As has been the case multiple times this season, the positive feelings from a couple of strong results have been completely washed away by one awful outing. In this instance, the Whitecaps dragged themselves back into the Western Conference playoff race with four hard-fought and unlikely road points collected against NYCFC and Portland, only to get eviscerated in an appallingly listless display against Toronto FC in the Voyageurs Cup final.
I always try to look for any positives in poor results, but the only thing I could come up with from the 5-2 drubbing is that at least it wasn’t as painful as the 2016 final…which isn’t saying much. Hopefully with the upcoming addition of CPL teams, we will be able to avoid Toronto in future tournaments.
Moving on from the Voyageurs Cup, there are now 10 games left in the MLS regular season, and the Whitecaps have their work cut out for them. The good news is that they are only two points behind sixth-placed Real Salt Lake, who have won just one of their last six. The bad news is that six of the ‘Caps remaining ten games are against teams currently in a playoff spot, and two of the four games that aren’t are against Seattle (currently red-hot and only one point behind the ‘Caps) and Toronto (sigh).
Next up are the New York Red Bulls, who the Whitecaps have done reasonably well against historically. They have a 3-2-3 all-time record against NYRB in MLS play (though the Red Bulls have won the last two), and also knocked them out of the 2017 CONCACAF Champions League. Their most recent meeting was last October, a 3-0 win for New York that saw Felipe score for the Red Bulls and Tim Parker wear the captain’s armband for the ‘Caps. Saturday will be Parker’s return to Vancouver, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets given how abrupt and unexpected his exit was.
Carl Robinson said after the game on Wednesday that there will be squad rotation this weekend, which makes sense given that this will be the ‘Caps third game in eight days. Stefan Marinović should keep his place in goal, but we will likely see wholesale changes to the rest of the lineup. Brett Levis, Aaron Maund, Sean Franklin, Felipe, Brek Shea, and Nicolás Mezquida are all players I expect to start this weekend, and hopefully they can give the same sort of performance (and result) they did against Portland.
Along with those mentioned above, any one of Kendall Waston, Doneil Henry, or Aly Ghazal could slide in next to Maund at centre-back. José Aja has not been seen for a month as he deals with an injury. The most obvious candidate to play next to Felipe is Efraín Juárez, whose three-game suspension is over, but it is unclear whether Robinson will want to put him straight back into the lineup. His play has been erratic, and though he was eligible for Canadian Championship games while suspended from MLS play, he only made one appearance (as a substitute) in the tournament.
If Robinson doesn’t want to use Juárez, he could continue to start Russell Teibert or Ghazal (who have both played a lot in recent weeks), or, depending on how desperate he is to shake things up, he could throw a bit of curveball and give a start to David Norman Jr. or Michael Baldisimo.
The gaffer’s seat is surely feeling a bit hot right now, so an attempt to give some minutes to homegrown players – of which the failure to do so, Alphonso Davies notwithstanding, is a common critique of both Robinson and the Whitecaps as a whole – could be something that’s tried at some point before the season ends, if not this weekend.
Up front, the departure of Bernie Ibini means it will likely be either Davies or Cristian Techera who line up on the wing along with Shea, while it will be interesting to see who Robinson chooses in the battle for the striker spot. Anthony Blondell was supposed to be the clear option besides Kamara, but a lack of production (one goal and one assist in 600+ minutes) opened the door for Erik Hurtado, who has come off the bench in four straight games and scored twice.
Personally, I think the ‘Caps should start Blondell. They made a sizeable investment in him, and it would be unwise to give up on him already, given that he’s yet to reach ten starts for the club. On the other hand, the last few games have shown why Hurtado has managed to stick around for six years and amass the eighth-most appearances in the club’s MLS era: he works hard and has a knack for going on a bit of a hot streak right when you’ve almost forgotten about him. And given how close the Whitecaps are to completely losing their season, it’s frustratingly fitting that they might turn to Hurtado to try and help save it.
For the Red Bulls, life is good. They’re only one point behind Atlanta in the Supporters Shield race, and they’ve won five of their last six. Bradley Wright-Phillips is still knocking in goals (15 and counting this season), and they are once again one of the favourites to come out of the East. They also have the second-best road record in the league (6-4-1), so nothing about this game will be easy for the Whitecaps.
In the preview I wrote for the game against NYCFC two weeks ago, I said that after this stretch of three games (NYCFC, Portland, and NYRB) we will have a much clearer picture of the Whitecaps’ playoff chances. Two losses could have sunk them, but the results they pulled out against NYCFC and Portland have kept postseason hopes alive, for now at least. How the ‘Caps rebound against a tough team after a brutal loss could be an even bigger test.