The 2017 Major League Soccer playoffs kick off on Wednesday night, and one of the major questions being asked is if the Vancouver Whitecaps can finally win a post-season game.
Vancouver looked poised to finish in first place in the Western Conference and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. But a poor run of form in October, highlighted by Sunday’s 2-1 road loss to the Portland Timbers on the final day of the season, dropped the Whitecaps to third, forcing them to play the San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference knockout round.
Here’s what you need to know about Wednesday’s one-and-done playoff game at BC Place…
A bad run leading into the playoffs
The Whitecaps enjoyed a sensational run from Aug. 19 to Sept. 30 that saw them win six of nine games with just one loss to become the first team in the West to clinch a playoff berth.
But October has been a dreadful month for Vancouver – drawing once and losing twice, including this past weekend, to drop from first place to third in the West. Vancouver picked up just four points in their final five games – a road win against Sporting Kansas City and a home draw against San Jose.
Had the Whitecaps finished in the top two in the West, they would have received a first-round bye. Instead, they must now navigate this tricky knockout game against the Earthquakes.
Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson admitted he was disappointed by the team’s poor run in October, but that people should judge them on what they did over the course of the 34-game regular season.
“I know we couldn’t finish the job off to try and finish as the number one seed, and we fell short by one point. But think of the body of work – it’s been a great season for the guys,” Robinson told Sportsnet 650.
Line-up decisions for Robinson
Robinson came in for criticism for his line-up in the Portland game on Sunday, including giving a debut to defensive midfielder Nosa Igiebor at the expense of Tony Tchani, who has been one of the team’s most consistent players over the past few months.
Another notable change saw Jordan Harvey start at left fullback instead of Marcel de Jong.
Christian Bolanos started on the left side of the midfield trio, mainly because he’s a free kick specialist. But if Robinson wants to go for a more dynamic attack vs. San Jose, might he consider teenager Alphonso Davies or the veteran Brek Shea in that position?
Vancouver player to watch
Fredy Montero: The Colombian was Vancouver’s top scorer during the season with 13 goals. He is nursing a calf injury that limited him to a substitute appearance in Portland on the weekend, but he is expected to be ready to go for tonight. That’s a good thing, because the Whitecaps could use his scoring prowess – they managed to net just three goals, and were shut out twice, in their last five games of the regular season.
No playoff wins
This is the Whitecaps’ fourth playoff appearance since entering MLS in 2011, but they are still looking for their first post-season win.
In 2012, they lost a 2-1 decision on the road to the LA Galaxy in the first round. Two years later, Vancouver lost by a similar score on the road against FC Dallas in the first round.
It looked like the breakthrough would come the following season when the Whitecaps finished second in the Western Conference to earn a first-round bye and gain home-field advantage for the Conference semifinals. But Vancouver couldn’t get the job done, drawing on the road against the Portland Timbers before losing 2-0 at home in the second leg.
San Jose player to watch
Chris Wondolowski: The veteran forward led San Jose in scoring this season with 13 goals, so he’s an obvious goal-scoring threat. But what Wondo doesn’t get enough credit for is his playmaking ability. He had a team-high eight assists this season, and he finished the campaign with assists in three consecutive appearances for San Jose.
All-time series vs. San Jose
Vancouver holds a slight edge over San Jose in the all-time series, with six wins and eight draws in 18 meetings. But, the Whitecaps have owned the Earthquakes at home – six wins and two draws in nine games, outscoring San Jose 17-9. These sides have never met in the playoffs.
The Earthquakes managed to get the better of the Whitecaps this season, registering a 3-2 win in San Jose on March 11. The teams also played to a 1-1 draw in Vancouver on Oct. 15.
The Whitecaps finished the regular season unbeaten in seven consecutive home matches (four wins and three draws).
Vancouver also scored in 11 consecutive home league games to end the season, averaging two goals per contest during that run.
San Jose finished the campaign losing eight of their last 10 road games