By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Nov 17, 2021) US Soccer Players – Canadian soccer is all the rage these days. Canada is top of the Octagonal table after taking down Mexico in subfreezing temperatures in Edmonton’s so-called Iceteca on Tuesday. Even though Mexico had the history behind it, going to Canada was never going to be an easy thing. All El Tri had to do was to ask the Seattle Sounders.
Seattle went into the final day of the MLS season needing just a win at Vancouver to polish off what would have been a highly-successful campaign. Those points would give them the regular season title in the Western Conference and a coveted bye plus home-field advantage in the playoffs. Instead of an otherwise carefree trip up Interstate 5 and across the border to Canada, the Sounders ran headfirst into a brick wall.
Despite going up a goal early, the host Whitecaps scrapped back, equalized, and held on for a valuable point. That sent Vancouver through to the postseason and doomed the Sounders to the 2nd-seed.
The Canadian national team hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere in Concacaf World Cup qualifying, but the Whitecaps did over the 2021 regular season. They’re no longer in a position to surprise anybody as the playoffs begin. Still, if the national team is any indication, the Caps will be a tough out during the playoffs. Facing them in a single-elimination game should prove trickier than expected.
Like the Canadian national team, Vancouver is quickly building up a strong reputation and should carry optimism into the postseason. It’s a “why not us” atmosphere in Canadian soccer, and that also applies to the one team in the MLS playoffs. Little more than a pushover since joining MLS in 2011, the club looks poised to take the next step toward respectability. That such a transformation is taking place in 2021 is nothing short of remarkable.
Pandemic regulations meant Canadian MLS teams couldn’t regularly cross the border. All three ended up needing to relocate to the United States to start the season, and it was Vancouver staying the longest.
Montreal and Toronto relocated to Florida, while Vancouver set up its home base in Salt Lake City. Playing games in empty stadiums again while the rest of the league welcomed fans back, first a few and then without restrictions, was difficult.
Vancouver started off okay, with a 2-1-1 record. Instead, by July, the club looked like yet another version of its previous incarnations. Vancouver was 2-7-3 heading into its July 17 match against the LA Galaxy. Trailing 1-0 at halftime, Deiber Caicedo equalized early in the second-half. Then, Cristian Dajome scored a late goal to give the Whitecaps a dramatic victory.
That match seemed to be a turning point for the club. With that win, the Whitecaps put together a 10-match unbeaten run, piling up 20 points in that stretch and clawing its way back into the playoff picture.
A return home helped give the team an even greater boost. Vancouver quietly put together an impressive 7-1-1 home record. Home wins, actual home games played at BC Place against Minnesota, LAFC, and San Jose helped Vancouver find its footing in the playoff race and keep pace with those clubs. Vancouver ultimately made the postseason, while LAFC and San Jose did not. That first win over the Galaxy helped decide which of the two teams reached the postseason. The Whitecaps finished 6th in the Western Conference with 49 points. The Galaxy finished in 8th-place on 48 points and out of the playoffs.
Vancouver used strong production from Dajome and Brian White up top for goals. White was wasting away with the New York Red Bulls with just one assist in five games before Vancouver dealt for him this spring. White had scored 15 goals in three previous seasons with the Red Bulls but hit the ground running with the Whitecaps. He scored a goal on his debut with Vancouver but really hit his stride when the ‘Caps returned home. White scored 11 goals in the last 17 games, a pace that would have put him near the league lead in goals had he hit at that rate throughout the season.
The Whitecaps also went through a coaching change, parting ways with Marc dos Santos in late August. Under interim coach Vanni Sartini, Vancouver has been an impressive 7-2-5. Now it’s an away date at Sporting Kansas City, the other Western Conference challenger wondering why it didn’t finish top of the table.
Sporting KC finished the season with a 9-3-5 home record and led the Western Conference in goals scored with 58. They also beat the Whitecaps 3-0 in their only visit to Children’s Mercy Park this year.
Things change and quickly. All of a sudden, it’s Vancouver potentially picking up on the rush of optimism felt across Canadian soccer. A big week could continue with an unlikely road win from the team carrying the flag at club level.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Logo courtesy of the Vancouver Whitecaps