VANCOUVER, B.C. – Season run-ins are when you learn a lot about the character of teams. Who will step up when the chips are down and the going gets tough?
For the Vancouver Whitecaps, that means the attention turns to veteran leaders like their Chilean captain Pedro Morales. But much like the 'Caps as a whole, it's been something of an up-and-down, and no doubt frustrating, season for the influential playmaker.
Morales leads the 'Caps in both goals and assists this season, no less than you'd expect from the team's star Designated Player and creative focal point. The trouble for Vancouver is that he has only six of each.
"You think the team [does] not play good?" Morales asked MLSsoccer.com when asked about the team's form at training this week. "I don't think so. I think the team last week play good. Unfortunately we did not take the chances to score goals.
"We have to concentrate more all game, [especially] at set pieces. But more important now is to stick together, work together in training, work hard and we'll see in the next game against Kansas City and then Kansas City again here in CONCACAF [Champions League]."
Morales may feel the Whitecaps have been playing well, but results, form and stats suggest otherwise.
Vancouver have just two wins in their last 12 MLS matches, and one solitary goal in their last four games. That came in stoppage time in Friday night's 2-1 home loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, with the only positive from it being that it snapped a goal drought that had gone over the 400-minute mark.
Now Vancouver make a crucial trip to Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night (10 pm ET; TSN1 in Canada, MLS LIVE in US). For all their recent woes, the Whitecaps still only sit two points back of a playoff place, and five points behind fifth-place Sporting with a game in hand.
So all is certainly not lost. But it does raise the magnitude of this weekend's clash, though Morales doesn't feel it adds pressure on Vancouver to take something from the match.
"I don't think so," he said. "In football, you [should] not have to feel pressure, just enjoy. Every weekend, every day, to play, for training, it's no pressure. Again, we have to work hard and stick together at training and prepare better for the next game."
Vancouver need to get their offense clicking quickly for their remaining nine games of the regular season if they are to make a late run for a postseason berth.
When you think of the Whitecaps attack, the two names that instantly spring to mind are Morales and Kekuta Manneh. The latter is injured, with no firm return date, and Morales hasn't scored in his last 10 matches.
Morales has found himself in a multitude of positions in recent games, from his usual playmaking role to deep-lying defensive mid and even a spell out on the left wing. That may have surprised some onlookers, but 'Caps coach Carl Robinson explained his thinking behind those decisions.
"I want my good players on the field," Robinson said. "That's a job of a manager, to fit his best players, who are in form at the time, on the field all at once. I don't get caught up in formations and positions, as I've said to you numerous times.
"Whether Pedro plays as a [No.] 10, or a 6 or an 8, or whether we play in a 4-4-2 and he plays 11 or 7, it doesn't really matter. You want your good players on the field and Pedro is certainly one of our top, top players."
After a stellar first season in MLS with 10 goals and 12 assists that earned him Newcomer of the Year honors in 2014, Morales struggled at times last year, with injury forcing him to miss a third of the season.
The Whitecaps believe that playing him deeper in midfield, giving him an almost free role on the park at times, may be the way to unlock him once more. It's a position the Chilean is enjoying, but he feels he can thrive anywhere with the team.
"For me, I'm very happy when I play No. 10, but also when I play deeper," Morales explained. "When I play deeper I feel very, very good with the ball. I feel I have more touches with the ball, more possession. It's the decision of the coach. If I play No. 10, or deep, or the left, for me it's no problem. I feel very good."
There was a lot of talk about belief at Whitecaps training this week. It's a quality that seems to evaporate quickly during matches, especially when they fall behind. So for all the talk of character, is the confidence there right now within the squad?
"From the results, the guys, the team, maybe have lost their confidence," Morales admitted. "But I think we have many, many important games [to come] – against Kansas, LA away, Red Bulls, San Jose away, Seattle, Portland. It's big games coming up.
"We have to, with our mentality, [go into] every single game like it is like a cup final. You have to run, with no pressure when you play. You have to train hard and if you're training hard, in the games it's more easy to play."