VANCOUVER—It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as last season’s post-season clincher, but the Vancouver Whitecaps have officially claimed a spot in the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs.
Picking up a scoreless draw against the visiting FC Dallas on Wednesday night, the Whitecaps booked their ticket to the big dance with two games to spare in unspectacular style.
It was the polar opposite of the way they sneaked into the post-season last year, with a 1-0 home win in the last game of the campaign over the Colorado Rapids courtesy of a Kendall Waston header from a set piece.
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.
If that match had a “cardiac kid” feel to it, this year’s qualifying match felt more like a flat line on the heart monitor. But it was an altogether less stressful experience for all involved with the club.
That said, disjointed in attack, the Whitecaps created some half chances but never really frightened what is a strong Dallas outfit. Octavio Rivero, who Vancouver coach Carl Robinson revealed has been playing hurt, was left totally isolated in his lone forward role. After a prolific start, the Uruguayan has cooled off.
Playing behind him in the hole, Mauro Rosales showed his class in fits and starts, but also misplayed an uncharacteristic amount of passes, needlessly giving away possession. Kekuta Manneh had a few good runs and had his lively moments, but lacked any real menace. The same could be said Cristian Techera on the other side. Darren Mattocks and Robert Earnshaw didn’t add much to that in their limited minutes off the bench.
In a word, the Whitecaps were limited offensively here. A big part of that isn’t any real let down from the players, but is due to the absence of Designated Player Pedro Morales. The Chilean is paid the big bucks for a reason; he can do things nobody else on the team can, and few individuals in the league can muster his sort of magic on a regular basis.
Without Morales’ defence splitting passes and quality from set pieces, Vancouver looks a whole lot more predictable. Adding to the Whitecaps’ woes in this regard, Morales’ understudy Nicolas Mezquida, who has had an excellent season in large part to Morales’ injury problems, is also out hurt right now.
They both have hamstring injuries and if those don’t heal up by playoff time the task ahead could be more difficult than expected for Robinson’s men.
In midfield, Russell Teibert was tidy against Dallas, and put in a fairly feisty effort in the first half, tracking back well with some strong tackling. It was a relatively routine affair for Matias Laba, who neutralized his opposing numbers well. At the back, Jordan Harvey was equally steady.
A big relief for the Whitecaps will be the claiming of a clean sheet despite the absence of Waston, the towering Costa Rican, who is with his national team. The partnership of Tim Parker and Pa Modou Kah was relatively steady. Parker was perhaps the stronger—calm under pressure and always making the simple, safe choice.
The same can’t be said of Kah on this night, who can be an adventure at the best of times—on two occasions he had a bit of a miscommunication with goalkeeper David Ousted. Neither incident ended up punishing the team, but both situations were easily avoidable.
From an entertainment side of things, however, it’s hard not to smile when the two most demonstrative and expressive players in the squad have a go at each other in front of 19,339 people.
On the right side of defence, Jordan Smith filled in for the suspended Steven Beitashour. He bombed forward at every opportunity—perhaps even when he shouldn’t. Smith is the opposite of Beitashour. He relies on athleticism to make up for a deficit in positioning, and seems to leave his side exposed on the defensive side.
But as he has shown—and did on at least one occasion in this match in the second half—he’s capable of generating chances out of nothing with his strength and speed. An interesting player to have in the squad but Beitashour won’t be sweating about his starting spot ahead of the playoffs.
So what does the road ahead look like for the Whitecaps?
Vancouver has two MLS matches remaining in the schedule, sandwiched between a dead rubber CONCACAF Champions League game that will likely be played by a “B” side, and will be pushing for the bye that comes with a top two finish in the Western Conference.
That won’t be easy though. In order to secure that, the Whitecaps must go down and beat this same Dallas team on the road, something this club has yet to do. Perhaps a more realistic target is securing a top-four finish and the club’s first-ever home playoff game.
The fact that there will even be a tinge of disappointment about that lower objective after seriously contending for the Supporters’ Shield shows just how much Robinson has raised the standard and level of expectation in this city.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter