A very young Vancouver side made a good account of itself against TFC on Wednesday night, allowing the Whitecaps a chance to win the two-legged series at home next week.
TORONTO -- It was supposed to be a rout, but after a nervy start the young Vancouver Whitecaps side kept things close.
When the starting lineups were announced for Wednesday night's Amway Canadian Championship semifinal first leg match between the Whitecaps and host Toronto FC, chatter on social media immediately turned to talk of "hanging on" and large score predictions.
With TFC fielding close to a full strength side consisting of designated player trio Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, and Gilberto, many were just hoping that Vancouver would put in a good showing for itself.
After all, head coach Carl Robinson had named an extremely young side, including four players who were making their debut with the Whitecaps' first team. If Robinson's young experiment could just make a good account of itself against TFC's high-priced stars, it would be a positive for the Whitecaps in the long run.
"I'm delighted they played a strong team today, Toronto, because that's the level of marker that we need to get to," Robinson told reporters after the match. "We're talking about top level players here. And [my players] got to play against that."
Instead of simply making up the numbers, however, the young 'Caps overcame a rough opening quarter hour and eventually went toe-to-toe with their much more experienced opponent. Despite losing 2-1 on the strength of a 92nd minute Kekuta Manneh goal, the match gave Vancouver fans a reason for optimism, both for the second leg of the series and for the long-term future of the club.
"I think we warranted something out of the game at the end of it, I really did. I'm delighted with them, I'm, really, really proud of the boys in there, because we had a young team," Robinson said. "I think today a lot of my younger players grabbed their opportunity."
One of those players was 17-year-old goalkeeper Marco Carducci, who made his professional debut in front of 22,591 fans at BMO Field on Wednesday. The teenager, familiar to Canadian soccer fans for his exploits in the youth national team ranks, had a few nervy moments in the first half but grew in confidence as the match went on.
"The situation, the stage and the players we were up against, there was a bit of that," Carducci said when asked if he was feeling nervous to start the match. "After the first 15-20 minutes or so I settled in a bit more and then just got into a flow."
Like the rest of his team, Carducci said he was more focused on the match itself rather than the occasion of a bunch of youngsters taking on seasoned professionals.
"To get a result like that against that team shows a lot of our hard work and it's a positive result for us," said Carducci.
At the other end of the field, TFC was feeling mixed emotions about the match. Coming off a three-game losing streak in MLS play, the opportunity to reverse the trend and gain an advantage over Vancouver before heading into next week's second leg was more important than trying to run up the score, said Bradley.
"First and foremost [it's] good to win, especially after the last few games for us in the league," Bradley said "When you look at it a little closer, it's certainly disappointing to concede. It was a professional performance, it wasn't our best or sharpest night by any means, but still the way we handled the game, the way we took care of things, up until that point had been quite good."
"To give away that [Manneh] goal is disappointing, but at this point there's no use crying over spilled milk," Bradley added. "We have no choice but to get ourselves ready and go to Vancouver with the same mentality: that we're stepping on the field to win and doing whatever it takes to get into the final."
The American midfielder said he wasn't surprised by the play of Vancouver's youngsters, stating that games like Wednesday's are what young players spend all their time preparing for.
Bradley praised the Whitecaps players while still keeping the focus on his own team.
"They chose to play a young group of players, we chose to play our best group and we were the ones who won," Bradley said with a shrug. "I'm sure for them, they'll look at it the positives from their side in that they put a young group of guys on the field who got a taste of what playing at this level's like, but for us, we're treating this competition as very important.
"We want to win."