Gbeke stars as Vancouver wins USL championship

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Charles Gbeke wasn't with Vancouver at the start of the season. But he was there on Sunday evening, and good thing he was. The 30-year-old striker, who was traded from Montreal midseason, scored twice as the Whitecaps won their second USL-1 championship in three years with a 2-1 win over Puerto Rico in front of the home fans at Swangard Stadium.

The combined record of USL-1 home teams in this year's playoffs was 11-0.

After a scoreless first half, the game exploded in the second period. Gbeke opened the scoring in the 55th minute with a stunning display of power. Jeff Clarke flicked a corner kick on to the back post and Gbeke outjumped and out muscled Puerto Rico's Cristian Arrieta to slam a header into the net.

The goal inspired the visitors, who pressed higher up the field and began to gain some possession. In the 68th minute, they got their equalizer. Puerto Rico international Noah Delgado beat a man on the left side and lofted a cross toward the back post. Sandi Gbandi timed his run perfectly and headed the back across the grain into the side netting.

Just five minutes later, though, Gbeke restored Vancouver's lead for good. Off a quick throw-in on the right side, Justin Moose, who was active and dangerous all night, beat his man and served a tantalizing ball into the area. USL Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Guadette chose to stay on his line, and Gbeke went unchallenged by four Islanders defenders. His snap header crashed into the back of the net, setting off celebrations at Swangard.

Puerto Rico attempted to get back in the game, but Taiwo Atieno's long shot was saved by Jay Nolly, and Gbandi's volley, after a misclearance, sailed high over the bar.

The last chance to level came in the 90th minute, when Delgado's swerved freekick nearly picked out Josh Hansen, but the well-traveled striker's attempt went wide.

The Islanders will take solace in the fact that they still have much to play for in the CONCACAF Champions League. They are currently at the top of Group D with a good chance of advancing to the knockout stages.

Vancouver have now won two of the last three USL-1 championships and proven they are one of the powerhouses of North America's second division. The club are reportedly interesting in jumping up to Major League Soccer, and with MLS expansion bids due this week, this trophy will certainly give their hopes some momentum. --