The morning is concrete grey, the clouds low. The rain pours, lets up, then begins again. “Just like Scotland,” jokes Scot Barry Robson, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ midfielder, as he heads to the locker room after a wet and high-tempo practice.
The Whitecaps, who trained at home on Monday and Tuesday, should be in good spirits. They are the first Canadian club to make the Major League Soccer playoffs, and will face the daunting, David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy on the road Thursday night.
But there is hardly a celebration. The Whitecaps have had a whipsaw season, with its rough demarcation point being July, when a large core of the team was excised and replaced. The Whitecaps, midway this year, were 8-4-5, an impressive 29 points. As the roster churned, they went 3-9-5 for 11 points, losing seven straight on the road and barely making the playoffs.
Last Saturday, in the last game of the regular season, versus Real Salt Lake, two of the new supposed stars, Robson and Scot Kenny Miller, who together arrived with a price tag of $1.8-million, were benched, coming on later in the second half.
The Whitecaps, who seemed in sync earlier in the season, do not have an established rhythm and bond, said Miller, 32, who first played for the Whitecaps on July 22.
“You make a lot of changes when we did, midseason, it’s always hard for a team to gel and get to know each other, not just on the field, but off the field also,” Miller says. “I think in that sense we have a little bit to go on that. I say it’s a work in progress.”
Miller was brought in to score, and he hasn’t. In 2010-11, he had 26 goals for Glasgow Rangers, which ranked him sixth across Europe. With the Whitecaps, he has two goals in 13 appearances.
Against L.A. on the road this year, the Whitecaps lost 3-0 in late June, before Miller, and 2-0 in early September, when the team didn’t register a single shot on goal.
The defending champion Galaxy are also strong in the playoffs at home. Since the Home Depot Center opened in 2003 south of L.A., the Galaxy are 9-1.
The Whitecaps have had their moments, such as when they tied the Galaxy 2-2 in Vancouver in mid-July. But in recent weeks, the offence disappeared again. In the last two games of the regular season, the Whitecaps scored zero goals, and have just one shot on goal per outing.
“I don’t feel we’ve been giving our forwards the best opportunities,” Miller said. “And that’s something we definitely need to improve on.”
There are some positive signs. The Whitecaps clinched a clean sheet in three of their past four games, pushing their shutouts this year to a dozen. Given the one-game playoff format against L.A. – the winner advances to a home-and-home against the San Jose Earthquakes – the Whitecaps plan to play a defensive game akin to their last outing, a goalless draw against Real Salt Lake.
The Galaxy are well known, especially for their payroll, nearly $10-million (all currency U.S.) going to Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. The Whitecaps pay Miller $1.2-million and Robson $600,000.
Other playoff teams do it differently. MLS’s best team, San Jose, pays $300,000 to Chris Wondolowski, the team’s top earner, who scored a dizzying 27 goals this year, tying the league record. No. 2 in the West, Real Salt Lake, pays a top salary of $477,500 to Javier Morales.
The Whitecaps have struggled in big games: a loss to Toronto for the Canadian championship in May; earlier in October, trying to clinch a playoff spot, a loss at home to Portland. The playoff spot was claimed when Dallas lost. After Portland, Vancouver coach Martin Rennie said of the Whitecaps and big games: “The team doesn’t quite have the culture that it needs.”
Now the Whitecaps face their biggest game, against a significant power.
“We’re on the road against the best team last season, the champions,” Rennie said, “a very good team, a team that we’ve figured twice what not to do, and you know, maybe the third time we can figure out what to do in the Home Depot Center.”