When the Major League Soccer season began, Brad Knighton was glued to the Vancouver Whitecaps bench.
Now, as the Whitecaps struggle down the homestretch, Vancouver’s backup goalkeeper is being asked to save their playoff hopes.
Knighton will make his third straight start Sunday as Vancouver hosts the Colorado Rapids in a bid to end a five-game losing streak.
“It’s nice to be able to get a run of games,” said Knighton after practice Saturday. “I was coming off the bench a couple times this season. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
The Whitecaps (10-12-7) are clinging to the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference as they take on an injury-riddled Colorado side that sits with a 9-18-2 mark.
Vancouver holds a one-point lead over FC Dallas in what is essentially a two-team race for the final playoff spot.
“Obviously, three points is a must for us,” said Knighton. “We need to come in here and dictate the tempo and take the game to them. We’re at home and we’ve done very well at home (7-2-4) ... and we’re looking to continue.”
Knighton, a former University of North Carolina-Wilmington standout, was never drafted by an MLS club. He spent last season with the second-tier Carolina RailHawks after four campaigns going up and down between New England, Philadelphia and Portland in the MLS, as well as with USL’s Indiana Invaders.
The 27-year-old Hickory, N.C., native has displaced Joe Cannon as Vancouver’s starting goalkeeper during the most critical part of the season. The Whitecaps started the season with four straight shutouts, and Cannon has eight clean sheets in all, just two short of his career high of 10 set with Colorado in 2004.
He also helped Vancouver set a league record with 338 scoreless minutes to start a season, playing all but 49 minutes of them. But Cannon has not seen the field since allowing a free kick to go through his hands in a 2-1 road loss to the lowly Portland Timbers on Aug. 25.
The Whitecaps are coming off a disappointing 1-0 loss last weekend in Dallas, where Knighton stopped a penalty kick but allowed a goal in second-half stoppage time to Canadian international Julian de Guzman.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Knighton. “Overall, the team put in a really good shift. I thought everyone was fantastic. We possessed the ball well, we defended well, but just to give up a late goal like that is heartbreaking throughout the team. But it’s (a matter of) how we bounce back from that.”
The decision to go with Knighton appears to represent a gamble on youth over experience. Knighton has 19 career MLS games under his belt while the 37-year-old Cannon is a former league goalkeeper of the year (2002). Cannon has logged 332 career games and backstopped the San Jose Earthquakes to an MLS Cup title in 2001.
This season, Knighton has appeared in just five league games, starting three of them, while posting a 2-2-0 record. Cannon, by contrast, has started 26, going 8-10-7.
But coach Martin Rennie said there was no gambling involved in his move.
“I feel good with both of our goalkeepers,” he said. “Any time (Knighton) has played, he’s done well, so he’s been given a chance.”
While not conceding goals is a priority, so is scoring more of them. Vancouver has scored only once during its losing skid. Rookie striker Darren Mattocks, who came in off the bench in Dallas, will start against the Rapids.
Rennie needed only one word to say what he wanted from the 22-year-old Jamaican.
“Goals,” said Rennie.
Mattocks, a speedster who also has incredible leaping ability, leads the club with seven goals. He was voted this week as the league’s top player under 24 and still has a chance at the MLS rookie goals record of 11 held by fellow Jamaican Damani Ralph.
“(Mattocks) has been a good player for us,” said Rennie. “He’s maybe not been in the lineup as consistently as we would have liked just because of international call-up, suspension and previous injury. But whenever he’s been available, we’ve had him in there, so it’s nice to have him back.”
Mattocks is not bothered by Rennie’s comment that he needs to score goals with the club’s playoff hopes on the line.
“Nothing has changed,” said Mattocks, adding he has been a scorer with all of his teams. “I’ve just gotta know that that’s my role.”
A playoff berth would add to a memorable first pro season for the University of Akron product, who has also suited up for Jamaica in World Cup qualifying.
“The expectations I set for myself are pretty high, so I’m not surprised I am where I’m at right now,” he said. “But there is so much room for improvement. There are so much more things to be accomplished this season.”
Notes: This is the third and final meeting between Colorado and Vancouver this season. The Whitecaps won the first two games by identical 1-0 scores, at B.C. Place in June and in Colorado in July. ... Vancouver’s Dane Richards and Alain Rochat also face a one-game suspension for their next yellow card. ... Whitecaps midfielder Russell Teibert of Niagara Falls, Ont., suffered a thigh injury in practice Friday and will not play. Defender Andy O’Brien is questionable due to a groin strain. He has also been dealing with knee tendinitis. Left winger Omar Salgado is close to returning from a broken foot, but will not dress Sunday. ... Colorado will play without defender Anthony Wallas (torn Achilles) midfielders Pablo Matroeni (headaches) and Davy Armstrong (undisclosed personal medical issue) and striker Edu (foot).
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