VANCOUVER — When Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos referred to his group as "road warriors" on Wednesday, he wasn't exaggerating.
The club hasn't played a game at home since March 2020. COVID-19 border closures forced the club to finish out last season living in a hotel in downtown Portland. They started this year's campaign in Sandy, Utah, sharing facilities with Real Salt Lake.
Players and staff can finally unpack their bags, though — the Whitecaps are coming home.
The club will host Los Angeles FC at B.C. Place on Saturday night, marking the first time in 539 days it will play in front of fans in Vancouver.
The wait has been so long that the club's newest star hasn't even set foot in the stadium. Days after signing with the 'Caps last month, attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld and his teammates set out on another road trip.
“Everyone’s been desperate to get home for a long, long time," Gauld said. "We’ve got a lot of home games coming up so we’ll be looking to turn those home games into some points.”
Several others, including homegrown midfielder Michael Baldisimo, played at B.C. Place last fall when the Whitecaps faced their Canadian MLS counterparts in a trio of closed-door home games, but have yet to experience playing in front of fans.
“I told them there’s nothing like having your fans behind you, screaming, cheering you on, giving the other team a bit of trouble," said veteran 'Caps defender Jake Nerwinski. "It’s everything. It’s an extra guy on the field. It’s something really special to play and get wins in B.C. Place.”
The Whitecaps (4-7-8) return to Vancouver on a seven-game undefeated streak after beating expansion side Austin FC 2-1 on Wednesday.
Another win Saturday would see the 'Caps tie LAFC (6-8-5) with 23 points and the club would vault up the Western Conference standings to right below the playoff bar.
“We wanted to get to that point before coming home for our home games that we were close or above the playoff line. And I think we did that," Nerwinski said after win over Austin.
"It’s really difficult to play so many games on the road, not in front of our fans. And to be honest, we got results away and that’s really hard to do in this league.”
It hasn't been an easy season for the Whitecaps. Dos Santos has repeatedly spoken about the emotional toll living away from home has taken on the group.
The club dropped lost five outings in a row between the middle of May and the end of June. Several matches have been played without star striker Lucas Cavallini and stalwart 'keeper Maxime Crepeau as they put in time with the Canadian national team.
Cavallini suffered a knee injury shortly after his return to club duty and isn't expected back until late September. Other players, including Canadian defender Cristian Gutierrez, have also been sidelined by injuries.
Wednesday's result was something fans back home in Vancouver deserve, Dos Santos said.
Before Wednesday's game, the coach spoke to his ground about how there are few people who believe the 'Caps can make the playoffs this year.
“We believe here. And we said for us to be in the top seven, there’s games we have to take here and games that we have to accept the challenge and games that we have to go for it. And this was one of these games," Dos Santos said.
"For us, the most important thing was to give hope to our fans. And when you’re in the run that we are … it means that we’re building something.”
LOS ANGELES FC (6-8-5) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (4-7-8)
B.C. Place, Saturday, 7 p.m. PDT
BIG UPS: Vancouver's Ryan Gauld was named to the MLS Team of the Week after a dominant performance against Austin FC on Wednesday. The 25-year-old attacking midfielder came on for Leonard Owusu at the half and made an instant impact, factoring into both goals in the 2-1 victory.
STREAK VS. SKID: The Whitecaps come into Saturday's match on a seven-game undefeated streak (2-0-5) while LAFC is on a three-game losing skid. L.A.'s last win came on July 17 when they beat Real Salt Lake 2-1.
LAST TIME OUT: The 'Caps have already faced LAFC once this season. The two sides played in California on July 24, when Vancouver jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, only to see L.A. battle back for a 2-2 draw.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press