Vancouver Whitecaps, Sporting Kansas City face a nervous Decision Day
A few weeks ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Sporting Kansas City were safe bets to snag the top two seeds (and the valuable first-round byes) in Major League Soccer's Western Conference. Each team was playing consistently well, at least by the standards of this ramshackle West, and each held bonus matches in their respective hands.
Ahead of Decision Day (whip-around coverage starting at 4 p.m. EST on Sunday on ESPN/WatchESPN), circumstances have shifted.
The 'Caps still technically top the table but anything other an outright win at rivals Portland will open the door for either the Timbers or the third-place Seattle Sounders (or both) to leapfrog them and move straight into the conference semis. Sporting's situation is more dire, needing victory at even-more-desperate Real Salt Lake or face the possibility of an away Knockout Round elimination game for a third straight year.
Vancouver is playing for legitimacy, to prove that they are more than just the beneficiary of a down year in the West. Kansas City wants to put a cherry top of an era that, for all of the consistent success and mostly minor trophies, still feels slightly unfulfilled for a group of veterans approaching the back ends of their primes.
It would be harsh on the Whitecaps to say that they've fallen off. A slow start to the season, in which influential Peruvian Yordy Reyna was out for months due to a foot injury, is more to blame on their currently precarious position than recent form. After all Vancouver has been one of the league's hottest teams since the Fourth of July, including a seven-match unbeaten run stretching through most of August and September.
With Reyna back in the fold, first-year designated player signing Fredy Montero leading the line with 13 goals and a robust back line that has allowed the third-fewest goals in the West, the Whitecaps are well-rounded and tough to break down.
"I'm very lucky. I've got a good bunch of guys who come to work hard every day in training," 'Caps coach Carl Robinson told ESPN FC. "I've been able to stretch a lot out of them... We don't have any superstars, not like some teams, but we've got a lot of depth."
The 'Caps are coming off a huge, glaring missed opportunity at home against the underwhelming Earthquakes last Sunday. A win would have locked up the No. 1 seed in the West but Vancouver missed a host of chances to put the game away and surrendered a one-goal lead late. Instead of celebrating a breakthrough in front of a triumphant home crowd at BC Place, they must now travel to one of the most intimidating venues in the league and emerge with all three points to ensure a bye.
"I think it shows how far Vancouver have come," said Robinson, unshakably cheery as always. "Was it disappointment last weekend against San Jose? Yes it was. But I look at that as a positive thing."
Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber was less rosy about the way his team have played recently. Sporting really have swooned down the stretch. SKC, of all teams, know the value of earning, at the very least, a home playoff game.
In each of the last two postseasons, they've lost on the road to the eventual MLS Cup champions. Those unpleasant memories kept them sharp when others slacked off during the dog days of spring and early summer. But all those banked points have been of little consolation during Kansas City's ongoing four-match win-less streak, including a home loss to Vancouver and a scoreless draw against Houston this past weekend despite firing off 27 shots.
"I think we're disappointed in some of the things that we haven't been able to accomplish," Feilhaber said. "It's really frustrating to have gotten two points out of the last four games. We probably could have won all four of them, to be honest."
Given Kansas City's veteran core (Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler) and a seemingly wide-open road to the league championship game, it remains fair to question the wisdom of trading last season's leading goal scorer, Dom Dwyer, to Orlando in late July. It's probably even more a pressing inquiry now given SKC's subsequent struggle to find the back of the net.
Feilhaber, for his part at least, suggests otherwise.
"Honestly, I don't think that's affecting it at all, to be completely honest with you," Feilhaber said. "Dom was great for us, but Dom missed his share of opportunities for us, too. It kind of comes and goes, but this has been our biggest problem throughout my five years here."
Kansas City have always been good defensively, he said -- this season they have the stingiest back line in the conference -- and have long been lauded for their collective mentality.
"We just need to be better in front of goal," Feilhaber said. "I don't know that there's any other way to put it."
Salt Lake aren't going to make it easy on them. These two teams have bad blood going back years. Most date the animus back to a preseason game that ended in an all-out brawl back in 2011, two years before Sporting bested RSL on penalty kicks to lift the MLS Cup.
"We're probably the biggest rival each other has, in terms of real rivalry instead of just created by distance from each other," Feilhaber said.
The type of rival, in other words, that is the last team you want to see lining up on the other side of the field in a must-win situation with precious seeding on the line. Both Kansas City and Vancouver had multiple chances to avoid such a scenario, but here they are, and Decision Day will be all the more intriguing for their profligacy.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.