The Vancouver Whitecaps match this afternoon against the Portland Timbers is going to be the regular season game of the year.
Note the implicit qualifiers there. With four points in hand and two games remaining, I think it very, very probable the Whitecaps will make the playoffs; thus, "regular season". And I say "game of the year" but not a "must-win". It would be a very-very-very-nice-to-win but even a draw would force FC Dallas to win out against Seattle Sounders and Chivas USA to have any chance. The game is only a must-win in the sense that it's a chance for Martin Rennie to grab destiny by the throat, and a Whitecaps team which can't beat what's left of the Portland Timbers at BC Place doesn't deserve to become the first Canadian team to make the MLS playoffs.
That is a lame historical milestone, too. You'll remember the Whitecaps (and the Montreal Impact) made the 2010 USSF D2 playoffs. It was easier in that league (eight of twelve teams got in) but the Impact and the Whitecaps were upper-third teams and both won a playoff round. So saying the Whitecaps will be the first Canadian MLS team to make the playoffs, while true, shouldn't impress. It's another way of saying "the Whitecaps had a one-year playoff drought and Toronto FC is garbage." Of course if the Whitecaps drop out of the playoffs it will be devastating, but only because of the unholy collapse that would be required and not because of any historical significance.
If you are looking for history, tonight the Whitecaps may break their franchise-record playoff drought of one season. They also missed out in the 1994 APSL and 1996 USL A-League seasons. Since reforming as the Vancouver 86ers for the 1987 CSL season, the Whitecaps have won six championships and missed the playoffs three times, a pretty amazing statistic that has nothing to do with this game but I thought was worth sharing.
So while I'll be happy for the Whitecaps' return to their god-given place in the post-season, please don't expect me to etch the date in stone.
As for the Portland Timbers? You know, the mortal rivals the Whitecaps play under the tarp-covered Bell Hole at BC Place? The team which may be sucking plankton off the bottom of the Western Conference but will still want to win the Cascadia Cup and salvage some pride from a ruin of a season, particularly if it means condemning expansion buddies Vancouver to playoff oblivion? The famous "if I'm going down I'm taking you with me" principle?
Well, to misquote every wag at every soccer stadium in every country of the world, even ones where they don't speak English, "they're shit and they know they are." Their road goal differential, MLSSoccer.com tells us, is -26. They've played 16 road games so far this season, meaning when they play away Portland loses by an average of 1.6 goals every game. Why yes that is unusually bad; only five other teams are even half as terrible (Montreal, New England, Toronto, Colorado, Chivas). When Chivas USA, who aren't nearly as bad a road team as the Timbers, visited Vancouver the Whitecaps kicked the everloving hell out of them. Their only point in their last five road games was on September 19 in San Jose; a good team, obviously, but a game which the Earthquakes spectacularly dominated from beginning to end in which the Timbers were damned lucky to get anything.
There are two ways the Whitecaps don't win this game. One is that they get San Josed: completely deserve three points but don't get them because the soccer gods are pissing and pretending it's rain. In that case I will scream and tear at my hair.
The other is that the Whitecaps get outplayed. There's really no excuse for that to happen; I've written a number of times that the Whitecaps aren't really as good as we sometimes think but they're better than that. So if they get outplayed we have to come back to the old clichés of them not being ready for the game and not working harder than the other guys and I will once again scream and tear my hair, but at least with the satisfaction of knowing their comeuppance was deserved.
And Seattle might beat Dallas and it won't matter at all.