The Whitecaps allowed the MLS trade deadline to pass this week without making a deal for a veteran striker with proven scoring ability. Instead, with six games to go in the regular season, they will depend heavily on their highly talented, but highly inconsistent, young forwards.
"Darren (Mattocks) has got hot at times, Erik (Hurtado) has got hot at a certain time, Kekuta (Manneh) was pretty hot at the start of the season," Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said this week as the Whitecaps (8-7-13) prepared to visit the Portland Timbers (8-8-12) on Saturday for a game that could be pivotal to both clubs' playoff hopes. "So you're hoping that one will catch fire and drag someone else along."
Mattocks, 24, is in his third MLS season while both Hurtado, 23, and Manneh, 19, are in their second. All have been mired in lengthy scoring slumps for most of the season. But they will play key roles as the Whitecaps attempt to reach the playoffs for only the second time in their four years in MLS.
The Whitecaps hold a one-point lead over the Timbers for the fifth and final post-season berth. With the top four berths virtually set due to large point spreads, the final post-season plateau is likely the only one still reachable.
"I think we’ve got a six-game mini-season now with Portland," said Robinson. "You look at it, and whatever has happened up to this point is irrelevant, because it’s all about the six games now."
It’s also largely about the young scoring hopefuls. Since striker Kenny Miller left the club by mutual consent in the spring, the Whitecaps have lacked a consistent scoring threat up front. Vancouver also took a pass on signing a player in the summer international transfer window.
According to Robinson and president Bob Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps explored several trade and free-agent signing opportunities. But with the bevy of young talent still developing, said Lenarduzzi, they did not want pin their playoff hopes on "a wing and a prayer" that would only be a short-term solution.
Now, the Whitecaps are going all-in with their young forwards while also hoping for some offence from the likes of midfield maestro Pedro Morales, whose production has cooled, and recently acquired, goal-less midfielder Mauro Rosales.
"Everyone’s fighting for jobs in the squad next year as well, so it’s an important six games individually and collectively," said Robinson.
Team-wise, Vancouver’s immediate task is to stay above the playoff bar by excelling amidst a Providence Park crowd which is considered to be among the most hostile in the league. The Whitecaps are seeking their second win in three meetings with the Timbers this season.
The Caps earned a 4-3 victory in Portland in June, but the Timbers avenged that setback by posting a 3-0 win in Vancouver in August, when Robinson felt his team was "chasing shadows."
"I think we’re suffering right now from a Portland hangover," said Lenarduzzi, referring to the effects of the latest meeting.
With the Caps 1-1-1 since then, the club president wants the young players to get back to generating the numerous scoring chances they enjoyed while going unbeaten (1-0-5) in six games between July and August. Since Rosales wasn’t with the Whitecaps then, he just wants them to control the play like they did in a 2-0 home victory over San Jose on Sept. 10.
Rosales, who was acquired in an August trade from Chivas USA., said the Whitecaps will have to be mentally strong as they attempt to fulfil their playoff quest.
"Mentally prepared means you have to run a lot, you have to work a lot, you have to help your teammates, you have to do everything that’s in your hands just to be successful," he said.