Whitecaps win MLS opener over Toronto

The Vancouver Whitecaps marked their Major League Soccer debut in fine fashion Saturday, beating Toronto FC 4-2 in the league's first Canadian derby before a sell-out hometown crowd of 23,00 spectators at Empire Field.

This one was for the hundreds of people who lined up on Hastings Street a full two hours before kickoff.

It was for the Southsiders, the Vancouver Whitecaps' oldest supporters group, which has followed the club during some trying times dating back to the club’s days at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C.

It was for Bobby Lenarduzzi, the ex-Whitecaps star who before going to the game visited his mother — she still lives on Dundas Street, just a stone’s throw away from Empire Field, in the same house he grew up in.

It was for Whitecaps fans who have been through an emotional rollercoaster, experiencing dizzying heights (an NASL championship in 1979) and perilous lows (the team nearly folded in 2002).

It was for Vancouver.

The Whitecaps marked their Major League Soccer debut in fine fashion Saturday, beating Toronto FC 4-2 in the league’s first Canadian derby before a capacity hometown crowd of 22,592 spectators at Empire Field.

French striker Eric Hassli, Atiba Harris and Canadian midfielder Terry Dunfield scored for the Whitecaps, with Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos tallying for TFC.

Pleasing performance

The Whitecaps’ debut was in stark contrast to that of the Reds, who lost their first four games before finally winning a month into their first MLS season in 2007.

But not even the most die-hard Vancouver fan could have predicted a victory would be this convincing and easy for the Whitecaps against a TFC side that has enjoyed the benefit of four years experience in MLS.

In the days leading up to the match, Whitecaps coach Teitur Thordarson stressed he wouldn’t be as concerned with the score as with his team’s performance. The Icelandic tactician was more than pleased with what he saw from his players on a crisp and sunny afternoon in Vancouver.

"I think we had a very good game," a modest Thordarson said. "We couldn’t have asked for a better start than this."

Hassli and Harris were a menacing presence up front for the Whitecaps, feeding off the service provided by Dunfield, Davide Chiumiento and Canadian teenager Russell Teibert. The quintet gave TFC’s beleaguered defence fits, emphatically rebutting critics who predicted this team would not be able to score.

Thordarson explained the Whitecaps’ success was a product of hard work and remaining faithful to its attacking philosophy.

"We were absolutely decided to continue to play the way we usually do, when we try to be as attacking-minded as we could," Thordarson said.

Steely defence

Captain Jay DeMerit marshalled a well-organized and steely Whitecaps defence that, except for on two occasions, looked impenetrable.

"It’s all about performing on the field. We said all along that if we stayed together and prepared, we would perform and it would show on the field," said DeMerit.

As for Toronto FC, you could hardly be faulted for mistaking them for the Washington Generals at times. Comical defending, sloppy passing and a lack of midfield creativity made the Whitecaps look like the Harlem Globetrotters by comparison.

TFC coach Aron Winter clearly has some work to do, especially on the defensive side, as Hassli and Harris routinely found large swathes of open space behind the Reds’ back line.

Toronto defender Dan Gargan tried to look on the bright side after his team’s embarrassing effort.

"We have 33 games left, [so] I don’t think we need to regroup," Gargan stated. "Obviously, this wasn’t the result we wanted … but we knew coming into this game that we’re not a finished product and we won’t be a finished product after two or three games."

Raining ponchos

Hassli wrote his name into the record books in the 15th minute when he scored the Whitecaps’ first MLS goal. Chiumiento made a great run down the right and floated a cross into the box that TFC failed to clear, allowing Hassli to fire home from eight yards out.

Hassli referred to his goal as a "personally special moment" in his career.

"It’s a first victory for the Whitecaps in MLS. But it was a group win. It’s all of the players and everybody who works behind the scenes. It’s history for everyone," Hassli said through an interpreter.

Whitecaps fans celebrated by throwing rain ponchos on the field, delaying the game for several minutes in a scene reminiscent of when TFC supporters tossed seat cushions onto the pitch at BMO Field after Danny Dichio scored the Reds’ first goal five years ago.

History was made a second time five minutes after Hassli’s goal, this time by the Reds.

Santos played a beautiful, defence-splitting pass for De Rosario, who fired a sublime shot by Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly at the far post. The goal was the 8,000th in MLS history.

Dunfield, a native of Vancouver, restored the Whitecaps’ lead in the 26th minute.

Chiumiento again was the provider, taking advantage of some slack TFC defending and slipping a pass into the box for Dunfield who fired past goalkeeper Stefan Frei.

Lots of scoring chances

Chiumiento came out at half time with a hamstring injury, but the Whitecaps barely skipped a beat without the Swiss star. Hassli and Harris continued to give TFC’s defence all kinds of problems, each of them carving out scoring chances minutes after the re-start.

Harris found the back of the net in the 63rd minute and again it was a defensive miscue that led to the goal. TFC couldn’t clear a Whitecaps corner kick, as the ball bounced off the knee of Dan Gargan and fell favourably to Harris, who blasted it home.

Harris should have scored again minutes later when he gave TFC’s defence the slip, but he couldn’t beat Frei on a one-on-one breakaway.

Hassli made in 4-1 in the 72nd minute, completing a fantastic three-way passing sequence that ripped TFC’s defence to shreds.

Santos replied two minutes for Toronto, but the damage was already done, and the Whitecaps were well on their way to comfortably earning a historic victory.

Toronto plays its home opener against the Portland Timbers on March 26. Vancouver plays its first road match the same day versus the Philadelphia Union.