Despite having two games left in the regular season, the Vancouver Whitecaps are already in playoff mode.
A quick look at the schedule and standings is all that’s needed to understand why.
The Whitecaps (12-11-9) sit seventh in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference heading into Saturday’s crucial road game against Colorado (13-10-9), just three points back of the fifth-place Rapids for the final post-season berth.
The teams follow up this weekend’s game at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., with the season finale for both clubs on Oct. 27 at B.C. Place Stadium.
A road loss would eliminate the Whitecaps from playoff contention, while a tie forces them to check the scoreboard for out-of-town results.
“Right now is the biggest time of the season for us. This is the time you have to win games,” Vancouver head coach Martin Rennie said this week. “It’s just like being in the playoffs. The back-to-back games against Colorado is just like a playoff series and that’s how we’ll treat it.”
Vancouver has had its share of injuries this season, including the loss of captain Jay DeMerit to a torn Achilles. However, a number of young players have stepped up to give the Whitecaps a chance at a second straight post-season berth.
“We talked about it a lot leading up to this point that hopefully at this point in the season we’d still have a chance to make the playoffs,” said DeMerit, who returned from his injury last month ahead of schedule. “We understand the job in front of us, which isn’t going to be easy.
“The good thing about being able to control your own destiny is it’s up to you and the way you perform.”
The Whitecaps are a confident bunch heading out on the road.
Apart from a stunning 4-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders last week that saw 18-year-old rookie phenom Kekuta Manneh score a hat trick and earn MLS player of the week honours, the Whitecaps also picked up a 3-1 victory at Montreal in their previous away match on Sept. 21.
“We need to make sure that we go there with that mindset — that we get things done properly, like we have been,” said Rennie. “I feel like we’ve been playing quite well in these other games. We’re in good form. There’s a good sharpness to what we’re doing. We’ve got players who can score goals.”
A big part of Vancouver’s resurgence has come from veteran midfielder Daigo Kobayashi. Signed to the club in January, the 30-year-old struggled at times before settling into a position last time out at the top of the formation behind Manneh and fellow forward Camilo Sanvezzo.
“He’s an excellent leader just in the way that he goes about things. He just leads by example,” said Rennie. “People respect him. They see the hard work that he does.”
Vancouver lost 2-0 in Colorado the last time the teams met in August and DeMerit said playing at altitude will be a challenge if the Whitecaps allow the Rapids to dictate the game.
“If you keep the game open and you don’t defend right and keep the ball at the right times, then the game gets open and it becomes a track meet. That’s when it can really be an advantage for them,” he said. “It’s a fact of life. Playing at altitude is different from playing at ground level.”
Colorado is coming off a 1-0 road defeat against the San Jose Earthquakes on Oct. 9 in a game that saw the Rapids fail to put a single shot on target. However, Colorado is riding an eight-game undefeated streak at home.
“They’ve shown themselves to be a good team,” said Rennie. “They’ve got good athleticism in their group, they’ve got a good goalkeeper who’s done really well for them, made a lot of big saves and they’re a dangerous team.”
“It’s like any game for us,” he added. “I feel like if we play to our best then we’ve got a great chance.”