With many still reeling from Vancouver's 3-1 home loss versus Chivas last weekend, the question being asked is: Was Vancouver's early success this season down to good play, or merely good fortune?
Page no. 1 of the answer gets written this evening, when the Whitecaps play TFC at BMO Field in their only MLS meeting of the year. Of course, the two tangled twice in the Canadian Championships earlier this year, with each side taking a victory.
It's no exercise in hyperbole to say that this is an absolutely critical match for the Caps on a variety of levels:
- Vancouver currently occupies the 5th and final playoff spot in the log jam known as the Western Conference, where a mere five points separate second place from seventh. The Caps have at least a game in hand on their Western counterparts above them in the standings, which is encouraging. But the worry comes when you look southward in the standings. The LA Galaxy trail Vancouver by only a point, but have a pair of matches in hand. Given LA's modus operandi of always coming on strong to finish the year, the odds aren't good that Vancouver will finish ahead of them. And then there's the Goats, only two points adrift, albeit with an extra match played.
- Let's not forget that this is a match with CONCACAF Champions League implications as well, since this time around, the Canadian entrant will be the one with most points at the end of the season.
- While the aforementioned Galaxy seem to follow the universal law of strong finishes, Caps fans are painfully aware of Newton's Third Law, which states that in the second half of the MLS season the Whitecaps respond with an equal and opposite reaction. Second half surges are not part of the blue-and-white DNA.
- On the note of second half slides, the Caps have just one win (over a depleted Seattle squad) in their last five matches, and have scored just twice in their last four games.
Looking specifically at tonight's match, Vancouver will be without the services of LB Jordan Harvey (red card suspension), who has arguably been one of Vancouver's best defenders this season. Christian Dean got the tap to fill in for the last 30 minutes after Harvey's dismissal, but looked very uncomfortable. If rookie Sam Adekugbe has recovered enough from his knee injury, I would expect Carl Robinson to give him the nod over Dean.
With Vancouver's scoring having dried up recently, it's not beyond imagining that Robinson will go with a 4-4-2 tonight - with a view to disrupting a well-rested Michael Bradley, making his first MLS appearance since playing in the World Cup, and to putting two strikers on the pitch.
The question then becomes who to put up top? Erik Hurtado's hot streak is over. Darren Mattocks looked rusty, failing to finish on multiple chances, Kekutah Manneh hardly exudes confidence, and frankly shouldn't be starting yet, and Omar Salgado... does he still play for the Caps?
With the Caps playing three matches in the span of a week (Caps play RSL on Saturday), there's certainly more than enough room for Russell Teibert to rejoin the rotation - but will Robinson look to him to help control Bradley and Defoe, or will the young midfielder be more useful at altitude versus Salt Lake?
TFC is coming off a massive come-from-behind 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo, thanks to a brace from Jermain Defoe in the second half, and are carrying some momentum. Their squad is intact again, although Gilberto is still listed on the MLS website as questionable due to a hip flexor issue.
Kicking off the back half of the season, the Whitecaps really can't afford to lose this match. A draw wouldn't be great either, but pragmatics would dictate that one might be acceptable.
Prediction: TFC 2 - WFC 1