VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps breathed a massive sigh of relief Wednesday.
After dropping their first two outings of the Major League Soccer season, the club responded in a big way as it kicked off its CONCACAF Champions League campaign, routing Honduran side Real CD Espana 5-0.
The victory is just the first step, however, noted head coach Vanni Sartini.
"Of course, the work is not yet finished," he said. "Qualification has not yet been reached. But of course, it's much better to go there with a five-goal advantage and being enormously in charge of our destiny."
The two sides will meet again at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on March 15 for the second leg of the two-game aggregate round-of-16 series.
“We've built a good cushion of five goals, which is nice," said 'Caps defender Ryan Raposo. "But at the same time, we can't afford to be complacent there.”
Raposo was one of four Whitecaps players to find the back of the net Wednesday. Tristan Blackmon, Pedro Vite and Brian White also scored for Vancouver, who enter the tournament between the top clubs in North America, Central America and the Caribbean as winners of last year's Canadian Championship.
Espana midfielder Devron Garcia added an own goal in the 64th minute.
Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka stopped both on-target shots he faced to collect his first clean sheet for the Whitecaps and Luis Lopez had nine saves for the visitors.
Espana earned their way into the tournament with a top-six finish in CONCACAF League play last season. The team currently sits in fifth place in Honduras' Liga Nacional.
"This is a page we will rip up and will not look back on," Esapana assistant coach Emilson Soto said via a translator. "We don't take this as losing the series, though. There's still another 90 minutes left."
Conditions for the visitors were rough, he added, with the team travelling 22 hours to Vancouver and playing in weather much colder than the players are used to. The temperature hovered around 6 C Wednesday night.
The players are so fatigued, Soto said, that one collapsed as he returned to the locker room after the game. The player — who both CONCACAF and Espana declined to name — was taken to hospital in stable condition, according to the club's media officer.
"There's a lot of emotion obviously," Soto said. "We'll keep fighting in the second leg and we're hoping that our player is OK."
Espana started the game with a flurry of early chances, including their lone on-target shot of the first half.
Junior Garcia blasted a ball from the top of the penalty area in the eighth minute, only to see a diving Takaoka punch it out of harm's way.
The Whitecaps regained form and were the dominant side for much of the game, opening the scoring in the 21st minute.
Vite took the team's first corner of the night, dishing a short ball to Julian Gressel, who sent a cross into the box. Blackmon leapt up from the crowd and sent a headed shot soaring past Lopez into the Espana net to make it 1-0.
Vancouver boosted its lead to 2-0 in the 59th minute when attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld sliced a ball to Raposo and the defender dribbled a few steps before unleashing a rocket from the top of the penalty area. The shot seemed to catch Lopez off guard and the ball skittered under the goalkeeper's arm as he dove across the goal line.
"Those are my winger instincts coming in," Raposo said.
"I thought the way that the defender was coming out and screening me, that maybe he would have thought I would have opened up and played a second post. So I tried to use him as a screen and played a front post so it was harder for the goalkeeper to react.”
The Whitecaps took a 3-0 advantage in the 64th minute thanks to an Espana own goal.
Gauld sent a pass into the box and Cristian Dajome got a touch before the ball caromed into the back of the net off Devron Garcia.
A series of quick passes helped the 'Caps go up 4-0 in the 70th minute.
White put the ball on the foot of Gauld and the Scottish attacking midfielder wasted no time dishing it off to Vite, who popped a quick shot into the visitor's net.
White then sealed the score at 5-0 in the 78th minute, sprinting down the field and working his way around Espana defender Junior Garcia before firing a ball in past Lopez.
“Any time as a forward, you see the ball hit the back of the net, you want to build off that," the American striker said. "And hopefully, that momentum snowballs.
"So I’m just going to continue doing the things in training, continue learning from mistakes and trying to get in the best positions I can to score goals.”
The Whitecaps return to MLS action Saturday when they host FC Dallas.
NOTES: Midfielder J.C. Ngando and defender Karifa Yao both made their debut for the 'Caps, coming on as substitutes in the 79th minute. … This year marks the third time the Whitecaps have played in CONCACAF Champions League. The club's longest run came in 2016-17 when Vancouver reached the semifinals. … An announced crowd of 13,644 took in the game at B.C. Place.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press