“There’s nowhere to go but up” is a bland platitude usually reserved for the morbidly optimistic rose-coloured glasses crowd, those who drink deeply out of their half-full glass of sanguine sangria.
But this week, the Vancouver Whitecaps can lean deeply and without reservation into the aphorism, as their Decision Day in MLS is all about climbing the table.
The Whitecaps head into the final day of the regular season, with seven simultaneous Western Conference kickoffs, knowing they can’t fall below their current sixth-place standing. But there could be a potential prize after their game with Los Angeles FC — a top-four spot, and home field advantage in the first-round best of three playoff series.
Vanni Sartini’s previous two Decision Days were full of drama, delight and disappointment.
In 2021, Vancouver roared into the final day of the regular season riding a five-game unbeaten streak — part of a miraculous second-half turnaround sparked by Sartini taking over and Ryan Gauld’s arrival — and needed a point-blank save from Max Crepeau on Fredy Montero late in the game to preserve a 1-1 tie. If he doesn’t make that save, the Caps don’t make the playoffs because of another result 3,000 kilometres away in Salt Lake City.
Los Angeles FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Saturday, 6 p.m., B.C. Place.
TV: Apple TV. Radio: AM730
Last season, Vancouver’s playoff chances were dead and buried midway through September, having lost three straight games. But the Caps won three straight home games to set up a ‘win-and you’re-in’ showdown with Minnesota United. They lost the road game 2-0 to fall just short of the post-season.
“Yeah, this Decision Day is much easier,” Sartini said. “The first one … was probably one of the best memory as Whitecaps coach. It was the first time that the stadium was fully open again after COVID, so there was a lot of people and we played very well. Very thrilling at the end, they almost score and without the result … we would have been out. It was fantastic.
“Last year, we knew that we had a very difficult task to win away. It was very bitter at the end, but I was proud of the effort of the team because we were behind, we won three games in a row to be at that place.
“Between me and you, I prefer much more the atmosphere this Decision Day, because in any case, we know that we’re going to play a playoff game. And on top of that, we’re going to play a playoff game at home, guaranteed. So it’s going to be, I think, that’s gonna be the thing that I’m looking forward to most.”
And, should their first-round series go three full games, it could be two home games. For that to happen, the first thing that needs to happen is to beat LAFC. The second is for two out of the following three results on Decision Day to happen: a Houston Dynamo loss or draw in Portland; an RSL loss or draw in Colorado Rapids or a Seattle Sounders’ loss in St. Louis.
Here’s a look at how that road could play out …
NO. 1: BEAT LA(FC)
Oddsmakers (Draftkings) — Whitecaps win: +130/43.5%; Draw: +265, 27.4%; LAFC win +170, 37%
The Black and Gold have been a standard of excellence since coming into the league five years ago. They looked every bit the part in a 3-0 win over the Whitecaps at B.C. Place in Champions League play in March.
But the Caps’ success this season had a pivotal moment — their 3-2 road win over LAFC, a game that Ranko Veselinovic gave them the lead 116 seconds in, and Gauld played left wingback. It also turned around their fortunes away from B.C. Place, the first of four road wins and three ties in their remaining out-of-town games, after going more than a calendar year between road victories.
And LAFC, despite their success, haven’t had the best of luck in Vancouver. They’ve lost three straight regular-season games at B.C. Place and, if you include the 2-1 victory in 2020 when the Caps were exiled in Portland, it’s four straight losses away to Vancouver.
There’s also the question of motivation for LAFC. They can’t drop out of the top four, nor catch St. Louis for first place in the West. And with Denis Bouanga having a healthy four-goal lead in the Golden Boot race, seeing him and the other key L.A. players passing on playing on the MCL-eating B.C. Place turf is a real possibility.
ROOTING FOR THE (COUGH, COUGH) TIMBERS
Houston Dynamo at Portland Timbers
Odds: Portland win: +110/47.6%; draw: +255/28.2%; Houston win: +205/32.8%
The Dynamo have been on fire lately, with only two losses since the start of July. They’ve lost just once in their last 11 games (5-2-4), with five shutouts and outscoring opponents 22-6 over that span.
But the Timbers are on a mission — they need to win to ensure a playoff spot, holding seventh place above FC Dallas and San Jose by virtue of the wins’ tiebreaker. Going in their favour: Houston has just one win in nine games against the Timbers (although that came this year) and the Dynamo’s 2-9-5 away record this season is only better than last-place Colorado in the West.
Portland was on a seven-game heater (5-0-2) before stumbling against CF Montreal last week, losing 4-1.
RSL’S LATE-SEASON STUMBLES
Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids
Odds — Colorado win: +160/38.5%; draw: +255/28.2%, RSL win: +140/41.7%
RSL has stumbled lately, going winless in their last two games, both against non-playoff teams. They also only have one win in their last five away games.
The caveat is this: those last two losses were almost wins, as they battled back from multi-goal deficits in both. Against Sporting Kansas City, they saw Justen Glad red-carded after three minutes and trailed 3-0 until the final nine minutes of regulation, when they scored twice to nearly pull off the comeback. RSL fell behind 2-0 against L.A. on the road, before battling back for the draw.
And this team knows something about clutch Decision Day moments: Damir Kreilach’s 95th-minute winner against SKC in 2021 put them into the post-season and would have knocked the Whitecaps out, had it not been for Crepeau’s save against the Sounders.
CHAMPS CAN RAIN ON RAIN CITY
Seattle Sounders at St. Louis CITY SC.
Odds — StL win: +130/43.5%; draw: +240/29.4%; Sounders win: +175/36.4%
St. Louis has nothing to play for in theory, having clinched both the West title and home field advantage but they have gone on the record saying that setting a record for expansion team wins was a priority. So it will be full-on St. Louligan madness from the hosts on Saturday. No West team has more home wins than St. Louis (11-3-2), while Seattle is only a game over .500 on the road.
The Sounders can finish between second and sixth, but a spot in the top four can be secured with a tie, and they could leapfrog LAFC should they lose to Vancouver and Seattle wins.
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