With a playoff berth already secured, the Vancouver Whitecaps now have their sights set on a couple of bigger prizes.
The club sits first in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference heading into Saturday’s road game against the New York Red Bulls, knowing a victory will lock up a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the semifinals.
"Now it’s the fun part," said Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson. "We’ve got one foot in the door.
"We want to finish as high as we can with as many points as we can."
Just one of those points in any of the Whitecaps’ final three matches would be enough to solidify at least a home date in the knockout round, while sweeping the rest of the schedule clinches top spot in the conference.
Vancouver is currently four points up on the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City in the West standings. Portland and Seattle, which are both idle this weekend, have two games left, while K.C. has four matches remaining, including a visit to Minnesota United on Saturday.
"The reason why we are where we are is because we’ve kept pushing since Day 1," said Robinson. "Everyone deserves a lot of credit … but we don’t get ahead of ourselves."
The Whitecaps booked their ticket to the post-season with last weekend’s stunning 1-0 victory at K.C. that snapped Sporting’s 24-game home unbeaten streak in MLS at the intimidating Children’s Mercy Park.
Vancouver earned all three points following a 3-0 loss in Seattle that snapped a 5-0-2 run thanks to a wonder-goal from Erik Hurtado and an ability to soak up pressure — something the Whitecaps have done a lot this year — against an opponent that had 73.5 per cent of the ball.
"Sometimes performances vary and you’ve got to find ways to win games," said Robinson, whose team missed the playoffs in 2016. "I was here last year standing in front of you talking about how well we played and not winning enough games. Credit to the group. They had to find strength.
"They showed a lot of character and will and desire, and we bounced back after a disappointing result."
The Whitecaps (15-10-6) have the third-best road record in all of MLS at 6-7-2, and also picked up a 1-1 draw against the Red Bulls (12-12-7) in Harrison, N.J., in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions league quarter-finals back in February before the regular season.
"At the end of last year we had a little character check," said Vancouver defender Tim Parker. "We wanted to toughen up and make sure that we were going to be a tough team to play against."
The Whitecaps went down to 10 men that night — both clubs’ first competitive match of 2017 — with goalkeeper David Ousted saving a Sacha Kljestan penalty in the second half before beating the Red Bulls 2-0 in the return fixture at B.C. Place Stadium.
Apart from that Champions League success, Vancouver is 3-1-3 all-time against New York in MLS, with a 2-0-1 record at Red Bull Arena.
"This team has confidence," said Ousted, who also stopped a pair Bradley Wright-Phillips penalties as part of a 2-1 victory in Harrison two years ago. "We’ve played a lot of good away games and believe we can get three points there."
To do that, the Whitecaps will have to manage without some key players away on international duty, with midfielder Yordy Reyna (Peru), defender Kendall Waston (Costa Rica), midfielder Christian Bolanos (Costa Rica) and goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic (New Zealand), who made seven saves last week against K.C., all set to miss out.
New York, which sits sixth in the East, can confirm its place in the playoffs with a victory Saturday, a result that would also eliminate the Montreal Impact from post-season contention.
"We know when they’re at home they’re very aggressive," said Ousted. "We’ll try to weather the storm at certain times, and also hit them on the counter."
Notes: Vancouver midfielder Cristian Techera is available after returning to Uruguay for the birth of his third child last week. … Robinson said Nigerian midfielder Nosa Igiebor, who signed last month, could see his first action.