This is an expanded version of my story that appears in Sunday's Inquirer. Go buy the paper, then come back here for more quotes and video highlights.
VANCOUVER, B.C. - The Union made a long trip across the continent this weekend to start the first of two straight games against the worst teams in Major League Soccer.
The Vancouver Whitecaps came into Saturday’s game firmly planted at the bottom of the Western Conference. But playing at home for the first time since director of soccer operations Tom Soehn replaced Teitur Thordasson as head coach, Vancouver looked nothing like a team that had not won since its home opener.
Buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd of 20,168 fans at Empire Field, the Whitecaps moved the ball around with much more confidence than the Union did, and got the game’s only goal in the 12th minute to deal the Union a 1-0 loss.
"We’re like a charity right now, giving life and points to other teams," Union manager Peter Nowak quipped after the game.
Nowak made his first big move of the night before kickoff, giving new forward Veljko Paunović a place in the starting lineup over Danny Mwanga.
Paunović, who wore No. 16 for the Union (6-4-4, 22 points), played in a forward partnership with Sebastien Le Toux, and with Mwanga after he came on as a halftime substitute. Paunović saw very little of the ball, and did not take any shots. He was substituted out in the 59th minute for Michael Farfan.
"You can see [Paunović] needs match fitness, but I think that for 60 minutes it was a good job," Nowak said.
Paunović said his aim was to play as a withdrawn forward, providing Le Toux with service from behind.
"We just needed more concentration in the last 20 meters, to find the last pass and score the goal," Paunović said.
Nowak also started midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi in place of the injured Gabriel Farfan. It was Miglioranzi’s first action since playing 11 minutes as a substitute on June 4, and his first start since April 9.
Miglioranzi and Brian Carroll patrolled the center of midfield, with an eye on containing Vancouver’s creative trio of midfielder David Chiumiento and forwards Eric Hassli and Camilo. But it was a defender who caused the Union the most trouble early in the game.
After taking a pass from Chiumiento, Alain Rochat found some open space about 20 yards out from goal on the left side. Rochat decided to shoot, and unleashed a powerful strike that flew across Faryd Mondragón’s goal mouth and into the net.
The Whitecaps (2-6-8, 14 points) courted controversy in the 31st minute. Rochat tripped up Le Toux about 20 yards from goal on the right side, but referee Alex Prus did not call a foul. With Le Toux down holding his knee, Vancouver continued to play - despite vocal protests from the Union that they should do the sporting thing and put the ball out of bounds because of the evident injury.
Prus made another controversial decision in the 36th minute, as Carlos Valdés was given a yellow card after Hassli somewhat theatrically hit the artificial surface while next to Valdés. Replays showed that the Colombian defender made very little, if any, contact with Hassli - especially in the context of the earlier tackle by Rochat.
That was the last dramatic moment of the first half.
The Union made their first substitution at halftime, as Danny Mwanga replaced Miglioranzi. But Mwanga’s speed and energy did not lead to any more quality chances for the Union.
The Union’s first chance to score in the second half didn’t come until the 67th minute, and it wasn’t even from a shot on goal. A floated ball from Farfan into Vancouver’s 18-yard box clearly struck the outstretched left arm of former Union midfielder Shea Salinas, but Prus did not give a penalty kick.
One of Vancouver’s many chances to double their lead came in the 80th minute, when Mondragón got stranded almost halfway to midfield after coming out to clear a loose ball. But Carroll saved the day with a leaping block of a shot from Nizar Khalfan.
Moments later, the Union got one of their few quality chances on the night, but could not convert. A shot from close range by Kyle Nakazawa was deflected to Le Toux in front of goal, but his scrambled attempt in traffic went inches wide of the post.
In the 81st minute, midfielder Roger Torres came in for left back Jordan Harvey. That opened up the Union’s attack some, but it also left the team vulnerable in defense. Hassli nearly took advantage on a breakaway in the 85th minute, but Mondragón made a sliding stop to break up the play.
The Union got one more chance to scramble in an equalizer in second-half stoppage time, but despite crowding the box full of players they could not put the ball in the net. Prus blew his whistle soon thereafter, and the Whitecaps had just their second win of the season.
Although Nowak admitted that the artificial surface at Empire Field caused his team trouble, Paunović refused to use it as an excuse.
"We shouldn’t say we would be better if we were playing on a natural [grass] field," he said.
It might not have been much of a salve for Vancouverites still sour over the Canucks’ loss in the Stanley Cup final, but the Whitecaps' second win of the season was still a chance to celebrate.
Led by the colorful Southsiders supporters' club, fans made themselves heard with call-and-response cheers and by stamping their feet on the metal bleachers at Empire Field.
The Whitecaps' home is a temporary facility that has been built to house Vancouver's soccer and Canadian Football League teams until renovations at the BC Place stadium downtown are completed later this year.
Although Empire Field is a new venue, the site of the stadium has a lot of soccer history to it. Back in the North American Soccer League era, the Whitecaps played on this same plot of land at the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds.
By the time the Union return to Vancouver next year, BC Place will have long since been up and running. The venue which played host to the 2010 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies is in the midst of an elaborate transformation, from a domed indoor venue to an outdoor facility with a retractable roof held up by an architecturally dramatic ring of metal trusses.
BC Place's opening is still a ways off, though: the Whitecaps won't play their first game there until September 24.
So until then, the team is creating memories for a new generation of fans at a place that still stirs the hearts of those who were around when the Whitecaps won the 1979 NASL championship.
It's a safe bet that the Union will not have many positive memories of Empire Field. Now they face a quick turnaround before preparing for a Wednesday night home game against Sporting Kansas City, the worst team in the East.
The old saying is that charity begins at home, and that was the case when the Union gave up a 1-1 draw to Real Salt Lake last weekend. On Wednesday, the Union will hope that that the "charity" to which Nowak referred also comes to an end at PPL Park.