EDMONTON - The game plan for FC Edmonton heading into the contest was to keep the ball out of their net.
In a two-game, total-goal format, preventing goals at home can be more important than scoring them.
Unfortunately for the local soccer squad, their plan lasted about 18 minutes before a new one needed to be drawn up.
On Wednesday, FC Edmonton looked overmatched by the Vancouver Whitecaps, falling 2-0, in front of 2,777 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in the first game of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinal.
“The result is disappointing for us,” said FC Edmonton head coach Harry Sinkgraven. “But you can see the difference in the way the two teams play. They are more mature, you could see that in the battles. They’re strong and we lost too many individual battles.
“At halftime I was mad with our defenders because, in my opinion, they dropped back too much, so we could never have pressure in midfield.”
FC Edmonton are the only team in the national championship not currently playing in Major League Soccer, instead toiling in the lower North American Soccer League.
As the game progressed, the difference was noticeable. The Whitecaps took control of the contest with two first-half goals, then came close to extending their lead in the second half.
The win puts the Whitecaps in control heading into the return encounter next Wednesday in Vancouver.
The winner of the series moves on to face either the Montreal Impact or Toronto FC, who played to a scoreless tie earlier in the day. The national champion will play in the continental CONCACAF Champions League.
“We’re very happy to have won the game and to get another clean sheet (shutout),” said Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie. “That’s our seventh in nine games this season, so we’re happy about that.
“I think in the first half we did well and created a few chances. In the second half I though we were still solid defensively, but we didn’t create as much as I would have like to have seen. Overall I’m happy, but it’s only halftime in this (series) and there’s still a lot to play for next week.”
Eric Hassli and Atiba Harris scored the first-half goals for the Whitecaps in the win.
Hassli opened the scoring converting a low cross from Omar Salgado and muscling it past FC Edmonton goalkeeper David Monsalve.
Initially, it appeared Monsalve would smoother the shot taken from just inside the penalty area, but the ball was able to trickle in underneath him.
Just prior to the end of the half, Harris scored from in tight after Salgado’s lob attempt hit the base of the goal posts and bounce to the Whitecaps striker.
The size of the Whitecaps forwards gave the FC Edmonton defence problems all game.
Central defenders Paul Hamilton and Kevin Hatchi had their hands full with Hassli, Salgado and Harris who were able shield the ball then pick out their targets.
“You can see the difference of the NASL and the MLS,” said Hamilton. “Eric Hassli is a world-class striker, he knows how to use his body, he’s a big lad and he likes to control the ball.
“He doesn’t do much running off the ball, but when he gets it, he likes to turn, hold you off and it was something different than I was used to.”
In the second half, FC Edmonton midfielder Ilja Van Leerdam nearly pulled one back for his club, launching a long-distance shot heading towards the bottom corner of the net before Whitecaps goalkeeper Knighton was able to dive across his net and palm it away.
FCE Edmonton have yet to score a goal in national championship games, having been shutout in both encounters last season against Toronto FC.
The Whitecaps had two quality chances of their own in the second half, but Monsalve was able to deny both midfielder David Chiumiento and Long Tan with a pair of quality saves.
“We are a young team in development and you can see it, especially when you talk about maturity,” said Sinkgraven. “It was a good lesson. Hopefully we can do it better next week in Vancouver.”