VANCOUVER – You might call this group of Vancouver Whitecaps players Carl Robinson’s unlikely bunch.
Unlikely because the Welsh tactician’s team wasn’t necessarily projected to make the playoffs at the start of the MLS season. Unlikely because even winning one playoff game seemed beyond this squad in recent years until Wednesday’s 5-0 thrashing of the San Jose Earthquakes. And unlikely because even the starting lineup is full of players that very few would have picked to lead this club into the post-season had you asked at the start of the campaign.
But as the Whitecaps prepare for a two-leg Western Conference semifinal showdown with the Seattle Sounders – a first ever playoff series between these two local rivals in the Major League Soccer era – it is the unlikely, the unfancied, and the unexpected that have risen to roles of prominence ahead of Sunday’s first leg at BC Place.
One of the biggest stories surrounding this Whitecaps side has been the usurpation of David Ousted. The Danish goalkeeper has been, perhaps, the most reliable servant for Vancouver during Robinson’s time as boss. But Stefan Marinovic has made the most of a handful of appearances in the lead up to the playoffs, making a series of superhuman stops, and ultimately emerging the starter for this post-season run.
The bold decision by Robinson paid off in a big way Wednesday, with the New Zealand international making a vital save four minutes in to stop a powerful free kick from San Jose’s Anibal Godoy.
The fullbacks on this team also fit into this unfancied category – who would have honestly expected that Marcel de Jong and Jake Nerwinski would bump veterans Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams from their starting roles on the flanks?
De Jong’s journey in particular this season has been fascinating. It was very clear early on that the Canadian international was seen as Harvey’s understudy at left fullback.
He only started nine matches during the campaign, and never started consecutive league matches until this month. Yet, de Jong has now started six of the last nine contests, including Wednesday’s playoff win over the Earthquakes.
“What I know with Jordan and Marcel is they both bring different characteristics to the table, and depending on who we play and the lineup, [that] will dictate that,” Robinson told Sportsnet at the club’s training facility at the University of British Columbia on Saturday. “Marcel was really strong – it’s probably his best game he’s had since he’s been at the club on Wednesday night.
“When players are in a rhythm and they’re in a good run of form, it’s important a coach sticks by him, and allows him another opportunity, and he’ll get another opportunity [on Sunday].”
There are other surprises, too. Defensive midfielder Aly Ghazal arrived mid-season just as Matias Laba succumbed to a season-ending injury. Even Fredy Montero scoring his first ever playoff goal on Wednesday will count as a minor change in fortune for the player after early career post-season struggles while playing for Seattle.
Robinson said following Wednesday’s victory that he welcomes the underdog status against the Seattle Sounders, the defending MLS Cup champions. Whether it’s even fair to use that underdog label is a separate issue. The teams split the points from three matches against each other this year, and talisman Clint Dempsey will miss the first leg for the Sounders through suspension.
When asked about Dempsey’s absence for the first game, multiple players including de Jong, Nerwinski and Kendall Waston were quick to play up the danger posed by his teammates – downplaying any suggestion that the American international’s non-involvement would be an advantage.
“Everybody knows he’s a great player,” Nerwinski said. “He’s a dangerous player. He has been for countless years now. But…there’s guys that are taking his place that are scoring goals. Will Bruin can easily step in there – he’s scored  goals this season and [Jordan] Morris, too. We can’t really look forward to [Dempsey’s absence], because they have good enough guys to hurt us.”
As the Whitecaps look to carry the moment from the midweek hammering of the Earthquakes into Sunday’s match, set pieces were once again a big focus in training. The club scored three goals from dead ball situations against the Earthquakes, continuing the effectiveness the side has shown throughout 2017 in that aspect of play.
There could be some concern for the Whitecaps attack – Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera spent part of Saturday’s practice doing individual work on the sidelines away from the main group. That could be precautionary or a sign of something more serious.
At this point of the year don’t expect to know anything for certain until the lineups are announced Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve got one or two little question marks on a couple of guys,” Robinson said. “We went through a few things today. I’ll see how they are tomorrow, but the likelihood is it might not be the same team. There might be the odd change or two.”
What is certain is that this Whitecaps bunch is unpredictable and well capable of giving the defending champions a scare or something worse.
Unlikelier things have happened.