VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps aren't mathematically in must-win territory — it's just starting to feel that way.
With five games to go in Major League Soccer's regular season, the club sits two points behind the Portland Timbers for the final Western Conference playoff spot after a demoralizing 3-0 road loss to their Pacific Northwest rivals last weekend.
The Whitecaps have slid down the standings in dramatic fashion thanks to a stretch of just three wins in their last 17 games. Heading into Saturday's matchup with Real Salt Lake, they know time is starting to run out on a season that began with such promise.
"The last month, month and a half have been must wins and we've let ourselves down," said defender Jordan Harvey. "We have to go back to fundamentals, go back to what we're good at — at home in particular — and get three points."
Apart from Vancouver's eye-popping run of form since June, the Whitecaps have scored just two goals from open play in their last nine games, a well-documented trend that must be reversed.
"What we've been talking about this whole week is getting the intensity back — that hunger, that desire — to go and play and to give (your) best effort," said Canadian midfielder Russell Teibert. "We can't say that we're going to win, but we can say that we're going to be the hardest working team on that day."
The Timbers play an early start at Toronto FC on Saturday so the Whitecaps should know where they stand by the time their game kicks off at 4 p.m. local time.
"Maybe (Toronto striker Jermain) Defoe's back and he can bang in four goals," quipped Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson, who played three seasons at TFC.
But the Welshman added the result at BMO Field won't matter much if the Whitecaps (8-8-13) don't keep up their end of the bargain against Real Salt Lake (13-6-10), which is 10 points ahead of Vancouver in the West.
"Listen, we've got to take care of our own business. We didn't take care of our own business (last week) because we weren't at the levels we need to be," said Robinson. "They get bigger and bigger as you get into the final few games of the season. There's no room for error at all now. Against Portland we were disappointed with the performance, as well as the result.
"We can't be disappointed Saturday because it's a game we need to win."
The lack of goals from Vancouver's young strikers — namely Darren Mattocks, Erik Hurtado, Kekuta Manneh and Sebastian Fernandez — has been compounded by the fact that the Whitecaps seem to sag when they're scored against, as was the case last weekend.
"You can't always score the first goal. I think when we do we're a different team, but if we concede we've got to have strong mental characters," said Robinson, in first season at the helm. "Even though we're a young group, it doesn't matter.
"We've got to deal with disappointment better. We haven't done that enough this year. It's been mentioned a couple of times in the meetings we've had that we need to deal with it."
Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted said given the situation, his team must play its remaining games as if the playoffs have already started.
"We need to get into that mentality. At home against a good team, we need to see if we can grind out a win," said Ousted. "We all got together and we know what has to happen these next five games. It's upping the intensity, upping the discipline, (and) doing all the little things right."
The Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake have played to a pair of hard-fought draws in Utah this season and Teibert said Saturday's encounter shouldn't be any different.
"We have a great rivalry with this team and it's been growing each time that we've played against them," said the Niagara Falls, Ont., native. "I know they try to get in our heads and we're trying to get in theirs. It's going to be not only a physical battle, but a mental battle as well."
Real Salt Lake comes in needing a point to clinch a playoff spot and boasts a lineup that includes striker Joao Plata's 13 goals and a midfield anchored by veteran U.S. international Kyle Beckerman.
"They're obviously a quality team. They've shown that here in B.C. Place," said Harvey. "We have to be aware of their good players and their attacking threat. (But) at home, it's usually all about us. If we come with the right mentality, score early and play fluid ... I think we'll get three points."
Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar, who hinted this week he might not play all of his starters because of the artificial surface, expects the Whitecaps to come out flying in a game they need.
"They're not going to sit back," Cassar told his club's official website. "They need points. They're at home. They have to get three points. Vancouver doesn't sit back too much. Well, they tend to sit back a little bit, but their front three tend to stay a little bit higher.
"If we're organized as we're building up, I think we can shut that down."
If the visitors can manage that, the Whitecaps' playoff hopes will become even more tenuous.