It's been an arduous journey for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season. While 2011's inaugural season in MLS was pretty much a wash, not many expected much more than that. Even just one road victory would have been nice, but that target eluded them.
The current season began with so much hope, which turned to promise, as the team went four and a half matches without conceding a goal, and in the process set an MLS record for clean sheets to start the season. But five minutes after entering the record books, all four wheels promptly fell off the wagon when the Caps gave up three goals in a 10-minute span in San Jose.
Mid-spring was unkind to the blue-and-white, as they played nine matches between April 28 and May 26. These included the 4-1 pasting at the hands of the New England Revolution, and of course several Canadian Championship matches before losing in the finals to Toronto.
The Whitecaps relished in a 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo in early June, and then all the rejigging began in July. Six marquee players made their exits or entrances in the first three weeks of July. The seeds for the downward slide were sewn, and starting in mid-August the fall from grace began. Now here we are in late October, taking the backstage door into the playoffs.
With a roster comprising a fair number of what Bill the bard coined as "lean and slipper'd pantaloons," the Caps are looking to survive tonight's test against the LA Galaxy, a side they've never beaten in MLS play. The aggregate over the five MLS matches the two sides have played head to head in MLS - a deeply discouraging 14-2. The lone bright spot for the Caps concerning their California rivals is an oft-forgotten 2-1 victory for the Caps back when they played Div 2. The Caps won that friendly back in May 2008, in Edmonton.
Tonight's encounter promises to be anything but friendly, as Vancouver, the first Canadian side ever to make the MLS playoffs, has nothing to lose in this win-or-go-home fixture. Personally, I'm looking forward to Barry Robson renewing acquaintances with David Beckham. With literally nobody giving the Caps any chance of victory this evening, Martin Rennie and his team have all the reason in the world to dig deep and prove the world wrong. Then again, the Caps don't exactly have the best track record at coming up big when it counts - the Canadian Championship, and more recently the October 21 match vs Portland (when playoff qualification was still on the line) come to mind.
For the Whitecaps' organization, their play-in this evening is both a challenge and an opportunity of biblical proportions. It's a tough enough assignment to be going up against the Goliath, but they won't get the chance to play the role of David, as he's already playing alongside Goliath. So much for the challenge. The opportunity? With the 2012 NHL season looking more and more like a Paradise Lost, there's a whole host of sports fans out there looking for somewhere to park some entertainment money. For most, it's hockey or nothing, but there is a segment to tap into if the Caps can go on an extended run.
All the predictions, including my own, have the Whitecaps playing bunker ball and looking for the one or two opportunities that might come up for a quick counter. Pragmatism, and I've heard that word a little too often lately, would suggest that this is exactly what Martin Rennie's match plan will consist of. But what I predict, and pragmatism would demand, is not necessarily the same as what I'd like to see happen.
I'm reminded of the old saying that you "Never take a knife to a gun fight." Unfortunately for Vancouver, a knife is about as good as it'll get - and would be a huge upgrade from what's often been only a peashooter. The question becomes "If it looks like you're going down, do you go down swinging (or slashing)? Or, do you turtle while the other guy empties his magazine?"
I've been wrong about the Caps a few times this year. I didn't see the Davide Chiumiento move coming. The Kenny Miller acquisition came out of the blue, and I'm still scratching my head on that one. I figured that Brad Knighton would be between the sticks for only a match or two, and no, I did not think the Caps would make the playoffs. By nature, I'm more of a "glass half-empty" guy, unless there's tangible evidence to believe otherwise. I'll be more than pleasantly surprised if the Vancouver Whitecaps can defy the odds and knock off LA.
At times, I've been harshly critical of the Caps this year - on those occasions when individual players have strayed from the team script, and chosen instead to write their own strange eventful histories, or as happened too often this year, when the entire team has come out completely flat for no good reason. Around the blogosphere in early October, fans were pegging matches not as "must win" matchups, but as "must compete" ones.
In the end, that's all any of us really want to see out of Vancouver - a competitive side that win, lose, or draw Vancouver fans can be proud of. No, an upset's not likely, but I'll settle - if I have to - for a well-fought battle lost to a more deserving victor, if that's the way it pans out. What I won't abide, though, is an opportunity squandered by self-serving or zombie-like play. Halloween was last night.