Morales could be Whitecaps’ wildcard vs. Timbers

After playing to a scoreless draw against the Portland Timbers in the first leg of their Western Conference semi-final, David Ousted and Tim Parker are hoping to get a bit more offence going in the second game.

VANCOUVER—Shortly after the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Friday morning practice, Pedro Morales emerged from the team’s training centre with a small bandage on his finger.

It was a minor thing, hardly worth mentioning, though a little difficult not to notice in passing. After all, injuries have been something of a trademark for the 30-year-old attacking midfielder during the 2015 Major League Soccer season.

Morales has started just three league matches since June 6, the result of battling problems with his hamstring and calf, which, he says, all stemmed from a back issue. Vancouver’s captain, the MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2014, last started a game on Sept. 9 versus the Colorado Rapids before being subbed off at halftime.

For a while this season, Morales’s short-term future was touch and go. Not too long ago, as Morales told Sportsnet, things were looking bleak. “My mentality was down,” he said, adding that he’d recently thought, “The season may be done for me.”

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But Morales is now pain-free, and hoping he’ll be a major factor come Sunday when the Whitecaps will play the second leg of their playoff series against the Portland Timbers. The state of Morales’s fitness is unclear, but his teammates have been missing him on the pitch. The Whitecaps could use the kind of incandescent playmaking that is more typically his trademark. Vancouver’s defence has been spectacular, but they’ve had trouble scoring, finding the back of the net in only two of their last six games in all competitions.

The first leg of this Western Conference semifinal on Nov. 1 ended in a 0–0 draw. This is either good news or worrisome, depending on one’s outlook. Vancouver will have home-field advantage for the return match—playing in front of a sold-out crowd hungry to watch the club’s first home playoff game since joining MLS—as they look to gain an edge on Portland. But away goals being the tiebreaker, Vancouver will need to avoid a 1–1 draw, which means scoring first—and scoring early—will be the key.

In the first leg at Portland’s Providence Park, Morales came on as a late substitute, playing 13 minutes. Coach Carl Robinson was mum this week about the captain’s chances of starting Sunday’s game. He said he’d already determined how he would use the five-foot-eleven Chilean, though he declined to elaborate. Still, Robinson did concede that starting Morales was an enticing proposition.

Morales, for his part, remains upbeat about his ability to contribute. “I feel good,” he said. He’s been training hard all week; he knows how much is at stake. “I’ve [been] waiting for this moment,” he said of the chance to play on Sunday.

Whitecaps fans will hope for Morales to be in form, in which case he could be a crucial difference-maker in a duel between two evenly matched teams. Asked whether the pressure to perform is getting to him—having played so little in the past five months, and with all that talk of needing a crucial first goal—and Morales seems unbothered.

“It’s no problem,” he said, his grin so wide it’s infectious. “I like to play when you have pressure. In soccer you need pressure.”

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