Despite the Major League Soccer playoffs being a full three months away, the Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves in must-win mode to kick off their July schedule when they visit Los Angeles FC Saturday night.
One week ago in Seattle, the Caps were moments away from extending their unbeaten streak to seven straight games. However, Kelvin Leerdam broke a scoreless deadlock six minutes into extra time to give the Sounders a 1-0 victory. Not getting a point that night is a stinging feeling that has stuck with the players as they head to California.
“We fought hard for 95 minutes and it’s upsetting,” defender Jake Nerwinski said at training this week. “It’s at a point in the season where we need points. Now we need to show up and start doing something to make a push for the playoffs.”
The Whitecaps are certainly pushing their luck this weekend to get into the win column. At 12-2-4, LAFC has the best record in MLS with a league-high 44 goals. A big reason why they sit atop the standings is their home record as the Black and Gold are 7-0-1 at Banc of California Stadium. What is even more impressive is the fact they have conceded just six goals-against over those eight games. Those numbers do not surprise their former assistant coach.
“The degree of difficulty going to L.A … it’s going to take a perfect game,” claimed Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos. “I know Banc of California well. It’s going to take more than what we did at home.”
In their first meeting with LAFC on April 17, South Korean international Hwang Inbeom netted his first career MLS goal in a 1-0 Whitecaps win at BC Place. Even if that game is a distant memory for both clubs, the Whitecaps feel they have what it takes to pull off another upset.
“We were the first team that gave LAFC a loss this season,” stressed defender Derek Cornelius, who has returned from Canada’s disappointing exit at the Gold Cup. “We’re confident in what their weaknesses are and we’re aware of what their strengths are. We’ve got to use that to our advantage and get a result.”
“We know that we can beat them. We’re not scared of them,” added Nerwinski. “We know they’re a beatable team.”
In order to beat them for a second time, Vancouver will have to try to contain the early candidate for MLS Player of the Year. Striker Carlos Vela leads his club and the league in goals (17), assists (11), shots (92) and shots on goal (36). The 30-year-old designated player from Mexico added to his point totals on Wednesday with a goal and an assist in a 5-1 road win over Sporting Kansas City.
Anything less than a draw this weekend could very well put the Caps in last place in the Western Conference standings. Sitting at 4-7-8, Vancouver has collected just 20 points through 19 matches, marking the lowest points-per-game total of any team in the West.
Despite those dismal numbers, Vancouver will have a nearly full squad available for duty Saturday night. Cornelius and fellow Canadian defender Doneil Henry, along with midfielder Russell Teibert and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, have all returned from the Gold Cup and are hopeful to get into the lineup.
“It’s going to be do or die over the next two months and it starts in L.A.,” said Crepeau who has started all but five of the Vancouver’s games this year. “The mindset is to win … not tie or lose. It’s the only mindset I have right now.”
Vancouver is 1-1-1 over its three previous meetings with LAFC. In their lone visit to Banc of California Stadium last year, the Whitecaps posted a 2-2 draw on October 21.
Midfielder Lass Bangoura is the only Whitecaps player still away on international duty as he represents Guinea at the African Nations Cup. They play Algeria in the Round of 16 on Sunday.
The Whitecaps are one of a handful of MLS clubs welcoming back Canadian-born players this week. Toronto-born midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye has returned to the LAFC roster and played a full 90 minutes last Wednesday in Kansas City.