VANCOUVER — When Thomas Hasal last made a start for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the team was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, desperate to turn its season around.
Now, as the 22-year-old 'keeper from Saskatoon prepares to start against expansion side Austin FC (5-12-4) on Saturday, the table looks a little different, with the 'Caps (6-7-8) within striking distance of a playoff spot.
"I think we’ve become a hard team to beat, especially in league play," Hasal said. "Teams don’t like playing us, whether we’re down a goal, down two goals, we’re always managing to fight back.
"No game we’ve played has been an easy game for ourselves and for the other team. We want to continue that.”
The 'Caps are unbeaten in their last nine Major League Soccer games and boast a three-game winning streak after beating Real Salt Lake 4-1 on Sunday.
The last time the Whitecaps won four games in a row was March-April 2015 as the club cruised to second place in the Western Conference.
Vancouver will need to be adaptable in order to keep the run going this season, though. Three Whitecaps starters are off on international duty this week and several other stalwarts have been sidelined by injury.
Depth is key as the squad makes a post-season push, said acting head coach Vanni Sartini.
"We don’t reach the playoffs with 11 players. We reach the playoffs with 20, 22 players," he said. "Not only because you need to be ready to play every time but because the training session is important. … The depth and togetherness of the group and the quality of the group matters not only on the top with the stars but with the guys that play less.”
Hasal will step in for Whitecaps No. 1 'keeper Maxime Crepeau, who's currently playing World Cup qualifying matches for the Canadian national team.
Hasal's already stepped into the starter's spot this season, posting a 1-1-3 record with 11 saves and one clean sheet.
“He’s a young goalie and he’s been great for us," said striker Brian White. "You can see in training he’s got quality.
"So we have his back. We’re confident he’s going to get the job done for us this weekend.”
White has been key to the Vancouver's recent success, scoring a goal in each of his last three games.
The 25-year-old came to the 'Caps from the New York Red Bulls in June, and initially struggled to find the back of the net.
"I always needed that one to fall and the rest would come," White said. "It’s always trying to maintain that confidence in myself and hopefully I can keep a little bit of momentum and a little bit of luck going.”
His first goal of the stretch came Aug. 18 when the 'Caps beat Austin 2-1 in Texas. The victory was the only other time the two teams have met.
It's been a difficult first season for Austin. The club lingers at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, tied with the Houston Dynamo with 19 points after dropping a 5-3 decision to Dallas on Sunday.
Austin does boast some veteran MLS talent, though, including defender Matt Besler and midfielder Alex Ring, so it's a team that can't be counted out, White cautioned.
"Obviously they haven’t had a great string of results this season but they have good players so at many moment they can be dangerous and score goals," he said. "So we have to be prepared for the full 90 minutes for anything."
AUSTIN FC (5-12-4) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (6-7-8)
B.C. Place, Saturday, 4 p.m. PDT
INJURY REPORT: The Whitecaps will be without defenders Cristian Gutierrez (left quad strain) and Jake Nerwinski (right knee sprain) and midfielder Caio Alexandre (left foot fracture). Midfielder Andy Rose is listed as questionable (right Achilles tendon tendinopathy) and defender Ranko Vesolinovic is listed as doubtful (right groin injury).
ON DUTY: Three 'Caps have been called up for international duty as their national teams vie for spots in the 2022 World Cup, including goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and striker Lucas Cavallini (Canada), and defender Javain Brown (Jamaica).
STAYING GAULD: Vancouver's newest designated player continues to impress. Scottish attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld earned MLS Team of the Week honours for the second week in a row after notching a goal and two assists against Salt Lake on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press