VANCOUVER — Jordan Harvey remembers the tough times.
Acquired by the Vancouver Whitecaps during their inaugural 2011 campaign in Major League Soccer, the veteran defender was a part of teams that usually had to battle just for a chance at the playoffs. Sometimes the made it, sometimes they didn't.
The route to the post-season doesn't look like it will be a problem in 2015.
The Whitecaps sit atop the Western Conference heading into their home date with Real Salt Lake on Saturday, an unfamiliar position for the club but one Harvey is thoroughly enjoying.
"In the past we'd go on lulls or bad points in the season and we'd try to change things up," said the 31-year-old. "The thing that's happened this year is when we do lose we stay the course. That's been a huge thing for us — consistency and staying the course and really believing."
The players might believe, but Vancouver has made few waves despite a 12-8-3 record. The Whitecaps don't have a superstar or play in a major U.S. market, but remain happy flying under the radar even after last weekend's stunning 3-0 road win over the Seattle Sounders.
"Throughout the years that I've been here we've always been the underdog," Harvey said. "You may not see it in the papers, but we know what we have in this locker-room and that's what's most important."
Vancouver has endured summer struggles in the past, and Harvey said nothing is being taken for granted with just seven points separating first from sixth in the conference.
"We have some really good personalities in here," he said. "I don't think it's an issue at all when you talk about this locker-room."
Salt Lake (7-8-8) enters the weekend in an unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in for the playoffs. A perennial contender, Real sits three points adrift of a playoff spot, and the Whitecaps can push them 13 back of top spot with a victory on Saturday.
"It's tough to finish off anybody in this conference," said Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted. "There's definitely going to be a big gap if we win it and we're going to try and have that killer instinct."
Salt Lake dealt the Whitecaps' playoff hopes a critical blow in the same fixture back in September 2013, and Vancouver would like nothing more than to return the favour.
"Those are the ones you remember," Harvey said of that 1-0 loss. "You always remember the tough losses and that was one of them. It keeps you grounded, but it keeps you motivated as well."
Vancouver and Salt Lake are both coming off mid-week CONCACAF Champions League matches where the teams took very different approaches. The Whitecaps went with a completely altered starting 11 from the one that defeated the Sounders over the weekend when the teams met up again for a 1-1 draw in Vancouver on Wednesday, while Real played most of its first team in a 1-0 road victory over a Guatemalan opponent.
Ousted said he hopes his team can get on the front foot early on Saturday to see how the visitors deal with pressure after travelling to and from Central America.
"We're going to try and be at it from the very first minute. We were in Seattle. The energy levels were fantastic ... we need to find that balance of going at them, but also being smart. This is a team coming in that can still hurt us."
The Whitecaps worrying about a team sneaking up on them is quite a change from the past, and one they could get used to.
Notes: Vancouver announced the acquisition of Costa Rican defender Jordan Smith on loan through the end of the year from Deportivo Saprissa on Friday, pending the receipt of the necessary paperwork. The club has the option to extend the loan or buy the 24-year-old outright. ... The Whitecaps also announced that striker Erik Hurtado will join Norwegian side Mjondalen IF on loan through the end of 2015.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press