Before another packed house at Empire Field, the Vancouver Whitecaps picked up their fourth victory of what has proven to be a troubled inaugural MLS season. With a goal by substitute winger Shea Salinas, his first as a Whitecap, the team improved its record to 4-13-9.
It was a solid performance and the win was a big lift for the team, but the bigger story lies under the surface, and it's one that should give Whitecaps fans hope moving forward.
After enduring some deservedly harsh criticism after the Portland game last week, the Whitecaps back line, including goalkeeper Joe Cannon, put in a solid shift to blank the Dynamo's vaunted strike force.
It is a soccer truism that defense wins games, and for much of the season the Whitecaps defense was not doing its job too well. Whether it was due to injuries (captain Jay DeMerit and Alain Rochat, notably) or a combination of youth and fatigue (Michael Boxall and Greg Janicki), the Whitecaps were hard pressed to field a consistently strong defense.
Add to that the constant flip-flopping in goal between Cannon and Jay Nolly, and you've got a recipe for poor organization and communication issues galore. All of those problems were at the forefront in the Portland game, where the Timbers didn't rip the Whitecaps apart so much as the Whitecaps' defense gifted them with goals.
But Saturday night saw a different Whitecaps back line, one that was composed, resolute, and could conceivably be called the strongest back five the team can field at this point.
The difference lies in the middle, where Rochat and DeMerit were paired together for the first time in months, and the first time since the acquisition of left back Jordan Harvey.
When Harvey was first acquired, from the Philadelphia Union for allocation money, many Whitecaps fans questioned the move. In Alain Rochat, the team boasted an incumbent left back who had quickly become one of the better ones in the league. Why in earth would the team replace him?
It became clear very quickly that Harvey wasn't brought in to upgrade at left, he was brought in to upgrade the center by freeing up Rochat to become DeMerit's first choice partner. It may have taken a few games, but the partnership came to fruition last night.
While at times it looked like Rochat may have been rushed back from injury a tad too quickly, he and DeMerit nevertheless stamped their authority on the game, forming a good understanding with each other and with Cannon. Timely interceptions, strong tackles, and good distribution were hallmarks of their game, and they were strong for the full ninety minutes. If both men stay healthy, fans will be glad to see them marshaling the back for years to come.
They're not the only back line heroes either. Harvey showed that he is a worthy successor to Rochat at left, showcasing a Patrice Evra-like proclivity for dynamic attacking runs and great forward passing. In fact, it was he that began the move that led to Salinas' goal, delivering a nice early ball that sent the winger forward. With that and his assist last week at Portland, it looks like the left back role will be his to lose.
And Joe Cannon in goal proved naysayers wrong with a solid shift between the sticks, making a couple of really good saves. Criticized at times, and dropped for Nolly more than once, Cannon proved that he still has it with a fantastic save from a deflected shot and an even better one from a close range header.
There is still much work to be done, particularly in midfield, but last night was a good step for the team. If the defense can hold together for the rest of the season, the Whitecaps will have a strong core to build upon for next year.