VANCOUVER — 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 post-season 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 last 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 post-season 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.
“It’s another 90 minutes, it’s 11 v. 11 again, so anything can happen," he said. "We’ve all got the confidence in each other here that we’re capable of scoring goals against any side. We know it’s going to be tough against (Seattle). We know it’s going to be tough but everyone here is looking forward to it and we know we have enough quality to come out with a good result.”
Sartini expects his group to have some nerves leading up to Sunday's game, though he doesn't think they'll make much of an impact once players step on the field.
“If you don’t have the butterflies in your stomach, you have to stop playing," the coach said. "The nervousness, the tension is going to go away on the first ball. But you need to have it because it shows that you care.”
SEATTLE SOUNDERS (17-8-8) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (12-9-12)
B.C. Place, Sunday, 3 p.m. PT
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: After starting the season based out of Sandy, Utah, due to pandemic border restrictions the 'Caps have made the most of their return to Vancouver, going 7-1-0 at B.C. Place.
WHITE HOT: Striker Brian White continues to be a force for the Whitecaps, tallying 11 goals and three assists in his last 16 games (14 starts and two appearances off the bench).
CASCADIA CUP: The Sounders have a chance to clinch their third consecutive Cascadia Cup with a draw or a win on Sunday. The trophy was created in 2004 by supporters groups for the 'Caps, Sounders and Portland Timbers, and the hardware is handed out annually.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press