Martin Rennie’s scowl soon turned into a smile Sunday night.
The Vancouver Whitecaps coach was thrilled as his team became the first Canadian franchise to qualify for the Major League Soccer playoffs.
His jubilation came after he was disappointed with his club’s upset 1-0 loss in their last regular-season home game to the lowly Portland Timbers before a sellout crowd of 21,000 at B.C. Place Stadium.
Despite the loss, the Seattle Sounders came to the Whitecaps’ post-season rescue as they defeated FC Dallas 3-1. The setback eliminated the Texas club from contention and gave Vancouver the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“I feel really good about (qualifying),” said Rennie. “From the start of the season, that was our goal, to get into the playoffs.”
Vancouver is the second youngest of Canada’s three MLS clubs. Toronto FC has yet to make the playoffs in six MLS seasons while the Montreal Impact, completing its expansion season, will have to wait at least one more year.
The post-season berth came in Vancouver’s second season after first-year coach Rennie inherited a team that finished last overall.
“Taking over a team that was last in the table and had a poor record last season, it’s actually quite a big achievement to reach the playoffs, I think,” said Rennie. “As disappointed as we are with how we performed tonight, over the course of the season we’ve done well. Things like: winning our first game (ever) on the road early in the season. Those points all add up and they all came to fruition for us to reach the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of well respected and well established MLS teams who would like to be in our position — teams like Columbus, Colorado, Dallas. Teams that have won the MLS Cup in the last four or five years aren’t in the playoffs, and we are.”
The Whitecaps (11-13-9) will play a do-or-die game on the road against the Los Angeles Galaxy at a date to be announced.
Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton, who was in goal for Sunday’s loss, said being the first Canadian team to make the playoffs is something that players, club staff and the people of Vancouver will remember for years to come.
“Obviously, Toronto hasn’t made the playoffs ... they’ve fallen short,” he said. “For us to do it in our second year is a testament to the club.”
The Whitecaps squeaked in after starting the season strongly but suffering a mid-to-late season slide and went winless in seven games while dealing with injuries, suspensions, inconsistent play and the addition of several new players through trades and signings.
Knighton, who is in his first season with Vancouver and spent most of it as the backup ‘keeper, said the playoff spot is also a testament to the players who have remained with the team the entire campaign.
Long after fans had gone home, cheers rang out from a stadium suite as Rennie, president Bob Lenarduzzi and team staff watched Seattle’s win on television. Ironically, the Whitecaps made history after Rennie had spoken to people in the suite about the highs and lows of sport and the need to have character and stay strong when you win or lose.
“Good times come again, and that happened for us today,” he said.
“Obviously, it’s a great feeling,” added Knighton. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do it in front of our fans.”
Jack Jewsbury scored in the 39th minute for the Timbers (8-16-9) who were only playing for pride and jobs next season.
“We didn’t have, really, too many people who performed to their highest standard,” said Rennie, who was “surprised and disappointed” with the loss.
The Timbers posted their first road victory of the season and also ended a six-game losing streak. Rennie said his club will have to improve if it wants to advance beyond the first round. He was disappointed that Sunday’s loss came after the Whitecaps also lost a crucial home game to Toronto in Nutralite Canadian Championship play that enabled the Reds to prevail.
“At the moment, the team hasn’t quite got the culture that it needs. ... We’ve created big games because of what we’ve done earlier in the season. We need to get to the point where we win big games,” said Rennie.
Portland’s next big game will have to come in 2013, because the Timbers have long since missed the playoffs. But, playing for nothing but pride, they were able to hold the Whitecaps at bay, although Vancouver controlled much of the play.
“This is about supporting our fans in a tough season and for sticking by us and for being good to the organization and good to the players,” said Timbers interim coach Gavin Wilkinson.
Jewsbury’s goal was his first goal in two and a half months. He last scored against Dallas on Aug. 5 against Portland.
The Whitecaps controlled much of the play following the goal, but did not generate dangerous chances.
“A spark was definitely missing tonight, which was really disappointing — considering the magnitude of the game,” said Whitecaps striker Kenny Miller, who did not generate a shot and rarely touched the ball.
Rennie started Miller and Camilo up front following their success in Vancouver’s convincing 4-0 victory over Chivas USA on Oct. 3. Top scorer Darren Mattocks, sidelined with a hamstring injury suffered two games ago against Seattle, dressed as a reserve, along with fellow Jamaican Dane Richards.
Mattocks was one of three second-half substitutions that Rennie made, but the Jamaican striker could only manage to bounce a header towards the Portland net, and Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts chased it down.
“It was a tricky decision, but I think (Mattocks) wasn’t quite fresh enough to start,” said Rennie.
In addition to Mattocks, Rennie tried to go for even more offence with the insertions of midfielder Richards in the 61st minute and left winger Omar Salgado in the 77th.
It was Salgado’s first MLS appearance since May. He suffered a broken foot while playing for the U.S. under-20 team in Uruguay in June.
Notes: If the Caps win their opening-round game, they will play a two-game, home-and-home series based on aggregate goals in the second round. ... Portland played without injured striker Kris Boyd (groin) and defenders Ian Hogg and Chris Taylor. ... Richards’ appearance was potentially his last in a Whitecaps uniform at B.C. Place. He has signed to play with English side Burnley in the Championship League next season. ... Young-Pyo Lee was chosen by fans as Vancouver’s Player of the Year.