Few people thought the Vancouver Whitecaps had a chance of pulling off an upset.
Even when they held a surprising lead early Thursday night, it seemed like just a matter of time before the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy would take control.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. Landon Donovan’s penalty goal in the 73rd minute brought Vancouver’s Major League Soccer season to a crashing conclusion with a 2-1 playoff loss to the Galaxy.
“To take the (defending) champions in their own place and really give them a good go, we feel like we deserve more after that 95 minutes (including stoppage time),” said Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit, who left the game with a groin injury in the second half shortly before the sequence that led to Donovan’s goal.
L.A., which finished fourth in the Western Conference, will now meet the first-place San Jose Earthquakes in a two-game, total-goals series, starting at home Sunday. The second game goes Wednesday in San Jose.
L.A. had earned home-field advantage in the do-or-die game by finishing fourth in the Western Conference. The Whitecaps, the first Canadian team to reach the MLS post-season, placed fifth.
“Our determination was good,” said Donovan. “You kind of just got the sense that they were going to wear out and, sure enough, in the second half, they started to open up a little.”
Mike Magee also scored for Los Angeles. Darren Mattocks scored Vancouver’s lone goal, giving the Whitecaps an early 1-0 lead that they retained valiantly until the 69th minute.
“The season’s finality, that just kind of hits you,” said Whitecaps midfielder John Thorrington. “We were playing for this game thinking that we (had) a shot. I don’t think many people did give us a chance, but we knew that we could put out a game plan that could cause them some problems, and I think it worked.”
The Whitecaps posted just three victories in the second half of the 34-game regular season, but looked like they would pull off a major upset after Mattocks scored when the game had barely begun.
“If something goes our way, and we get that goal — 2-0 — and we’re knocking out the defending champions, but it wasn’t meant to be,” said Thorrington. “But I’m really proud. You can’t fault our effort. Everybody out there gave everything to win. But, unfortunately, we’re packing our bags and we’re not playing San Jose.”
Donovan was awarded the spot kick after Whitecaps second-half substitute Martin Bonjour knocked him down from behind. The foul came just a minute after Bonjour entered the game for DeMerit.
Magee tied the game in the 69th minute as he volleyed a Juninho cross behind Vancouver goalkeeper Brad Knighton from the centre of the 18-yard box. The play originated with a David Beckham cross, one of many that he made or attempted on the night, often with little success.
L.A. pressed several times in the first half, but the scoring attempts were either thwarted by timely Vancouver defensive plays, including a number of blocked shots, or saves by Knighton, who made his first career MLS start.
“It’s always frustrating when you go up a goal and you don’t pull it out,” said Thorrington. “We knew they’d get chances. Knighton had a couple huge saves.”
Mattocks opened the scoring in just the fourth minute. Midfielder Matt Watson broke down the left flank with the ball and put a slight-angle pass back to Mattocks in the middle of L.A.’s 18-yard box. The Jamaican striker then put a low shot into the right corner of the Galaxy net.
The goal was the first Whitecaps’ first-ever goal against the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. Vancouver had gone seven games without an away goal before then.
“It was just a matter of going out there and taking our chances and trying to catch them on a counter — and we did,” said Knighton. “It’s just unfortunate that we came up short.”
Mattocks left the game in the 59th minute, limping off with an apparent leg injury. The striker said after the game he felt pain in his stomach. Scottish striker Kenny Miller, who has come under criticism for his lack of scoring, took his place.
After Donovan scored, Whitecaps assistant coach Paul Ritchie was ejected for heckling referee Siliviu Petrescu from the bench.
Notes: With a crowd on hand of 14,703, the game was not a sellout. The upper stands were not used and the lower bowl had many empty seats. ... Whitecaps winger Omar Salgado did not dress because of a sore foot. He recently returned from a broken foot, suffered while playing for the U.S. under-20 team in Uruguay in the spring, that sidelined him for more than three months. ... Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash, a Whitecaps minority owner, did not attend the game as planned. The Victoria native is recuperating from a leg contusion sustained Wednesday against the Trail Blazers in Portland. ... Beckham and Donovan played after being questionable due to nagging injuries.