VANCOUVER - Carl Robinson's message was clear enough: Respect your opponents, but don't fear them.
Even though the Vancouver Whitecaps (5-2-5) will be playing in a hostile environment at PPL Park, the team will carry a swagger into its Major League Soccer road game Saturday against the Philadelphia Union (3-7-5).
"No game is easy," Robinson said earlier this week after the Whitecaps practised at the University of British Columbia. "There is no fear on this squad because they are playing well.
"We will make them aware of how good Philadelphia are, because they are a good team. They haven't picked up the results they probably want recently. .... But my players will never play with fear as long as I'm here. It's important they go out and enjoy themselves. If they enjoy themselves they express themselves. If they express themselves, we play with a freedom and I think you can see an excitement in their football."
The Whitecaps looked to be enjoying themselves in their final practice before leaving for Philadelphia. Several players engaged in a water fight which ended with English midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker emptying a cooler of ice water on Ghanian midfielder Gershon Koffie. Robinson looked on with a smile.
The Whitecaps have earned the right to feel good about themselves. Their record gives them 20 points, good enough for fourth place in the Western Conference. Vancouver is coming off a 4-3 road victory over the Portland Timber last weekend, the first time the Whitecaps have beaten their Cascadia rivals in MLS play.
Vancouver is unbeaten in six MLS games (3-0-3). The Whitecaps have scored 14 goals during that span, and only once managed fewer than two in a game. Vancouver also has two wins and a tie in their last three road games.
While things are good, they could be better. The Whitecaps were up 4-1 against Portland but had to hold onto the victory. Vancouver has also allowed 11 goals over the last six games.
"I think we can go to another level," said Robinson. "We have to tidy up a few things (defensively). We have to make sure we get back to basics on that and we will, without losing our attacking edge."
The Union have struggled this season. They sit eighth in the Eastern Conference with 14 points but snapped a two-game losing skid with a 3-0 win over Chivas USA last weekend.
Sebastien Le Toux, the French forward who has missed the last two Philadelphia matches with an injury, believes the team can still turn its season around.
"I think it's important to stay positive and keep working hard all the time," Le Toux, who could be in the lineup against Vancouver, told the Union website. "We haven't had the type of start we were hoping for.
"We just need to keep working and get this going in a good direction. We need to work as hard as we possibly can. We just have to find ways to do it on the field. I know we have the guys in here who can do it and we have be determined."
One of the Whitecaps enjoying a breakout season is Erik Hurtado. The 23-year-old midfielder/forward scored once against Portland and drew a foul to set up another goal on a penalty kick. He also has scored a goal in the last four of Vancouver's games.
Drafted fifth overall in last year's MLS SuperDraft, the native of Fredericksburg, Va., struggled during his rookie season. He had speed to burn but sometimes looked like an unguided missile. He also had a heavy second touch on the ball.
This year Hurtado's play is more directed. He's able to get open and can feather passes to his teammates.
"I'm more mature as a player," Hurtado said. "I've learned in the centre-forward role how to move off the ball, how to get the ball in good places with space to turn, how to play off the defender's back, what runs to make."
Whitecaps' captain Jay DeMerit said Hurtado's game is evolving.
"Everyone has seen his raw talent over the last year," said DeMerit. "Now he's staring to rein that in a little bit more.
"He's starting to figure out what he's good at and what he can hurt defenders with. When he was able to figure that out, and control his game a little bit more, he's consistently got better."
The game against the Union will be the Whitecaps last before the MLS breaks for the World Cup in Brazil. It will also be Vancouver's third road match in four games.
DeMerit expects a physical match.
"They are a fairly big team," he said. "You might have to do some set pieces and make sure we are tight there.
"It's a long way from home so we have to make sure we are up and ready for it and start the game right. A lot of times in these away games . . . sometimes you start a little flat. I think for us it's about making sure that doesn't happen, make sure we are ready from the whistle to do combat in our style of game. When we've been able to do that, home or away, we have seemed to get the right results, so that has to continue."