The magical night the Whitecaps organization has been dreaming of since entering Major League Soccer is nearly here. Vancouver will host the Portland Timbers in their first ever playoff contest at BC Place this Sunday; seven days removed from the compelling first leg stalemate down the I-5. In celebration of this long-awaited feat, the front office have elected to remove the tarps in the lower bowl to create as significant a home-field advantage as feasibly possible. More than 27,000 crazed fans are expected to make up the increased capacity crowd, and will endeavour to match the fierce intensity on exhibition between the white lines through their vocal support. Every measure is being carried out to not only facilitate the The Best Sporting Atmosphere in Vancouver, but also to take it to a brand new level.
This predicted energy inside the stadium will serve as invaluable means of motivation to Carl Robinson's side, and should complement the urgent nature of the Welsh tactician's approach to great effect. I can write that without any semblance of hesitation because the circumstances dictate what mentality the Caps will adopt this weekend. Without any away goals to their name, the only avenue to the conference final for the Canadian champions lies with victory - be it during the ninety minutes of regulation time, the additional thirty minutes of extra time, or from twelve yards out in a penalty shootout. A score draw will see the Timbers face either the Sounders or FC Dallas in the next round, and the reality of that represents cause for concern to some. I, for one, do not share that pessimistic outlook.
No opponent has afforded me more incentive to worry over the course of each fixture than the Portland Timbers have over the last two years. The dramatic 4-3 shootout in June of 2014 notwithstanding, every occasion in which Robbo has come head-to-head with Caleb Porter has seen the former Toronto FC midfielder employ great caution through large swathes of the game. It's a policy that has paid dividends this year, garnering a home win and three straight ties at Providence Park, however it fails to offer Vancouver any sustained control over proceedings. Despite how uncomfortable I have felt in viewing each bout, I am an ardent believer in this style within the context of the regular season. Robbo has the requisite personnel to implement the strategy, and has found the balance necessary for him to depend on it reaping the desired rewards.
Postseason soccer is a completely different ballgame though, and the precarious situation the team finds itself in exacerbates the need to seize the initiative from the word go. Vancouver are more than able to perform with the same drive and positive verve their Cascadian nemesis has enjoyed every time they have met in recent memory, and have demonstrated this against a wide range of opponents since the summer. The fact that Porter's men have seldom been exposed to the adventurous capabilities of this Whitecaps outfit is further reason for excitement. With BC Place promising to create a hostile environment, and the coaching staff receiving ample time to perfect their blueprint, the idea of the Caps successfully bolting out of the gates becomes all the more reasonable.
Unsurprisingly, the key to any particular philosophy will be the number ten position, or rather who occupies that role. Pedro Morales made a significant impact coming off the bench in PDX by immediately improving the quality of the team while in possession of the ball. Pedro's accurate passing placed those around him in better areas of the pitch, while also giving each colleague a vital confidence boost amid continued Timbers pressure. If he can exact the same influence as a member of the starting line-up, and present the crowd with even more material deserving of celebration, then the forecast for Sunday becomes incrementally more encouraging. It's the perfect platform for the Chilean Maestro to make amends for his underwhelming display in last year's knockout playoff affair with Dallas.
It must be stressed that the club captain is returning from yet another stint on the sidelines, and so to demand the level of play we usually do as a fan base when it comes to Morales - at a prolonged rate, at least - would be unfair. Rather conveniently, Nico Mezquida is at a similar stage in his recovery from injury and could feature in some capacity against Portland as a substitute. In a limited role with restricted minutes, Mezquida's defensive work-rate could be exactly what the Whitecaps need in the latter stages of the match if they have managed to find a lead. He would optimally replace a fatigued Morales and help to galvanize the side on the cusp of securing progression. If a goal is still needed, his ability to link-up with the other attacking options so effectively high up the field would be of similarly high value to his coach.
None of this will matter if the guys fail to find their shooting boots in front of goal, of course. Octavio Rivero put forward yet another terrific contribution to the cause in Oregon, working as tirelessly as ever to create opportunities for his team-mates to capitalize on, however all of the post-match attention was diverted to the chance he squandered during the opening 45 minutes. It was an instance where everyone watching had the right to expect more from the young designated player, yet it shouldn't be utilized as an easy way of making the 23-year-old a scapegoat. The notion of dropping El Cabeza - the man owed the largest credit for how this team has improved in twelve months - is completely preposterous in my eyes, and anyone with any understanding of the sport will feel the exact same way.
It would be so satisfying to watch a Rivero goal deliver an unforgettable victory on a such an historic night, however another episode of his staggering work ethic would be more than enough to meet my expectations. This understated and largely unrecognized industry gives Vancouver the best chance of success, and is the main reason why they are in the playoffs as the Western Conference's second seed. It has been upsetting to witness how tortured the Uruguayan #9 has appeared without goal-scoring form, and that he can't rely on the majority of the fan base to support him when he isn't hitting the back of the net makes me feel ashamed. Octavio and every other member of roster needs your support on Sunday. If the audience brings the noise, the Caps should bring it home.
Predicted starting line-up: Ousted; Beitashour, Waston, Parker, Harvey; Laba, Koffie; Techera, Morales, Manneh; Rivero
Predicted score-line: Whitecaps FC 2-0 Portland Timbers