The most intense playoff battles in the 20-year history of MLS are heating up, and thanks to scheduling, two of the major players will go head-to-head three times in the last two and a half months of the season.
Vancouver and FC Dallas, separated by four points in the Western Conference standings square off Saturday at B.C. Place in crunch game No. 1.
Second-place Vancouver (13-9-3, 42 points) trails the leading Galaxy by just one point and holds a game in hand over the two-time defending champion; FCD (11-7-5, 38 points) is fifth, three points clear of the playoff line. They are meeting for the first time since a tumultuous wild-card encounter last October, in which FCD prevailed, 2-1, on a controversial penalty kick whistled in the 84th minute.
Defender Kendall Waston was adjudged to have handled a ball struck at him from close range. ‘Caps head coach Carl Robinson could use that bitter ending to the season as motivation, but emotions will be running hot enough. Both teams want the same thing, aside from just getting into the playoffs: to avoid the dreaded wild-card round by finishing first or second. With the Galaxy in excellent form, Sporting Kansas City sporting the best points-per-game figure in the league, and Portland surging as well, every game among the teams is vital.
“No, last season's gone,” Robinson told reporters. “The players have changed. The coach is still here, thank god! You can look back at things like that but I don't. I look forward. Dallas have had a very good season under [head coach Oscar Pareja]. A very dangerous team. We're not too bad either, so it should be a good game of football.”
FCD is an original member of the league and thus has a 15-year head start on Vancouver, which moved up from USL to MLS in 2011. The Texas team also holds a 7-2-2 edge in the all-time series. Both head coaches played in the league though their backgrounds -- Pareja is Colombian, Robinson is Welsh -- are vastly different. Their cities are separated by an international border and about 1,765 miles, yet they are an excellent example of how a rivalry can be borne not of proximity but of familiarity. Each sees the other as a worthy opponent that can validate their quality and commitment to winning.
"There seems to be rivalries all over the place,” Robinson said. “Not just with us, but with every team. It’s competitive games of soccer. Us and Dallas, we like to go at each other. There's lots of action, there's lots of goals, there's a lot of close calls, good decisions, bad decisions, strange decisions. We just get on with it. We play them three times, so it's important we come out on the right end of the three results if we can."
Vancouver gets the homefield edge with two games of the series at B.C. Place. Games two and three are to be played on back-to-back weekends in October. Last year, the regular-season games were split down the middle: both teams won at home and there was also a 2-2 tie in Vancouver.
In its 20th season, FCD has just one appearance in the MLS Cup final, and that was a heartbreaking overtime loss to Colorado in 2010. Since then, FCD has gone through an extensive makeover engineered by Pareja after he took over from Schellas Hyndman prior to the 2014 season. Robinson is also in his second year in charge; Vancouver promoted him from assistant coach when it decided to jettison Martin Rennie. Reaching the championship game would be an excellent benchmark of progress in the second season of a new regime.
“Every game's going to be tough,” Robinson added. “We've got nine league games left. We want to be talking about big games at this club. It seems to be that every week will be the next biggest game. Well, good, we want to do that.
“I've been here for four years now, and we sort of say it sometimes and we don't sort of say it sometimes. Now, we're in reality. The next game is the biggest game, and we're playing a lot of Western Conference teams. All fighting, six, seven, eight teams fighting for places, so it's no different. It's exciting.”
The games should be full of intriguing parallels as well as contrasts.
Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver) and Fabian Castillo (FC Dallas) are fast and dangerous. Pedro Morales and Mauro Diaz, who is questionable because of a strained quadriceps, are gifted playmakers. Octavio Rivero and Blas Perez can score goals. Keepers David Ousted and Dan Kennedy are among the league’s elite.
The game is slightly more important to Vancouver; it is at home and has played two more games than FCD, which can wipe out the gap between the teams with the right results.