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Blink, and you might miss it.
On Sunday the Vancouver Whitecaps play their first regular-season game at B.C. Place in 36 days. It’ll be even longer — another 41 days — before they’re back at the Dome.
Like the Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hill, the Caps are then faced with a lung-busting mountain to climb in the regular season’s final stretch: an unprecedented seven-game road stretch.
“I look forward the challenge,” said Caps coach Vanni Sartini.
But first up on Sunday are the San Jose Earthquakes (8-7-8), who are one point and one place ahead of the Whitecaps (8-7-7) in the Western Conference. Vancouver will have had 10 training sessions between their last Leagues Cup game against Tigres and Sunday’s game against the Quakes to integrate newcomers Sam Adekugbe and Richie Laryea, while also resting and rejuvenating players whose legs were wearing down from the condensed schedule of games.
San Jose Earthquakes vs Vancouver Whitecaps
7:30 p.m. B.C. Place: TV: AppleTV Radio: AM730
“We did a kind of a midseason preseason,” said Sartini. “We trained a lot, especially last week. We had long training, a lot of videos, we went deep on reviewing what we’ve done so far, and working on our principles … and even trying to strengthen our identity.”
Their imagined identity has been to be relentless and resolute at home, and poach away points. The former? Check. No West team is having more points at home than Vancouver’s 25. The latter? Well, they’re still working on it. And the seven-game swing, by far the longest in team history, will give them plenty of chances to work on it.
Los Angeles has been the only place the Whitecaps have won away from home against MLS competition in a calendar year. They beat LAFC 3-2 win over LAFC on June 24, and hit the Galaxy with the ugly stick in a gritty, yet confidence-boosting 4-2 victory in the Leagues Cup on July 15.
Vancouver is 1-5-3 this season on the road, and were 2-11-4 last season.
“This kind of maturity that we showed in the last game (versus Galaxy) makes me very hopeful for the next stretch of the games away,” said Sartini.
The first road game, versus Portland on Aug. 26, will be a quick there-and-back flight. But the following week — Chicago on Aug. 30 and New York City FC on Sept. 2 — will see Vancouver stay on the East Coast to minimize their time in the air.
It’ll be the same for their final three road games, Houston (Sept. 20), Real Salt Lake (Sept. 23) and Colorado (Sept. 27).
This was the approach that came from the collaboration between the team’s coaching staff, and performance and analytics department after researching the issue. They examined sleep schedules, travel time, diets, and whether team-bonding exercises on the road have helped. Practice pitches have been secured, appropriate hotels to stay in and flight times with the optimum departures have been secured.
It has been meticulously planned. Ironically, their last two away wins came after carefully laid plans were blown up.
Their weather-scuttled game in Colorado left the team in the locker room at Dicks’ Sporting Goods Park until midnight, forcing the team to reshuffle everything — flights, hotels, practices — but still they went into BMO Stadium and beat LAFC two days later. The win over Galaxy came when Leon had their game against Galaxy pushed later because of flight issues, again throwing the Caps’ travel plans into disarray.
“We are looking at every single detail,” said sporting director Axel Schuster. “Our learning of this season is that we have better solutions for every single scenario, that we are better prepared, that we have a very great staff that is very quick reacting.”
After Sunday, there are just three more games in Vancouver. At least in the regular season.
Based on their results and remaining strength of schedule, the Whitecaps currently have an 87.5 per cent chance of making the post-season, according to sportsclubstats.com.
But with a game in hand on everyone in front of them in the West — and two in the cases of RSL and Seattle — and experienced, dangerous acquisitions in Adekugbe and Laryea, the chances of them even hosting a playoff game aren’t far-fetched, at around 11 per cent.
“If we win all four home games, we’re definitely in the playoffs,” said Schuster, basing his prediction on past totals of playoff qualifying points.
“But nobody has to be worried that we want to … hit the minimum threshold. We don’t want to set the record of going into the playoffs with the lowest numbers anyone’s ever seen in the league.”
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