Belief is a funny thing. Maybe that's the best place to start on a Sunday morning after last night's Sporting Kansas City match. Others have already filled my little corner of the interweb with piles of words trying to grapple with the comeback we saw at Sporting Park last night. I'll write about belief.
The Cauldron starts us off with belief for every match. The entire stadium, minus the away-supporters section, bounces up and down chants "I-believe-that-we-will-win! I-believe-that-we-will-win!" for kickoff.
Confidence is a fine way to start a game. Last night I was a little worried, because Sporting was coming off of a midweek match (of course, so was Vancouver). Vancouver's speedy attacking talent is exactly the sort of team that can punish tired legs and the mistakes a fatigued team makes. I chanted along with the rest of the crowd to start the game, but I confess that I maybe thought deep down in my heart that a draw would have been a decent outcome.
When the ridiculously talented Kekuta Manneh pounced on an errant touch from Mustivar to put the visitors on top in the 9th minute, I didn't stop believing that we could win, but I feared that second Whitecap goal from a fatigue induced error would leave Sporting to deal with its first home loss of the season.
The second Whitecap goal did, indeed, come from a fatigue induced mistake in the 41st minute. Wily veteran Steven Beitashour dispossessed rookie Amadou Dia, resulting in another classy strike from Manneh. Over halftime, the discussions in our section of the stands were about when to throw in the towel and rest players. Belief that we would win had reached a rather low ebb.
Vermes eschewed resting legs and made the most offensive minded substitution he could at halftime, bringing in Jacob Peterson for Connor Hallisey. I guess PV still believed we could at least get a point. I knew there was a lot of soccer to go, so I tried to believe.
When Kevin Ellis headed the ball home for Sporting after Vancouver's fatigue produced a disheveled corner kick defense in the 53rd minute, I firmly believed that we could draw. The match felt like it had at least another goal in it, and I hoped it would be ours.
Alas, 20 or so minutes later Paulo Nagamura's handball just outside of the box gave Vancouver a dangerous set piece. You just knew what was going to happen. Pedro Morales struck a perfect ball, Melia never had a chance, and the Boys in Blue were down by 2 goals again in the 75th minute. I promptly tweeted my congratulations to the Whitecaps for being the best team in MLS.
Even the Cauldron's twitter account advocated for staying healthy and living to fight another day.
Then all hell broke lose.
For most of the match, Dom Dwyer and Krisztian Nemeth had been quiet, marked out of the match by the Vancouver defense. The Whitecap' game plan had been as obvious as it had been effective: let Benny possess the ball in harmless positions, and make someone not named Feilhaber, Dwyer or Nemeth score goals. Benny adjusted by making marauding runs through the midfield to create chances; Nemeth had started dropping deeper and deeper to get touches on the ball; Dom had kept working to get into dangerous position at the top of our formation. None of those efforts paid off--until the 81st minute.
Nemeth floated a delicious ball into the box. Dom's hardworking run was rewarded. With 9 minutes of regulation and some stoppage time to go, Sporting was only down a goal. We had every bit of the momentum. All 19,000+ in the crowd had stuck around, and we all believed our team could save a draw out of the game. After trailing by 2 goals twice, a draw would feel like a win.
As the match drew to a close, Vancouver's strategy of making someone other than Feilhaber, Dwyer, and Nemeth beat them ran into a problem named Paulo Nagumura. Naga is many things. He's gritty and tough. He's veteran depth for the injured Espinoza, and we're damn lucky to have him--but he's not a goal scorer. I can't fault any team that comes into Sporting Park and opts to give Naga looks on goal in order to shut down our more proficient scorers, but it turns out that Nagumura had a few goal scoring tricks up his sleeves last night.
Benny made another marauding run and played a ball to Chance that was a thing of beauty. Chance's centering ball looked so simple but was so perfectly played. Then Naga finished with the strike of a natural-born goal scorer. We were level in the 8th minute. I believed that we had snatched a point from the jaws of defeat, but I and the entire crowd believed we could do more. We believed that we could win.
I have seen crazy things happen in Sporting Park. I have seen steam rise from the warm bodies on the frozen pitch as fans huddled in the stands. I've heard the crowd cheer as a goalkeeper with broken ribs saves a penalty kick. I've seen championships won, and I've seen my team knocked out. I've never seen anything like what I saw last night, and I've never heard the place that loud.
The action went end-to-end in stoppage time. I believed that we would lose for a second there when Vancouver looked to have a breakaway, but Besler and Melia came up big (it's rare for a keeper to give up 3 goals and have a helluva game, but Melia had one helluva game).
I believed that we would win as we brought the ball back to our attacking half. Nagamura stepped up again and headed home the game winner just as the fourth of four minutes of stoppage time commenced. I knew that we would win.
Belief is a funny thing. My team is going to lose again at home . . . someday. We went toe to toe with the most dangerous team in MLS last night. We gave the ball away and generally made the kind of silly mistakes that happen when a tired team faces top competition. The Whitecaps punished those mistakes like only they can--with lethal speed and skill. Yet, somehow, we picked up the win. Maybe it's time to believe.
We have to play a lot of games on those tired legs. We host San Jose on Wednesday, and then we have to go to Columbus for the weekend. Pragmatically speaking, with an injury-depleted roster and short rest, we are going to lose at least one of those games.
Pragmatism be damned. I believe that we will win.