Maybe all those games finally caught up with the Puerto Rico Islanders. Maybe that's why when their outside midfielders needed to close down a cross in Sunday night's USL First Division title match, the Islanders were a step slow.
Those were the type of plays top-seeded Puerto Rico made all summer during USL play and over the past six weeks in the CONCACAF Champions League competition. But No. 2 Vancouver was better in the big moments Sunday in Burnaby, British Columbia, and won 2-1 thanks to a pair of second-half goals from Gbeke. Tough and organized work on defense limited the creative Islanders and the Whitecaps got just enough service from its midfield to win a second championship in three years. Two years ago, Vancouver won its first title since 1979 (NASL) by going to Rochester and winning, 3-0.
That's the only time the visiting team has won the championship match in the past 13 years, but it's worth a note. Seven of these Whitecaps were on that squad.
Puerto Rico (16-8-9) and its fans will continue to question the league's decision to allow Vancouver (18-9-8), the lower seed, to host. It's determined through a bidding process with a criteria not made for public consumption.
So that's why 5,822 fans rocked Swangard Stadium on Sunday instead of about twice as many doing that in Puerto Rico's park.
"You buy the final. It cost money. There's no other reason," Islanders coach Colin Clarke told the Vancouver Sun after the match.
But that's a flimsy excuse.
Puerto Rico was the USL's top road team with a record of 7-3-5 in away games. Playing 14 matches over six weeks, plus plenty of travel, is a much better excuse. Location had little to do with Gbeke soaring twice over defenders to spike headers past Gaudette.
On the first one, the USL journeyman did it against Cristian Arrieta, one of the USL's best.
Vancouver veteran Martin Nash had enough time and space to swing in a few first-half crosses that didn't lead to goals. However, it was hustling midfielder Justin Moose, a handful all night for Puerto Rico, banging a pass off a defender to earn a corner kick in the 55th minute.
Team captain Jeff Clarke's near-post run and wonderful flick of Alfredo Valente's corner set up Gbeke on the back post; Clarke had one assist all season. From just inside the six-yard box, Gbeke jumped up and over Arrieta, leaning into the defender. Arrieta stayed on his feet, and later looked around for a referee's whistle that never came, when he should have challenged.
Gbeke directed his shot perfectly, too, into the side netting inside the far post.
But Puerto Rico came back, scoring on a quick combination that was its hallmark all season. Two short passes from Jonny Steele and Scott Jones pushed the ball to Noah Delgado just outside the penalty area. He cut the ball back and Sandi Gbandi found enough space in front to score on an eight-yard header to tie it in the 68th minute.
That was one of the few holes the Vancouver defense -- Clarke, Lyle Martin, Steve Kindel and Wesley Charles (like Gbeke a critical midseason pickup) -- gave up. They bodied up when necessary, retreated when they needed to and cleared balls decisively to make sure Puerto Rico counterattacks didn't materialize.
The game-winner came in the 73rd minute, starting with Nash's simple throw in to Moose. He took a couple of touches right of the goal just inside the box and was able to turn the corner on Delgado, who needed to make sure he didn't allow a cross but was a step behind on weary legs.
Gaudette took one step at Moose's floater across the six-yard line, then backed off. The fourth-year pro is known for his aggressiveness. This time a lack of it cost him. Gbeke faded expertly behind defender William Yomby, leaped and scored again on a header from only five yards out.
The 6-foot-2 Gbeke had been on the wrong side of the title game in 2006 as a backup with Rochester. Sunday he was the star, earning MVP honors. He was Montreal's team MVP in 2007, scoring 10 goals, but had just one in 12 matches this season before the Impact gave up on him. Montreal traded the 30-year-old to Vancouver on June 30 for third-year midfielder Tony Donatelli.
At the time, Gbeke said he told his father that while he'd miss Montreal, where the Ivory Coast native grew up, he had a good vibe going to Vancouver, where he had played briefly in 2001. Gbeke knew he'd get to play with another veteran forward, Eduardo Sebrango, 35, the type of running mate he needs.
Sebrango is unselfish and never stops running. Sebrango draws attention, clearing space for a bull like Gbeke to barrel up the middle to like a running back following his fullback through the hole.
That's exactly what happened on Sunday. Gbeke was out of shape in July, so first-year coach Teitur Thordarson told him to get fit. He had three goals in 14 matches.
He nearly doubled that Sunday.
Vancouver and Puerto Rico posted draws at Swangard on Aug. 17 (0-0) and Aug. 31 (1-1) in Puerto Rico. The Islanders also won, 1-0, at home on Sept. 5 on Delgado's goal in the 89th minute. So the 'Caps were leery of a comeback. They didn't let that happen again.
After it was 2-1, they played possession smartly and goalie Jay Nolly was flawless. He did well in the 78th minute to stop a 22-yard shot without giving up a dangerous rebound. Vancouver was fresher to the end. In fact, Thordarson never even made a substitution.
Puerto Rico may have nearly swept the USL year-end awards -- Clarke and Arrieta were named the top coach and defender, respectively, and Steele was MVP -- but Vancouver was the better team on Sunday.
Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.