Whitecaps and Impact win USL-1 semis
For the first time in league history, two Canadian clubs will meet for the USL First Division Championship as the Montreal Impact posted their fourth straight playoff victory Sunday and the Vancouver Whitecaps held on for a draw to advance from their semifinal series.
In a battle of Champions League peers, the Montreal Impact used early goals in both legs of their series against the third-seeded Puerto Rico Islanders to return to the championship for the first time since winning their second title in 2004. Tony Donatelli scored eight minutes into the first match in Montreal with Roberto Brown doubling the advantage at the 20-minute mark on an assist from Peter Byers.
Jonathan Steele struck in the 31st minute to pull the Islanders within one, but a Byers strike just two minutes into the second leg in Puerto Rico put the Impact back in front by two goals. Then the defense stepped in for Montreal as they kept the Islanders off the board until Josh Hansen converted a penalty four minutes from time.
Hansen's goal tied the game and put the Islanders in reach of leveling the series, but Eduardo Sebrango dashed all hopes with a stoppage time strike to send the Impact through 4-2 on aggregate.
In a battle of champions on the west coast, the defending league champion Vancouver Whitecaps were led by a pair of veterans in a wild series. In the first leg at home, Charles Gbeke scored 25 minutes into the affair against their regional rival Portland. The regular season champion Timbers answered back on a controversial hand ball call when Ryan Pore tallied from the spot just before halftime. But Gbeke set up Marcus Haber four minutes into the second half to restore Vancouver's advantage.
In what many expected may be a tight affair given Vancouver's second leg scoreless quarterfinal contest and Portland's defensive performance on the year, the second match proved anything but as the two sides dueled to a thrilling 3-3 draw.
Ansu Toure found Haber for a head four minutes in to push Vancouver's series lead to two, but Portland's Brian Farber connected twice in the 10th and 43rd minutes of the match to knot the series up at 3-3.
In the second half, veteran Martin Nash proved the hero for Vancouver as he ripped a fantastic free kick into the upper corner on the hour mark and then sent a corner kick into the box that saw Marlon James knock home a loose ball on a scramble in the area in the 71st minute, putting the Whitecaps back in front by two goals in the series.
Late Portland sub Alex Nimo made an immediate impact, scoring on his first touches in the 83rd minute, firing a long-range effort past Jay Nolly only two minutes after entering the match, creating a frenzy in the final minutes as Portland tried to find the series equalizer to force overtime. The much-needed goal, however, never materialized as the Whitecaps took the series 5-4 on aggregate, giving them the opportunity to become the first repeat champions since the 2000-01 Rochester Rhinos.