Real Salt Lake edges Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 in MLS season opener

VANCOUVER — Frustration loomed in the Vancouver Whitecaps' locker room Saturday night.

The team had started out dominant in their Major League Soccer season debut against Real Salt Lake, looking for the first 45 minutes like the confident group they professed to be during an extended pre-season.

But that confidence waned as their opponents came on strong in the second half, and the 'Caps ultimately kicked off the 2023 campaign with a 2-1 loss.

“I think we deserved to take something from the game," said midfielder Ryan Gauld.

"But it's a lesson for us — if we don't take our chances then we're not going to win games because we're playing against decent teams. We could have been two or three up by the time they got the first goal. So everybody's frustrated.”

The Whitecaps (0-1-0) controlled 56.2 per cent of the possession across the first half and outshot the visitors 6-1 in on-target shots.

A team is never going to dominate all 90 minutes of a game, though, because every MLS club has quality players, said 'Caps head coach Vanni Sartini.

“Unfortunately, we didn't capitalize on all the work that we did in terms of build up and arriving in the final third. And we got punished," he said. "So I hope that is a learning moment for the team.

"Playing well, it's not enough. We need to be also clinical and good quality in the box when we have the chance to score.”

Vancouver's Julian Gressel took a corner kick in the 25th minute, sending a ball curling into the box toward teammate Javain Brown. The defender headed a shot down, catching a piece of RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath's outstretched hand on the way into the corner of the net.

Real Salt Lake (1-0-0) looked nervous on both sides of the ball to start the game, said head coach Pablo Mastroeni.

"When we tried to press, we didn't go with conviction and belief. And the same thing with the ball," he said. "I think there was a lot of doubt. And every pass when you're nervous or you have a little bit of doubt, and you pass the ball, it's like passing on the doubt to the next guy.”

The butterflies seemed to fade coming out of the locker room and the visitors burst into the second half with renewed energy.

Whitecaps 'keeper Yohei Takaoka — making his Major League Soccer debut — did his best to preserve his side's one-goal advantage with several key stops, including in the 58th minute.

RSL's Jefferson Savarino sent a cross in to Marcelo Silva and the defender put a header on net from the centre of the box. From his knees, Takaoka punched the ball away.

“I think this (game) is a first step for me," Takaoka said. "But result is not good. I am disappointed. So next game is coming, so I have to analyze and keep head up and focus on the next game.”

The Japanese 'keeper made five saves on the night and MacMath — a former Whitecap — stopped six shots for Salt Lake.

Vancouver outshoot the visitors 18-11 across the game, and each team registered seven shots on target.

The visitors knotted the score at 1-1 in the 70th minute when Maikel Chang sailed a pass into the penalty area, over the heads of the leaping Whitecaps' defenders. The ball fell at Justen Glad's foot as he slid toward the net, putting a shot in behind Takaoka.

Two minutes later, Jefferson Savarino sliced a pass to Damir Kreilach and the RSL captain blasted a left-footed shot into the back of the 'Caps net from the centre of the box to put his side up 2-1.

Saturday marked Kreilach's first regular-season MLS game since April 17, 2022. The Croatian midfielder made just five appearances for Salt Lake last season before undergoing major back surgery.

“The things that (Kreilach) brings to the group are so much more than what you see with your eyes," Mastroeni said.

"He brings just an unbelievable amount of leadership to the group, managing the game the right way, leading the press from the front, linking through the midfield, but his greatest asset is scoring goals.”

With Saturday's win, Real Salt Lake have gone unbeaten in 14 straight season-opening matches, setting a new MLS record.

The Whitecaps will be back in action on March 4, taking on the Earthquakes in San Jose.

FOOTNOTES: Real Salt Lake's Jasper Loffelsend was shown the yellow card in the 14th minute after taking down Cristian Dajome as he sprinted up the field. … Newly signed striker Sergio Cordova made his debut for the Whitecaps, coming on for Gressel in the 77th minute. … Takaoka became the first Japanese goalkeeper to play in MLS. … An announced crowd of 19,614 took in the game at B.C. Place.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press