By Ridge Mahoney
Sometimes the MLS schedule taketh away and sometimes it giveth. Decision Day 2016 is a case of the latter.
Defending champion Portland, which is winless on the road this season, plays away in its final game needing some help to get into the playoffs. Its final hurdle is Vancouver, which despite being eliminated from postseason contention is all too eager to officially dethrone the Timbers Sunday at B.C. Place. The game has not been picked up by either Fox Sports 1 or ESPN despite its importance to the Timbers as well as the final Cascadia Cup standings, though Vancouver needs a win by at least three goals to take the Cup.
“It’s a great occasion for us and for our supporters for us to say thanks for sticking with us through thick and thin this year,” said head coach Carl Robinson last Sunday following a 0-0 tie in San Jose. “It still hurts. They knocked us out last year.”
Portland blanked the ‘Caps in last year’s Western Conference finals on its way to winning the MLS Cup title. A 0-0 tie at B.C. Place and 2-0 victory at Providence Park ended Vancouver’s season on a bitter note. The tune hasn’t improved this year. The ‘Caps will finish in their current position, ninth, unless they beat Portland and San Jose fails to win at Sporting Kansas City.
“There were games where we put ourselves with a good chance to win and we couldn’t get the goals, couldn’t finish,” said midfielder Andrew Jacobson. “It seemed like whenever that happened, we’d get punished. We wouldn’t be able to not score and hang on for a point, we’d always lose the game. I hate to blame it on luck but we took a lot of bad bounces and didn’t really get many good ones throughout the year.”
Robinson concurs that perhaps the ball didn’t roll as well this year as in 2015, when the 'Caps finished second at 16-13-5 and tied with Seattle for the fewest goals conceded (36). For 2016, a record of 9-15-9 and a "51" in the goals-allowed column also confirm that what had been the team’s greatest asset, defending, devolved into its most glaring shortcoming.
“I don’t think we were that good last year and I don’t think we’re that bad this year,” said Robinson. “Sometimes you get breaks, sometimes you don’t, and this year we haven’t: too many sendings-off, we’ve made too many individual mistakes.
“What we’ve done this year is concede bad goals. Whether it’s individual mistakes -- the guy letting the cross come in, the guy losing his set-piece marker in the box and giving away a penalty, a goalkeeper mistake -- we’ve done too many of them and it shows over a period of time. I’m not using that as an excuse, we haven’t been quite good enough.”
Much the same can be said about Portland, which kept its playoff hopes alive last Sunday by beating Colorado, 1-0, at Providence Park. But an atrocious 0-10-6 record away from home increases confidence among the ‘Caps that at least they can scuttle the slim playoff hopes of a Northwest foe.
“It’s a rivalry game, the Cascadia implications, them trying to make the playoffs, there is still a lot on it,” Jordan Harvey told whitecapsfc.com. ”And just some pride from our guys. We had a tough season. And this is a game where we have a little bit of redemption.”
Without stating it per se, Robinson and the team leaders believe the intensity and accountability present in 2015 has been missing at times in 2016. In San Jose, some sharp goalkeeping by keeper Paolo Tornaghi, who had sat on the bench backing up starter David Ousted for 99 straight games, denied the Quakes a goal during a spell of pressure for the first 20 minutes. Seldom did the home team threaten after that initial flurry.
“When we concentrate, and we did today, we’ve shown what we can do” said Robinson, pleased by the display, albeit against another team already eliminated. “But there’s no point doing it for one or two games or 10 games, because in a tough Western Conference that’s not enough, as has been shown.”
The season finale can’t redeem an entire campaign yet as Harvey noted the Timbers will be fighting for their lives. The ‘Caps appear to ramping up as well. At a training session on Wednesday, goalkeeper David Ousted and midfielder Pedro Morales got into each other’s grills and afterwards, though Robinson did not witness the incident, he gave it his approval.
So, too, did Ousted, who after two nearly impeccable seasons committed a few atypical gaffes that cost the ‘Caps goals this year. Kendall Waston led the league in red cards. A missed chance here, a bad goal there, and a season can very quickly slip away if the issues aren’t addressed.
“That’s partly on us as leaders for not doing that enough,” said Ousted. “That’s partly on me as well for not doing that enough. Like I said, we need to show these emotions. We need to show the fans that we’re not just here to go down with another loss, especially not with Portland coming in.”