As a player, coach and executive with nearly 40 years in the pro game on his resume, Bob Lenarduzzi has been through just about everything, yet even he's got full-tilt butterflies as he awaits a crucial home game Wednesday night against Chivas USA.
"There's nothing like playing, which is why as a player you should enjoy every moment you can never get back that same feeling," said the Vancouver Whitecaps team president and former Canadian international. "But games like this, when there's so much riding on it, yes, I do get extremely nervous."
The Whitecaps, one of two expansion teams to enter MLS last season, seemed certain to secure a playoff spot two months ago. But seven games without a win enabled FC Dallas to close the gap, and fifth-place Vancouver leads FCD by just two points in their duel to secure the final spot allotted to the fifth-place Western Conference finisher.
A game against lowly, last-place Chivas USA would seem to be ideal, yet in the final few weeks of the regular season Dallas plays Chivas USA not once but twice -- at Home Depot Center Sunday and in its home stadium Oct. 28, the last day of the season -- while the 'Caps final two games are against Cascadia Cup rival Portland Oct. 21 and at Real Salt Lake Oct. 27.
The 'Caps have squandered points in their last three games: a last-minute 1-0 loss in Dallas, a 2-2 tie with Colorado, and four days ago, a 0-0 tie with Seattle in which Camilo Sanvezzo fluffed a last-second chance from point-blank range. And to think with just a few minutes left in the Dallas game it seemed a referee's decision had granted Vancouver a 0-0 tie that would have represented a four-point swing.
"If you'll remember, we'd just dodged a bullet right before that," said Lenarduzzi of a spectacular Julian de Guzman strike that scored a stunning victory for FCD. "I saw [Blas] Perez's face after he'd scored and I thought, 'Oh, he doesn't look happy." Then I saw the offside flag was up and I thought we'd get out of there four points in front. And then De Guzman hits a shot he's never hit before in his life and probably never will again. But that's how it goes sometime.
"It's not just the Dallas game, though. Look at our two games since then.
"We're up 2-1 against Colorado and with five minutes left we give up the tying goal. And last week we have Camilo, who's probably our best pure striker of the ball, with a chance in the final seconds and somehow he puts it wide. But thanks to San Jose we still have two points on Dallas so we have to take advantage of this opportunity."
If the 'Caps beat Chivas USA Wednesday they would have a five-point lead, and could thus clinch a playoff spot by beating the Timbers in two weeks no matter what Dallas does. FCD does hold a significant lead in the first tiebreaker, goals scored, in case the teams finish the season tied on points. Significant shakeups -- the departure of Davide Chiumiento, the acquisition and subsequent trade of Sebastien Le Toux, the trade of Eric Hassli and signing of replacement DP Kenny Miller along with midfielder Barry Robson, lineup alterations including a change in goal and the shift of defender Alain Rochat to holding mid -- have been cited as causes for the team's sharp dip in form.
While not defending every move outright, Lenarduzzi points out the 'Caps -- who hired their third head coach, Martin Rennie, to take over for the 2012 season -- were still a work-in-progress as of the All-Star break, and continue to be so.
"By no means did we think our work was done in the middle of the season," says Lenarduzzi. "We made those all those moves to make our team better. Martin had a couple of players he wanted and we knew those players were coming in. However this season turns out, when it's done we'll look at our team again."
No extra incentive is needed, yet the 'Caps can attain a milestone of sorts. They've been shut out in their attempts to qualify for the Concacaf Champions League through the intra-Canadian playoffs, but can nail down the first Canadian MLS playoff spot.
Toronto FC has qualified for the CCL more than once yet is about to complete its sixth MLS season without a postseason appearance, and 2012 expansion entrant Montreal gave it a good run but was officially eliminated last week.
Lenarduzzi, who was born and grew up in Vancouver area, played his first pro season in 1974 for the NASL Whitecaps. He represented Canada 47 times, played in the 1986 World Cup, and later coached the national team. He's won titles as a coach and executive in the minor leagues, and is on the brink of yet another accomplishment that triggers those same feelings of excitement and trepidation he remembers as a player. He's 57 but on days like this he's just as anxious.
"You stay in the game as long as I have and you go through every imaginable situation," he says. "And these games, where you're expected to win and you also have to win, well, there's nothing like it. But at least we know it's up to us."