The Vancouver Whitecaps opened up the 2013 MLS regular season with a win over their Canadian rivals, Toronto FC, but the excitement was slightly tempered.
The Whitecaps had a shaky opening 45 minutes but came alive in the second half to earn a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC before a crowd of 21,000 fans at BC Place Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
DeMerit, who had been struggling Achilles tendinitis throughout training camp, left the match early in the first half after going up for a ball in the seventh minute and landing awkwardly on his left leg.
He needed to be helped off the field and wasn’t putting pressure on his left foot.
The club stated it was a left calf strain. There was no further update following the match.
As a result, Brad Rusin, the 6’4″ defender and an offseason acquisition, made his Whitecaps debut earlier than head coach Martin Rennie had intended.
However, Rusin fit in right away.
“Brad Rusin’s a very good player. I’ve said that a lot in preseason,” said head coach Martin Rennie.
“He’s excellent in the air, he’s a good passer of the ball, he’s a good athlete and I think that he can be a very good player for the Whitecaps. I’ve thought that for a long time. I’ve tried to get him to this club for over a year and I think you could see today just how good a player he is.”
Striker Kenny Miller was given the captain’s armband in DeMerit’s absence.
Gershon Koffie got the home side on the board in the 59th minute.
The talented Ghanian midfielder, who signed an extension with the Whitecaps and obtained a Canadian permanent residency card this week, finished off a beautiful passing play that started with Y.P. Lee just outside the box and then a classy touch pass from Daigo Kobayashi.
Koffie took the Kobayashi touch and blistered a right-footed boot from just inside the box to the back of the net.
“l saw Daigo in the box so I followed the pass and he laid it out for me,” said Koffie.
It was a goal that seemed inevitable.
The Whitecaps began the second half with enormous pressure on the Reds, and after a handful of unsuccessful attempts in around the Toronto net, finally broke the deadlock.
Perhaps they were spurred on by the substitution of English Premier League veteran Nigel Reo-Coker, who came on to start the second half.
He replaced 18-year-old rookie Kekuta Manneh, the Whitecaps’ first-round pick, fourth overall, in this year’s MLS SuperDraft.
“I felt great. All I did was be myself,” said Reo-Coker.
“I thought the boys played well. I thought that with the ability and quality we have we just needed a little bit more injection, a little bit more tempo to our game. I thought if we stepped up the tempo a little bit more we’d get the result.”
Manneh showed glimpses of great potential. So, too, did Erik Hurtado, the Whitecaps fifth overall pick in the draft who came into the game late in the second half for Kobayashi.
Manneh used his speed to burst past defenders and showed his creative side, but there were times of struggle as well.
“I don’t think he was nervous,” said Rennie.
“The issue in the first half that we weren’t winning second balls in the midfield and therefor we didn’t have enough possession of the ball and create enough chances. And a player like Kekuta is going to rely on getting the ball. You could see little spells of how sharp he is in the final third and how dangerous is he.
“I was happy with his contribution and with young players you’re going to get moments of good play and moments of bad play and the fans and all of us need to be patient with that. But I was played with how he did.”
Joe Cannon, the 38-year-old goalkeeper who was relegated to the bench late last season in favour of Brad Knighton, got the start in goal for Vancouver.
He finished the game with two saves for his first clean sheet of the year.
“Both goalkeepers have done well in preseason. We just felt as a staff…that Joe had done just a little bit better,” said Rennie.
“He’s obviously been a number one goalkeeper for a long time, he has that experience, he’s been in the opening day many, many times and he knows how to handle that pressure and we just felt it was right to reward the quality of his play in preseason.”
The win was the Whitecaps’ first over Toronto FC since March 19, 2011.
Vancouver had lost four times and had a pair of draws combined over MLS regular season and Amway Canadian Championship play against Toronto since then.