Well, the Whitecaps’ glorious four-match unbeaten stretch on the road ended with a whimper on Wednesday night against Houston. After a stretch of playing non-playoff teams, the Dynamo showed why they’re in the fight for homefield advantage in the playoffs with a 4-1 victory, only the second time all season the ‘Caps have lost by three goals in MLS play.
It was also the first time this season the ‘Caps have conceded four goals, perhaps a sign of fatigue hitting them when matches are coming both in quick succession and also all away from BC Place. There hasn’t been much time to rest since the beatdown in Houston with the stage set for a battle in Utah against Real Salt Lake.
With five matches between now and October 7th, Vanni Sartini will have to be strategic in how he rests his key players. We saw that in Houston, where Ranko Veselinović took the night off for the first time in a long while and Andrés Cubas came off at halftime. Ryan Gauld, Brian White, Richie Laryea, and Tristan Blackmon have all started every match of this long road trip, and have to be rotated out at some point if they are to have anything left in the tank to close the regular season.
Given that the next match after Saturday night is against lowly Colorado – firmly entrenched at the bottom of the conference – there’s the question of which match is better to rest players against. Do you play more of a B-lineup against RSL and be happy to come away with just a point if you can manage it and go full force to try and pick up three against the Rapids? Or do you put everything into trying to get a win in Salt Lake City and take Colorado as a chance to rest a number of players and see if you can still win anyway?
Sartini’s strategy may end up being a mix of the two, choosing to only rotate out a couple of players at a time to maintain a semblance of the team’s top lineup out there at all times. That will be made easier if Sam Adekugbe is able to overcome his knee issue and get back out on the pitch, with the Canadian and Luis Martins the only regulars out currently.
If one or both of White and Gauld receive a rest, it could be a big opportunity for Simon Becher and/or Levonte Johnson. Besides Junior Hoilett they’re the only natural forwards the ‘Caps can call on off the bench, and Hoilett is not quite a true forward himself, more of a wide player or #10. J.C. Ngando is another name to watch as he has shown some flashes in his appearances this season and continues to fight for more playing time.
Looking at the hosts, RSL are in a bit of a tailspin. Since their run to the Round of 16 in Leagues Cup they’ve lost five of their last six matches, with the lone win coming at home over Colorado. Their last time out was a 3-1 home loss to FC Dallas despite outshooting the visitors 17-7. This recent run of form has caused them to slide a bit down the standings although they’re just a single point behind the ‘Caps.
RSL made waves in the summer transfer window, signing former LAFC star Chicho Arango, who has nearly already grabbed the team’s scoring lead with 5 goals in his first 8 appearances for the club. He’s scored in four straight matches, and in fact has scored all but one of RSL’s goals in MLS play since Leagues Cup.
This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams, the first was all the way back on opening day when RSL strolled into BC Place and took a 2-1 win off the back of second half goals from Justen Glad and Damir Kreilach. The well has gone dry for Kreilach as of late – the forward hasn’t scored in three months and has just 4 goals and 1 assist on the year after leading RSL with 16 goals and 9 assists in 2021.
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, have been able to score: they’ve only been shut out once since Canada Day and have scored in six straight road matches. A win could boost them back up into a top four spot in the West, the place they need to aim for. A loss could bump them all the way down to the wildcard spots. Such is the life in the wild, wild West.