FRISCO, Texas - The Vancouver Whitecaps might have watched their playoff chances melt away in the heat of a stifling Texas night.
In a matchup of teams battling head-to-head for the final playoff spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference, the Whitecaps' run to the post-season took a hard hit when FC Dallas blew open a tie game with two goals in the final minutes for a 3-1 victory Saturday night.
The win pushed Dallas (10-7-10) into playoff position, pending the result of late matches involving Colorado and Portland. The Whitecaps, meanwhile, dropped to 10-10-7 and stand seventh in the West with seven games to go. The top five teams earn playoff berths.
Vancouver's next two matches, against San Jose and Montreal, are both on the road, where the Whitecaps are 2-8-3 this season.
"We need to win on the road," goalkeeper Davis Ousted said. "We have two more away games now and we need to get at least one win. It was tough tonight. I think we deserved more than we got … we played a good game but we got punished by some incredible goals."
All three of Dallas' strikes were of the highlight-reel variety, and none was prettier than the winner.
With the clock winding down and both teams desperate to pick up three points, Dallas took control with counterattack. Eric Hassli picked up a free ball at the top of the box and fed speedy forward Fabian Castillo, who beat Vancouver's Nigel Reo-Coker to the end line on the left. Castillo's cross found streaking midfielder Mauro Diaz, who caught it right in stride and blasted a brilliant right-footed volley for a 2-1 lead in the 87th minute.
"It was counter-attacking football at its best," Reo-Coker said. "It was top quality. They scored three fantastic goals and sometimes there's nothing you can do about that."
Dallas put the game away in the 89th minute, when defender Jair Benitez, with space in the midfield area, took two steps across the centre stripe, saw Ousted positioned far out of his goal and let fly from 50 yards with his left foot. Ousted raced back and leaped to stop the ball, but it soared over his outstretched hand and into the top right corner of the net.
"It's a great goal from his side but obviously I'm not happy with my role in it," Ousted said. "I need to be quicker back and defending my goal. I was looking to stay high and maybe get the pass in deep, but he just hit it amazingly."
Added Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie: "(Benitez) could try that 100 times and it's not going to go in again."
The rough finish offset an uncharacteristic flying start for the Whitecaps, who had given up goals in the first three minutes in each of their previous two games.
In the fourth minute, Camilo Sanvezzo started an exquisite sequence of passes by deftly dropping the ball to Kenny Miller in the right corner. Miller followed with a perfect cross that hit charging midfielder Daigo Kobayashi right in stride for a tap-in goal and a 1-0 lead.
But it didn't last long.
Just four minutes later, FC Dallas midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson tied it up after taking a seemingly innocuous pass on the left wing from Fabian Castillo. Given time and space by the soft Vancouver defence, Watson launched a 25-yard rocket that slipped just under the crossbar and past Ousted's fingertips.
While Dallas dominated possession from that point and had several near misses, Vancouver's defence held firm despite the recorded 38-degree C heat at FC Dallas Stadium — until the final minutes.
"You're climatizing to different climates, different temperatures," Reo-Coker said. "We're not used to this heat and humidity. So we had to come up with a game plan. We had to be compact, tight, difficult to beat and play on the counterattack.
"We did that, but they were the better team. They scored three fantastic goals and deserved to win."
The result is an uphill fight for the Whitecaps as they try to remain in playoff contention.
"We've got a climb to get up there but I still feel like we'll get there," Rennie said. "We've been here before. It was a tough struggle to get there last year and it will be this year. It's very close … I don't think it hurts our confidence. I just think it's something we have to get over quickly."
Reo-Coker said the Whitecaps' mind-set is to do exactly that.
"The saying goes, if you're going through a hole, just keep on going," he said. "It's as simple as that. At the moment we're going through a little bit of a difficult patch.
"Eventually we'll come out of this."