Match Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps v Real Salt Lake – the curtain call

Match Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps v Real Salt Lake – the curtain call

A little over seven months ago, I wrote my preview for the Whitecaps’ season opener against Minnesota, and I would say I was cautiously optimistic. Not one part of me thought we would be world-beaters, but I was happy that there seemed to be an air of freshness surrounding the team. Here is how I ended that article:

Saturday marks the dawn of a new era for the Whitecaps. Change was wanted, needed, and received, and now it’s up to Dos Santos and the team he has formed to deliver. It won’t be perfect, it might be tough sledding to begin, but no matter what, it will be different. And really, after the last few seasons, that’s what I want most.

Well, this season certainly was different. To be sure, over the last few years we’ve seen everything from bad (2016), to ugly (2017 playoffs) to aggressively mediocre (2018), but the ‘Caps 2019 season was a new low in a few respects.

In terms of the standings, they were dead in the water by April. In terms of fan optimism, we hit rock bottom somewhere between the 6-1 beatdown against LAFC and the unceremonious Canadian Championship ouster at the hands of Cavalry FC. In terms of off-the-field issues, the club did themselves no favours with their handling of the bombshell that was Ciara McCormack’s story, which hung like a dark cloud over the organization.

Things went so badly that the seemingly bulletproof front office even started to shuffle the deck chairs a bit: Bob Lenarduzzi was demoted from his role as President and the club is on the hunt for a sporting director. Will this new hire – whoever they end up being – dramatically improve the fortunes of the club? Maybe, but recent history favours the pessimist.

In the midst of all this is Marc Dos Santos, who can’t possibly have pictured his first year going any worse than it has. The massive struggles this team has gone through shouldn’t be placed squarely on his shoulders, but he can’t be absolved of all the blame either. He’s not going to get fired, but how the ‘Caps retool this winter will make or break his tenure… he already had one chance to bring in a bunch of new players, and a decent number have flopped. He – and the rest of the front office – have to get it right this time.

Having said all that, the ‘Caps have actually picked up seven points in their last three matches! I know, I can hardly believe it myself. Despite sporting a sterling 2-9-5 road record heading into last weekend, the ‘Caps waltzed into Dignity Health Sports Park and hurt the Galaxy’s playoff seeding with a back-and-forth 4-3 win that saw the two teams trade goals all the way to the death.

This current three-match undefeated streak has coincided with a burst of last-minute goals. After Fredy Montero scooped up points with finishes in the 90th and 94th minute against Houston and Columbus, he sprung Inbeom Hwang with a beautiful ball in the 93rd minute in LA, which the Korean calmly squared for Michaell Chirinos’ first goal as a Whitecap.

Now, relying on continuous stoppage time goals might not be the most sustainable strategy, but it’s at least provided some entertaining moments. Real Salt Lake is another team fighting for playoff positioning, so conjuring up any sort of magic to knock them down a peg would be as nice of a cap to the season as we can hope for.

With regards to the line-up, I’m only interested in two players: Jasser Khmiri and Theo Bair.

Khmiri made his long-awaited debut after basically a full year off due to injury against the Galaxy, and while he obviously wasn’t perfect he showed more than enough flashes to warrant another look (an MLS season-high 19 clearances was both impressive and also concerning for the defence as a whole).

I was pleasantly surprised to see Bair given another start last weekend, and he rewarded Dos Santos’ selection with a goal (and a rocket of a crossbar hit as well). Given that he’s the only true prospect that’s seen any first-team action this year (I’m not counting Inbeom), any minutes for him are good ones. Hopefully he will come back even better in 2020, and cement his place in next year’s rotation.

Looking at the visitors, RSL have their playoff spot sewn up, but tomorrow’s action will determine whether or not they have home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Given that every round will be just a single match this year, home field matters more than ever. They’ve teetered a bit in the last month and a bit, going 2-3-1 in their last six, and they’ve only scored five goals in that span.

This is the first time these two teams have seen each other since VAR robbed the ‘Caps of a point in a 1-0 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium all the way back in March. The ‘Caps have done well at home against RSL recently with three straight wins at BC Place, including last year’s 2-0 victory that saw Cristian Techera infamously receive a second yellow card for removing his shirt while celebrating a penalty. Good times.

For the second straight weekend it’s an early kickoff (1pm? Really?) as the entirety of MLS’ “Decision Day” line-up kicks off at the same time. Unfortunately, the Whitecaps won’t be part of any major “decisions” Sunday, and really haven’t been relevant league-wide all year. Let’s hope that changes in 2020. For now, let’s hope the club can avoid falling flat on their faces one more time in 2019.

Of course, no matter what happens, I’ll be back here in late February/early-March, convincing myself that the next seven-plus months will turn out great. Cheers to another season – thankfully – in the books, and to many more to come!

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Authored by: Jake McGrail

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