VANCOUVER — It wasn't exactly the way Vanni Sartini drew it up, but the Vancouver Whitecaps still captured three points in dramatic fashion on Friday.
The 2-1 victory over the visiting Houston Dynamo is exactly the kind of result the 'Caps will need in order to secure a playoff berth, the head coach said.
“If we win the playoffs, it’s all because of this win," Sartini said. "It’s a very important game. Because we go from zero to three points that allow us to stay on the course.”
The 'Caps (8-10-6) came into the game short-handed after a COVID-19 outbreak forced six players into Major League Soccer's health and safety protocols on Thursday.
The club finished the night two points below the Western Conference playoff bar with 10 games left in the regular season.
“The team has a lot of sacrifice. This team is willing to go the extra mile. And we don’t stop fighting until the last minute," said Lucas Cavallini, who put away the game-winning strike two minutes into injury time.
"It shows a lot of character and great attitude from the players. And we’ve got to keep this up.”
Fans were still filtering to their seats when Houston (7-13-4) opened the scoring in the sixth minute.
Vancouver denied the visitors on a corner but Sam Junqua got to the second ball and sent it in from the top of the penalty area. Fafa Picault got a touch in front of the net, dribbling a shot into the bottom right corner past Whitecaps 'keeper Cody Cropper.
Vancouver struggled mightily across the first half, with the Dynamo hemming them into their own end for extended stretches — a problem that was compounded by frequent defensive lapses.
Houston controlled 63.5 per cent of the possession through the opening 45 minutes. They outshot the home side 6-4 and 2-1 in on-target chances.
Vancouver appeared poised to equalize in the 43rd minute when Julian Gressel delivered a crisp cross into the box where Tosaint Ricketts was sliding toward the net. The Canadian's outstretched foot just missed the ball and the 'Caps went into halftime down 1-0.
Sartini looked to inject some offence into his lineup in the 56th minute, bringing on Cavallini for midfielder Pedro Vite and swapping Michael Baldismo in for Leonard Owusu in the middle of the park.
The move nearly paid dividends three minutes later when Ryan Gauld put the ball on Cavallini's foot and he sailed a shot wide of the post.
While substitutes changed the game drastically, Sartini admitted there were players on his bench who weren't prepared to play.
Midfielders Janio Bickel, Sebastian Berhalter and Alessandro Schopf were in the 18 for "emotional support," he said.
"They wouldn’t have been available if we didn’t have a lot of players out," the coach said.
Houston came close to doubling its lead in the 60th minute after Thorleifur Ulfarsson carved open the 'Caps defence and released a blast from the middle of the box.
Cropper dove to make a stop, with the initial shot going off his outstretched hand, then hitting the post and rolling toward the goal. He pounced on the loose ball moments before it crossed the line.
The 'keeper made three stops for Vancouver on Friday. Houston's Steve Clark stopped two of four on-target shots.
The Whitecaps continued to push late in the second half but frustration showed.
Cavallini was cautioned in the 78th minute for a bad foul and Gauld was shown the yellow card a minute later for a sliding tackle on Picault. Cavallini will be suspended from next week's game due to yellow card accumulation.
Simon Becher came off the bench for the 'Caps in the 82nd minute, making his MLS debut. The 23-year-old striker quickly got to work, sailing a right-footed shot into the net from the top of the six-yard box in the 88th minute.
“It was just kind of getting in the right spot," said Becher, who the Whitecaps took 16th overall in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft. "Those are the positions you want to be in. The ball just fell to me and it was just kind of a reaction, to be honest.”
Defender Ranko Veselinovic set up the game-winning strike in the 92nd minute, putting the ball on Cavallini's foot inside the penalty area.
“I was telling him ‘Slide! Slide! Slide!’ And he ended up getting the ball to me," Cavallini said. "I knew I was all alone and I turned and just wanted to blast it in the net and end the game.”
The Canadian striker leads the Whitecaps in scoring with eight goals on the season.
Contributing to a crucial win is an amazing feeling, he said.
"Words can’t describe it," Cavallini said. "All our sacrifice put into a final goal or a win like that, it’s a relief. And I think it was well deserved."
The Whitecaps will hit the road next week, taking on the Galaxy in L.A.
NOTES: Whitecaps striker Brian White missed Friday's match due to a rib cage strain. … The 'Caps signed Schopf, a 28-year-old Austrian, on Wednesday. … An announced crowd of 14,668 took in the game.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press