SEATTLE — In Clint Dempsey’s first match back with the Seattle Sounders, it was one of his direct adversaries who made the biggest impact in attack. Vancouver Whitecaps center back Pa Modou Kah scored twice in a 3–0 win, which featured a fire typical of the Cascadia rivalry.
“I think more than the result, the performance was absolutely fantastic,” Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson said after the game. “We’ll enjoy it today, but we’ll get back to work on Monday because we’ve got another huge game against Seattle on Wednesday.”
The Whitecaps’ midfield and forward blocks comprised six players all 23 years old or younger. Their youthful excitement—especially in a rivalry match—meant Robinson’s players came out with a zest that pushed them over the top.
After they created opportunities, Kah, 35, was on hand to finish them. His first goal came just six minutes in, latching onto a corner kick that Brad Evans couldn’t clear properly and volleying home from inside the penalty area.
“From a young manager’s point of view, you need your senior players, and they come up big from Monday to Friday as well as sometimes on Saturday,” Robinson said. “That’s what he’s done today, but he’s so important in the locker room for me.”
Kah extended the lead four minutes after halftime, finishing with a neat backheel after a one-two off another corner, taken short by Cristian Techera to Kekuta Manneh and returned. With 15 minutes remaining, Pedro Morales put a free kick from 24 yards out on the left side directly into the net with nearly his first touch of the game to complete the scoring.
The third goal also capped a frustrating night for Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Manager Sigi Schmid said he could tell from the bench that the defensive wall sat too far to the left on the free kick, giving Morales space to curl his shot inside the near post.
Saturday’s match marked the first of four meetings in the next two months between Seattle and Vancouver after being drawn into the same CONCACAF Champions League group as well. The teams will swap cities and go again four days later on Wednesday at B.C. Place in the Champions League.
For the Whitecaps, August will be a vital month in assessing their 2015 fortunes, with eight total games across three different competitions spanning 29 days. Then on Sept. 19, Vancouver hosts another league meeting against the Sounders, followed by another CONCACAF match on Sept. 23 in Seattle.
Despite playing one another frequently in the near future, Schmid said he doesn’t anticipate many changes from either side.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “It doesn’t complicate it ... You just play them again.”
It’s not as if these two organizations aren’t plenty familiar with one another already.
The Sounders-Whitecaps rivalry dates back to 1974 and the old North American Soccer League, through the A League and old United Soccer Leagues First Division and finally to MLS. Seattle leads the all-time series with a 64-50-22 record (The Portland Timbers complete the trifecta of Pacific Northwest clubs that battle for the supporter-driven Cascadia Cup every season).
Saturday’s match certainly had a rivalry feel to it. Not five minutes in, Nicolás Mezquida flailed an arm in an aerial challenge with Chad Marshall, leaving the big Sounders center back on the ground. Less than half an hour later, Dempsey and Gershon Koffie exchanged words at a distance close enough to feel each other’s breath.
It didn’t quiet down in the second half. Gonzalo Pineda took an elbow from Octavio Rivero in the 57th minute that left him with blood dripping from his eyebrow as he stood up.
The two players had left the field at halftime jawing at each other all the way to the locker rooms. Pineda had to be restrained by teammates from going after the Uruguayan as their conflict flared up again.
“Guys get under each others’ skin a little bit more because they remember that they got kicked in the last game from this guy or things like that,” Schmid said of the quick rematch. “Those things are things that players will remember.”
Besides the obvious contention and general ill feeling toward one another, Seattle and Vancouver’s contrasting playing philosophies set up an intriguing stretch of games. The Sounders have been without Dempsey and Obafemi Martins since June 16, when Martins picked up a groin injury and Dempsey earned his infamous red card and three-game suspension for ripping up a referee’s notebook in a U.S. Open Cup loss to Portland.
Seattle struggled to score without its big-money attackers, only managing one goal in seven games without them. Even so, Schmid said getting Dempsey and Evans back from CONCACAF Gold Cup duty with the U.S. national team doesn’t mean everything is automatically back to normal, as the Sounders’ continued lack of production on Saturday showed.
“It’s never going to be that easy,” Schmid said. “I think I tried to caution people who thought, O.K., everybody’s back, so then it’s a snap of the fingers and it’s going to all happen again. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to get guys back playing together, back on the same page.”
For example, Schmid pointed out that Dempsey and Sounders wingers Thomás and Erik Friberg never played together in a competitive atmosphere before Saturday. With cohesion between players clearly lacking, Dempsey only managed one serious scoring chance, a header in the 84th minute off a free kick that bounced harmlessly wide.
On the other end, Vancouver has been riding its younger players’ energy all season. Saturday’s win took the Whitecaps to the top of the Western Conference and into the Cascadia Cup lead.
“We know we’ve got a young squad, but [with] the energy that they can bring to the table, we thought we would go out and surprise them a little bit, and that’s exactly what happened,” Robinson said. “Yes, they make mistakes, but I still back them to the hilt, and I’ll continue to do that.”
Of course, opponents won’t necessarily appreciate every aspect of playing against a rawer Whitecaps side.
Frei wasn’t too enamored with his opponents’ celebrations on the CenturyLink Field pitch after the game. It was the first match of the season in which the stadium’s full capacity was open for fans, and 53,125 tickets were distributed to what ended up being an embarrassing loss for the home team—its eighth in the last 10 league games.
“To me, if you take a team picture like you just won a trophy on an enemy’s field, so to speak, I take that personally,” Frei said. “If somebody comes up to me and tells me I played a good game and laughs in my face, I take that personally.”
With such a quick turnaround between games featuring the same teams, Seattle has a quick chance for revenge on Wednesday—in the stadium where the Sounders won 2–0 earlier this season.
“When you play back to back in a series that’s tight, hopefully they’ll remember that they went out and celebrated on our field a little bit, and that pisses us off,” Schmid said. “We’ve got to make sure that we right that and we pay them back for that ... I don’t think teams should come in here and be taking snapshots and pictures on our field. It pisses me off, and I think it pisses off our players.”