Back-to-back road losses against FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers in mid-September nearly derailed their post-season chances, but the Whitecaps have ripped off three wins and a draw in their last four to climb back up the standings.
With one game to go on the schedule, a win, draw, or even a loss this weekend could be enough to get Vancouver into the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Despite all the permutations, the Whitecaps are solely focused on the first option.
"It's pretty simple — win and we're in," said defender Steven Beitashour. "So that's the main focus right now. Nothing less than a win."
The Whitecaps won't know which result they'll need in order to secure the fifth and final playoff spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference until Saturday's game between Portland and Dallas is complete. That game will kick off 90 minutes before Vancouver's home fixture against the Colorado Rapids.
Vancouver is one point up on Portland, so the Whitecaps need to at least match the Timbers' result in Texas to get into the post-season. For example, a Portland win would mean Vancouver also needs a victory, while a Portland loss would clinch a playoff spot for the Whitecaps.
Portland holds the tiebreaker, so ending even on points would hand the Timbers fifth place.
"I think we're going in there in a confident mood," said Vancouver defender Andy O'Brien. "We've given ourselves a chance of getting into the playoffs by virtue of the fact that we've played very well and gotten very good results over the last four games.
"There was a lot of pressure of us to get into this position. We had to play against teams that were doing very well in the league and had a lot of things play for as well."
Whitecaps midfielder Russell Teiber said the result of the Timbers game will impact what happens at B.C. Place Stadium, but stressed the Whitecaps can't expect favours from other teams.
"We understand what happens if they lose, if they win, if they draw, but we have a game we need to take care of ourselves," said the Niagara Falls, Ont., native. "I know that's going to be a cliche answer from a lot of the guys, but it's the right answer, it's the only answer.
"If we don't take care of business we're not getting in."
Added Beitashour: "This past month has just been about us. No one's helping us out and what's going to change the last game of the season? We're really not expecting any help from anybody."
That frame of mind helped Vancouver knock off Dallas, Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders — all playoff teams — in impressive fashion to keep them in the chase.
"We said four games ago that we have five Cup finals to play for, so we've been in that playoff mentality for weeks now," said Teibert. "That does give us an advantage because we've been in pressure situations where we've needed to win games — not just wanted to win, we've needed to win — and we've done so."
But Vancouver (11-8-14) is in this position of clinging to the final playoff spot not because of its ability to beat good teams, but rather an inability to get past MLS doormats, including two losses to the Rapids (8-17-8) this season.
"Against the higher-ranked teams we've done better, but I don't think you can really underestimate any team in this league," said O'Brien. "We want to win the game, but we've got to be sensible how we do it. We can't go out there and try and be gung-ho and give up goals, but we do understand the emphasis of winning the game."
The Whitecaps admitted that the worst result psychologically from the Portland-Dallas game would be a draw, meaning Vancouver could get in the playoffs with a point of its own. But playing for ties is dangerous because all it takes is a mistake or a moment of magic for things to change drastically.
"I don't think you can mess about. I don't think you can dictate results here," said O'Brien. "There's so many variables that can happen in a game. I think you've got to concentrate, do your job, and the objective is to get the three points."
If Dallas beats Portland on Saturday, it's conceivable that Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson will get as many of his veterans off the pitch as soon as possible with an eye on the one-game No. 4 versus No. 5 playoff game that would go mid-week on the road against Dallas or Real Salt Lake.
"We'll probably get a feel for the (Portland-Dallas) game from the supporters," said the 35-year-old O'Brien. "I'm sure if it's going our way they'll be cheering, or they'll be cheering us on if we need to pull (out a win).
"I think it's very strange the two games are not being played at the same time, given the importance."
The Rapids have been miserable in the second half of the season and are winless in their last 13 (0-11-2), but Vancouver will have to be wary, especially after the Whitecaps played to a 0-0 road draw against the lowly San Jose Earthquakes last weekend.
"They have nothing to lose, so it's always tough in that case," said Beitashour. "Especially the way we play, we love playing those top teams. You look at the last three wins, Salt Lake, Dallas and Seattle — top teams. We do well against them.
"It's the bottom teams that frighten us a little bit. We have to make sure we come out prepared (and) fight, scrap just as if they were a first-place team. We have to give everything we have and a good result should come from that."
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