As MLS playoffs near, Vancouver Whitecaps must stay contenders
In just their second season in Major League Soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps have shown on most nights that they have what it takes to compete with the best teams in the league. And with the playoffs rapidly approaching, the ’Caps have the look and feel of a team that could throw a scare into any postseason opponent. The issue now is they’ve got to lock down one of the five playoff berths up for grabs in the competitive Western Conference in order to have other teams quaking in their soccer boots.
Night and day compared with where they sat at this time last year in a dismal expansion campaign, the Whitecaps have positioned themselves to be in the mix when the games that matter most roll around in November. And first-year head coach Martin Rennie believes his side has the attention of potential playoff opponents.
“Yeah, I think the respect for our team is growing throughout the league, and things I’ve heard from other coaches and players have shown us that, and that they realize we do have a good team,” Rennie tells the Straight in a recent telephone interview. “A number of people have commented that they like the way that we play. At the end of the day, that’s of little value compared to winning and performing well. But it’s nice to know that people are noticing that we are a good team.”
Rennie’s challenge now is to draw the best out of his players with just eight games to go in the MLS 34-game regular season. Recent 2-0 losses to FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders have left the Whitecaps with little margin for error the rest of the way if they want to be among the contenders for the MLS Cup.
This team has come so far and done so many things well this season that it would be a shame to see a playoff spot slip from its grasp. But professional sport is no pity party, and teams without sympathy are lining up behind the ’Caps looking to crush their postseason dreams and one of the feel-good stories in MLS this season.
And so the pressure mounts on Martin Rennie and his players, who, for the most part, have been terrific at home (7-2-4) and less than their best as the visitors (3-7-3). The Whitecaps are in the midst of a crucial four-game road trip, before finishing the year with four of five games at B.C. Place. They need to hold their own in the weeks ahead for that final stretch to matter.
“We’ve got a lot of our road travel, especially to the East Coast, out of the way, and we’ve got a number of home games left before the end of the season, so in that sense we’re in a good position,” Rennie explains. “But what we’re most focused on now is making sure that we take advantage of that, because what we’ve done up to now is of little consequence going forward. What we do now is really important. Our team is getting better and stronger at a good time.”
Rennie has engineered a massive in-season overhaul of his roster, with the additions of Barry Robson, Kenny Miller, Dane Richards, and Andy O’Brien taking spots previously filled by Eric Hassli, Davide Chiumiento, and Sébastien Le Toux. The coach’s challenge is to continue to blend the newcomers with the established players so that the Whitecaps reach their peak in the weeks ahead.
When healthy and with all players available for selection, the ’Caps have demonstrated an ability to beat conference leaders San Jose and Real Salt Lake, and they’ve played the two teams immediately ahead of them in the standings—L.A. and Seattle—to draws earlier this year. Their results to this point have not come by accident, but rather by meticulous preparation and planning by the coach and a group of players who have bought into Rennie’s system.
The ’Caps regularly stretch defences with their speed up front, and have shown enough defensive structure to be a difficult team to score against on most nights.
If Rennie can push his players to deliver the results required down the stretch and get his team into a position to play an opponent home-and-away in the postseason (5th place visits 4th place in a one-game showdown for the right to play the top team in the conference in a two-game, total-goal series), he feels strongly the Whitecaps can be a side that no other team in the league wants to face. That’s particularly true for opponents who have to make a visit to Vancouver.
“There is no doubt the support we get at B.C. Place is a key factor in our success,” the coach says of his team’s home-pitch advantage. “When the crowd is behind us and the noise and the atmosphere is electric within the stadium, it does transfer to the players, and hopefully the players are transferring back to the crowd as well.”
Rennie has to know that B.C. Place will be a madhouse if the Whitecaps secure a home playoff date. But it all depends on how the Whitecaps handle the schedule in the weeks ahead, which will determine whether there is soccer to be played after the team’s October 27 regular-season finale in Salt Lake City.
This team could make life miserable for a postseason opponent. But if they fall short of their goal, it’ll be the Whitecaps with that queasy feeling, wondering how a season that started with such promise got away from them down the stretch.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at @patersonjeff.