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The inevitable became reality for the Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday night.

A 3-1 loss to New York City FC officially ended the Whitecaps’ slim-to-none hopes of reaching the Major League Soccer playoffs. It’s the third time in four years Vancouver has failed to advance to the playoffs.

It’s not like the Whitecaps and their fans didn’t see this coming. It was Vancouver’s third defeat in eight games and the Whitecaps (6-15-9) are last in the MLS Western Conference.

But that doesn’t make it any easier for the players or coach to accept.

“You can’t play a season like this and see it go this wrong,” said defender Doneil Henry. “It’s been a nightmare. It’s been rough... sleepless nights.”

Head coach Marc Dos Santos was asked how he’s going to motivate his players for their final four games of the season.

“I don’t know,” replied the first-year Whitecaps’ coach. “It’s a situation that is new, not to be in a playoff or to be fighting for something in September.”

What Dos Santos isn’t planning is to finish the campaign by resting veterans and giving young players auditions.

“It you are thinking we are going to give chances to academy players and young players, it’s too important for us to come in every game and to win,” he said.

“It’s going to be the same process to the end. We’ll try to have the best team possible out there to try to win the most of the four games.”

Vancouver dug an early hole, giving up goals about 16 minutes apart to fall behind 2-0 early in the first half before a crowd of 17,512 at BC Place Stadium.

Forward Yordy Reyna’s goal in the 64th minute cut the deficit to one. But Alexandru Mitrita delivered the final blow in the 77th minute when his free kick from about 25 yards out squeezed in between the post and Whitecaps’ goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.

Dos Santos refused to use fatigue or even a disputed call that cost his team the chance at a penalty kick as an excuse for the loss. Instead he blamed missed opportunities and mistakes.

“It’s a story of (our) season where there are key moments that just cut our legs out,” he said.

Mitrita scored one goal and set up another for New York City (14-5-8), which won its fourth consecutive game. Heber and Gary Mackay-Steven, an early first half substitution, also scored.

The win moved New York City into second place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Philadelphia Union.

Tempers flared in the 31st minute when referee Marcos de Oliveira initially signalled a penalty kick should be awarded to Vancouver after New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson appeared to foul Whitecaps’ forward Tosaint Ricketts. The call was reversed on a video replay, resulting in both goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha and assistant coach Vanni Sartini being ejected for arguing the decision.

Dahha didn’t go quietly. He rallied the booing crowd to their feet while being escorted off the pitch.

Dos Santos didn’t want to give his opinion on the play except to say it had an impact on the game.

“That goal in that moment would have been very important,” he said. “It’s a play I really feel would have made a difference.”

New York City used a turnover in the 10th minute to go ahead 1-0 on Heber’s 14th goal of the season. Midfielder Tony Rocha took the ball off the foot of Vancouver midfielder Jon Erice, then passed it to Mitrita. He sent it to Heber who scored on a low, hard shot. It was Mitrita’s league-leading 19th assist.

Heber limped off the field in the 21st minute after going down in a heap and was replaced by Mackay-Steven.

A pretty play by captain Maximiliano Moralez set up Mackay-Steven’s goal in the 26th minute. Moralez threaded a perfect pass through the Vancouver defence to a charging Mackay-Steven who chipped the ball over the Whitecap goalkeeper.

Reyna got the Whitecaps fans back into the game when he took a pass from Ricketts and fired a shot from the right side of the box that curled just inside the left post.

The Whitecaps were coming off a 2-1 loss to Montreal Wednesday and are (1-4-0) in their last five games. They have been outscored 11-5 in this stretch.

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