By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE — It wasn’t the prettiest match, but the result was picture perfect for the Vancouver Whitecaps and their large contingent of traveling fans.
Three points on the road against a fierce rival and, for now, a spot in the MLS playoffs with just two matches remaining in the regular season.
Oh, and a minor trophy.
The Whitecaps only managed six shots Friday night, but Kekuta Manneh’s goal late in the first half was all the scoring Vancouver needed to escape with a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in front of 55,765 at CenturyLink Field.
“To say that I’m at a loss for words is an understatement,” said Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson after the match. “I’ve just said to the group in (the locker room) that I’m absolutely so proud of every single one of them in there tonight. Not many people gave us the opportunity and believed that we could win. But I did, 1,250 fans did, the group did — which was the most important thing. So it’s all down to the players today, and I give them all the credit.”
With the win, the Whitecaps (11-8-13, 46 points) move one point ahead of the Portland Timbers for the fifth and final Western Conference playoff spot. The Timbers routed the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday and are off until hosting Real Salt Lake (13-8-10, 49 points) next weekend. Vancouver visits the Earthquakes (6-14-11, 29 points) before hosting the Colorado Rapids (8-15-8, 32 points) to wrap up the regular season.
Vancouver has now won three straight games after winning just once in its previous seven matches. Friday night’s victory was also the Whitecaps’ first road win since June 1.
Manneh scored the lone goal of the match in the 45th minute, streaking to meet a Pedro Morales pass into acres of space down the left side of the pitch. Manneh, who had just been waved back onto the field after injuring his leg, juked center back Chad Marshall before slapping a left-footed shot under goalkeeper Stefan Frei for the 1-0 lead.
DeAndre Yedlin, the Sounders usual starting right back, missed the match due to national team duty. That absence, said Robinson, was not an insignificant factor.
“I felt that was an area that, without DeAndre Yedlin, we could get at them,” said Robinson. “Brad Evans is a fantastic player, but he’s a midfielder.”
For his part, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said waving Manneh back on the field was an unusual decision.
“Evans had gone forward with the ball,” said Schmid, “and the referee lets the guy on the field. He usually doesn’t let him on the field when the ball is on the same side of the field.”
In any event it was Morales’ team-leading 11th assist of the season.
“He sees what other people don’t see,” Manneh said about Morales. “I started running — because I know his quality — so I started running and he played the ball through. It was a great pass.”
The Sounders — who only mustered eight shots themselves — didn’t even generate a good look at goal until the 90th minute, when Clint Dempsey half-volleyed a bouncing cross inches past the far post. Moments later Brad Evans headed a corner that Vancouver center back Kendall Waston cleared off the line.
It was as close as the Sounders — the second-highest scoring team in MLS — came to finding the back of the net. Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid credited the Whitecaps’ defense with frustrating his team.
“They were very well organized,” Schmid said. “They really packed the middle of the field. We needed to create more width, and didn’t quite get that done.”
Asked how his team was able to keep the Sounders off the scoreboard, Robinson pointed more to the mystical than the tactical.
“I don’t know,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know, maybe the soccer gods. I talked about the soccer gods this week, and (said) we’d need a little bit of luck.”
The loss leaves the Sounders (19-9-3, 60 points) tied with the LA Galaxy in the Supporters’ Shield race. The Galaxy (17-9-5, 60 points) visit FC Dallas on Sunday. The Sounders travel to Los Angeles next weekend for the first of two back-to-back matches against the Galaxy to close out the regular season.
With the win, the Whitecaps also captured the Cascadia Cup, an annual fan-sponsored competition awarding bragging rights to the Pacific Northwest team faring best in head-to-head competition.
Here are the match highlights: