SPORTS

Whitecaps need to tame Real Salt Lake to close in on last playoff spot

09/27/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST
VANCOUVER - A road victory over Montreal last week has shone some welcome sunshine on the Vancouver Whitecaps as they battle for a Major League Soccer playoff spot.

But the warmth the Whitecaps are feeling from the franchise's first-ever September win since joining MLS could quickly cool if the team fails to earn a result against high-scoring Real Salt Lake Saturday in another crucial match at BC Place Stadium.

"The last two games we've played extremely well," head coach Martin Rennie said after a team practise. "We need to keep building on that."

The Whitecaps (11-10-8) head into the weekend with 41 points, four out of a playoff spot in the tight MLS Western Conference. The Colorado Rapids (12-9-9) hold down the fifth and final spot.

Vancouver could need 10 points in the final five regular-season games to climb into the playoffs for the second consecutive year. There's already speculation Rennie could lose his job if the Whitecaps fail to make the playoffs.

"There's pressure on us, we know that," said goalkeeper David Ousted. "Rather that, than nobody caring about what we are doing."

Salt Lake sits second in the conference with 48 points (14-10-6), two points behind leader Seattle (15-8-5).

With the season winding down there is little room for error. Just six points separate eighth-place Dallas from third-place Portland.

"We need to treat each game as a final," said Ousted, who hasn't allowed a goal in two matches. "There's only important games left."

Last week's 3-0 win over Montreal helped shore up a Vancouver team whose confidence had slowly been eroding. The Whitecaps were 1-5-3 in their previous nine games.

"It was important to get back to the winning ways," said Ousted. "We had some tough games. We might not have been playing the best football.

"That win did a lot of good for the team. I think there's a lot of hunger. Throughout the team there is a good vibe right now."

Further bolstering the Whitecaps spirit has been the return of captain Jay DeMerit, who had missed most of the year after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the season opener. Vancouver hasn't allowed a goal since the centre back returned to the lineup in a 0-0 draw with San Jose on Sept. 14.

"We've come together a bit more the last couple of games," said Ousted. "Everybody is doing their part and backing each other up."

Striker Kenny Miller remains a question mark for Saturday's game as he deals with tightness in his right abductor. The former Scottish international scored his eighth goal of the season against Montreal. If Miller can't play Tommy Heinemann or Darren Mattocks are expected to take his place.

If the Whitecaps hope to gain ground in the playoff race they need to blunt a Real Salt Lake scoring attack that leads MLS with 53 goals.

"They are a dangerous team," said DeMerit. "They have some really good midfielders that help build their attack (and) midfielders that help score goals.

"They are kind of a two-pronged attack. They have young, athletic forwards up front."

One of the most dangerous Salt Lake players is Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio, who leads his team with 10 goals.

"If you give him a chance in the box, if you let him go without competing with him, he will normally hurt you," said DeMerit.

Real Salt comes into Vancouver after losing 2-1 to the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend.

Despite scoring buckets of goals, defence has become a concern for Salt Lake. The team has allowed at least two goals in five of their last six games. During that stretch they have given up 13 goals while managing a 2-3-1 record.

"We've been having problems out there," centre back Carlos Salcedo told MLS.com. "We just have to get together and talk about it and figure it out with what we are going to do.

"We need to learn from the mistakes."

Head coach Jason Kreis said his team has lacked focus at times.

"We can work on it and train all we want, but in the game, it just comes down to focus and commitment," he said.

Rennie chuckled when ask if Salt Lake is venerable.

"It was only a couple of weeks ago they scored eight goals in two games and everybody was raving about how good they are," he said. "The world we live in people will always notice things.

"They've had a great season."

The Whitecaps host Portland in Vancouver next week, then play in Seattle. Their playoff fate could be decided in a home-and-away series with Colorado to end the season.

Vancouver lost 2-0 to Rapids back on Aug. 17.

Rennie said the team believes in its ability to make the playoffs.

"This league is all about going on a run at the right time," he said.

"We're in a position where we have the playoffs in our own destiny. The players have confidence they can go get more results."

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