Toronto FC left with the win. But Vancouver coach Carl Robinson walked out with a smile.
A baby-faced Whitecaps squad escaped the first leg of their Amway Canadian Championship semifinal Wednesday down by just one goal after a 2-1 loss to a star-studded Toronto FC outfit.
"I'm delighted with them. I'm really really proud of the boys in there today," said Robinson.
According to the Whitecaps, the average age of their starting 11 was 21.7 years, with an average of 22.1 for the matchday 18. Toronto, meanwhile, rolled out its big guns in U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley and the strike force of Brazil's Gilberto and England's Jermain Defoe.
'We're talking about a future Canadian [international] goalkeeper. He's absolutely fantastic.' - Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson on keeper Marco Carducci, 17
Standing in their way was 17-year-old Canadian goalie Marco Carducci, whose $36,504 US annual salary is probably what Bradley ($6.5 million) and Defoe ($6.18 million) find in their couch.
Up 1-0 after Defoe's first-half strike, Bradley added what seemed like an insurance goal in the 89th minute, driving down the right and then, after a nifty 1-2 with Defoe, beating Carducci with a right-footed shot.
The Whitecaps responded with a stoppage-time goal from substitute Kekuta Manneh, a valuable away goal that may pay dividends if the total goals series finished tied.
The second leg is next Wednesday in Vancouver.
"I think the tie is wide open," said Robinson.
"I think both teams wanted to win this tie and end it tonight," said Toronto manager Ryan Nelsen. "But it's not [done]. It's up for grabs for both teams."
Nelsen said he would make changes for the return leg, but declined to elaborate. Robinson said he would give his young players another opportunity "because I think they deserve it."
The defending champion Montreal Impact were in Alberta to face FC Edmonton in the later semifinal Wednesday.
Nelsen, whose club had lost its last three MLS outings, called it an awkward game against a young opposition squad looking to prove itself to its coach.
"Boy they were up for it," he said. "It was one of those games where ... you could have easily lost. They're a good team, they're good young players."
He lamented his team was unable to get the second goal earlier, allowing Vancouver to retain its confidence. And when Toronto did score again, it was quickly followed by a Whitecaps goal that "left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth."
Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko certainly looked grim as he left his perch atop the stadium.
Vancouver lived dangerously, carved open at times by a Toronto side that more often than not was unable to punish the visitors. But the Whitecaps, who grew into the game, had stretches when they strung passes together and came close to scoring before the late strike.
Toronto should have led by several goals after 45 minutes on a windy night at BMO Field before an announced crowd of 22,591 despite a good number of empty seats. But it failed to take advantage of some early stage fright from the visitors, putting only three of eight shots on target in the first half, and needed a pair of defensive stops late in the half to avoid going in tied 1-1.
Toronto outshot Vancouver 14-13 over 90 minutes but the visitors had a 6-4 edge in shots on target.
Perhaps the big winner on the night was Canadian soccer, with eight homegrown starters and signs of hope for the future.
Said Nelsen: "Vancouver has a fantastic academy ... I think we're probably a couple of years behind them in producing a steady influx of good young Canadian players."
With a league game in Columbus on Saturday, Robinson gave veterans like centre backs Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien the night off and dipped deep into his touring party of 26 as he blooded a bevy of young talent.
Under Robinson, the Whitecaps are a young side. But he went "younger than young" Wednesday.
In addition to Carducci, the Whitecaps starting 11 included Canadian midfielders Bryce Alderson (20 years old), Marco Bustos (18), Kianz Froese (18) and Russell Teibert (21), who came in the game with 46 MLS appearances under his belt.
Robinson gave the captain's armband to Teibert, calling him "our face of our residency program."
"I was impressed with them, especially their midfielders," said Toronto goalie Joe Bendik.
At 17 years 225 days, Carducci becomes the 12th youngest player — and second youngest 'keeper — to play for the Whitecaps. The youngest was forward Guido Titotto who debuted at 16 years 38 days in 1987.
"We're talking about a future Canadian [international] goalkeeper. He's absolutely fantastic," Robinson said of Carducci, who has already represented Canada at the FUFA U-17 World Cup
Carducci called it a "dream" night.
"It's a positive result for us," he said. "It showed us very well."
Toronto, which has a bye this weekend, played a more conventional lineup with Bendik making his first start of the season in place of Julio Cesar — named to the Brazilian World Cup squad earlier in the day.
Other than Bendik, it was the lineup TFC might have used had it played an MLS game on the night. The only starters missing were Brazilian midfielder Jackson and injured Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio (charley horse).
Vancouver started five Canadians compared to Toronto's three (defender Doneil Henry and midfielders Kyle Bekker and Issey Nakajima-Farran). That tied Vancouver's record for the tournament.
Nelsen had to make a late change before kickoff, replacing rookie Nick Hagglund with fullback Mark Bloom because of a flu bug that has been going through the team.
Bendik, who had 33 starts last season, had long stretches of inactivity but made the tough saves when needed.
"That's the sign of a good 'keeper," said Nelsen, who called Bendik's play "brilliant."
Gilberto, whose goal drought continues, headed woefully wide in the 21st minute. But he played provider in the 28th minute, carving open the Vancouver defence with a nice pass to put Defoe in all alone with plenty of time to beat Carducci.
While Gilberto did not score, he exuded danger whenever he got near the ball and showed a good eye in finding his teammates. And it was a typical Defoe performance with the elusive striker disappearing for stretches then turning up in places where he could do damage.
Bradley, meanwhile, made some surging runs and played surgical defence.
Montreal captured the inaugural Canadian championship in 2008 and won it again last year. Toronto claimed the trophy during the four interim years. Vancouver has finished runner-up the last five years.
The winner hoists the Voyageurs Cup, donated by the Voyageurs' Canadian supporters group, and earns a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, a 24-team competition featuring clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The CONCACAF Champions League winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup.