VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps' road to the playoffs continues to be a bumpy ride.
A COVID-19 outbreak has left the 'Caps (7-10-6) short-handed for Friday's crucial home matchup against the Houston Dynamo (7-12-4).
The club has not confirmed which players have entered Major League Soccer's health and safety protocols, but at least six regulars were missing from training on Thursday, including forward Cristian Dajome and midfielder Andres Cubas.
Despite the shortened bench, head coach Vanni Sartini said he was confident heading into Friday's game.
“We’ve always been very good when we’re under pressure," he said. "And we’ve always been responding really well, the guys literally gathering together and getting together towards the new objective.
"This is a little bump that we’re going to miss some players (on Friday) but the players that will play, they’ve already played with the team, they’ve already won games with the team, they’ve already played in their position. So it’s nothing crazy, it’s nothing major."
The COVID outbreak comes during a particularly important stretch for Vancouver.
With 11 regular-season games to go, the Whitecaps sit five points out of a playoff spot. All of the club's remaining games are against Western Conference opponents, making each outing a critical matchup.
“We need the points. There’s no other way to say it," said defender Tristan Blackmon. "You can say it’s a must win. I think the games for the rest of the year are must wins."
Houston is also chasing a playoff spot and sit two points behind Vancouver.
While the 'Caps are coming off a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Nashville SC on Saturday, the Dynamo suffered a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Union the same night.
“They may be hungry after the 6-0 loss, but we’re very hungry, very motivated," said Vancouver striker Tosaint Ricketts.
Health and safety protocols aren't the only issue holding some key Whitecaps players back from Friday's game.
Striker Brian White is out after suffering a rib injury in Nashville and Lucas Cavallini, the club's leading scorer, is nursing a quad injury that will likely prevent him from playing a full 90 minutes.
Ricketts will take on a bigger presence in their absence. It's a role the Canadian said he embraces.
"I'm ready," he said. "Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I'm in a good place. And very confident with the group that we have."
Various ailments have plagued the 'Caps all season, limiting how often Sartini has been able to put his top players together on the field.
He credits the group's depth with allowing the club to weather the adversity and said Friday will be no different.
"(The game) will be a demonstration again that the team is the leader," the coach said. "The most important name that we have on the jersey is the one on the front of the jersey, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and not the one behind.”
HOUSTON DYNAMO (7-12-4) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (7-10-6)
Friday, B.C. Place
LAST TIME OUT: The two sides have already met once this season, with the Dynamo taking a 2-1 decision in Houston back on March 12.
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: The Whitecaps are undefeated at home against Houston (7-0-3), including a game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, where Vancouver played part of the 2021 campaign due to pandemic border closures.
NEW ADDITION: Vancouver's newest acquisition, Alessandro Schopf, isn't expected to suit up for Friday's game. The 'Caps signed the 28-year-old Austrian central midfielder on Wednesday, and while he's begun training with the team, he needs more time to get up to speed. Schopf joins the Whitecaps after spending last season with Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld where he started in 29 of 33 appearances across all competitions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press