Knowing he would be facing one of the premier teams in MLS, Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach Carl Robinson elected to revert back to his 4-2-3-1 formation for their away match with Real Salt Lake. Jonny Leveron replaced skipper Jay Demerit in defence, while Kekuta Manneh replaced Pedro Morales; both Demerit and Morales were rested for the match, and stayed behind in Vancouver.
Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar made one change to the team that defeated the Portland Timbers 1-0 the week previous. Joao Plata replaced Olmes Garcia up front, where the diminutive Ecuadorian partnered RSL's top goalscorer, Alvaro Saborio.
To suggest the Whitecaps were flat in the opening 45 minutes would be an understatement – they were very poor. They did not make effective use of the space that was available to them (which was in wide areas) and they were half a step slow and half a step late defensively.
The result was that the Whitecaps trailed 2-0 after just nine minutes, with RSL getting goals from both Plata and Saborio. RSL very nearly went in at the break up 3-0, but David Ousted did well to deny Plata a second goal just before the halftime whistle.
The opening half was a perfect exhibit of the challenge faced when fielding a very young lineup - those players don't yet have the experience to figure out how to fix things when they go wrong on the pitch.
Of the six attacking players who started the match, only Kenny Miller (34) can be classified as an experienced player. Matias Laba (22), Gershon Koffie (22), Russell Teibert (21), Kekuta Manneh (19) and Darren Mattocks (23) are young, talented professionals – but when things go wrong, they cannot rely on previous experience to help them turn things around.
In the first half, the movement of RSL's midfield caused problems for the Whitecaps. Despite having a numerical advantage, Vancouver struggled to put pressure on the ball. When the Whitecaps did manage to regain possession, they were too often wasteful, giving the ball straight back to RSL, as Teibert did on the opening goal.
Offensively, they were never able to use their speed in transition to maximum effect. In Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh, Vancouver had the two quickest players on the pitch. However, neither player was able to use that speed to their advantage, as Vancouver never found their passing rhythm.
Both fullbacks, Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour, were cautious in their approach when Vancouver had the ball. This was entirely understandable, given Real Salt Lake's formidable home record and their early 2-0 lead. The result was that far too often Vancouver failed to use the only space that RSL conceded to them, which was out wide.
This played into RSL's hands perfectly, as their two wide midfielders, Ned Grabavoy and Jake Mulholland, simply dropped slightly deeper to sit alongside Kyle Beckerman when Vancouver tried to build in midfield. The RSL defenders, who compressed the space between lines, supported this tight midfield unit. This meant that there was very little space in which Vancouver could play. Real Salt Lake controlled virtually the entire first half.
Robinson and his coaching staff showed their worth once they could sit the players down at the break. There, the coaches were able to correct the mistakes that were being made and give their young players renewed belief in their abilities. The result was a completely different performance from Vancouver in the second half.
The Whitecaps aggressively closed space in midfield, pressured the RSL defenders and midfielders into conceding possession, and denied both Plata and Saborio a sight at goal. While Saborio struck the bar with a header in the 80th minute after a quickly taken free kick, the home side appeared content to defend their 2-0 lead.
Vancouver showed better control of the ball and much better use of space in wide areas in the second half. There was a confidence in the Whitecaps team that wasn't present in the opening forty-five minutes – a belief that they could not only compete with RSL, but also get something out of the game.
Robinson again used his substitutes effectively, bringing Erik Hurtado, Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez into the game. And it was the two Uruguayans – Mezquida and Fernandez – who clawed back a point for Vancouver.
Mezquida scored Vancouver's first goal in the 86th minute, knocking home a poor rebound from RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando after great work from Darren Mattocks. Fernandez scored the equalizer deep into stoppage time, ripping a strike from 35 yards past a flat-footed Rimando. The RSL goalkeeper – along with his teammates – will be left to ponder just how they managed to throw away two points after failing to extend their dominant first half performance into the second.
The second half performance from Vancouver was exactly what their fans want to see – positive, confident, attacking play. The pace in Vancouver's team is frightening; Mattocks, Manneh and Hurtado are all likely in the league's top 10, if not the top 5, in sprint speed. It is really about finding a way for these players to use their assets to maximum effect, which Vancouver did really well in the second half.
Good performances from all three substitutes will give Robinson and his coaching staff some decisions to make in choosing their starting lineup for their next match at home on May 3rd against the San Jose Earthquakes (TSN2, 6:30pm ET, 3:30pm PT). It is an enviable problem to have, as every coach much prefers to have too many good players from which to choose than not enough.
Real Salt Lake put on the best forty-five minutes of football that I have seen from a team so far this season in the opening half. The concern for Jeff Cassar is finding a way to extend that performance over the course of the game. While they haven't found the secret to this yet, RSL is still unbeaten this season.
Poor performances all around for Vancouver in the opening half, but the silver lining is that this can be used as a teaching moment.
With such a young squad of players, the biggest challenge for Robinson is to develop his promising youngsters into seasoned professionals who can solve problems on the pitch, without always requiring the intervention of the coaching staff. This isn't a job that will happen overnight, and the players will now be expected to reflect on what they did differently in the second half that they weren't doing in the first. As long as the players are able to learn from their mistakes, the opening forty-five minutes can be looked back on as a valuable lesson.
Nick Rimando has been sensational for Real Salt Lake this season, so he can be forgiven for having a 10-minute spell to forget at the end of the game. He should have prevented both of Vancouver goals, and on any other day would likely have done so.
The Star Man
This was the best performance I have seen from Erik Hurtado.
The youngster has incredible speed, but is still learning how to best utilize his prized asset. He made a big impact coming off the bench in last week's 2-2 come-from-behind draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and while he didn't score in that game or against Real Salt Lake, he made a very meaningful contribution on Saturday.
His willingness to run in behind stretched the RSL back line and created space for his midfielders to operate, effectively changing the game. He is still very raw and has a great deal of learning to do, so it will be important for him to seek out the coaching staff to carry on that education. But he is certainly showing exciting potential at this moment in time as a second half substitute that can change the game.