WFC2 officially clinched their place in the playoffs on Saturday night after Orange County Blues’ 1-0 loss to Rio Grande Valley.
After the ‘Caps storming start to the season, that saw them go unbeaten in the first ten matches and top the Western Conference for much of the season, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken the team until the penultimate weekend of the season to claim their postseason berth.
Getting over the line has been a struggle for the Whitecaps these past few weeks. With one win in their last ten matches, WFC2’s form hasn’t exactly screamed playoff contenders, but they’re in and right now, that’s all that matters.
It’s all about the positioning now, with a top four finish in the West securing a home playoff game in the first round. Despite their strong start, that’s now looking to be something of a tall order for the ‘Caps, who had slipped to fifth place heading into Sunday’s home match with Portland Timbers 2 and needed to finish the regular season with two wins to secure that top four finish.
It was the fourth meeting this season between the Cascadian rivals, and Vancouver had owned Portland thus far with three wins, and seven goals scored. But it was a different story in this final meeting.
Defensive lapses saw the Timbers head in at half time with a two goal lead, and there was no way back for the Whitecaps, going down to a 2-0 loss that will likely mean a tougher playoff bracket than they would have hoped for.
The ‘Caps seemed to have a lack or urgency from the first whistle, and it took them until the second half to start to get going, a fact which bitterly disappointed head coach Alan Koch.
“We spoke about it in our last huddle before the game, about taking the game in five minute segments,” Koch told reporters after the match. “Which means you’ve got to be ready to play right from the start and I don’t think our core group collectively were ready to start playing right from the beginning of the game.
“If you concede an early goal, you put yourself behind. Full credit to Portland. They did what they needed to do and they deserved three points today.”
Both of Portland’s goals were avoidable if Vancouver’s defence had been more alert.
Neco Brett fired the Timbers into a 13th minute lead when Villyan Bijev caught the ‘Caps defence napping with a quick free kick, playing the ball to Brett, who cut inside Christopher Diaz before beating Marco Carducci at his near post.
Bijev grabbed the second himself, capitalising on a horrible defensive mix up that epitomised the ‘Caps defensive woes of late.
Portland’s two strikes now take Vancouver to a goal difference of minus one, the only playoff team in the West to have a negative goal difference. Another disappointing aspect for Koch, particularly as so many of their recent goals against have come from a lack of focus by his defenders.
With the old adage that defences win championships, is this now a major worry for Koch heading in to the playoffs?
“If we were a team that trained and played together every single week, and that was our 29th game together, 100% yes,” Koch said. “Because somebody would then have to put their hand up and be responsible for them taking a quick free kick. Those are little details that you have to take care of as a group, but when you’re a hybrid and players are coming in and out, those are the things that happen.
“We shouldn’t have allowed them to score the first goal. We definitely shouldn’t have allowed them to score the second goal. But that’s what happens when you continue to put players together and that’s part of this group. We’re going to have players that come in and out. Unfortunately we’re going to have days like today where you do make mistakes and you allow the opposition to score two goals and you lose the game.”
It was a very lacklustre first half performance from Vancouver, with a seeming lack or urgency, particularly from the midfield. It was something Koch tried to change at half time, making three substitutions, which worked a little but as hard as they pushed, they just couldn’t find any way through a compact Portland defence.
“I thought we were better in the second half, but having said that, we were 2-0 down and the game’s different then,” Koch felt. “When you start a game, everybody’s fresh, it’s nil-nil, and you play one way, and then making adjustments, I thought we were better in the second 45 minutes. But that’s also indicative of how the game went, so it’s difficult to compare the first 45 to the second.”
Interestingly, the three players taken off were all first teamers – Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, and Ben McKendry. It felt a little harsh for McKendry, who wasn’t having that bad a game, but Koch has been critical of his midfielders in recent weeks and this definitely felt like it was a clear message being sent.
“We were losing 2-0 and we challenged the centre of our midfield to make sure they got on top and gave us a chance to be successful,” Koch said. “They didn’t do that and we were losing 2-0 at half time. The game’s a cruel, cruel game, and not just those three players.
“Every game you play at this level, you get a lot of answers. We ask a lot of questions when we play these games and I think today we got some individual based answers on this game. At the end of the season we’ll a step back, a big step back, and reflect on how everybody’s done over the course of the whole season.”
There’s definitely a number of players in both the MLS and USL teams that are playing to stay in Vancouver over the next few weeks. It may not feel like that at times, but they most certainly are.
For the USL team there’s one regular season game remaining before the playoffs. That game comes on Wednesday night in Langley, when OKC Energy head to town for a rescheduled game. A look at the current standings shows that this is the time to now step up and impress.
The Energy sit on the same number of points as the Whitecaps right now, with Vancouver having the edge in wins. OKC lost 3-0 to Swope Park Rangers on Sunday night, a result that dropped WFC2 to sixth in the West.
If the ‘Caps can win on Wednesday, they would secure at least the sixth seeding for the playoffs, hopefully avoiding an away trip to Sacramento, and they could move back up to fourth. They could still finish seventh.
So a lot to play for, but most importantly, the ‘Caps need to hit the playoffs with some kind of confidence boosting win and momentum. Koch says his squad will treat it as the playoffs have started now and challenged them to show the response he’s looking for.
“We’re disappointed in how we played today,” Koch admitted. “We’re disappointed in the result. Now we’ve got to prepare for Wednesday and we’ll approach it just like we will the playoff games. It’s every game we play, no matter who’s in our line-up, we go out there to win. We obviously had a lot of success at the start of the season. We are limping a little bit right now, but we’ve got to see if we can turn it around.
“I mentioned questions and answers. These are the great questions we get right now as a young group. It’s great questions for these players. How do they respond? The three guys we took off at half time, yeah, that’s tough to deal with as a professional footballer. But how do you respond now? Those are things that really define us as players. It’ll be interesting to see how guys respond and how we progress through with them.”