1. Whitecaps must capitalize on momentum from Wednesday’s Knockout Round victory
After three consecutive disappointing results to end the regular season, the Vancouver Whitecaps made up for their failure to capture a bye to the Western Conference Semifinals when they dispatched visitors San Jose by a score of 5-0 on Wednesday night. A key match against the same Earthquakes side on October 15th provided the Whitecaps a chance to win the West outright, but a second half goal from Vako Qazashvili ensured the conference crown would come down to a Decision Day match up at Portland as the hosts could only draw 1-1. Vancouver fell 2-1 in Portland after taking another early lead, cementing the feelings of frustration surrounding the fan base after their lackluster home finale. Their pole position in the West had slipped south to Oregon, and home field advantage in coming playoff series with it.
Many lesser sides would have crumbled in the wake of such major consecutive blows, but not Carl Robinson’s charges. Fredy Montero scored his first-ever playoff goal — also the Whitecaps’ first at home in MLS — in the first half before Vancouver exploded for four more goals in the second period, sending the Earthquakes home for the winter after a resounding 5-0 thumping.
The win was particularly notable for several reasons. It wasn’t just a first home playoff victory, or a message to the rest of the West. The victory erased the feelings of anger and disappointment present in the fan base, and likely the locker room too. The Knockout Round success did more than just wipe the slate clean, it’s brought with it a new-found confidence from a Vancouver side that needed it badly if they are to challenge for MLS Cup.
Playing their third match in a week, Whitecaps would do well to pretend that Wednesday night never ended when they take the field against the Seattle Sounders at 5.30pm on Sunday night. The atmosphere at BC Place and the attitude of the squad can lift Vancouver as they did in the midweek, and both will be necessary to advance past Seattle. If any proof of such a claim is needed, one needs only to look at the last two MLS Cup champions — both won cathartic Knockout Round matches on their way to the league crown. With the big win on Wednesday, there’s a clear path for Whitecaps to ride the same wave to a title. A fast start that keeps the crowd involved and Sounders on the back foot gives Vancouver the chance to keep rolling downhill.
2. Sounders’ finishing at BC Place
Sounders took four points from three matches in regular season encounters with Vancouver. However, anyone who watched all three games knows that only Seattle’s finishing in Vancouver kept them from adding to that total. Sounders scored only twice on 40 attempts across two matches at BC Place, taking only one point from those contests. Between missed opportunities, shots hitting the woodwork, and ill-timed Montero responses, massive opportunities for road wins slipped away from Seattle in their north-of-the-border derbies in 2017. More frustrating yet, at least from the Rave Green perspective, is that the two matches in Vancouver were two of Seattle’s better performances of the year — the latter trip of the season (a 1-1 draw on August 23rd) was a particularly wasteful display from Sounders after they finished with a man advantage.
On a week’s rest and with the second leg at home, Sounders are the clear favorites to advance despite their regular season struggles at BC Place. Seattle must put the series away when presented with the opportunity on Sunday. If they flip the switch on their finishing and hold everything else the same, it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.
3. Shortest break in the league
Whereas every other Conference Semifinal match up in the league features at least five days between the two legs of the series, Sounders and Whitecaps have only four.
Sunday’s match marks Vancouver’s third match in a week, making the the rest issue an especially acute one for them. Carl Robinson will have to rotate his outside backs and at least one center midfielder while hoping that the rest of his squad is up for the challenge of four matches in twelve days. Whitecaps’ performance at the end of each leg of the series may well be impacted by the rest situation, making it all the more important for them to get off to a hot start on Sunday.
Seattle, for their part, find themselves dealing with an injury situation which certainly would have benefited from several more days off between legs. Osvaldo Alonso and Victor Rodriguez may or may not appear in Sunday’s match, while Gustav Svensson and Jordan Morris are very unlikely to be fit for the away leg. With four key players questionable for the series, the way head coach Brian Schmetzer approaches the absences will be a huge factor in whether Seattle advance or not.
The situation is clearly less than ideal for both sides, and having the league’s shortest gap between legs exacerbates the problem. The way the clubs deal with their injury and rest situation will likely decide the series, and might be the only factor that stays relevant across both matches as the game state changes.
1ST LEG PREDICTION:
Vancouver Whitecaps 1, Seattle Sounders 2
Bruin (Lodeiro) 24′
Montero (Shea) 55′
Lodeiro (PK) 68′