The Vancouver Whitecaps are on the verge of making history.
The Whitecaps are one win away from becoming the first Canadian team to make the Major League Soccer playoffs and they can accomplish that feat at home on Sunday.
“It’s great for this organization because it’s a big step,” Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit said. “There’s three teams now in the MLS that are from Canada, and to be the first in anything is a positive thing.”
Vancouver as come a long way from last season, when the expansion club struggled mightily for consistency.
“We were on a slide, and I was injured again and I couldn’t really help the way I wanted to,” DeMerit recalled. “We were still losing and looking like the season was almost over before it even started. That feeling is the worst feeling you can have in sports, but it’s nice to rise from that.”
Now, the Whitecaps (11-12-9) can reach the MLS post-season by clinching the final playoff spot in the Western Conference in their regular-season home finale against the lowly Portland Timbers (7-16-9).
The second-year Whitecaps have a chance to further a turnaround from a last overall finish in 2011 and can also make amends for a mid-to-late-season slump that saw them go winless in seven games.
Few regulars remain from the lineup that finished last season, and the starting 11 players have changed frequently this year.
“We’ve come a long way,” said DeMerit. “There’s a lot of changes that have gone on. And, for a lot of guys, to not only build something, but to try to right a ship is pretty hard sometimes.”
The Whitecaps ended their winless skid with a resounding 4-0 win over Los Angeles-based Chivas USA on Oct. 3. Chivas later helped Vancouver by tying sixth-place Dallas, which is four points back of the Whitecaps.
Both Vancouver and Dallas have two games remaining, but a win Sunday will give the Whitecaps an insurmountable seven-point edge.
The Timbers finished 14 points ahead of Vancouver in 2011, but the Whitecaps have yet to beat their expansion cousins in MLS play.
Portland is winless in its past six games and has yet to post a victory on the road this season.
“We have to just try not to put too much pressure on ourselves,” said DeMerit. “We’ve done enough this season to be where we are right now, and that’s what we need to take confidence in.”
Alain Rochat, a defender who has played midfield lately, hopes the Whitecaps are not “paralyzed or scared.”
“It’s always good to be in the history [books],” said Rochat. “Our first-ever MLS game against Toronto [in 2011], we got the win. So if we can be in the history again, that’s beautiful.”
For the first time this season, Vancouver coach Martin Rennie has a full roster.
Top scorer Darren Mattocks, sidelined with a hamstring injury against Seattle two games ago, is expected to return to the lineup. Midfielder Omar Salgado, out with a broken foot suffered while playing for the U.S. under-20 team in Uruguay in June, is also in contention to suit up.
“Hopefully, I can come off the bench in our last home game and make a difference or have that feeling that I’m back,” said Salgado, 19, who was just establishing himself as a starter when he got hurt. “I’m pretty excited and, hopefully, I can get that opportunity.”
Despite the importance of the game, Rennie has no qualms about playing Salgado following his long layoff. The coach is looking forward to some tough selections when filling out the team sheet.
“We’ve worked to have those decisions all along, and we’ve got [them] for this week — and, hopefully, for a little while longer,” said Rennie.
Notes: Rennie said midfielder Dane Richards is likely to play after he scoring two goals this week in his Jamaica’s 4-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda in World Cup qualifying. This could be Richards’ last home game as a Whitecap. He has signed to play with English side Burnley in the Championship League next season. ... Injured Portland striker Kris Boyd (groin) is not expected to play.
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