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Sartini rips ref as Whitecaps exit MLS playoffs with 1-0 loss to LAFC

L.A. sweeps Vancouver in best-of-three opening-round series
Los Angeles FC’s Denis Bouanga (99) scores against Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka, back left, on a penalty kick during the first half in game 2 of a first round MLS playoff soccer match, in Vancouver, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Vancouver Whitecaps season ended with bookings, boos and cups raining down on the referee as a do-or-die playoff home match against Los Angeles F.C. turned fiery.

LAFC, the reigning MLS Cup champions, advanced to the Western Conference semifinals courtesy of a penalty converted by Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga in the 24th minute.

With the 1-0 win, Los Angeles swept the Whitecaps in the first round, best-of-three series.

But the match featured controversy as the Whitecaps questioned the decision to award a penalty after defender Tristan Blackmon was judged to have fouled LAFC’s Mario Gonzalez.

Vancouver’s players surrounded referee Tim Ford decrying the decision and would do so again roughly 15 minutes later after Gonzalez slid in hard on goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka earning a yellow card as fans called for a sending off.

“The referee was a disaster, we have to be completely honest,” said Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini. “Everyone can have a worst performance, they probably had their worst performance of their season.”

The goal from the spot was LAFC’s first shot of the game.

Vancouver increasingly threw caution to the wind as the match wore on, with Sartini bringing on striker Simon Becher and attacking midfielder Junior Hoilett in an attempt to produce the tying goal.

“We put everything in in order to tie. I don’t think we should’ve won. I think the tie would’ve been the real fair result,” Sartini said.

The Italian coach was sent off deep into stoppage time after the referee collided with Whitecaps midfielder Alessandro Schopf, who was lining up to take a shot, leading to what appeared to be a second goal for LAFC.

Several Vancouver players were also booked for arguing before the empty-net goal was called back for offside.

“At the end, we didn’t have a fair chance. Because today the referee had a bad game,” Sartini said.

Whitecaps top scorer Brian White had the best opportunity of the game in the 85th minute after Ryan Gauld’s cross found the American open in the box, only for his header to go straight into the hands of former Vancouver goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.

The Whitecaps struggled to find a way past LAFC’s compact defensive unit, with Crepeau aggressively patrolling his box to claim crosses.

“We just didn’t really get it to click in the final third,” said Gauld. “I think up until the final third we were decent but we just couldn’t get that final pass right. The second half as well, we put a lot of pressure on them but we struggled to get that final pass.”

Ford and his assistant referees left the field after the final whistle blew to a chorus of boos from the 30,204 strong crowd, with streamers and cups thrown their way from fans as they entered the tunnel.

The attendance is a record for the club in Major League Soccer.

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“I had chills walking out. I’ve never seen such a boisterous, loud, packed stadium,” said White.

The Whitecaps finish the season having yet to win a playoff game under Sartini but with a second consecutive Canadian Championship trophy.

“I told the players they need to be proud of the season,” Sartini said. “The biggest take from this season is that we are a team that can easily start the season next year and say ‘we want to win this thing’. That’s the biggest thing.”

White and Gauld agreed with their coach’s view, with Gauld adding that the way the season ended can be a catalyst for next season.

“I’ve been here two-and-a-half years, and (it’s my) third post-season and we still have not won a game in the playoffs,” Gauld said. “It gives us that extra little bit of fire and motivation to do better next year.”

The Whitecaps have only made it past the first round of the MLS playoffs in two season: 2015, 2017.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press