It was late June and the season was already trending in the wrong direction for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The team was playing its “home games” in Sandy, Utah, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Worse, the Whitecaps had just two wins in their first nine Major League Soccer games and had lost five straight.
A players-only meeting was called to clear the air.
“There was a lot that we needed to get out,” defender Jake Nerwinski said after a training session Tuesday. “Guys said what they needed to say. After that, we’ve been together as one.”
Whatever was said worked. The Whitecaps are 9-2-8 in their last 19 games. Since returning to BC Place Stadium on Aug. 21 they are 6-1-0 at home.
Even with all the ground they have gained, the Whitecaps (11-9-11) know they can’t afford to stumble when they host Minnesota United FC (12-10-9) at BC Place on Wednesday.
Heading into Tuesday night Vancouver held the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 44 points, one less than Minnesota. Real Salt Lake was just two points behind and has a game in hand. Just five points separated fifth place from ninth in the West.
Nerwinski said the roller-coaster season has drawn the team together.
“We’ve had two different seasons in one,” he said. “The last 20 games have been great for us. We’ve shown that we’ve really come together as a team.
“This locker-room is probably the best locker-room I’ve been part of in the five years that I’ve been here. Every guy wants to fight for each other.”
Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was away with Canada’s national team when the meeting was held but noticed the different attitude within the club when he returned.
“The mood was way better,” said the native of Greenfield Park, Que. “It did make a difference.
“The guys really stuck together for each other on and off the field. It makes quite a difference when a group is tight. There’s no loose ends and we’re just honest with each other.”
Nerwinski didn’t get into details about what the players said to each other, just that the team managed to refocus.
“When you get into a losing streak like that it’s easy to kind of lose the plot,” he said. “As a team, we weren’t fighting for each other, we weren’t as together as I knew that we could be.
“It came down to talking it out. Guys had it out with each other. It ended up being the best possible thing for us. We all gained a lot of respect for each other. Honestly, this locker-room has been as tight as it could be.”
Along the way the Whitecaps have added players like forward Brian White, who leads the team with 11 goals, midfielder Ryan Gauld and defender Florian Jungwirth.
In late August head coach Marc Dos Santos was fired and replaced by Vanni Sartini, the team’s director of methodology.
Minnesota has struggled since the beginning of September with a 3-5-2 record in the last 10 games.
Sartini said Minnesota likes to play an aggressive, attacking style.
“The guys up top are very good,” he said. “Even when they defend, they like to press high and be very aggressive. We need to be very organized defensively, to leave less space as possible.
“I think if we break the first line of pressure there is going to be a lot of space for us. But breaking the first line is not going to be easy. We have to be very careful.”
The Whitecaps have worked hard to put themselves back in the playoff picture but can’t relax with three games left.
Nerwinski said it’s typical that Vancouver’s hot streak is receiving the cold shoulder when it comes to attention from the rest of the league.
“Since I’ve been here in Vancouver, I don’t think we get the respect we deserve ... especially with the run we’ve been on,” he said. “I don’t think the MLS gives us that respect.
“We’re a damn good team, and if we make the playoffs we can make a good run.”
MINNESOTA UNITED FC (12-10-9) at VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (11-9-11)
B.C. Place, Wednesday, 7 p.m. PDT
INJURY REPORT: The Whitecaps will be without midfielder Caio Alexandre (left foot, fifth metatarsal fracture) and forward Tosaint Ricketts (right calf strain). Both defender Andy Rose (left calf strain) and midfielder Janio Bikel (left adductor strain) are questionable. For Minnesota, forward Justin McMaster (thigh) is out.
DOME SWEET HOME: Since returning to BC Place the Whitecaps have outscored their opponents 14-5 and have not allowed more than one goal in a game.
FIT TO BE TIED: Vancouver’s 11 ties this season is the most among the seven teams battling for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference