Another season, another Decision Day beckons for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

For the last two seasons, the Whitecaps were fighting for their lives on Decision Day. In 2021, the Whitecaps drew at home 1-1 to the Seattle Sounders to clinch their first playoff berth since 2017. The following year, Vancouver started their season with just one win in their first eight games. But they clawed back to the bitter end. Unfortunately, they lost 2-0 away to Minnesota United and missed the playoffs by four points.

This year, the Whitecaps have clinched a playoff spot and at least one home playoff game before Decision Day. Despite that, there is still a lot at stake for them and the clubs around them win the Western Conference standings.

The Whitecaps along with LAFC, the Seattle Sounders, Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake are all fighting to finish in the top four like the seagulls in Finding Nemo fighting to eat fish. (Mine!) 

Approaching the game like a playoff game

The Whitecaps will face LAFC at BC Place on Saturday. The club has announced that they are expecting their largest crowd of the season with at least 21,000 tickets sold and the first 10,000 will get free rally towels courtesy of BCLC.

Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini was at the helm for the last two Decision Days. But he knows Saturday’s game is still very important.

“The way we need to approach this game is like thinking it is already a playoff game to get into the mentality that we’ll need into the playoffs the following week,” said Sartini to the media at UBC’s National Soccer Development Centre on Thursday. “Of course, if we win, we’ll see what happens in the other fields and if we are going to get one position up, or two positions up…but it is not the priority. The priority is to play a very good game and of course, try to beat LAFC and close the regular season in the best fashion possible and also have this right energy and bring this energy into the next week.”

The Whitecaps like most of the other MLS teams head into Decision Day after the international break. After playing what felt like a thousand games from late August to early October, the team needed the break. For Sartini and the Whitecaps, the break was good for the mentality heading into Saturday’s game.

“We trained three times this week: Tuesday, Wednesday and today,” he said. “The quality of the training was really, really high. I can tell you the break was very much needed in the sense that we needed a little time off and finally, the possibility to prepare for a game…since we play once a week from now on. I think there will not be too much of a necessity for me pushing too much or putting importance of this game because the guys know how important it is. The guys are in the right mindset and I think having a lot of fans in the building will help us understand that ‘OK, we need to be on our best behaviour.’ Also, we face a really good team.”

Despite feeling pain in his foot in training this week, it looks like Gauld will be ready to go for Saturday. As for Andrés Cubas, he is questionable with a shoulder injury. It would probably be best for the Whitecaps to rest him for the playoffs.

Another solid season for LAFC

Since coming into MLS in 2018, LAFC have made the playoffs in every season of their existence. The defending MLS Cup champions are poised for another deep run.

The Whitecaps have faced LAFC three times this season. The first two were in April in the CONCACAF Champions League (now renamed the CONCACAF Champions Cup) and LAFC walloped Vancouver 6-0 on aggregate after two legs in the quarterfinals

On June 24, the Whitecaps played one of their best games of the season at LA’s BMO Stadium. Ryan Gauld played one of, if not his best game as a Whitecap (while playing as a wingback) with a goal and assists on goals from Ranko Veselinovic and Brian White.

LAFC have scored 53 goals this season and that is third best in the Western Conference behind St. Louis City SC and the Whitecaps. They also have given up just 38 goals which is sixth least in MLS.

Ever since they got knocked out of the Leagues Cup quarterfinals to Monterrey they have gone 4-2-4. They have been Minnesota United 5-1 and Austin FC 4-2 in their last four games.

Former Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau suffered a scary leg injury in last year’s MLS Cup Final and is back starting between the sticks for LAFC. The last time Crépeau visited BC Place with LAFC, he was met with resounding boos from Whitecaps fans every time he touched the ball. Expect more of the same on Saturday.

LAFC winger Denis Bounga is hoping to clinch the Golden Boot as he leads MLS with 19 goals this season. White is tied for third in the Golden Boot race with Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar with 15 goals. The last time Bounga visited BC Place, he scored a hat trick in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Star striker Carlos Vela has been a thorn in the side for the Whitecaps over the years. He has scored seven goals against Vancouver in all competitions in his career with one of them just being at BC Place. That was in the first-ever meeting between the two clubs on April 14, 2018, which was a 2-0 win over LAFC. He may be 34 but Vela is still one of the best players in MLS.

LAFC has not won in Vancouver since that game in April of 2018. The Whitecaps hope they can get a boost from the expected big crowd to keep that streak going.

Whitecaps Decision Day implications

Thanks to the Western Conference being tighter than a jar of peanut butter, the Whitecaps can finish the season anywhere between third and sixth.

For Vancouver to finish in the top four and start the playoffs at home, they need to beat LAFC first and foremost. Then they need some help.

Much to the chagrin of Whitecaps fans, they are going to have to cheer for the Portland Timbers to get a draw or a win against Houston. The Timbers have been in good form since Leagues Cup and since Miles Joseph took over as interim head coach succeeding Gio Savarese in August. The Dynamo are one of the worst road teams in MLS this season and have a 2-5-9 record away from Shell Energy Stadium. Portland currently sits seventh in the Western Conference and they’ll want to maintain that position so they can avoid the play-in round.

The Whitecaps also need the lowly Colorado Rapids to beat or draw Real Salt Lake. RSL have not won a game since they beat the Whitecaps on September 23. It could have been worse last week for RSL but they managed to come back from a 2-0 deficit against LA Galaxy thanks to second-half goals from Anderson Julio and Diego Luna to get a valuable point. The Rapids have nothing to lose. They will finish last in the Western Conference and have avoided the Wooden Spoon. (aka the unofficial award for the last-place MLS team) The Rapids will hope to play spoiler for their Rocky Mountain rivals at home.

It is also worth noting that the Whitecaps are tied with 47 points. The first tiebreaker is wins and then it is goal difference. If the Whitecaps beat LAFC and Real Salt Lake beats Colorado, RSL will finish above Vancouver.

St. Louis has had an amazing inaugural season but they want to make history. They are currently tied with the 1998 Chicago Fire with the most points in an inaugural season with 56. If they can get at least a draw against the Sounders, they can be the best expansion side in MLS history.

Oh, and they can do the Whitecaps a favour of of course. Seattle is three points ahead of Vancouver with 50 but they have the goal differential with seven. If Seattle drops points against St. Louis and other results go the Whitecaps way, they could finish above the Sounders for the first time since 2015. Now that would call for building a bonfire.

To summarize, the Whitecaps need at least two out of the three scenarios to happen: Houston to lose or draw against Portland, Real Salt Lake to lose or draw against Colorado and Seattle to lose or draw against St. Louis.

Of course, the Whitecaps need to do their job against LAFC.

Let the madness of Decision Day commence.