These are truly dark days in Whitecapsland. Five straight losses in league play by a combined score of 17-2 (yes, you read that right) has the ‘Caps on a death spiral bleaker than any we’ve seen in the club’s almost decade-long tenure in MLS. Yes, bleaker than 2011, because that year there was at least the excuse of it being an expansion season – the typical struggles of which Cincinnati can currently attest to.
Instead, this year has been an accelerating slide backwards, a slow start rapidly morphing into an unmitigated disaster: the ‘Caps are now on pace to record less than 30 points, which has only been done nine times league-wide since 2010. In short, the season is over and the final 11 MLS matches will be focused on – in the words of Kevin McKenna – “damage control”.
But is it actually over? Hark, the schedule brings tidings of another competition, one that is eminently winnable and holds a valuable prize of its own! The Canadian Championship is next on the docket for the ‘Caps, and they have to go all-out for it. Not just because it’s a trophy (remember those?) and a chance to stick it to all other Canadian clubs, but because it’s quite literally all we have left.
Also, it’s the only way the ‘Caps can qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, the final frontier for all MLS teams. And though you may scoff at the thought of this ‘Caps squad lining up against top clubs from the rest of the region, there is recent history they can look to.
In 2014, Montreal finished dead last in MLS with what still stands as by far their worst record since their move to the league in 2012. Despite that, they won the Canadian Championship that June and made it all the way to the Champions League Final the following spring, seeing off New York Red Bulls in the group stage followed by Mexican side Pachuca and Costa Rican side Alajuelense in the knockout round before falling to continental powerhouse Club América in the final.
That Montreal team was only the second MLS side to beat a Liga MX side in the Champions League knockout round, and was also only the second MLS side to make the tournament’s final. It was quite the turnaround from the previous year, and the Impact followed it up by finishing 3rd in the Eastern Conference in 2015, the club’s best-ever finish.
Of course, replicating Montreal’s 2014 run will be more difficult now, as the Canadian Championship has more than doubled in size this year. The inclusion of the seven Canadian Premier League teams alongside USL-loyalist Ottawa and the country’s three MLS teams has injected new life into the competition, its confusing and lopsided format be damned.
And despite the seemingly prevalent notion of looking down at the CPL as a “minor league”, their remaining representatives in the competition aren’t going down easy. The ‘Caps found that out when they were stymied in a 0-0 draw in Spruce Meadows two weeks ago, while Montreal were similarly held to a draw against York 9 FC, though they did manage two away goals.
That draw to Cavalry was not down to the ‘Caps playing a “second-string” line-up either. The ‘Caps played more-or-less a first-choice starting XI, and were unable to come away with the victory. I expect Marc Dos Santos to roll out a line-up that looks pretty close to the one played against San Jose, because there’s no longer any point in “resting” players for MLS play. As I stated earlier, this competition is the only thing we have left.
Unfortunately, the ‘Caps are in a bit of a no-win situation as far as public reaction to this match goes. A win, especially if it’s a nail-biter, will be greeted with sarcastic applause, and cracks about how the ‘Caps have finally found a team on their level. A loss, especially one as apathetic as some we’ve seen the last few matches, would truly signal the end of times, with the club continuing to sink to new lows and unable to put any foot forward at all.
The most worrying part is how confident Cavalry FC must be feeling heading into this match. They are the class of the CPL, with a combined 11-2 record over the Spring and Fall season, and know they are up against a side that is reeling. They have a couple of ‘Caps connections as well: goalkeeper Marco Carducci and midfielder Elijah Adekugbe are both former members of the ‘Caps Residency program, and would surely love to stick it to the club.
Wednesday night will either be a faint light in the pit of darkness the Whitecaps find themselves in, or the final nail in the coffin of this 2019 iteration. Calvary FC have nothing to lose, with a chance at making history in front of them. The ‘Caps have everything to lose, desperate for a shred of substance to hang their hats on. Buckle up, because there’s actually something to play for.