VANCOUVER — After a gruelling streak of seven games away from home, which ended with a disappointing draw with bottom-of-the-league Colorado, the Vancouver Whitecaps are relying on home comforts to help lock in a playoff spot.
Vancouver is sixth in Major League Soccer's Western Conference with second to ninth place in the division within five points of each other.
The Whitecaps play three of their final four matches of the regular season at home, where they are 7-3-4 and have secured the majority of their points.
"These last four are do or die," said centre-back Tristan Blackmon. "They're all playoff matches. We have to go in there with the mentality that we can win the game."
The top nine teams in the division make the post-season, with eighth and ninth playing a wild-card match.
"The priority is top seven. The priority is to be in the playoffs," said head coach Vanni Sartini.
He added that being on the road has forced his team to endure quick turnarounds between matches, with Friday's training session more focused on helping the players relax and try new drills.
The toll of travelling between different locations, coupled with the challenges of playing on short rest and sometimes at high altitudes, has left the players relieved to be back home.
"It was really hard, really demanding physically and mentally," said centre-back Ranko Veselinovic. "I just talked to someone, I can't remember who, but I said 'It feels nice, we can go home and relax.'"
The Whitecaps are aware of the pressure they face in the cramped divisional standings, but Sartini believes it offers his team a chance to show their growth.
"It's the next step in terms of the maturity of the team," he said about securing a playoff spot through their own play instead of relying on other teams.
"We need to treat every game like it's a big game. This is the difference between being a good team, which we are, and a very good team. We have a chance to show we have become a very good team and the only way to do it is to do it as fast as we can."
The Whitecaps secured a top-four finish in the Western Conference of MLS only once, back in 2017 under the tenure of former head coach Carl Robinson.
Robinson is the longest serving manager in Vancouver's MLS history and is now the assistant to D.C. United head coach Wayne Rooney.
D.C. currently holds the ninth position in the Eastern Conference standings, having played one more match than their closest competitors.
"We know D.C. is kind of in … I don't want to say desperation mode — but they need to win," said Sartini. "We know they'll come with a lot of intensity and we'll need to match their intensity."
The match also marks the return of former Whitecaps winger Cristian Dajome who left for the American club during the last transfer window.
Dajome recorded 15 goals and 13 assists in 91 regular-season games for Vancouver. Since leaving, he's bagged two goals and one assist in 18 games for D.C.
"It's going to be cool. obviously he was here for a while, always happy to see guys come back and be in a familiar place," said Blackmon. "Obviously it'll be nice to have him on the field but hopefully he doesn't do too much."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2023.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press