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Turning Point of the Season for Whitecaps

Sometimes, having a "no fixed deliverables" arrangement with your overlord turns out to be a good thing -- the dog gets walked, I get the time to experiment in the kitchen with shrimp and bacon, and I can finally find the time to invoice my paying clients.

But, after sitting through a two-week break in Whitecaps action, and suffering through the PVR'd atrocities of Scotland vs Serbia, and Canada vs Panama II, as well as some gentle butt-prodding from one of the handful of readers who actually feels inclined to read this stuff, it's back to the keyboard.

Good thing, too, as the Vancouver Whitecaps have a date with destiny in just a little over 24 hours.

Tomorrow night in Frisco, Texas we'll find out if Vancouver has the heart, the stones, and the talent to stave off FC Dallas in their attempt to claim the fifth and final playoff berth in the MLS West. Dallas are four points adrift of the Caps, so no matter what the outcome, Vancouver will remain in fifth. But, despite Bobby Lenarduzzi's recent claims to the contrary, there's no doubt in my mind that the season's on the line for both clubs, and that a loss will see the loser licking their wounds at the curbside lining the slow road to playoff elimination.

Will the Caps prevail? Unless FCD's completely forgotten how to play the game since drawing 1-1 with Seattle at the start of September, I don't see any indications that the good ship SS Whitecaps should be tossing their bilge pump overboard.

Just as the blue-and-white will be tested on the pitch, so too will Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie. And it'll be interesting to see just how he decides to answer that particular bell. Rennie's quandary lies partly in the fact that he's relied on the 4-2-3-1 (or if you prefer, 4-5-1) for the vast majority of the 2012 season. He's ridden that particular horse so hard this season that despite there being plenty of talk about the Caps finally going to a 4-4-2 in a bid to generate more scoring opportunities vs Dallas, I'll believe it when I see it. Rennie has been nothing if not steadfast in his approach throughout his tenure in Vancouver.

Among his strikers, he's got two big arrows in his quiver: One cost a veritable fortune, has seen many a battle, and - truth be told - used to be more accurate and reliable. The other is much newer, travels faster and with more range, but has a tendency to sometimes go wild and inflict damage on the archer, and not the target.

So Martin Rennie's dilemma is looking like this:

Kenny Miller, at 1.2 million per season, is the most expensive asset on the roster by a wide margin. Since joining the Caps two months ago, he's not looked as impressive as his resume would have boasted. He's scored once, on six shots in seven MLS appearances, converting a sitter that came to him by accident. Last weekend, in World Cup qualifying, he looked equally ineffective for Scotland versus Serbia. His marker against Macedonia earlier this week was a temporary relief to Scottish fans at Hampden Park, but even Jonathan Leathers would have put Jamie Mackie's feed home. To give him his due, Miller earned kudos for his work rate in the Serbia match, but ultimately failed to do the job the striker was there for.

Darren Mattocks is clearly the better physical specimen, with the kind athleticism that Miller most probably has never enjoyed. He's 10 years younger, and enjoys a substantial speed advantage over just about everyone in the league. His very respectable 21.7% shooting percentage puts him tops among the Whitecaps forwards, bearing out his potential to score whenever he's on the pitch. But, alas, young Mr. Mattocks has shown a proclivity for being impetuous -- earning himself two red cards this season. The Caps will be in tough on the road in Frisco with 11 men on the pitch, let alone 10.

Defence is the least of Rennie's worries. The club is mid-table when it comes to goals against, though with one of the best back lines in the MLS, it could be argued that the Caps should be doing better in that department. Looking at the team's offensive indicators, you'll find the Whitecaps much closer to the MLS basement: Shots attempted (17th), Shots on goal (17th), and Goals for (16th).

Somehow, I doubt that a two-week break will have been the cure for the lack of chemistry we've seen thus far this season, particularly in the transition from midfield to the front men. Poor service, slow transition, and an over-reliance on classic long-ball kick and chase is going to make the choice of striker even more critical. In all likelihood, whoever's up front will get one, maybe two quality chances all match.

Overall, it remains to be seen whether or not the Whitecaps can snap out of their extended malaise. I won't go so far as to make a prediction on the match, but should Vancouver come up short yet again -- and in such a pivotal match, it'll be exceedingly difficult for the club to change it's course before it's too late. As one regular reader put it last night: "Things are never as good as they seem, or as bad as they seem with this team." That said, finishing out the 2012 season somewhere in the oft-quoted "gloriously mid-table" position is still a substantial improvement over last year's painful introduction to MLS.