Gbeke leads Whitecaps to 2-1 win, series lead

BURNABY, B.C. – A goal and an assist by forward Charles Gbeke led the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers at Swangard Stadium on Thursday as the Northwest rivals opened their semifinal series in the USL First Division playoffs.

Vancouver takes a one-goal lead heading into the final match of the two-game, aggregate-goal semifinal series on Sunday at PGE Park. The winner of the series will advance to the USL First Division championship round.

Gbeke, the league’s goal-scoring champion, recorded his first points of the postseason and forward Marcus Haber scored a goal to pace the defending-champion Whitecaps, who advanced to the semifinals after defeating the No. 2 seeded Carolina RailHawks in the first round.

Midfielder Ryan Pore scored on a penalty kick attempt, goalkeeper Steve Cronin turned in two key saves in the second half and forward George Josten took a team-high two shots to lead the Timbers, who were dealt just their second road loss of the 2009 campaign.

The Whitecaps opened the scoring in the first half, taking a 1-0 lead in the 25th minute. A cross by defender Takashi Hirano connected with Gbeke on the right post. Gbeke’s header bounced off the ground and under the crossbar for his first strike of the postseason.

Vancouver had the balance of the scoring chances in the first half, but the Timbers were able to level the score just before halftime. After scrambling for a loose ball at the top of the box, midfielder Brian Farber took a shot from 15 yards out that deflected off the hands of Whitecaps defender Lyle Martin inside the box in the 43rd minute.

The hand ball foul set up a penalty kick attempt Pore. He forced Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly to his right before slotting a shot from the spot into an open net to tie the match and the series at 1-1 before the break.

Portland had a chance to take an early lead in the 13th minute. Off a re-start, Farber collected a pass deep in the corner. He found Josten with his back to goal inside the box, who then laid it off for midfielder Tony McManus crashing through. McManus unleashed a low drive that was stopped by Nolly.

Moments before their goal, the Whitecaps had a header by Haber roll just wide of the post. He beat Cronin to a cross and aimed the shot towards the goal. Portland defender Stephen Keel escorted the shot over the endline, protecting an open net.

Haber worked his way into position for another header early in the second half and cashed in to give the Whitecaps a 2-1 lead. Gbeke served up a cross into the box for Haber five yards out along the left side. He knocked a shot off the base of the right post and over the goal line in the 49th minute.

The Timbers had their chances to level throughout the remainder of the second half. The build up off the ensuing kickoff following Vancouver’s second goal led to a shot by Pore inside the box. Six minutes later, Josten looped a shot from the top of the box just over the crossbar.

In the 68th minute, Cronin turned in a timely save on a hard shot by Vancouver sub Marlon James from 12 yards out. Breaking up field, James split two Timbers defenders and unloaded a shot from inside the box. Cronin turned it away with a diving effort to his right.

Fighting of a series off chances midway through the period, a spirited Timbers side gained momentum in the final 10 minute of the contest. A free kick by defender David Hayes found Keel for a header inside the box. Midfielder Johan Claesson lifted a shot from the fringe of the penalty area over the mark.

Cronin logged another key save in the final minutes of second-half stoppage time to keep the semifinal series at a one-goal margin. On a counter attack, Whitecaps sub Nizar Khalfan released a shot aimed at the top right corner of the goal. Cronin was able to punch it away with another diving effort.

The Northwest rivals play the second leg of their semifinal series Sunday at PGE Park at 4 p.m., presented by Spirit Mountain Casino. Tickets start at $14 in advance and are available to purchase at the PGE Park box office, area Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.ticketmaster.com or by phone at (800) 745-3000.

Notes: Thursday was the Timbers first road contest since Sept. 7 … Portland’s last visit to the USL First Division semifinal was 2007 … Earlier in the day, the Montreal Impact defeated the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-1 in the first game of the other semifinal series …Vancouver defender Marco Reda was sent off in the 45th minute from the bench prior to Pore’s penalty-kick attempt.

Lineups:
POR: GK Cronin, D Hayes, D Keel, D Thompson, D Nishimura, M Pore, M Claesson (Savage, 89), M McManus, M Farber, F Josten (Suzuki, 77), F Keita (McLaughlin, 73)

VAN: GK Nolly, D Martin, D Pejic, D Bellisomo, D Hirano, M Knight (Khalfan, 85), M Versailles (Pozniak, 81), M Nash, M Toure (Moose, 75), F Haber (James, 59), F Gbeke (Edwini-Bonsu, 89)

Scoring Summary:
VAN: Gbeke (Hirano), 25
POR: Pore (PK), 44
VAN: Haber (Gbeke), 49