The Whitecaps resume their Major League Soccer playoff quest Saturday against the Portland Timbers as they attempt to put a disappointing loss in the Canadian Championship final behind them.
"It's always disappointing when you lose any game, but a cup final is even more disappointing, because you can't go back and change it," said Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie after the team touched down in Portland, Ore., on Friday. "But we need to move on."
The Canadian title has eluded the Whitecaps since their days in lower-tier leagues, but they dropped the two-game, total-goals final series 2-1 on aggregate to a Toronto team that has lost all nine of its MLS games.
The Caps lost the decisive second leg 1-0 in Toronto on Wednesday, delivering a lacklustre performance that defied the importance of the game.
Although Saturday's contest still marks an early point on the road to the MLS promised land, it serves as an important milepost during Vancouver's second season in North America's top league. The Whitecaps (5-3-3) and Timbers (3-5-3) both entered MLS last season, but Portland placed a respectable sixth in the Western Conference while the Whitecaps finished last overall with two different coaches. The Timbers also beat the Whitecaps in both games between the teams.
Vancouver has been the better team lately in league play, posting three wins and a draw in its last five games. Portland has lost four of its past five games, with only a draw to its credit.
A Whitecaps victory will serve as another sign of how far Vancouver has advanced under new coach Rennie, who has strived to put his stamp on the team. Vancouver can also match the six wins that it mustered all of last season.
Rennie has rotated his lineup considerably lately as the Whitecaps have played two games per week throughout the month. He is expected to do the same in Portland before his club gets a two-week break.
"It's basically because we've got so many games and we want to be making sure that we're putting out a strong lineup in every game," said Rennie.
The Whitecaps showed signs of progress in a 2-2 draw with a strong Seattle Sounders squad last weekend. But Seattle's 90th-minute tying goal and the loss to Toronto raised more questions about the Whitecaps' ability to play their best at the right time — and produce offence consistently.
Vancouver has a bevy of talented strikers, but no strong offensive tandem has emerged.
"We have a lot of weapons, but you're right in that we haven't found the right tandem yet," said captain Jay DeMerit, stressing the club wins and loses as a team.
On the positive side, he added, the Caps still plenty of games to try and find the right combinations.
Returning strikers Camilo and Eric Hassli have yet to pay dividends together and newcomers are still getting used to each other. Camilo, a five-foot-seven and 155-pound Brazilian tends to be a solo artist. On the other hand, Hassli, a six-foot-four and 200-pound Frenchman, is more of a finisher who needs passers to find him in space.
Camilo has three MLS goals to date and Hassli has scored two league markers, but they have scored their goals while playing apart or with help from others. The anticipated connection between Hassli and fellow Frenchman Sebastien Le Toux has also been slow to develop after they combined on Vancouver's first goal of the season against Montreal.
One reason: Hassli has played a reserve role in several games lately. It remains to be seen whether he will get his second straight start.
Rennie said Hassli "has made a big difference" while subbing in. He came off the bench to score Vancouver's goal in a 1-1 tie in the first leg against Toronto and also scored the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over San Jose earlier this month in the same fashion.
Like Hassli, Le Toux, who has three goals, tends to be more of a finisher, but has not found a reliable offensive partner.
Omar Salgado, 18, has emerged as a playmaker while being deployed as a left winger in his second season with the Caps. Rookie Darren Mattocks, a speedster comparable to Camilo, has displayed considerable promise, but suffered from a lack of finish against Seattle. Rennie wants him to be more "clinical" with his chances.
But the coach, who also wants to see his team pass better than it did against Toronto, does not believe he needs to find a tandem that can play well together. Noting the team scores and defends as an entire unit, Rennie indicated he will be happy whether two, three or four players score — as long as the goals come.
"It's more about the production at the end of it," Rennie said.
Notes: MLS Players Union salary figures show that Hassli will earn a team-high salary of US$790,000 this season, not including bonuses and other incentives the Whitecaps may have included. DeMerit is Vancouver's second-highest-paid player at a guaranteed $350,000. ... Portland's highest-paid player is striker Kris Boyd at $1.5 million. Boyd shares the team goals lead at three with Darlington Nagbe. ... The game serves as part of the Cascadia Cup, an in-season series between Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. The club with the best record in games between the teams will claim the trophy, which was created by fans. ... Whitecaps defender Alain Rochat is expected to play despite leaving Wednesday's game in Toronto early with an ankle injury. ... Vancouver striker Atiba Harris, bothered by a sore thigh, did not make the trip. ... Portland is coming off a 1-0 loss to Spanish side Valencia in a friendly.