Dynamo the next test on Whitecaps’ path to redemption

The Vancouver Whitecaps look to keep their strong bounce-back season going in Houston. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER — One of the more enjoyable aspects of Major League Soccer is its never-ending capacity for surprise. The league’s parity makes for unpredictable seasons: a team might be thrilling one year and terrible the next, or they could disappoint but bounce back quickly the next season.

The Vancouver Whitecaps are hoping to replicate the latter narrative. The team finished eighth in the Western Conference in 2016, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. After a rough start to their MLS campaign, the sixth-place ’Caps (4-4-1) are on a run, coming off back-to-back road wins.

On Friday, in their next test on the path to redemption, the Whitecaps will face the Houston Dynamo, a team in the midst of their own turnaround.

The Dynamo were the worst team in the West last year but they currently fourth, with a record of 5-3-1. In their most recent match, they earned a convincing win against a good team, beating Orlando City 4–0.

“They’ve had a great start to the season,” said Vancouver right fullback Sheanon Williams, who was traded from Houston to Vancouver in December. “Scoring a lot of goals. I’m sure that they’re enjoying their success, especially after last season.”

For Williams, who found himself on the outside looking in as the Dynamo were rebuilding, there will be a bit of added spice to the mix when he goes up against his old team for the first time.

“I really just want to continue our success and get another good result on the road,” he said. “Definitely a little bit added since it’s an old team of mine, so it’d be nice to have some success there, and it would be good to see some familiar faces from Houston.”

Williams has been one of the more vital additions to the Whitecaps’ crew this year, doing a very solid job in a position that was an obvious sore spot last year.

“He’s been really, really good for us,” said coach Carl Robinson. “I think he’s got himself fully fit now over the last few weeks and he’s stepped up. He’s really consistent. He’s similar to Jordan Harvey—you know, when the team is playing well and scoring goals, not many people talk about him, but when we got to defend well, put bodies on the line, be aware of quick counters, he’s as good as there is.”

Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted said he felt that Williams has done a particularly good job in communicating with his teammates, especially central defender Kendall Waston, who is having a bounce-back season so far this year.

“He’s kind of given him permission to go, and Sheanon’s covered him really well,” Ousted said.[relatedlinks]

The Whitecaps have fielded the same starting XI in their last three matches. It’s possible that Robinson will take advantage of the group’s momentum and stick with the same lineup, assuming Waston, who’s been ill this week, is well enough to play.

“We’re in a good run of form,” Robinson said. “We’re playing very well. We’re getting results, which is important because it helps breed confidence.”

While the same starting XI has found results, the Whitecaps’ bench has been a pivotal component of their recent success. In the team’s most recent win, Brek Shea made his triumphant return from injury, entering as a late substitute to score the game-winning goal.

“We were kind of joking around that he’s scored two goals in 20 minutes,” Williams said of Shea, who scored an early goal in Vancouver’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal match at home to Tigres UANL in April only to be sidelined by an injury minutes later.

Shea has been a lively presence and a difference-maker for the Whitecaps, and he, too, will have a personal connection when the team arrives at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. The 27-year-old hails from Texas and will have a large group of family and friends on hand to watch him play.

“He’s not fully fit yet,” said Robinson of the ponytailed Texan. “A fully fit Brek Shea is an exciting player.”

As much as Friday’s match may be a reunion for Williams, and a homecoming of sorts for Shea, the Whitecaps expect trouble. Houston is “a difficult place” to compete, as Robinson noted.

“It’s hot, it’s humid, and when you’re in a pullover, a hoodie, a beanie, to go from this [in Vancouver] to Houston is definitely different,” Williams offered. “And the transition is not necessarily for everybody.”

It’s not just the conditions that favour the Dynamo. The team, which is 5-0-1 at home this year, has been reshaped under manager Wilmer Cabrera.

“He’s managed to change the roster significantly and bring in a lot of central American players, which is good,” Robinson said. “They’ve got athleticism in wide areas, the two Honduran boys, Romell [Quioto], who we know, and Alberth Elis, and they’re pretty direct and counter-attacking very quickly, so we’re going to have to deal with that.”

In order to pull off a third straight road win, the Whitecaps will need to contain the Dynamo’s dangerous offence. Staying organized and disciplined will be paramount, and while it will be tough, Robinson said that some savvy game-management could help the team secure three points on the night.

“We might not win it from the start,” he said. “But we might win it off the bench as we did in Colorado.”

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