Cruising through to the quarterfinals in CONCACAF Champions League play will come with a massive challenge for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The ‘Caps advanced Wednesday after completing a 7-3 aggregate win over Honduran side Real CD Espana.
Getting through, though, means facing reigning Major League Soccer champions Los Angeles FC in next month’s quarterfinals of the tournament between the top clubs in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
“It will be a nice clash against, probably, the best team in North America,” Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini said. “It’s going to be a great stage for us to try to go to the semifinals. So I’m really happy that we went through.”
Espana battled its way to a 3-2 victory in the second leg of a round-of-16 series at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Wednesday.
Getsel Montes had a brace and Ramiro Rocca added a goal for the home side, while Brian White and Simon Becher each scored for Vancouver.
The Whitecaps came into the game up 5-0 after a decisive first-leg win at B.C. Place on March 8.
“I’m happy the qualification was never in discussion. We were always in the game,” Sartini said. “And at the end, I told the guys, even if they were a little bit down, today we did not lose 3-2, we won 7-3. So we need to be happy.”
LAFC took a 4-2 aggregate win over Costa Rican side Liga Deportiva Alajuelense on Wednesday. After taking a 3-0 win in the first leg of their series, LAFC dropped the second leg 2-1.
Espana heavily out chanced the ‘Caps in Honduras, putting up 10 on-target shots against Vancouver’s four.
Vancouver expected the home side to attack a lot, Sartini said, and the team did a good job withstanding, then countering until White opened the scoring in the 66th minute.
“And then it became a little bit careless,” the coach said. “I think players were very tired at the end. And the fact that a lot of players who played 90 minutes, they never played 90 minutes before today. And the wind became a big factor in the second half.”
Midway through the second half, Whitecaps defender Javain Brown fought his way through a series of Espana defenders and dished the ball to White at the top of the penalty area.
The American striker — who came off the bench in the 61st minute — fired a shot in past Espana’s goalkeeper Luis Lopez to break the goalless deadlock with his second of the tournament.
A minute later, the Honduran club tied things up after a rebound dropped in traffic and Montes popped it in past Vancouver ‘keeper Thomas Hasal.
Rocca gave Espana its first lead in the 75th minute, sending a shot into the corner of the net off a cross.
Becher knotted the score at 2-2 in the 83rd minute, working his way around an Espana defender before finding room between Lopez and the post for his first goal in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Montes put away his second goal of the game in the 86th minute, heading a shot in past Hasal off a corner.
The Whitecaps need to work on defending headers, especially off of set plays, Sartini said.
“We need to do much better in terms of positioning, in terms of being aggressive,” he said. “There are some players that they don’t get the fact that if you are zonal, it doesn’t mean you are a stick. We need to attack the ball.”
Six Whitecaps players were shown yellow cards across the match, something the coach said he was concerned about heading into the quarterfinals.
“I think we took too much yellow today. I think a couple of them were avoidable, a couple of them were maybe 50/50 yellow, but unfortunately we got them,” he said. “We’ll have everyone for at least the first leg against LAFC and then we’ll see.”
Sartini made ample changes to his lineup heading into Wednesday’s game, swapping out eight players who started in a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas in MLS play on Saturday.
The changes included giving Canadian ‘keeper Hasal his first start of the season and replacing White with Sergio Cordova in the starting 11.
Wednesday’s game marked Vancouver’s fourth of five matches in 14 days. The Whitecaps will return to MLS play Saturday when they visit the L.A. Galaxy.