The Vancouver Whitecaps deserve congratulations. Becoming the first Canadian franchise to nail down an MLS playoff spot is an accomplishment worth noting. And doing it in just their second year of existence is something the entire organization should be proud of.
Now the question is, can they find a dry cleaner who can get the stains out of their uniforms in time for their playoff debut in Los Angeles on November 1? This after the ’Caps threw up all over themselves in what should have been their postseason clincher against the Portland Timbers. With two full weeks between games to prepare for a home date against an opponent who had yet to win on the road all season, the Whitecaps made an absolute mess of their October 21 showdown, falling 1–0 to the visiting Timbers.
Win and they were in the playoffs. The writing was on the wall in big block letters, and somehow this team missed the message. Instead of rising to the challenge of beating an inferior opponent on home turf to stamp their ticket to the playoffs, the ’Caps needed help and a key to the back door.
As it turned out, the biggest win of the Whitecaps’ season—arguably the biggest victory in the MLS history of the organization—happened in a game that didn’t even involve them. Mere hours after the ’Caps rolled over for the Timbers, they were bailed out by the Seattle Sounders, who knocked off FC Dallas 3–1 to eliminate the Texas team from postseason contention, leaving the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference for the Whitecaps.
“Very disappointing, not only the result but the performance from us,” head coach Martin Rennie told the media following the loss. “It’s frustrating because you feel like the team is just about where you want it to be, and then we put together a performance like that. We let a lot of people down today. We had a big chance not only to move us into the playoffs but also move the club forward, because there’s so much interest right now and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
How the ’Caps could offer up the performance they did with all that was at stake was shocking. With so much to play for, they managed one shot on goal. That alone is tough to stomach. But it’s all the more troubling when you consider that Portland got its goal in the 39th minute, meaning that for more than 50 minutes, the Whitecaps knew they needed to score at least one to draw even and two to forge ahead. And the response was one measly shot on the Portland net.
Goals have been hard to come by for the Whitecaps for much of the season—they’re the lowest-scoring playoff-bound team by 10 goals—which means more effort is required to generate offence.
Where was the offensive push? Where were dangerous speedsters Darren Mattocks and Dane Richards? Inexplicably, both started the game on the sidelines and only entered the match with 30 minutes remaining. The coach continues to lean on Scottish imports Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, despite the fact that neither has lived up to the lofty expectations the organization had for them when they were airlifted in over the summer.
Midway through the season, the ’Caps were building a reputation as a tough team to play, one that had a strong defensive foundation and looked like the type of team others would likely want no part of in the playoffs. Since mid August, though, the Whitecaps have been in free fall, winning just one of their last nine matches and scoring only seven times in that stretch.
“At the moment, the team doesn’t quite have the culture that it needs,” Rennie said. “I thought we had got over that with the last couple of games, where we did actually perform under pressure. It’s frustrating and disappointing because to be successful and get to where we want to get to, players have to be able to play in big games. We need to get to the point where we win big games.”
Fortunately for the Whitecaps, they did enough right in the first half of the season to still manage to tumble into the playoffs, but any realistic expectations for playoff success have disappeared along with the team’s ability to find the back of the net.
The ’Caps have been a disaster all season away from B.C. Place—going 3-10-3 and currently on a seven-game skid—and by finishing fifth in the conference, their punishment is to travel to Los Angeles to open the playoffs against David Beckham and the defending MLS champion Galaxy. It’s a one-game showdown for the right to face San Jose, the top team in the league, in a two-game home-and-home series.
Considering that the Whitecaps haven’t won a road game since July 4 (in Colorado) and that their three away wins this season have come against teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason, the picture is both clear and bleak: the trip to Los Angeles amounts to a death march.
But as they make their way south, the players—and the organization as a whole—must take a moment to look at the big picture and realize the considerable good they’ve accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Finishing dead last in the MLS in their inaugural season and reaching the playoffs a year later is certainly progress.
Part of any playoff appearance, though, is the belief that a team can actually make some noise once it gets there. Given the events of the past week and recent months, however, the Whitecaps simply can’t offer that hope to their fans. It looks like backing into the playoffs on a late-season slide is about as good as it’s going to get for this group this season.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at @patersonjeff.