Koffie scores as Whitecaps beat Toronto FC in season opener

The Canadian Press
3/3/2013 1:49:09 AM
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VANCOUVER -- Nigel Reo-Coker wanted to leave a lasting impression -- and he did.

The former English Premier League star came off the bench to help the Vancouver Whitecaps post a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday in the 2013 MLS season opener for both teams. Coker helped ignite a Vancouver offence that dominated the second half after an opening 45 minutes that featured few scoring chances.

"I felt great," said Reo-Coker. "All I did was be myself, and that's why (coach Martin Rennie) brought me in."

Gershon Koffie's goal in the 59th minute enabled the Caps to win their season opener for their third year in a row. He scored following some beautiful passing shortly after Vancouver took control of the game.

Reo-Coker, 28, joined the Whitecaps in February after Vancouver obtained his MLS rights in a trade from Portland. Most players tend to move to MLS from the EPL when they are older, but Reo-Coker has contradicted the norm. He said in his first conference call with reporters after joining the Whitecaps that he planned to make a lasting impression.

But he had to wait 45 minutes as coach Martin Rennie elected start him on the bench.

"(Rennie) told me he wasn't going to start me, and I should be ready to come on play a part in the game today," said Reo-Coker. "Today, I was mentally prepared already for that."

The Whitecaps won their first-ever MLS game against Toronto in 2011 and beat Montreal in last year's season opener en route to becoming the first Canadian team to qualify for the league playoffs.

"It's very good to get our first win," said Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie. "First game of the season is always a little bit of a nervy affair."

"In the second half, we changed the system, we changed the way that we played, and I thought we dominated the second half."

The loss spoiled the debut of new TFC coach Ryan Nelsen, a recently retired English Premier League star and New Zealand international, who has undertaken several lineup changes in a bid to improve Toronto's 10th place Eastern Conference finish in 2012.

The rebuilding Reds, who had many new faces in their lineup, demonstrated they still have much cohesion to develop as they held the Whitecaps to few chances in the first half but surrendered numerous scoring chances in the second.

"The second half, we probably just didn't withstand the 15 minutes that Vancouver had and they got their goal," said Nelsen. "It was really disappointing, because it was a routine long ball and we didn't pick up the second ball, and then it resulted in a goal. And after that, we were probably chasing the game."

Despite the close score, Vancouver had little trouble keeping the ball in the Toronto half of the pitch for most of the final 45 minutes.

Joe Cannon, 38, picked up the shutout as he started in goal for Vancouver after he was displaced as the club's No. 1 during the 2012 stretch drive and playoffs. Many wondered whether Cannon would be welcomed back, but he hired a personal trainer in the off-season and earned the first start ahead of Brad Knighton, who had taken over his job late last season.

"I was just really grateful tonight for the opportunity to play," said Cannon. "I don't know how many times I'll have left in my career to play in such an incredible atmosphere. So this year, I'm trying not to worry so much about the little things and just focus on enjoying the moment."

Cannon said he did not have too much to do, and the Reds got tired toward the end of the game.

"I thought we made it difficult for them, especially when (Reo-Coker) came in and kept our possession and really helped us out," said Cannon. "I thought the midfield was a lot more fluid."

After starting their first two MLS seasons with considerable uncertainty, the Whitecaps hoped to take advantage of their stable lineup. But Vancouver lost captain Jay DeMerit to an injury early in the match.

DeMerit landed awkwardly after making a header in the sixth minute and left the pitch on the shoulders of a couple of trainers as he was unable to put weight on his left leg.

A Whitecaps spokesman said DeMerit suffered a left calf strain. The 33-year-old Green Bay Wis., native has been bothered by Achilles tendonitis in recent weeks, and his status for the game was uncertain until late in the week.

DeMerit was replaced at centre back by newcomer Brad Rusin, who was acquired in January on a transfer from HB Koge of the Danish First Division.

Rusin, a 26-year-old Crown Point, Ind., native, made his MLS debut after toiling a year and a half in Denmark. He previously played for Whitecaps coach Rennie with the second-tier Carolina RailHawks.

Rusin was put to the test in the 40th minute as Robert Earnshaw, a former English Premier League star, who made his MLS debut, made a run down the right flank into the Vancouver box. The new Whitecaps defender slid to make a nice tackle, getting his leg on the ball and avoiding a foul that would have led to a Toronto penalty-kick.

In the second half, Rusin just missed connecting on a rebound after Toronto goalkeeper Joe Bendik dove to get his hand on a curving Daigo Kobayashi free kick.

From there, the Whitecaps had several chances but could not score. Koffie finally capitalized following some brilliant passing inside and outside the Toronto area.

First Young-Pyo Lee and Kenny Miller worked a give-and-go. Then, after getting the ball back, Lee rolled the ball to Kobayashi. Standing just inside the top of the 18, Kobayashi quickly tapped the ball back to Koffie and he drilled it past diving TFC 'keeper Bendik.

Notes: Toronto midfielder Terry Dunfield took a yellow card for a hard tackle in the 27th minute. ... The start of the game was delayed as a curling match between Saskatchewan and P.E.I. the Brier went into an extra end, and TSN chose to air the conclusion. Then the network aired an introduction on the soccer match before the referee finally signalled for play to begin.


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