Asked to explain the Vancouver Whitecaps late-season swoon, midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker turned to the words of known philosopher Forrest Gump.
“We’ve been a box of chocolates this season,” said Reo-Coker, his face sweating from the heat after the Whitecaps practised at the University of British Columbia. “You never know what you are going to get.”
The fictional character played by Tom Hanks probably didn’t have the Whitecaps in mind when he gave his philosophy of life in the Oscar-winning movie. Still, the analogy applies as the Whitecaps prepare to travel to California to play the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday in a game with Major League Soccer playoff implications for both teams.
No one, not even coach Martin Rennie, is certain which Whitecaps team will take the pitch at Buck Shaw Stadium.
The coach hopes it’s the side that put together a 7-1-2 run earlier this season. He fears the team that has gone 1-5-2, including last weekend’s 3-1 loss in Dallas, will show up.
“The most important thing for us it to play to our best,” said Rennie. “We’ve seen over time this season, when we play to our best, we can beat any team.”
The Whitecaps (10-10-7) and the Earthquake (10-11-7) are tied with 37 points in the tight Western Conference. Heading into the weekend both teams are five points behind the Portland Timbers who hold down the fifth and final playoff spot in the West. Dallas (10-7-10) started the weekend sixth with 40 points.
It’s believed the Whitecaps will need at least 50 points to make the playoffs. Four of Vancouver’s final seven games are on the road. The Whitecaps play in Montreal next weekend.
“It’s an important part of the season,” said forward Kenny Miller. “It’s important we pick up wins. It’s something we have not done as late.
“It we are going to be involved in the playoffs it’s important we get back to our winning ways.”
Reo-Coker said the remaining games will be a test of the Whitecaps’ personality. He wants his teammates to embrace the challenge ahead, not wilt under the pressure.
“For us as a team and the players we have, it’s about us,” said the hard-nosed former player for Ipswich Town of England’s Football League Championship.
“We have to really go out there and express ourselves. We have to get that smile on our face, enjoy the moment of being out there and being professional football players. Trust ourselves and trust our teammates and the ability we possess.”
Instead of carrying the weight of the playoff race into the match, Reo-Coker wants his teammates to focus on the fun of playing the game.
“I think that’s something a lot of the guys have to take into this weekend, and the rest of the season, having that freedom to really go out and express themselves as players,” he said.
“Stop going out and being so cautious. Stop worrying about making mistakes, stop worrying about the opponent. It’s about us. For me it’s not how you start the season. The most important things players have to understand is how we finish.”
The Whitecaps have a draw and a win over San Jose this season. Midfielder Russell Teibert said the Earthquake are tough to play at home where they have lost just once all season.
“It’s a small pitch,” said Teibert, who missed the Dallas game while attending a Canadian national team camp. “They keep it very compact. They play long balls.
“We know a lot about this team. Most importantly we are confident in ourselves and we know we are going to bounce back.”
Scoring has been a problem or the Whitecaps lately. Miller has just one goal in his last nine game. Camilo Sanvezzo, who is third in the league with 14 goals, has just one in the last seven matches.
One of the most dangerous Earthquakes will be Chris Wondolowksi who leads San Jose with eight goals.
“Just treat him like another striker,” said Reo-Coker.
“I’m not really bothered by any of their players. Not being disrespectful, for us right now we have to be like that mentally, from now until the end of the season.”
Besides Teibert, forward Darren Mattocks will be back for the Whitecaps after missing last week due to national team duty with Jamaica. Defender Brad Rusin, who injured his ankle in early August, is also ready to play.
Rusin said the ankle still bothers him.
“As this point of the season most guys are playing through pain,” he said. “It’s a critical time for the club.
“We all have to fight through everything. I hope to contribute.”
There had been speculation that captain Jay DeMerit, out all year with a Achilles tendon rupture, could play down the stretch. Earlier this week Rennie said DeMerit still wasn’t in game shape and suggested he might not play this season.
Midfielder Daigo Kobayashi is also expected to play even though he broke some bones in his hand during practise Tuesday.
“I think he ran into the wrong guy,” joked Rennie. “It’s nothing that would stop him playing.”