For the first 69 minutes of Thursday night's Major League Soccer first-round playoff clash against the heavily-favoured Los Angeles Galaxy, the Vancouver Whitecaps looked set to potentially pull off an against-the-odds road upset. Matt Watson's perfect setup of Darren Mattocks in the fourth minute gave Vancouver a 1-0 lead, and although the Galaxy stormed back and tested the Whitecaps' defences throughout, they weren't able to crack them until a tremendous Mike Magee volley in the 69th minute. That opened the floodgates, though; Los Angeles kept pressing, eventually notched the goal that led them to a 2-1 win just a few minutes later and dominated most of the rest of the match. Still, making the MLS postseason was an accomplishment in and of itself for Vancouver, the first Canadian team to do so, and they hung in there against a more talented Los Angeles squad. This is still a significant way from any MLS team's ultimate long-term goal of a championship, but what the Whitecaps accomplished this season is noteworthy progress.
Of course, some Vancouver fans will undoubtedly feel unlucky not to get further, as the Galaxy's winning goal came on a somewhat-controversial Landon Donovan penalty in the 73rd minute, and there were a few Whitecaps' appeals for penalties that were denied. On the whole, though, the refereeing didn't seem too unbalanced. It also wasn't tough to see that the Galaxy were the better team; they dominated the stats, with Robbie Keane alone notching seven shots against the Whitecaps' eight and David Beckham swinging in nine corner kicks to Vancouver's none. Part of that's because of the defensive approach the Whitecaps took, but that alone bears some questions; yes, being defensively sound once you have a lead's always worthwhile, but it doesn't mean you have to almost completely cede possession and stop venturing forward the way they did. Vancouver could conceivably have pulled out a win here or sent this to extra time with the right breaks, but with the way they chose to play and with L.A.'s attacking skill, this was more of an inevitable result than a controversial one.
In some ways, it's remarkable that the Whitecaps got this far. After a promising start, the back half of their season turned dismal; in the final 17 games, they recorded just three of their 11 wins on the year and only clinched a playoff berth late in the season thanks to a Seattle victory over Dallas. Moreover, that's the reverse trend you'd expect from a team that added so many high-profile players midseason, including Scottish players Barry Robson and Kenny Miller; the help didn't seem to bolster the club's fortunes significantly. If anything, the reverse was true. Still, there are a substantial number of talented players on this squad, and that bodes well going forward; the question's just if manager Martin Rennie can mould them into a cohesive whole.
However, it's worth remembering that while the way the Whitecaps made the playoffs wasn't the most impressive in the world, it counts equally in the standings as it would for a team that starts slowly and makes a heroic late push to the postseason. Getting in at all is the first important hurdle, and it's one that no Canadian team has done before. Toronto FC has missed the playoffs in all six of its MLS campaigns, while the Whitecaps missed out in their inaugural MLS season last year and the Montreal Impact came up short in their first MLS season this year. It's not the biggest step in the world, but they all count.
Greater hurdles lie ahead, of course; long before Canadian teams can win a championship, they'll have to win a playoff game. Having a Canadian team in MLS playoff action at all seems like a step forward for the profile of those playoffs north of the border, though, and that can only be a positive thing. Moreover, while the performance Vancouver turned in wasn't stunning, it was somewhat better than many expected, and it was a pretty reasonable effort overall in tough circumstances. Now, the expectations shift to bigger and better things down the road from Canada's MLS teams. We'll see if the Whitecaps, TFC or the Impact can live up to them.