VANCOUVER — Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson likes to say — almost all the time, to anyone who will listen — that the strength and commitment of his squad top to bottom will determine how far Vancouver goes this season.
Exhibit A of why he believes that was on display for all to see Saturday night.
Cristian Techera, Kendall Waston and Yordy Reyna had the goals, while Bernie Ibini-Isei, rookie Jakob Nerwinski and newcomer Aly Ghazal all made big contributions as Vancouver defeated Real Salt Lake 3-2.
"We’ve got talented individuals, but collectively, if we’re going to be successful, we’re going to do it with a team (mentality)," said Robinson. "If anyone ever thinks they’re bigger than the team, they won’t be here."
With the victory, the Whitecaps (12-9-5) moved into third in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference standings, three points back of the first-place Portland Timbers, with three games in hand.
"They’ve got a great spirit and camaraderie amongst themselves," Robinson said of his players. "When you work hard, you get the rewards. When you train properly, you play properly.
"You saw a committed group today."
The Seattle Sounders, who sit second in the West, host the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday and could vault ahead of Portland before Vancouver returns to action Wednesday at home against Minnesota United.
Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran had the goals for Real (10-14-5), which remains stuck in eighth, two points adrift of FC Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West.
After a week off for both clubs, Vancouver improved to 6-2-2 over its last 10, while Salt Lake suffered just its second defeat over the same span (5-2-3).
Waston, who played 90 minutes in each of Costa Rica’s recent World Cup qualifiers, snapped a 1-1 tie in the 52nd minute with his third goal of the season.
The hulking defender slotted home with a striker’s finish after fellow central defender Tim Parker’s header off a Reyna free kick hit the post.
"I surprised you, huh?" Waston said with a grin. "I even surprised myself."
Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted, who was at fault on Real’s first-half equalizer, made amends after Waston’s breakthrough with great saves off headers from Justen Glad and David Horst.
"Every player makes mistakes," said Robinson. "If you’re a goalkeeper, unfortunately when you make a mistake it usually leads to a goal."
Those stops ended up paving the way for Reyna’s diving header in the 64th minute — also his third of the year — off a cross from Ibini-Isei after Nerwinski played a pass into the Real penalty area.
"Carl’s always said we need the whole squad to perform and do well," said Ibini-Isei, who made his fifth start for the Whitecaps. "When he makes changes, be ready and take your chance.
"That’s well-drilled into our team."
Beltran got Real back to within one in the 83rd minute after shaking off Whitecaps substitute Brek Shea before coolly finishing past Ousted for the first MLS goal of the right back’s 10-year career.
There were some tense moments late, but Salt Lake didn’t really threaten as Vancouver, which lost 3-0 in a Utah blizzard back in April, guided home a crucial three points.
Techera opened the scoring in the 29th minute with his first goal since June 24 after a nice overlap down the right by Nerwinski. The first-year defender hooked a feed in front to Techera, who got enough of his shot to fool Real goalkeeper Nick Rimando for his sixth.
Salt Lake responded eight minutes later on a strange one that Ousted will want back when Wingert chipped a cross in from the left towards Yura Movsisyan in the Whitecaps’ penalty area.
The Real striker appeared to block Ousted’s view as he jumped for a ball that caromed off the Dane, bounced off the artificial turf and spun wildly into the Whitecaps’ net for the 35-year-old Wingert’s first goal since 2010, and just the second of the defender’s MLS career.
Real’s visit marked the first of four consecutive matches, and three in eight days, at B.C. Place Stadium for the Whitecaps — a stretch that presents a real opportunity to not only cement their spot in the playoffs, but also climb higher in the standings.
After hosting Minnesota on Wednesday, Vancouver welcomes the Columbus Crew on Sept. 16, and the Colorado Rapids on Sept. 23 to round out the homestand.
Robinson started Ghazal in defensive midfield, the Egyptian international’s first appearance for Vancouver since signing last month. It’s hoped that the 25-year-old will help fill the void left after Matias Laba was lost until next spring with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"I thought he was absolutely top-class," said Robinson. "I need fresh bodies all over the park, and I need competition for places because that brings out the best in players."
And as it stands right now, the best out of the Whitecaps as a whole.