BURNABY, BC – Recording a third-straight clean sheet to start the 2010 USSF D-2 Pro League season, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (2W-0L-1D) defeated Athletic Club of St. Louis (0W-4L-0D) 1-0 at Swangard Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Mouloud Akloul’s first-ever goal for the ‘Caps proved to be the difference between these two NASL Conference rivals, even though Teitur Thordarson’s side looked far more comfortable in victory than the one-goal scoreline would suggest. The goal was a bittersweet moment, however, as Whitecaps debutant Akloul was forced out of the game soon after scoring the match winner with an ankle injury. The win maintained Vancouver’s undefeated start to the new campaign, while struggling St. Louis fell to a fourth-straight league defeat.
Akloul was one of three changes in the Whitecaps starting XI, as he started alongside Nelson Akwari in the centre of the Vancouver backline. In attack, Randy Edwini-Bonsu replaced the rested Marlon James to partner Marcus Haber up front, while Ansu Toure came in for Justin Moose on the left-hand side of midfield.
Though it was a cool and overcast spring afternoon, a Swangard crowd of 4,815 were treated to a first half that was dominated by the home side, with St. Louis failing to register a shot on the Vancouver goal in the opening 45 minutes.
Knowing the visitors were playing their second league game in less than 48 hours, the Whitecaps proceeded to attack the Missouri outfit from the opening kickoff, with St. Louis goalkeeper Alec Dufty kept busy in the early stages. On nine minutes, the former New York Red Bulls shot-stopper had to be alert to cut off Edwini-Bonsu’s dangerous through ball for Toure in the visitors’ box. Two minutes later, the Whitecaps made claims for a penalty when winger Wes Knight went down under a challenge from St. Louis midfielder Mark Bloom in the visitors’ box. Match referee Justin Tasev, however, immediately waved away Vancouver’s spot-kick appeals.
With much of the action taking place in the St. Louis half, it seemed only a matter of time before the ‘Caps took the lead. On 19 minutes, the opening goal arrived following a corner from Whitecaps Man-of-the-Match Martin Nash. As the Vancouver captain swung in his dangerous set-piece, Akloul made a charging run from his centre back position to beat the St. Louis pair of Christian Nzinga and Bloom in the six-yard box and knock the ball past Dufty to make it 1-0. It was the Frenchman’s first goal for his new club.
Though ‘Caps fans were delighted to see Akloul find the scoresheet, the moment proved bittersweet for the defender and the club. In his effort to convert Nash’s corner for the goal, Akloul landed awkwardly on his ankle and needed immediate attention from the Whitecaps medical staff. The severity of the ankle injury was such that Akloul’s debut with the ‘Caps lasted just 22 minutes, with substitute centre back Greg Janicki coming on in the Frenchman’s place. “It’s always tough to go in under those circumstances,” Janicki said after the match. “As a centre back, you try and prepare the best you can mentally, but you never truly expect to go in that early. Yet, I had to do what I had to do, and after getting my feet warm, we were able to keep our shape at the back and get another clean sheet.”
Thordarson’s side remained relentless in attacking their travel-weary opponents and on 31 minutes, Janicki struck the St. Louis crossbar with a header after Knight’s long throw-in flicked into the path of the substitute in the visitors’ box. A minute later, the impressive Luca Bellisomo – who was a pillar of strength alongside Nash in central midfield – just missed the target with a well-driven shot from 30 yards out.
Then on 37 minutes, the injury bug that saw Akloul’s afternoon end abruptly struck another Whitecaps player. A leg injury to Knight resulted in an early substitute appearance for Tanzanian international Nizar Khalfan on the right-hand side of midfield.
The changes, however, did little to alter the course of the game, as the Whitecaps finished the opening half in the ascendancy following chances by Edwini-Bonsu, Janicki, and Bellisomo before Tasev blew his whistle for halftime.
Where the Whitecaps commanded the first half of action, their attacking potency was not at the same level after the break, as both sets of players needed to deal with some slick conditions in the second half following a late afternoon rain shower.
The second-half chances that were created came from the home side. On 58 minutes, Dufty made a fine reaction save to stop Toure’s close-range shot in the St. Louis box after the winger got on the end of a pass from teammate Zurab Tsiskaridze. It proved to be the last contribution from the Liberian, as he was replaced by Moose a minute later.
The margin of a one-goal lead usually means there is always a chance for the trailing side to respond and draw level, however, St. Louis offered next to nothing in terms of an attacking threat at Swangard. In fact, the visitors registered just a single shot in the entire contest, with captain Jack Traynor sailing his team’s lone effort high and wide of the target on 61 minutes.
With the ‘Caps looking comfortable towards the game’s latter stages, the only thing that remained uncertain was the possibility of a second Vancouver goal. On 70 minutes, Dufty was called on to save substitute Ricardo Sanchez’s goal-bound header from Khalfan’s neat cross from the right flank, while on 88 minutes, the tireless Haber rolled a tame shot just past the St. Louis post.
As three minutes of time added on were played, the ‘Caps could have struck their second goal with two fine chances. However, Khalfan was unable to direct Sanchez’s curling cross on target at the far post, while Sanchez himself was just as inaccurate with a long-range strike at an empty St. Louis goal after Dufty was caught in the Whitecaps box trying to challenge a late St. Louis corner.
90 FULL MINUTES
It was a modest result to a game that should have been won in a more convincing fashion, according to Thordarson. “I wasn’t happy with the game today, even though we did well in the first half,” he told reporters after the match. “We were up in their half of the pitch and had plenty of possession, but we didn’t manage to score more than one goal. In the second half, we managed to give the initiative away. We gave the ball away on every second or third pass, so that was not good.”
With Saturday’s win, the Whitecaps now sit comfortably at the top of the NASL Conference standings with seven points from three matches played. Thordarson’s side will now prepare for a difficult trip down Interstate 5 to The City of Roses and their first meeting of the season with Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers at PGE Park on Thursday night. Still in search of their first point of the season, AC St. Louis will host Crystal Palace Baltimore next Saturday evening.
19’ – VAN – Mouloud Akloul (Martin Nash)
by Nathan Vanstone