie said. “It was the same when we played (Toronto) in the Canadian Cup. The team didn't perform; I thought we had got over that.
“It's frustrating. It's disappointing because to be successful and get where we want to get to, players have to be able to play in big games. We need to get to the point where we win big games. You perform well and you lose, that's one thing. To not perform to the standard you expect. . . is disappointing.”
The most troubling aspect for the Whitecaps was not that they had no goals, but that they had no response at all after Timbers' captain Jack Jewsbury scored brilliantly with a half-volley from 30 yards in the 39th minute.
With one regular-season game remaining, the Whitecaps' reward for building in the first half of the year a playoff cushion big enough to withstand the last two months is a daunting one-game playoff in Los Angeles against David Beckham and the Galaxy on Nov. 1.
“What's frustrating is only a week or so ago we were feeling good about where the team was and we were playing well,” Rennie said before the Sounders eliminated Dallas. “That's happened a few times this season where we're thinking: 'Wow, this is a good team and we're very close to being where we want it to be.' Then you have a result like tonight and think we're far away from where we want to be.”
LIONS DEN: Friendship only goes so far. As close as Mike Reilly is to Travis Lulay, as much as he enjoys Vancouver and appreciates the B.C. Lions, the backup quarterback wants to play and he knows there is little chance of that happening here as long as his buddy is around.
The Canadian Football League team holds an option on Lulay for next season, and the reigning Most Outstanding Player indicated after Reilly led the Lions to Friday's 39-19 win against the Edmonton Eskimos that he plans to be a Lion for a while.
“I would be a happy man if I could play here a long, long time,” Lulay, nursing a shoulder injury, said after Reilly's first CFL start. “Let me put it that way.”
Lulay renewed his contract for only another season – plus the automatic club option – last winter, creating speculation that he could yet give the National Football League another try.
“At the time, that felt like the best decision,” Lulay, 29, whose roots in Vancouver grew stronger last week with the birth of his daughter, Parker, explained. “Obviously, you can't get ahead of yourself. You can throw a million different what-if scenarios about how things might turn out, but you really don't know.”
Reilly waited two years for his first start in B.C.
“It's a taste,” the 27-year-old said. “It's a good taste in a big game we needed, at home. It makes me want more. There's no doubt that things like tonight, when you finally get a chance to play, you remember why you play the game and how much fun it is. You want to be on the field all the time. Unfortunately, only one guy can play our position.”
The Lions would love to keep both quarterbacks indefinitely. But that seems even more unlikely after Friday.
LEAFS' LUONGO: It's naïve to think Toronto Maple Leaf general manager Brian Burke and Vancouver Canuck GM Mike Gillis wouldn't talk simply because there's a prohibition on trade discussions during the National Hockey League lockout. What's unfathomable is that either would blab that they've finalized the trade of Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo, who is reportedly going to Toronto as soon as the labour war ends.
The Leafs were the most interested suitor at the draft in June and their goaltending didn't get any better over the summer. Luongo still makes sense for them, but it will be interesting if he goes to Toronto to know whether it was Burke or Gillis who blinked.
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