VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their playoffs against the same opponent they faced to end their season.
Vancouver heads down to California to take on Los Angeles FC on Saturday as part of a best-of-three series in the MLS playoffs.
Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said his club respects the defending MLS Cup winners, but isn't afraid of them.
"Since June, I think we've been one of the top teams in the Western Conference so I don't think we need to be scared of anyone," he said.
Vancouver ended the season with a 1-1 draw against the California side, with two missed Whitecaps penalties proving to be decisive.
"LAFC, in terms of pure talent, is the best team. The depth of players they have, is the top talent," said Sartini.
The California side features UEFA European Championship winner Giorgio Chiellini as well as Mexican star Carlos Vela and league top goal scorer Dénis Bouanga.
"We need to go play our game but be conscious if we want to (continue) we need to win at least once in Los Angeles. The fact we've done it once this season, it gives us the confidence to say it's something that's not out of reach," said Sartini.
The best-of-three series is new this season after the league previously used a single-game elimination format in previous years.
Vancouver's playoff record during its time as a MLS club is mixed. The team has twice made the quarterfinals (2015, 2017) but hasn't made it past the first round the other seasons since it joined the league.
The Whitecaps finished sixth in the 14-team Western Conference at 12-10-12, while LAFC finished third at 14-10-10.
Vancouver beat LAFC 3-2 back in June, courtesy of a winner from Whitecaps captain Ryan Gauld.
Gauld was asked about facing off against the California team as well as former teammate and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.
Crepeau denied once Gauld last time out, pushing his first penalty attempt away with the second hitting the bar.
But the Scottish playmaker said he's unfazed about coming up against last year's champions and his ex-teammate.
"It is what it is, a team we know well," said Gauld. "We know it's going to be a tough two or three games but we've shown we can go there and win it … we need to be confident."
Vancouver has played LAFC twice in the regular season as well as twice in the CONCACAF Champions League in the spring.
That amount of time spent playing one team has helped the players better understand what they are facing, said defender Tristan Blackmon.
"I think you start to become more familiar with them if you play a bunch of games," he said. "It definitely helps to have played them this past weekend … it's going to be a good matchup and I think our guys are going to step up for it," he said.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo was complimentary to Vancouver after last week's 1-1 draw, but backed his team heading into the playoffs.
"Things to improve on for next is to manage your opponent over 90 minutes, not 45," said Cherundolo. "Vancouver is a team that's quite a scrappy team. if you allow them the time and space, they have the tools that can break you down … they're a much improved side."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press