For the first time in four years, the Vancouver Whitecaps are on the cusp of a playoff spot – and clinching the berth remains firmly within the club’s hands.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for the ‘Caps (12-9-12), one that’s seen an international relocation, big roster moves and a coaching change.
Despite the turmoil, the team controls its own fate heading into the final match of the regular-season campaign, a home tilt against the Seattle Sounders (17-8-8) on Sunday. A win or a draw would secure Vancouver’s playoff spot.
“We don’t depend on anyone else [other] than us,” interim coach Vanni Sartini said Friday. “It’s a beautiful thing to go [into] Sunday and know that if we do a result, the other teams can do whatever they want but we’re in.”
There’s a certain energy around the team now that playoffs are within reach, said veteran Whitecaps defender Jake Nerwinksi, one of the few players who was with the club when it last played a postseason game in 2017.
“It’s been a while – it’s been what, four years – since we’ve been in that same playoff picture so it’s really exciting,” he said. “There’s a great buzz going around the team right now. Everyone’s in high spirits and they know that we control our destiny right now.”
Vancouver is one of five clubs battling for the last three playoff spots in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference. Just three points separate the teams, with Minnesota United and the ‘Caps at 48, the L.A. Galaxy holding 47, and Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC sitting just below the playoff bar with 45 apiece.
Earning extra points this weekend won’t be an easy task for the Whitecaps, though. Seattle comes into Sunday’s game looking to cement its position as top team in the West and earn a bye in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
The key to topping the Sounders will be using the same tactics that have helped Vancouver vault up the standings over the past few months, Nerwinski said.
“I think when we do that, especially at home, I think we’re one of the best teams in the league and I think we’ve proven that with the results we’ve had,” he said.
Vancouver has gone 10-2-9 since mid-July, but struggled against Seattle, taking a 4-1 loss to the Sounders on Oct. 9. The ‘Caps also battled their Cascadia rivals to a 2-2 draw on June 26.
The Sounders have a number of weapons who’ll need to be contained, said ‘Caps attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld.
Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz is still alive in the MLS golden boot race with 17 goals on the season. He’s tied with D.C. United’s Ola Kamara for the second-most in the league.
“I think first and foremost, we’ve got to be solid defensively because they’ve got a lot of good attacking players,” Gauld said. “We create chances against everybody, so making sure kind of kill their attacking game is going to be important for us.”
A loss to Seattle won’t automatically eliminate the ‘Caps from contention, but it would lead to some scoreboard watching. Vancouver would still be able to scratch out a postseason berth if the L.A. Galaxy lose to Minnesota and Salt Lake lose or tie against Sporting Kansas City. An L.A. loss to Minnesota and an LAFC loss or tie against the Colorado Rapids would also do the trick, as would a Salt Lake loss or tie to Kansas City and a LAFC loss or tie against Colorado.
The stakes are high but the Whitecaps aren’t about to be overwhelmed by the moment, Gauld said.