VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps head into Sunday's final Major League Soccer regular-season game with a chance to chart a new playoff course.
A loss could send them down a road they have unsuccessfully travelled before.
A positive result against the Houston Dynamo at BC Place Stadium means Vancouver can finish as high as second in the tightly contested Western Conference. That guarantees the Whitecaps their first home playoff game.
They also can slip as far down as sixth place and be forced to begin the playoffs in a one-game knockout match on the road.
"This is a first," goalkeeper David Ousted said Friday. "We knew it was going to be this tight.
"From second to sixth is a big swing."
Vancouver is third in the West with 50 points from a 15-13-5 record. The defending MLS champion L.A. Galaxy are second with 51 points (14-10-9). FC Dallas leads the conference with 57 points (17-10-6).
A win over Houston would secure Vancouver a top-four spot. To finish second, and get a first-round bye, the Whitecaps need a win or a tie. They also need help from Sporting Kansas City, who hosts L.A., and have Portland (14-11-8, 50 points) and Seattle (14-13-6, 48 points) lose.
"Right now we are trying to hope for that second place," said defender Jordan Harvey. "I know there are other results that have to happen for that, but it's within our grasp.
"We are in the playoffs, which is a huge accomplishment. Now it's about seeding right and doing the right thing."
Six teams from each of the two MLS conferences reach the playoffs.
The first round has the third-seeded team hosting the sixth seed while the fourth seed hosts the fifth in a single match to determine the conference semifinalists. The conference semifinals and finals are two-game aggregate series.
The MLS final is a single game.
The Whitecaps have made the playoffs twice in franchise history. Both times they were forced to play on the road in one-game knockouts, losing 2-1 to L.A. in 2012 and 2-1 to Dallas last year.
The Whitecaps had a 7-7-3 road record this year, which gives them confidence even if they have to start the playoffs away from BC Place.
"You want to play at home," said Harvey. "In the past we haven't been as good on the road as we have been this season.
"Because of this season, if we did (need a road win) we would go into it with a lot of confidence."
The Whitecaps received some good news Friday with midfielders Cristian Techera, Mauro Rosales and Nicolas Mezquida all training.
Injuries crippled the team late in the season. Vancouver was 1-2-3 during the final six games and outscored 8-4.
"Down the stretch, I wouldn't say we were falling apart but we got nicks here and there," said Harvey. "Guys are recovering. At this stage of the season that is huge.
"We just need to bring this energy into this last game."
The Dynamo (11-13-9 for 42 points) have been eliminated from the playoffs, but Ousted warned the Whitecaps can't take them lightly.
"We need to go into that game with calmness in our mind and knowing what we need to do," he said. "It won't help us if we just go gung-ho and try to kill this Houston team in the first 10 minutes.
"I don't think they will go down that easy."
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press