This wasn’t a case of a sports executive making an outlandish declaration that his team would win a championship. But when asked whether the Vancouver Whitecaps, as currently constructed, are capable of claiming the Major League Soccer title this season, club president Bob Lenarduzzi didn’t hesitate to endorse his side’s chances of hoisting the MLS Cup.
“I think given the amount of parity that there is in MLS right now, for sure that is a possibility,” Lenarduzzi told the Straight in a recent telephone interview.
Now, it’s one thing for upper management to say it and another entirely for the guys in uniform to go out and make it happen. But Lenarduzzi’s point about just how tight things are in the MLS standings—particularly in the Western Conference the ’Caps reside in—is the key to his comment.
With nine games to go in the 2013 regular season, the Whitecaps are no lock even to make the playoffs. So any thoughts of a league title and the victory parade that would accompany it are certainly premature at this point.
And after a 1-0 loss to the two-time defending champion L.A. Galaxy on August 24, the Whitecaps find themselves sputtering for the first time all season. They have just one victory in their past six games, and perhaps more troubling than that is the fact that the team, once high-scoring, has managed just four goals in those six outings.
The ’Caps held their own against the Galaxy and certainly had chances to equalize. But the bottom line is that they didn’t score. And they haven’t scored in their past two games. With time starting to tick away in the club’s third MLS season, the Whitecaps have no choice but to get things sorted out. They certainly won’t win a championship if they don’t score goals.
But the problem isn’t just offence. They have to be better defensively, too.
To live up to the lofty expectations the boss has for his team, the Whitecaps have to get back to the way they played earlier in the season, when they controlled games at both ends of the pitch.
“We need to become a little more consistent, because that is what the playoffs are all about,” Lenarduzzi conceded. “You need to get yourself on a good run and feel, even when you go away from home, that you can get the results required. I believe we have the players, from the goalkeeper on out, that could allow us to get on a good run in the playoffs. Having said all of that, I’m not going to jinx it by overlooking just how tight the race is right now.”
One of the things that excite Lenarduzzi about what is still to come on the schedule is the fact that eight of the Whitecaps’ remaining nine regular-season games are against conference opponents. So the opportunity exists to gain ground in crucial head-to-head matchups almost every night out.
But that raises the stakes considerably and basically puts the Whitecaps in playoff mode now, if they want a chance to be part of the MLS postseason when November rolls around.
“We really have to be focused on getting the results required, and for us that’s going to be in the vicinity of five wins,” he predicted. “If we actually get ourselves on a good run and get into the playoffs, that will prepare us well for the playoffs, because every game feels like a playoff game right now.”
While the loss to the Galaxy has dropped the Whitecaps below the playoff bar for the time being, Lenarduzzi knows the next win will likely put them back in position. And from there, the key will be to hold on to one of the five berths available in the wild, wild West.
“And that’s why you want to try to keep yourself in a playoff spot, because when you play those conference games and your nose is in front, you can afford a draw every now and again because it keeps teams behind you,” Lenarduzzi said.
As an organization, the Whitecaps are doing all they can to show improvement game after game and year after year. Last season, they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history but crept in as the final team to qualify and were promptly bounced in a one-game showdown with Los Angeles.
Lenarduzzi wants to see his team take a step in the right direction, and to do so the ’Caps will have to finish among the top four in the conference. That might be the biggest factor determining whether this team actually has a legitimate shot to win it all. If the Whitecaps can force opponents to come to B.C. Place, they feel they can compete with anyone. The recent loss to the Galaxy notwithstanding, the Whitecaps have been a tough team to beat on home turf this season.
“I don’t want to sound greedy at this stage—I’d like to make the playoffs, but I’d really like to make the playoffs and not finish in fifth spot,” Lenarduzzi said. “That’s the one where you don’t have a home game and you have to travel to the fourth-place team. I’d take a playoff spot if that’s the only one we can get, but given that we did that last year, we’d certainly like to do better this year.”
Bob Lenarduzzi is at a crossroads where he has full confidence in his team and also knows that what happens from here is no longer in his control. He believes that if things fall into place, the Whitecaps can be MLS Cup champions.
He says it. He means it. And now he needs the players to make it happen.