Vancouver (W10-L7-D2 - 2nd Western Conference) will play their first home match since the May 30th, when they defeated Real Salt Lake by a score of 2-1. The Caps then headed out of town for a very difficult five match road trip, and despite the odds stacked against them, finished with an impressive W3-L2-D0 record for a total of nine of a possible fifteen points. Vancouver pieced together an unprecedented three match winning streak, and knocked off the LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution, who were, at least at the time, all in the top half of the table in their respective conferences.
The Sporks (W7-L3-D6 - 6th Western Conference) have flown under the radar for many so far this season, but don't let their current position in the table fool you. Delve a little deeper and you will see that Sporting has played at least two matches less than any other Western Conference team, and as has four games in hand on the LA Galaxy. While their twenty-seven points is only good enough for sixth in the west, they are only five points behind the first place Seattle Sounders. Over the next month Sporting will play teams that are lower in the table than they are, so they could start to move up the table quite rapidly if they can manage to string together a run of good results.
Vancouver, who are coming off another inexplicable loss to the Colorado Rapids last week, are about to enter perhaps the toughest part of their season. July will be a challenge as the Caps will face some tough opposition including the Sounders and the Portland Timbers. If the Caps want to maintain their position at, or near, the top of the Western Conference, then they will have to do so by defeating their biggest rivals. Lose one or more of those matches, then the Whitecaps may start to slowly drop down in the standings, and then the multiple losses against MLS cellar dwellers such as the Montreal Impact and the Rapids may just come back to haunt them.
So, what are the Whitecaps going to have to do in order to win against Sporting on Sunday afternoon? Well, for starters they will have to show up and play an entire ninety minutes. Last week at Dick's Sporting Goods Park the Caps were down a goal to Colorado before the match was even two minutes old. The Whitecaps "grew" into the match nicely and Kekuta Manneh scored a wonderfully unexpected goal to draw them level, but it was the only goal that they could put behind Clint Irwin all evening.
Another area of interest is who will be lining up in the middle of the backline next to Kendall Waston. With Diego Rodriguez playing a full ninety minutes for WFC2 on Friday night it seems unlikely the Uruguayan centre back will play two matches in the space of three days. In that case look for either Christian Dean or Tim Parker to take the place of the injured Pa Modou Kah (calf).
Out of the pair of Dean and Parker it seems logical that it would be Parker to get the nod from head coach Carl Robinson as the rookie has already seen MLS action this season. Dean, on the other hand, has found extra motivation watching Parker getting minutes with the MLS squad, and hopes to have impressed enough in training and in the USL matches he has played for WFC2 to finally see some MLS action.
The backline and the holding midfielders will have to bring their "A"-game on Sunday afternoon. The trio of Krisztian Németh, Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dywer have seventeen goals between the three of them, and Feilhaber has tallied an impressive nine assists so far this season.
Németh is as good as his stats suggest, and seems to improve every week. A scary statistic for the Caps is that Németh's seven goals have come from just seven shots on target this season. Krisztian is a player that the Caps can ill afford to ignore because chances are the Hungarian will punish them given even the slightest opportunity.
The Caps attack will also be an area to watch as well. At the time of this writing it is unclear whether or not the Pedro Morales has recovered from the calf injury that has kept him sidelined for the past several weeks, or if he is healthy enough to be named to the subs bench with the intention of giving him some playing time later in the game.
If Morales is not fit enough to play then Robbo will most likely look to Cristian Techera, Mauro Rosales and Manneh to drive the Caps' attack. Despite the hot start to his MLS career Octavio Rivero's scoring has dwindled in recent times, but there is much more to the Uruguayan's multi-faceted game than just scoring goals which makes him an important cog in the Caps' attack.
Here are my three keys to the match:
1. Big games need big game players - we expect lights-out performances from the likes of David Ousted, Matías Laba and Kendall Waston each and every week, but for a match against an opponent like SKC, the Caps will need good performances from all their starters and subs.
2. Consistency - there will always be an ebb and flow to each and every match of football, but the Caps will have to take advantage when the match is flowing in their favour, and stay defensively sound when things are not. When it comes to goal scoring on Sunday will we see more from the in-form Manneh, or will Rivero find a way back onto the score sheet?
3. "Home Opener" atmosphere - with the Caps being temporarily displaced from BC Place during the recent FIFA Women's World Cup the SKC match almost has a "season opener" type feel to it. Hopefully, the Caps use the energy and passion that will pour out of the stands to their advantage and take all three points on offer.
Predicted score: Vancouver Whitecaps FC 1 - 1 Sporting Kansas City