VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Whitecaps’ playoff chances appear to be on life support, and it may be 11 men in burgundy jerseys that finally pull the plug.
The Whitecaps most likely need to win all four of their remaining games and hope for an extraordinary set of results elsewhere to produce a great escape and earn a postseason berth. The first of those make or break matches comes against the Colorado Rapids at BC Place on Saturday (7 pm ET; TSN in Canada | MLS LIVE in US).
Vancouver couldn't really have asked for a worse scenario: The league-leading Rapids defense taking on a Whitecaps side that has been kept off the scoresheet in seven of their last nine MLS matches. But head coach Carl Robinson isn’t giving up his playoff aspirations just yet, and if they can't climb the huge mountain ahead of them, then he's happy for his team to play spoilers for some others.
"Stranger things happen in football," Robinson told reporters at training this week. "I believe we still have a chance. I'm sure you guys [the media] don't. That's the way it works. I'll keep preaching to the players until it's mathematically impossible. We won't be giving in.
"At the moment, one game is what we're going for. It's out of our hands. Whether we can get there or not, we don't know, but we can certainly stop other teams getting there."
Realistically, Vancouver’s season is most likely over, while Colorado still have a lot to play for, and the turnaround in fortunes between the two sides this season has been immense.
Vancouver finished second in the West last year, while Colorado missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Pablo Mastroeni has turned the Rapids’ fortunes completely around, a fact which earned plaudits from Robinson.
"Pablo's done a great job this year," acknowledged Robinson. "For two years he was marooned at the bottom of the table, but he kept going. He found a balance of players that he wanted and credit to him and to the organization because they managed to instill a little bit of hunger within the team and it's a never-say-die attitude.
"We need to get back to that as well. We've done it at times this year in certain games, but we haven't been consistent enough. Pablo deserves a lot of credit, as does Jeff [Cassar] at Salt Lake. Two teams who missed out last year and who are firmly in the playoffs this year."
Robinson is also drawing inspiration from what Mastroeni has achieved this year with Colorado for the task facing him in Vancouver next season.
A Whitecaps clear-out is expected in the offseason, with a rebuild to follow, and the ‘Caps coach feels it doesn’t take much to turn things around in MLS if the correct additions are made.
"Without a doubt," Robinson said. "The league is based upon parity. In the East, in the West this year, you look and there's a number of teams that weren't in the playoffs last year that are probably going to get to the playoffs this season.
"That's credit to them, but they've made changes. That is something we will need to look at and is something that we will have to address."
And Robinson also made it crystal clear where he sees those changes lying if he is to bring playoff soccer back to Vancouver next season, sending a message to his squad in the process.
"We need to get the hunger back in the squad," Robinson stated firmly. "We need to get players that want to be at the football club, which is important. But we need leaders. I've said all along that the one thing we've lacked this year is someone to put the ball in the back of the net and leadership.
"Not when things are going well, but when things are going badly. That's when you find out about your players. I've learned a hell of a lot about players this year, which will do them the world of good next year. But also we'll need to make some changes in key areas."