Reviews and recommendations are unbiased and products are independently selected. Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through links on this page.
The Vancouver Whitecaps and Los Angeles FC will square off in Major League Soccer’s post-season for the first time.
Here’s what you need to know …
The bare bones
The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-three series, with no extra time or away goals. Games go straight to penalties if the score is tied after regulation.
In 2022, there was no play-in game between the eighth- and ninth-place teams, the first-place team got a bye, and all of them were single-elimination games. That changed from the previous format that saw the conference semifinals and finals use the home-and-away, aggregate goal format, including the away-goals’ tiebreaker.
“It’s different,” said Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini. “If you ask me, from a pure soccer perspective, I think the home-and-away is a better combination, because it’s like every goal counts. If a team wins five-zero one game, rightly so it’s going to have a good advantage on the second game.
“Here, I think it’s much better … for defence, because every game it’s kind of a final. Even if a team doesn’t do well in the first game, it still has plenty of chances to win the second game and win the third game and go on. I’m very happy that we have a different format, because if it would be last year’s format, it would have been just one game in Los Angeles. At least we have a game guaranteed home. So I think it will be exciting, for the fans.”
LAFC (14-10-10) finished third in the West, while Vancouver (12-10-12) was sixth, giving the Black and Gold the home-field advantage.
But LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo wasn’t exactly thrilled with the new format either.
“You sacrifice a fluid playoff system like we had last year, which everyone was very pleased with … Couldn’t have played it any better. You got a fantastic game in the end, so it makes perfect sense to go and change everything,” he said.
Game 1: Whitecaps at LAFC
Saturday, Oct. 28, 5 p.m., BMO Stadium
The game will be broadcast on Apple TV, but the game is free of charge — no subscription necessary. It will also be on AM730, as usual.
Game 2: LAFC at Whitecaps
Sunday, Nov. 5, 4:30 p.m.
The game will be on Apple TV, but also simulcasted on TSN and RDS, FS1, FS2, as well as AM730.
Game 3: Whitecaps at LAFC (If necessary)
Thursday, Nov. 9, 7 p.m.
The game will be on Apple TV and AM730 only.
A trip down memory lane
These two teams have played four times this year — L.A. is 2-1-1 — and could potentially play seven.
In the first three games, the two teams combined for seven yellow cards. In last week’s Decision Day clash, L.A. racked up seven and the Caps two.
“I mean, it’s part of the game,” said Caps back Sam Adekugbe. “I think the ref could probably have done a better job of handling the tomfoolery; I think some of the cards were probably a little bit soft.
“But I think that’s something to be aware of heading into the playoffs. You can kind of see here there’s — I wouldn’t call it a rivalry — but there’s a bit of something with LAFC. You can feel that in the game; there’s ex-players, ex-coaches, ex-teammates, things of that nature. So I think it just shaped up to show what the playoffs were going to be like.
“More enemy than frenemy, I guess,” he smiled of any upcoming interactions with national team running mate Max Crepeau, whose pre-penalty kick hijinks on the weekend rubbed the Whitecaps’ fan base the wrong way.
“It’s football … Whereas in the game, it’s focused, it’s full-throttle, you have no affection towards the opposition, but when the game is done, it’s a mutual respect and understanding, you say hi to your friends, and keep it moving.”
The first two games were CONCACAF Champions League matches in April, both ending in 3-0 scores for L.A.
The reigning MLS champions, LAFC had a torrid start to the season, ultimately going 5-0-3 with 16 goals for and six conceded until their first loss in May. The Caps had struggled out of the gate, failing to record a win until demolishing a 10-man Montreal side at B.C. Place four days before taking on L.A.
“LAFC is the best team in North America,” Sartini said at the time. “No one can say something (different). From Panama to Yukon, it’s the best team. So that’s the challenge that they present us.”
The Caps played well in their first meeting on April 4, until a 10-minute span in the second half saw L.A. score three times (Denis Bouanga’s golazo tipped the scales) to take control of the game.
Down three goals in the aggregate series, the second game saw Sartini shake up the lineup with just a single true centre back as he tried to generate enough offence to overcome the deficit. An eight-minute penalty converted by Carlos Vela, combined with another Vela goal in the 31st minute gave L.A. an insurmountable 5-0 lead. Since the Caps hadn’t yet scored six goals in a game, let alone a half, Sartini made mass substitutions to saves his staters’ legs.
The third game has been cited repeatedly by the Caps as their season’s turning point. They blew into L.A. having been delayed by the storm that blew into Denver and blew up their game against the Rapids.
Vancouver was carrying a year-long losing streak — an 0-8-7 mark dating to Dallas in 2022 — and have never won in L.A., with BMO being the site of some six-goal carnage against them.
They scored first, upped their lead to 2-0, and hung on for a 3-2 win. Sartini’s shrewd 3-1-4-2 lineup shakeup worked this time, with Ryan Gauld playing left wingback and Seb Berhalter seeing action as a right back. The victory reinforced the team-first mentality and gave traction to Gauld’s “Working Class DP” moniker for the first time.
“I feel like I’ve wasted the last 10 years of my career in the middle,” Gauld joked after the game, which saw him score once and get two assists.
“I was surprised to get asked to play that position. I’m not really the kind of guy that would shy away from it, if it’s going to help the team the most … It was a different challenge but one that I felt I was capable of doing.”
“Everyone just says, ‘Yes coach,’ and goes,” said Sartini. “It means that everyone wants to do everything in order to win. And that’s the beauty of this group.”
What to expect
The unexpected. The Caps have proven they can play L.A. straight-up, and beat them on home turf. And speaking of turf, the B.C. Place surface isn’t L.A.’s favourite either.
Both sides have taken turns dominating possession (Vancouver, 57.3 minutes, L.A., 62.1), shots and chances. If Gauld had converted his PKs last week, there might have been some legitimate fear mixed in with the respect L.A. already has for Vancouver.
The Whitecaps know they can win on the road, and they’re going to have to if they want to advance. Sartini fully expects this series to go three games, and sees Saturday’s meeting almost as a feeling-out game, as they know another game will follow, regardless of the outcome.
The key will be to stick to the game plan and system; no defensive letdowns, and if you win “ugly” — like they did in a Leagues Cup game against the L.A. Galaxy — it’s still a win.
There’s no fear in either team, and no more underdog tropes to cling to.
Sartini pointed out that against Real Salt Lake, the team directly above them, and Dallas, Sporting KC and San Jose — the latter two in the play-in game — the Caps have just two points (0-4-2). Against St. Louis, Seattle, LAFC and Houston, the top four teams, the Caps have 14 points in nine games (4-3-2).
“The gap is close. The Western Conference this year has been very, very tight,” said Sartini. “I honestly think that all the nine teams that participate in the playoffs, even the guys who will win the play-in game between Kansas City and San Jose, have more or less the same opportunity to go to the MLS Cup.
“(The 14 points) shows you how … everyone can beat everyone. It gives us the responsibility to play with our top level, to go to L.A. and to say, ‘OK, you guys are the MLS Cup champions, you guys are a very good team, but we can beat you.’ ”
Who to watch
The Golden Boot boys — Bouanga, the winner with 20 league goals, or Brian White, with 15 — are the easy picks. Same too for the Working Class DP or Vela.
But this series will come down to how the Caps can slow down LAFC, because it’s almost impossible to stop them for multiple games. No one on the Caps, not even defensive DP Andres Cubas, can match the efficiency of centre-back Ranko Veselinovic. His percentage of tackles won (63.6) is second only to newcomer Richie Laryea, he’s won more aerials than anyone save target striker Brian White, has more blocks and clearances and starts and minutes than any other outfield player. Watch to see how he handles the movement of Bouanga in the box or the probing runs of their other forwards.
Plus, he has a goal and a couple of helpers this year, and scored against L.A. at BMO in the Caps’ big win.
Recommended from Editorial
Whitecaps extend coach Vanni Sartini for two more years
Whitecaps 2, DC United 2: Vancouver treading water as season end looms
Bookmark our website and support our journalism: Don’t miss the news you need to know — add VancouverSun.com and TheProvince.com to your bookmarks and sign up for our newsletters here.
You can also support our journalism by becoming a digital subscriber: For just $14 a month, you can get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by subscribing today: The Vancouver Sun | The Province.