VANCOUVER - After two straight years of late-season swoons, the Vancouver Whitecaps are scrambling to avoid another slide down the standings in 2014.
They will need a big effort against one of the top teams in Major League Soccer to get back on track.
Coming off a gut-wrenching 3-0 home loss to the Portland Timbers last weekend, Vancouver (7-6-12) hosts Eastern Conference leaders D.C. United (14-8-4) on Saturday at B.C. Place Stadium.
The Whitecaps have just one win in their last nine (1-3-5) and have been shut out in three straight games, leaving them one point back of Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.
It's not unfamiliar territory for a side that endured similar slumps after bright beginnings in both 2012 and 2013. The Whitecaps recovered in time to make the playoffs two years ago, but last season's collapse doomed their chances.
With just nine contests remaining in the regular season — including a game in hand on the Timbers — they know the clock is ticking.
"We're in the midst of a run where we're not winning enough games," said Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson, an assistant with Vancouver the last two seasons before getting the top job in December. "I think it's with all clubs, you go through a tricky period. Our tricky period is right now at the moment.
"We've got to try and bounce back out of that tricky period and try and get a win on the board."
Bouncing back will mean rediscovering a goal-scoring touch that has been sorely lacking after Vancouver filled the net earlier in the season.
All told, the Whitecaps have been held off the scoresheet in four of their last five games, with the only two goals coming in a 2-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 10.
Most of the blame has fallen to the men up front, a trio of young strikers with a wealth of talent who have failed to find the mark for long stretches.
Darren Mattocks has six goals on the year, but the 24-year-old hasn't scored in the last three games after a stretch of four goals in five. As for the other two main options, 23-year-old Erik Hurtado is goal-less since June 7, while 19-year-old Kekuta Manneh has failed to get a breakthrough since May 3.
Meanwhile, influential midfielder Pedro Morales leads Vancouver with seven goals, but five of those have come from the penalty spot, and he hasn't scored since a 2-2 tie with FC Dallas on July 27, a span of five games.
Despite the glaring lack of finish, Manneh said the Whitecaps are playing the right way and need to stay the course.
"I feel like we've been really unlucky. We've had a lot of chances during the games," he said. "We just need a little bit of luck on our side — just get one goal and I think everything will be fine.
"We have to stay together as a team and as a family and try to figure out a way to break that."
Robinson said he believes in his baby-faced strikers, and that having patience with them will benefit the club now and in the future.
"We've got some fantastic young talent here, but with young talent you have ups and downs and I think that's what we're seeing at the moment," said the Welshman. "I've got the utmost faith in all of them, I really have. Hopefully one or two of them might catch fire and get us to where we need to get to."
Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted — who has seven clean sheets on the year, including four 0-0 ties — said the lack of firepower up front has been frustrating for everyone.
"I've said it before: I've got confidence in the guys we have up front, and I still do," he said. "I think it's about the little details still, putting them in in practice and keep working on it. If we do that, I believe the goals will come."
Whitecaps defender Jordan Harvey said the rest of the team remains confident the strike force will start to bury some chances.
"We just need to get more consistency out of these young guys," said Harvey. "At this point in the season, they need to step up. In the back, we need to get clean sheets. Everybody needs to step up."
D.C. is 4-1-0 over its last five and enters the weekend four points up on Kansas City atop the East standings, but will be without midfielder Chris Rolfe, who broke his forearm in training on Wednesday and will be gone six weeks.
The eight-year MLS veteran has six goals and six assists in 21 games with United since being acquired from the Chicago Fire in April, but D.C. still has plenty of options going forward, including Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, who have combined for 17 goals.
"They're coming in hot. They've been playing really well," said Harvey. "They're going to be a tough team, but we're at home and obviously after last week we're going to have to do something different, raise the energy, but I'm confident we can do that."
Robinson said he expects his team will have to match United's physicality, but added he wants the Whitecaps to get back to the free-flowing style that had them scoring buckets of goals earlier this season.
"We've got to go play with a freedom. We didn't play with a freedom against Portland," he said. "I think we played with a tenseness about us and that's not what I'm about and that's not what my players are about."
There has been a lot of chatter about what formation the Whitecaps will use this week after the 4-2-3-1 fell flat against the Timbers. Robinson could go for a diamond midfield in a 4-4-2 against D.C., but Ousted said what really needs to change is the effort level.
"It's about heart. I think that showed in the Portland game that we weren't there," he said. "We didn't have our heart in that one. We need to bring our heart when we pull that jersey over our head Saturday.
"We might get beaten by a better team — I can live with that. I can't live with not putting in a performance that we can be proud of."