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Three Integral Parts to the Playoff Push

A look at three potential difference makers heading into Vancouver's three remaining fixtures of the regular season

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Making the playoffs appeared an unrealistic pipe dream in the months leading up to the 2014 MLS campaign, rookie head coach Carl Robinson adopted a team crippled with adversity, and the morale of the fans had plummeted drastically after yet another underwhelming year. Matters weren’t particularly helped when the resounding bright point from Martin Rennie’s final term at the helm – British Columbia’s soccer equivalent to Voldemort – headed south for Mexico, stacking the odds against the crestfallen Whitecaps even further.

Ten months have passed since those uncertain times and, with the unwelcome cloud of anxiety no longer looming over B.C. Place, Vancouver head into their final three games of the season occupying fifth place in the Western Conference. In quintessential fashion, the season has had its fair share of euphoric highs and soul-crushing lows, however the Cascadia Cup holders have responded from every circumstance with admirable resilience and have the ideal they have been striving towards right in their sights.

During his infamous ‘inch by inch’ speech in Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino remarked that "you find out that life is just a game of inches, so is football, because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small," and the principle behind that is very much relevant within this topic of discussion. Vancouver’s immediate fate hangs in the balance of numerous variables, variables which will fluctuate and, ultimately, decipher the difference between success and failure. I have elected to identify three of which that I believe could make the difference especially, over the next 270 minutes and beyond.

Pedro Morales’ Leadership

Pedro Morales has done everything anyone could have asked of him after swapping the Costa Del Sol for Upper Cascadia back in February, and the armband he now sports every game is testament to that. Jay DeMerit had been the sole owner of the captaincy since the franchise became a part of Major League Soccer and, in a team largely dependant on youth, his role in the locker room served an invaluable purpose. It’s no surprise then that his decision to hang up his boots sustained a detrimental impact to the side, his experience climbing the ranks and expertise as a leader was of paramount importance, and losing that so suddenly came with a steep adjusting curve.

In spite of that, Morales has stepped up to the plate in remarkable fashion, galvanising his colleagues and inspiring the current vein of form which has culminated in this late push for the playoffs. He’s not the same type of skipper as DeMerit, that much is evident, while his coordination vocally is influential it’s the way he dictates matches which inspires those around him, and that in particular will come into effect over the course of the month. It’s almost as if he captains the crowd as well as the roster in that respect, the sensation watching him work his magic resonates the exact same sense of uplifting encouragement from the stands as it does on the pitch.

It would be fair to suggest that Pedro’s English language skills require some improvement, however he’s put a lot of effort into that aspect of his duty of late, despite the fatigue he’s subjected to having played fourteen months of soccer without any significant respite. In a recent training ground interview with the assembled media, in the wake of his instrumental two-goal performance to defeat Real Salt Lake, the 29-year-old put what he has learned into practice before [bellowing out a satisfactory and well received "woooo!"], further indication of his commitment to the responsibility he’s been afforded by coach Robinson.

Intertwined with that is the former Málaga maestro’s standard of play, circumventing the aforementioned exhaustion to continue delivering the mesmerizing displays he’s produced throughout the campaign. Morales has hit the back of the net on ten occasions this year, three of which coming in his last five appearances, representing the most dangerous threat in front of goal regardless of his positioning on the field. In addition to that, he’s accumulated the same number of assists, making an average of 2.5 key passes per game, and has only benefited from the shared workload now that Mauro Rosales has joined the ranks. The last thing anyone needs is a lethargic Pedro Morales, surplus to requirements down the stretch.

It’s imperative that he continues to excel at this rate and, in my opinion, the best way in which to ensure that is by strategizing his schedule to meticulous detail. This has already come into effect out of game day as the coaching staff have now modified his involvement during training sessions, however the possibility of more fixtures past October may well necessitate further apprehension and that’s something all involved will have to be wary of. If I had to raise one outstanding criticism of the diminutive Chilean it would regard his contribution defensively, and now that Rosales is capable of sharing the team’s creative needs I think there is greater scope to improve that. Perhaps adding more balance to his approach over the ninety minutes will alleviate the worries concerning his fitness in some part, and that would obviously be beneficial to everyone.

The Return of Gershon Koffie

It’s no coincidence that Vancouver’s shady run of form and lack of attacking fluidity from the beginning of August materialized at the same time as Gershon Koffie’s spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury. In fact, Vancouver have only suffered defeat twice in the previous thirteen games featuring the 23-year-old, and up until the Sporting Kansas City home win Gershon had been playing better than he ever had done before in a Whitecaps jersey, justified reason for encouragement where the fans were concerned. It doesn’t seem likely that he will appear in Friday night’s meeting with Seattle at CenturyLink field, however his return is very much imminent and could be decisive over what remains of the 2014 term.

Although Russell Teibert has replaced the void left by Koffie’s absence valiantly, the midfield have severely missed the Ghanian’s presence alongside Matías Laba, having often been the decisive factor when in transition for much of the season the quick-paced counter-attacking machine has lost its well-oiled efficiency. Following on from the World Cup break the Whitecaps have failed to play to their maximum capabilities collectively, when someone finds momentum another slumps, and this has been rather frustrating, but with the side returning to the standards set by their electrifying start the forecast for reintegrating Koffie is tremendously promising, and the always enthusiastic lynch-pin will find even more motivation from that as he reintroduction to first-team plans draws ever nearer.

At this point a year ago Koffie returning from injury would have raised far fewer smiles than the prospect does today, and that speaks volumes of his progression with Robinson at the helm. The inconsistency that had stagnated his growth through large parts of the last two seasons has thankfully disappeared, resulting in a far more complete, effective option in the middle of the park. The former Welsh international disclosed the ethos he has installed into the squad, "I said from Day 1, it’s a waste of their talent if they don’t get in my team. Something’s clicked for Koffie and he hasn’t looked back since," and has certainly reaped the rewards from the belief he has placed in #28. It’s a relationship that functions on a mutual basis and will produce the goods for however long as the two remain in the same vicinity.

Strength In Depth

The Whitecaps front office and coaching staff worked very quickly to rebuild the team for both the short and long-term future in the offseason, and, as a result of that, possess a number of strong options in reserve. It has proved a pretty valuable asset to Robinson, this calibre of rotation is a luxury many MLS outfits cannot afford, and this flexibility will maintain its importance heading towards the postseason. Kekuta Manneh, Nicolás Mezquida, and the much maligned Darren Mattocks represent game-changing alternatives from the bench and, with the promise of appearing in the playoffs potentially up for grabs, will receive a new injection of hunger to impress their way into the starting line-up. There could be much more on the line than minutes, mind, and that’s definitely worth noting upon analyzing their forthcoming work.

Manneh, in particular, will have an extra chip on his shoulder having performed so well in his recent substitute cameo against RSL, and could be something of an x-factor to the side with so many crunch fixtures down the line. Form hasn’t been such a prominent feature to the 19-year-old’s play this year, but his brief flashes of brilliance, however rare they may be, have sustained the widespread belief in his abilities. This excitement regarding his potential has spawned a great extent from his virtuoso three-goal display away to the Sounders in October of 2013 and, with the Caps returning to the Emerald City this coming Friday, you can bet that he has his mind on replicating some of that impact once again. If he can muster only half of that, the likelihood of maximum points returning home has to look decent where Vancouver are concerned.

Darren Mattocks is another attacker who will have additional desire to make a mark over the remainder of the season, but rather than justifying hype he’s instead on a mission to regain it. Mattocks has endured a sorely disappointing decline since claiming first place in’s 24 Under 24 series back in 2012, hitting new lows in front of goal and in his general behaviour leading up the line. Fans had raised their expectations after a bright summer wherein, at one point, the Jamaican international netted four goals in five games, but have lost all patience during his ongoing nine-match scoring drought. With his immediate future hanging in the balance the only way for him to retain his position at the club would be through some kind of re-invigoration process, rediscovering his touch when presented with the opportunity to make a difference.

I wouldn't advise you to hold your breath on that coming to fruition, though.