Cristian Techera scored on a stunning free kick as the Vancouver Whitecaps thumped the San Jose Earthquakes 5-0 in Major League Soccer’s single-elimination knockout round on Wednesday night.
Nicolas Mezquida, with two, Fredy Montero and Kendall Waston had the other goals for Vancouver, which picked up its first-ever playoff victory since joining MLS in 2011.
The third-seeded Whitecaps will now face the Seattle Sounders, who finished second in the Western Conference, in a home and away aggregate semifinal series that starts Sunday at B.C. Place Stadium.
After setting up Montero’s opener in the first half, the pint-sized Techera curled a left-footed free kick over the wall and into the top corner from 30 yards out past a helpless Andrew Tarbell in the 57th minute to send the crowd of 21,083 into a frenzy.
Waston added Vancouver’s third seven minutes later off a corner — the Whitecaps’ third set-piece goal of the night and 18th of the season — after the ball pinged around the San Jose penalty area before being bundled over the line.
Mezquida, who subbed on in the 68th minute, then grabbed back-to-back goals in 78th and 80th to complete the romp as the Whitecaps scored five goals in a game for the first time this year.
Montero gave Vancouver a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute after a nervy start when Waston redirected a Techera corner right to the designated player, who made no mistake from in close.
The Whitecaps could have avoided Wednesday’s winner-take-all encounter with a victory over the Earthquakes at home on Oct. 15 in a game that ended 1-1, or by grabbing at least a draw in Sunday’s 2-1 road loss to the Portland Timbers.
Vancouver instead limped to the regular-season finish line with a 1-3-1 record, but were full marks on this night in securing the club’s first playoff win after three losses and a draw in four previous tries.
San Jose had a decent opportunity to equalize while down 1-0 less than a minute into the second half when Whitecaps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic had to be sharp on Chris Wondolowski’s shot from in tight, but after a couple more half chances, that would be it for San Jose.
With the stadium’s retractable roof open on a chilly night, Vancouver started tentatively and was almost made to pay in the fourth minute when Anibal Godoy forced a leaping save out of Marinovic on a free kick from 25 yards out.
The hosts looked nervous with a number of errant passes and giveaways early on, but started to play better as the half wore on and looked the more likely side to score when Montero finally broke through.
Whitecaps left back Marcel de Jong came close five minutes later after the Earthquakes could only partially clear a free kick, but Tarbell made a nice save on the Canadian international’s low drive.
Vancouver returned to the MLS Cup playoffs after missing out by eight points in 2016, while sixth-seeded San Jose made the post-season for the first time since 2012 thanks to Sunday’s dramatic 3-2 stoppage-time victory over Minnesota United.
The Earthquakes’ bizarre regular-season that included a minus-21 goal difference — good for third-worst in all MLS — saw the club get outscored lose by two goals or more in 12 of its 14 defeats by a combined score of 42-6.
Since the league expanded its playoff format in 2011, five of the 16 teams to advance from the knockout round have made the MLS Cup, with three clubs winning it all, including the last two years.