After escaping with a point against LAFC, the Whitecaps return home with a chance to clinch their first playoff berth since 2017 at BC Place. Perhaps fittingly, their opponent is Seattle, a rival with whom their rivalry has not been as heated in recent years given the Sounders’ penchant for stomping the ‘Caps when they play.
The ‘Caps can’t hope for the Sounders letting off the gas at all either, as despite having their own playoff spot sewn up, the fight for the number one seed has come down to the final day with Seattle, SKC and Colorado all separated by just a single point. The good news is that SKC and Colorado play Real Salt Lake and LAFC, the two teams chasing the ‘Caps, so hopefully they can provide a little support.
The math is pretty simple: get a point, and the ‘Caps are in. Lose, and they’ll be relying on two of RSL, LAFC and the Galaxy to lose (or draw in the case of the first two). Is that plausible? Given who those teams are up against it’s certainly possible. But obviously, it’s always better to not have to rely on outside help. And given how strong the ‘Caps have been at BC Place this year they’ll surely be confident.
Given that Vanni Sartini only made one change to the starting XI from the Minnesota to LAFC matches, that’s a fairly strong indication as to what group he feels most comfortable with. Some of it – like the attacking trio being Brian White, Ryan Gauld, and Cristian Dájome – feels pretty straightforward. Other parts of it not as much.
One interesting decision was leaving Jake Nerwinski in the lineup instead of Ranko Veselinović at centre-back. Nerwinski had a few shaky moments against LAFC so we’ll see if Sartini sticks with him or not on Sunday. Florian Jungwirth and Érik Godoy (when healthy) have been locked in as starters, so it’ll come down to that third spot.
Javain Brown has also continued to start as the left wingback, though that shifted over the course of the match on Tuesday. First, Brown and Bruno Gaspar switched sides partway through. Then, after Cristián Gutiérrez came in off the bench, he served first as a centre-back but then moved up to the left flank a little later. I would guess that it will again be Brown and Gaspar on the flanks against Seattle, but as shown on Tuesday, Sartini isn’t afraid to mess around with what’s going on.
One constant is the play of Maxime Crépeau, who I don’t mention nearly as often in these previews as I probably should given how important he is to this team. I mean, it’s because there’s no question as to whether or not he’ll play every minute that he’s available to play. But given his heroics against LAFC (and in general) he deserves an extra shoutout for being as reliable as he has been in goal.
Gauld has obviously been a catalyst for this rapid improvement in the team’s fortunes, and White is playing incredibly well up top, but Crépeau has just as much of a case for the ‘Caps MVP this year. This team is still not really a true contender, and so without very safe hands in goal, making the playoffs would not be possible. Hopefully Crépeau has at least one more massive performance in him for 2021.
Looking at the visitors, Seattle has hit a real skid. They’ve had to deal with some big injuries, but even with that you wouldn’t expect them to go five matches without a win. They’re coming off a 1-1 draw with the Galaxy, and they’ve scored just four goals in their last five. This has caused the race for the top seed in the West and a first-round bye to truly open up, adding extra pressure to Sunday’s match.
Against the Galaxy, Raul Ruidiaz made his return after a month on the sidelines, while Nico Lodeiro (who has played in just nine matches this season) made his first start in nearly two months and only his fourth in all of 2021. The Sounders are still the Sounders, liable to turn it up at any point, but they have been far from invincible recently.
Of course, the ‘Caps have not had good luck at all when facing their Cascadia rivals recently. It’s been over four years since the ‘Caps last beat Seattle, a statistic that feels both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. During that time, it’s been four draws and nine losses, and Vancouver’s all-time MLS record against them is now 7-17-9. Not great!
Of course, things can always change. For the first time in a while the Whitecaps will enter MLS’ Decision Day with truly something to play for. There will be a lot of anxious scoreboard watching as the match unfolds, as short of a blowout win it’s going to be very tense until the final whistle.
If this is the last preview I’m writing until the spring, then it’s been fun to track this unexpected rise in the standings since the end of the summer, and I’m interested to see how the club looks to build on its on-field product in the offseason (to say nothing about how the off-field aspects need shaking up). And if there are still more matches to be played this year, then I’m quite excited for that too.