VANCOUVER - Mathematically-speaking the Vancouver Whitecaps might be able to afford a loss Sunday when they host the Portland Timbers.
But Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit makes no effort to downplay the game's importance.
"It's a must-win, really, for many different reasons," said DeMerit on Saturday after practice. "One because of where we are in the league and our playoff aspirations. And then secondly just because it's a Cascadia Cup game and it gives ourselves a chance to go and still win some silverware this year."
The Whitecaps (11-11-8) are looking to make amends for a humiliating 1-0 home loss to a Real Salt Lake team that, essentially, fielded a reserve team last weekend. Vancouver sits four points out of the Western Conference's fifth playoff spot, behind the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Cascadia Cup is a fan-founded, in-season competition between Vancouver, Portland and Seattle that holds meaning with players and supporters but pales in comparison to the MLS title. The Timbers (12-5-13), led by Canadian national team captain Will Johnson of Toronto, pose a tough test as they draw near to their first post-season berth since entering MLS with Vancouver in 2011.
"Everyone knows how important this game is," said DeMerit. "Now, it's just about making sure we prove that instead of saying it."
The Whitecaps, 3-6-2 in their past 11 games, are fighting for their playoff lives after it appeared earlier in the season, during a 7-1-2 run, that a post-season berth was all but assured. But they are now making a late run like they did last year when they squeaked into the post-season on the last day of the regular campaign.
The club has faced considerable criticism over the past week, but DeMerit, who returned to starting duty recently after missing most of the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the first game, made no effort to bash Vancouver's critics.
"I would have to agree," he said. "It's fairly plain to see that things didn't go as well as we wanted them to do the other day (against Real Salt Lake.) We didn't come out, and we readily admitted that these types of performances at this time of the season aren't good — and aren't acceptable.
"So it's about us as a team to take ownership of that and make sure that we're responsible for our performances. The good thing about this sport is that games come thick and fast. The next game is always a chance to prove yourself the other way."
DeMerit said Vancouver players need to make sure they are "energized for their performances." Skill, will, tactics and personnel — which have also been questioned this week — all "fall into line" when they are together, he added, but the Whitecaps must make sure they show come out and give a committed performance to the club and to each other.
"When you come out, sometimes you might get passes wrong; sometimes you might miss a shot," he said. "But when you don't have the commitment or the energy as a foundation to build off, then you find yourself in trouble. I think that was the main thing about our performance this past week. We just didn't come out with any energy.
"We didn't look like a team that wanted it. Any team at this time of the season that has aspirations of playoffs needs to at least want it first. Right now, it's just about making sure we come out with the right attitude (Sunday.)
Some more offensive sizzle would also help after the Caps rarely showed flair against Real Salt Lake. But opportunities could be lacking again with striker Kenny Miller questionable at best due to a groin injury.
Miller, who was sidelined last weekend, missed practice Saturday and only trained periodically during the week. Coach Martin Rennie said he had no update on Miller's status, declining to indicate whether the Scotsman would be in or out of the lineup.
Rennie said the club has responded well following its lost to Real Salt Lake.
"I feel confident," he said. "I think the guys have trained really well this week. They know it's an important game and everybody's really up for it. So I'm looking forward to it and I think the players are, too."
He said the team needs to make up for its effort against Real Salt Lake after earning an impressive road win against Montreal and a scoreless draw against San Jose, also on the road, in the two weeks prior.
"I just think that game we had a bad day, and sometimes that happens," he said. "And, I think the other team also played really well that day, so we need to make sure that we come out with a lot of energy. We must close down well from the front and get our defending done properly. We must be a lot more active and dangerous going forward."
Midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker has taken exception to suggestions that he criticized the coach last weekend by saying RSL plays the same system all the time. The implication was that the Whitecaps don't.
Reo-Coker, a former English Premier League standout, contended he was merely praising Salt Lake.
"I did the same thing (praise a good team) when I was in England when I played against Manchester United and Arsenal," he said, adding he did nothing wrong.
With four games left in the regular season, the Whitecaps, he contended, must get back to doing the things they were doing "before the day on the beach last week."
"It's the right game at the right time," he said. "It's a derby game. We know what it means to the fans and we know what it means to us as players to try and get in the playoffs for. … It's the right opponent for what we need."