VANCOUVER - Tommy Soehn didn't want it to end this way.
Soehn will coach his last game with the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday as they finish their troubled Major League Soccer expansion season against the Colorado Rapids.
He took the helm after the club fired Teitur Thordarson in late May, seeking to salvage a post-season berth. But, until lately, the Whitecaps continued to struggle under Soehn and will finish well back of the playoff pack.
"You always have pride in what you do and you want to finish on top, so you wish it came together a little bit better," said Soehn, who is slated to resume his duties as director of soccer operations full-time. "But then you also have to take a step back and think. You look at all the expansion franchises. It is a growing process. I think the real test will be how we come out next year."
The Whitecaps (6-17-10) now have to settle for ending the season on a high note at home against Colorado (11-9-13), which has clinched a playoff spot and has a win and two draws in its last five games.
The Whitecaps are riding a two-game home winning streak since moving to newly-renovated BC Place after spending most of the season at Empire Field. They sit second-last in the overall standings, but can avoid finishing in the basement with another victory.
"This one, for me, is a lot about the fans, rewarding them for sticking with us through difficult times and also seeing us in this building," said Soehn. "I want to give them something to leave excited about."
Despite having two of the top scorers in MLS in Brazilian striker Camilo and French forward Eric Hassli, the Whitecaps had not won back-to-back games until September 30 against an undermanned Real Salt Lake squad and then against a D.C. United team fighting for a post-season berth.
Soehn, who won an MLS title as a player with his hometown Chicago Fire in its expansion season in 1998 and, as a head coach and assistant, helped D.C. United win an MLS Cup and two regular-season titles, said it has been difficult to deal with the club's losing ways. But he credits the players and coaching staff for maintaining a strong work ethic throughout the difficulties.
"Overall, I still come away feeling like I've grown as a person, because I've never had a situation of taking over a team halfway through the season," said Soehn, adding he learned what it was like to change a club's mentality "on the fly."
Captain Jay DeMerit said players have to maintain that mentality as they close out the season. He said Soehn has done a service to the team by getting it to the end of the season and leading it to the two recent home wins.
"It's been an up-and-down season, and nothing caps off a season like a win to carry us into next year," said DeMerit.
The Whitecaps have already hired Soehn's replacement for next season. Martin Rennie, currently the coach of the Carolina RailHawks of the North American Soccer League, was named his successor in mid-season. Rennie continued his duties with Carolina while Soehn stayed on with the Whitecaps.
"It's strange," said DeMerit. "It's a scenario you don't really find yourself in too often. But, ultimately, when you do find yourself (in it), you've just gotta be professional about it. We're all professionals for a reason and you have to act professionally no matter who your boss is."
In addition to playing for pride, many Whitecaps will be playing for jobs. After Saturday's game, players will get two weeks off and then take part in a two-week evaluation camp under Rennie. Some players' contracts expire Dec. 31.
Midfielder Shea Salinas said players want to send Soehn out as a winner. He said the coaching change, difficult to deal with at first because of Thordarson's popularity in the locker-room, has had little effect. But Soehn's recent lineup moves, which resulted in some veterans sitting and younger players like rarely-used striker Long Tan getting into the lineup, have paid off.
"We've won two in a row in this building, which has been a testament to his loyalty," said Salinas. "He's put out guys that work hard, guys that get behind the ball, so we're trying to win another one for him."
"It's been a difficult situation, I'm sure, for him," added goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "We definitely want to send him off with a big win."
Midfielder Peter Vagenas said players are not just trying to get the forgettable season over and done with. Players feel they are much closer to being a contender than many might think.
"I'm disappointed the season is ending, regardless of where we are," said Vagenas. "Obviously, every team wants to make the playoffs and play til the end. But I think there's disappointment that this is our last game because — I've said it all along — this group has been training the right way."
Accordingly, DeMerit hopes the club's recent strong play and a good result Saturday carry over to next year.
"Hopefully, it says that the best is yet to come," he said.