Whitecaps eager to avenge slow start to playoffs in front of big BC Place crowd: "We've got a clean slate now"
Sometimes, it’s important to have a short memory in this sport.
The Vancouver Whitecaps will look to put that into practice this weekend, as they get set to host LAFC in game #2 of their best-of-three opening-round MLS Cup playoffs series.
After a frustrating 5-2 loss on the road in game #1, the Whitecaps will need to quickly put that behind them, as they get set for their rematch against LA.
Thanks to this new best-of-three format, where the first team to win two games will advance, the Whitecaps have a fresh slate heading into this second game, which they wouldn’t have had if this series was played with more of a traditional home-and-away aggregate format, something MLS used to employ.
Because of that, any sort of win (or even a draw and a win on penalties) will put the Whitecaps back at square one heading into game three, while a loss (or draw and loss on penalties) will send them home.
Safe to say, it’s upped the stakes significantly for them, as they now enter do-or-die territory.
“When you look at the first game, obviously we lost, and we’d love to have it back, but it's done and dusted,” Whitecaps defender, Richie Laryea, told OneSoccer this week. “We’ve got a clean slate now to play, it’s a do-or-die moment, we're at home and we're strong at home, and I think this format helps us here, because on aggregate that 5-2 loss would have been a tough climb to come back from, especially having to score as many goals as we would’ve had to score, so now we’ve got a clean slate, we’ve just got to win.”
If the Whitecaps are to harbour any chance at a turnaround, however, they’ll have some things to clean up from that aforementioned road loss in LA.
Overall, it wasn’t a terrible performance from Vancouver, as they’ll be pleased that they were able to score two goals on the road, were able to battle back from trailing on two different occasions, and only allowed 1.3 xG on 18 LAFC shots.
At the same time, they were far too sloppy in key moments, especially defensively, as was seen by the five goals, four of which came off set-pieces.
Of course, that’s a credit to LA, who are one of the best offensive teams in the league for a reason, but part of that was due to Vancouver’s sloppiness at the back, as they made some key mistakes at the wrong moments.
And that’s the difference in the playoffs, as you can play the best game ever, but if you don’t manage your moments, good teams will punish you for that.
“It’s obvious to say, but when you play in the playoffs, you play against very good teams, because if not, they wouldn't be in the playoffs,” Sartini told OneSoccer. “ So you cannot allow yourself to make mistakes, we’ve got to follow the tactical plan, follow our principles, and be in tune with what we did for the entire season. We must do the “basics” right, as that will give us 5 or 10% more of what is needed in a playoff game. We’ve got to be the best version of the Whitecaps.”
“For example, we can’t mark the man instead of the space in some situations, because that's what not we do, so we have to follow the plan tactically, and if we do this, then we’ll have a chance, because then we can add that it's a playoff game, so maybe Ryan Gauld is going to step up and make some magic, Pedro Vite is going to make some magic, Triston Blackmon and Ranko Veselinvoic are going to make tackles, and Yohei Takaoka’s going to make saves, but if we don’t do the basics right, even our best intentions aren’t going to be useful.”
Yet, that’s also the difference in experience between a team like Vancouver and LA, who are still the defending MLS Cup champions, even if they haven’t been at their best this season.
This is a team loaded with experience, and that can be key in these playoff games, helping them manage the ups and downs that can come with those sorts of moments.
You compare that to the Whitecaps, who have only won one playoff game in their history, which came back in 2017, and that’s a stark difference, and it showed in that opening game.
Despite that lack of experience as a club, however, it’s worth noting that this Vancouver team does have some experienced individuals within their ranks, which they’ll need to tap into now.
Sam Adekugbe won a Turkish Süper Lig title earlier this year with Galatasaray, Yohei Takaoka has a J-League title to his name, Ryan Gauld has won a Taça De Portugal, Andrés Cubas has won a pair of Argentine titles, and Junior Hoilett has won a Championship title.
Then, within MLS, Triston Blackmon has won a Supporters Shield (with this same LAFC team back in 2019, while Laryea has made it to an MLS Cup final, and won the Championship playoffs in 2022.
In a game like this, that can all help, especially when factoring in the ‘Caps' recent back-to-back Canadian Championship wins, which can all only help in Laryea’s eyes.
“It’s positive to have guys with experience, you're able to let the younger guys know how important it is to play in matches like this,” he explained. “This is why we play football. This is why we're here. We didn't come just to make the playoffs, we want to be able to contend for things, so this is a big moment for us to win a game and extend it to three three-game series.”
“That experience comes into play when it comes into managing how to be up, but also managing if you're down, seeing how to get back into the game, your penalties, and whatever else it might look like. I think that experience is big, and I'm grateful to have had to have played a decent amount of playoff games. We have guys that have played in other huge matches, World Cups, European games and more that will all come into play.”
Plus, while this LAFC team might seem intimidating given that they won both the MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield last year, just the third team since 2010 to complete that double, this Whitecaps side is quite familiar with them, too.
Seeing that their game last week against them was their fifth meeting against them this season, they’ve certainly gotten quite familiar with this LAFC team this season.
So while their record against them has been mixed, as LA has won three of the meetings, with the Whitecaps winning one other and tying the last one, they feel that can help take away some of the intimidation factor that might typically be there with a team like this.
Especially given that they’ve felt they played them pretty well across those games, they’ll look to use that familiarity to their advantage, giving them the ability to focus on themselves instead of getting too caught up in what LA might do.
“Yeah, it’s true, we don’t have to think ‘Oh, Chiellini does this, and Bouanga does this,’, no, let’s do our thing,” Sartini said. “Of course, we have the information that we have on the opposition, and that’s always useful, but if you’re going to use that information, you have to use it to affect your behaviour, and to affect your behaviour, you need to concentrate on yourself. So we will need to concentrate on ourselves, and we need to be on top of our game, because if not, the opposition goes into our head, and that’s not a good thing.”
Plus, on the Whitecaps end, they’ll have plenty of fuel to help them chase this victory, too.
Even beyond their motivation to level up the scores from game one, there’s also the fact that this is just the club’s fourth home playoff game in their MLS history, as they haven’t been able to play many games like this over the past decade or so.
And the fans have recognized that, as the ticket interest for this match has been quite high, with the club already opening the upper deck at BC Place to match that interest, something they’ve never done in their MLS era.
Because of that, a crowd of 28,000+ is possible in this game, which would be a huge boost for the team, making up for a season where they’ve averaged some of their lowest-ever attendance, despite having one of their strongest teams.
#VWFC announced today that for the 1st time in their MLS era (and 1st since David Beckham+LA Galaxy visited before that), they’ll open the upper bowl at BC Place on Sunday for their playoff clash vs LAFC— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) November 1, 2023
Looks like 30k+ is possible for just their 4th-ever home MLS playoff game
That’s not lost on the Whitecaps, either, as they know that this is an opportunity to bring back fans for the future if they win.
Of course, they dream of a day when these sorts of games and crowds are normal, but they know that it takes time to build that, but that it starts with a victory on Sunday.
It won’t be easy, but this is a chance for the Whitecaps to prove that they can indeed be a team that can compete for an MLS Cup, and a win in this game will only add to their growing credentials.
“Yeah, we’re feeling good,” Laryea finished. “I think we were hard done by the result in LA, I don't think it was a 5-2 game, I thought we did well in a tough place, but now that we're coming home, I think everyone's looking forward to it. I think it will be a good game, opening the upper bowl shows the dedication from the fans as well for this type of match, so I think the team is feeling really good, and I know we want to assert ourselves on the front foot right from the start.”
“That would be fantastic,” Sartini said when asked about what a win would mean. “I think every time that you do something historical like winning in the playoffs, as it was done only once, or selling this many tickets that the BC Place Upper Bowl is open, which hasn’t been done before (since joining MLS), it's a moment of pride like for the people that work with you in the organization.”
“At the same time, it's an added responsibility, we know that. We know that we unfortunately don’t have the history of teams who go to the playoffs every year yet, so we still have a special flavour for these first-round playoff games, but we hope that we’re not going to have a special flavour anymore in a few years when we’re in the first round of the playoffs again. Until then, however, because it's still a special flavour, there are added responsibilities.”
“So let's try to win, we’ve already made that step to go from a team that nobody considered to a team that’s quite good, but let's now become a team that everyone can talk about as potential winners of the MLS Cup.”