In a city entranced by the Vancouver Canucks' run for the Stanley Cup, the upstart Vancouver Whitecaps soccer club solidly staked its own place in the local sporting firmament on Wednesday night.
The team, in the first of a two-game Nutrilite Canadian Championship battle against Toronto FC, attracted a boisterous crowd of 15,500 to Empire Field in east Vancouver, as the Canucks played at the same time downtown. Vancouver and Toronto scrapped to a 1-1 draw.
On the pitch, Toronto redeemed itself on its return to Vancouver - TFC lost here badly two months ago on opening day 4-2 in the Whitecaps' Major League Soccer debut.
Toronto has won the past two Canadian Championships and the draw puts Toronto in a solid position to extend its run to a third Voyageurs Cup, as away goals are crucial in two-legged contests. The second and final game is next Wednesday in Toronto.
Still, Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit feels confident Vancouver can steal the championship if it plays as well next week as it did Wednesday. "It's always frustrating to walk off the field with a 1-1 draw after dominating," DeMerit said.
The first half was a mostly even affair, though the Whitecaps displayed better bursts of offence. The home team hit the pitch in the second half with an explosive offensive push, generating several enticing chances to score. Eric Hassli, the Whitecaps' star player, delivered in the 64th minute, just as he was the first to score against Toronto in the March season opener.
But Toronto was quick to tie the match. Striker Maicon Santos, Toronto's leading scorer this year, evened the scores in the 73rd minute.
Vancouver continued to press heavily but was unable to notch a second goal. The chances kept coming right until the final whistle. Seconds before the game ended a header by Vancouver defender Alain Rochat nearly snatched victory for the home team.
Instead, Vancouver faces a difficult road game next week.
Vancouver coach Teitur Thordarson said "it's just halftime now," of the two-leg contest. "I definitely believe my team can go to Toronto and score goals there," he added.
Toronto defender Adrian Cann said his side was "fortunate" to hold Vancouver off during the Whitecaps' final press. "It was a battle," he said. "Going into Toronto, it's going to be another battle."
The winner of the Toronto-Vancouver final takes Canada's sole spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, the regional club tournament for teams in North and Central American and the Caribbean. Canada's representative will play the Nicaraguan champion, either Real Esteli FC or Deportivo Walter Ferreti. The first leg will be July 26-28, with Canada at home, and the away match in Nicaragua will fall in the Aug. 2-4 window.
Last summer, Toronto made it through the preliminary round in the 2010-11 Champions League to make the group stage but stalled there. In 2009-10 tournament, Toronto was stopped in the preliminary round.
The Whitecaps' attendance of 15,500 wasn't far off the 20,000 or so the Whitecaps have welcomed for most of their home games in the team's debut Major League Soccer season. Steve Nash didn't show up - the basketball star is a minority owner of the Whitecaps but attended the hockey game instead. Raucous Whitecaps fans who stomped and shouted didn't seem to care there was a bigger sporting event elsewhere in the city.
A key figure in the Whitecaps showing was DeMerit. The veteran of the English Premiership and starter for the United States national team has struggled with a groin injury through the past two months, missing almost every Whitecaps game. DeMerit, the heart of the team's defence, was the central force that held Toronto mostly at bay. DeMerit also added oomph on offense, nearly scoring on a header early in the second half.
"It's been hugely frustrating for me," said DeMerit in an interview before the game on Tuesday of his time on the sidelines. "It's what I'm here to do, to be out with the guys, when it really matters. Getting back to this point is a major step in the right direction, both personally and for the team."