Lucas Cavallini and his Vancouver Whitecaps teammates knew what was on the line Saturday night.
The squad was on a four-game losing streak with their playoff hopes consistently growing more dim.
“We knew that today was fundamental, that we had to win, no matter what, to stay in the fight,” Cavallini said.
That knowledge propelled the ‘Caps to 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake (4-7-6) in Portland on Saturday.
At times, however, the end result seemed in doubt.
Vancouver (6-11-0) gave up the game’s first goal in the 37th minute due to some weak defence.
Salt Lake’s Justin Meram put the ball at the feet of an unmarked Damir Kreilach, who tapped it in for a 1-0 lead.
The goal marked the first on-target shot by either team on Saturday.
WATCH | Cavallini’s winner helps snap Vancouver’s 4-game losing skid:
Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos said his team knew just how dangerous Kreilach and Meram are after watching video of the duo earlier in the week.
Dos Santos went into halftime “incredibly upset,” but focused on what his team could fix over the following 45 minutes.
His message to the players was simple: you have a choice.
“[I said] we have the choice to decide to get the excuse of it’s such a hard year and blah blah blah or the choice of saying `No, let’s prove everybody wrong,”” he said after the win. “A lot of people don’t believe we can make the [playoffs]and a lot of people don’t believe in this team. So it’s a huge opportunity.”
The team responded, forcing an own goal by RSL’s Douglas Martinez in the 71st minute.
Four minutes later, ‘Caps striker Fredy Montero got off a nice shot but was stopped by Andrew Putna. The RSL ‘keeper couldn’t control the rebound, though, and the ball popped out to Cavallini instead. The 27-year-old Canadian striker immediately sent a rocket into the Salt Lake net for the go-ahead goal.
Dos Santos was proud of how his group responded on Saturday.
“A group that’s not together doesn’t bounce back the way we did,” he said. “We kept believing.”
RSL pushed hard for a draw through the final 15 minutes, even bringing Putna out of his net and into the attacking area in injury time.
Vancouver netminder Evan Bush withstood the barrage despite a pair of collisions with RSL players.
The 34 year old joined the ‘Caps in a trade from the Montreal Impact late last month and is the fourth man to start in goal for the club this season. Canadians Maxime Crepeau (fractured thumb) and Thomas Hasal (concussion and tibia stress fracture) both had their seasons cut short by injury.
The injury history wasn’t lost on Bush, who spent several moments on the field being looked at by the trainers.
“Looking at what’s happened to other Whitecaps’ goalkeepers this year, it might be a cursed position,” he said with a laugh after the game.
The victory was his first Saturday since Aug. 28, 2019.
Playoffs still in sight
The group has talked a lot recently about how games don’t stop after one goal, Bush said.
“I think maybe in the past few games we’ve put our heads down after we’ve gone down a goal and then we’ve kind of taken ourselves out of the game and things kind of snowballed,” he said. “I think the way we handled the second half was very professionally done and I was very proud.”
The win moves Vancouver up the standings in Major League Soccer’s congested Western Conference. The ‘Caps now have 18 points and sit two spots back from a playoff position.
Winning also changed the mood in the locker room, Cavallini said.
“After the game today, I saw a different mentality in the players,” he said. “We have to enjoy it today, enjoy the victory. And then tomorrow, get ready for the game on Wednesday.”
The Whitecaps will play their fourth game in 16 days Wednesday when they host Los Angeles FC in Portland.