Whitecaps emerge as a title contender, but team focuses on improvement

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Whitecaps emerge as a title contender, but team focuses on improvement -

LISTEN: Football scores in soccer? Atlanta United are so comfy in Mercedez-Benz Stadium that they're putting up touchdowns. After a 7-0 win that has folks dreaming big, ATLUTD president Darren Eales (9:30) joins the guys to talk a history-making expansion season. After the break -- and a convo about that Alexi Lalas rant -- Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson (37:45) explains what has the 'Caps in first place. Subscribe now and "Like" our Facebook page so you never miss a show! Download this episode!

VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Whitecaps are top of the Western Conference. What's more, they are starting to look like a serious title contender.

For a team whose form has been inconsistent for much of the year, after starting the season with a rash of injuries to key players, the Whitecaps have made an almost stealthy climb to the summit. Wednesday night's comfortable 3-0 home win against Minnesota United saw the 'Caps move into first place in the West for the first time this season, extending their unbeaten run to five games in the process.

It's been quite the turnaround for the Whitecaps, who missed the playoffs last season for the first time in three years. But just what is it about this season's squad that makes them different to previous ones? What is it this Vancouver team has that others haven't?

"Quality," head coach Carl Robinson stated on Wednesday. "Unfortunately you can't turn around a team in one year. You'd like to, but too much change and you get criticized because there's no identity and no flow in the team or the club, so you've got to do it bit by bit and I've done it bit by bit. We've got quality players. And we've got men. 

"We've got the right balance now and when I talk about the younger players, my younger players are 23, 24, 25 but they've played a hundred-odd games. That's the difference this year we've got. There's still areas we need to improve. We still need to be better at certain things, but when they step across that white line, they give absolutely everything, as you saw today."

Their rise to the top may have gone largely unnoticed, but with a now solid defensive footing and an exciting counterattack, Vancouver may very well be the real deal this season. They're finding their best form at the right time, and if that No. 1 seeding in the West was unthinkable earlier in the season, it can't be ruled out now.

Much like the Whitecaps' ascent, Robinson has quietly gone about rebuilding his squad. There are 14 new faces on Vancouver's roster from the squad that finished 2016.

Getting to first in the West is one thing. Staying there, or at least getting a first-round bye in the playoffs, is another. Vancouver have shown their depth is strong, but they know consistency is their key now to maintaining their place at the top.

"The only way is winning," Whitecaps captain Kendall Waston told MLSsoccer.com after the match. "Now we just have to keep winning here at home, and when we go on the road, get a win or a draw and just not lose. That is our mentality and every day, we just enjoy it more and more. The difficult times that we had before help us to enjoy this happiness."

Said rookie right back Jake Nerwinski after the win: "It feels good. But we want to be there at the end of the season. It's good to be in first now but we've got seven games left, so in seven games we want to be in first. We'll be happy then." 

No one in Whitecaps colors wants to talk about being in first place right now. It's a mentality instilled into the squad by Robinson, who's been in the game long enough by now to know that there's still a lot of soccer to be played.

"I won't make much of it," Robinson said of being in first place. "We've just got to keep ticking along and winning games of football. That game's gone now ... I don't look at the table."