Whitecaps: How bonding over unpalatable Uncrustables fuelled a rise up the West standings

The Vancouver Whitecaps had plenty of time to kill waiting out a storm in Denver, and it ended up turning around their road fortunes

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A game that never happened might just be the most important one for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.

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On June 21, the Caps were at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., getting set to take on the Rapids in a mid-week MLS confrontation. They were unbeaten in three games, but were still too far down the West table for their liking, sitting in eighth place and just two points out from being 12th.

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But just as the national anthems ended, a storm rolled into the Denver area, a chaotic weather system that unleashed tornadoes, hail the size of golf balls and flash floods that paralyzed the city. Thunder shook the surrounding area and lightning hit the stadium, knocking out power.

While climate hell rained down outside, the Whitecaps waited. And waited. And waited some more. They passed the time with naps, soccer tennis and watching each other’s highlight tapes, and were provided with some food — and that term is used lightly — by the stadium. Some hamburger buns smeared with peanut butter and jelly, an Uncrustables-type snack that offended just about every bone in Vanni Sartini’s Italian body.

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Finally, four hours and eight minutes after delays and conjecture about how the situation would be resolved, the game was called off. The team scrambled to find a hotel, as their original plan to fly to Los Angeles ahead of their game with LAFC two days later was scuttled.

When they did make it to L.A., facing the first-place team in the West without Julian Gressel, Javain Brown and Ali Ahmed, they did the unexpected: bolt to a 2-0 lead and down the Black and Gold for their first road win in 15 games, dating back over a calendar year.


Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Colorado Rapids

Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. PT, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park

TV: Apple TV. Radio: AM730

“We were waiting, waiting, waiting, but in Italian we say the waiting for pleasure is the pleasure itself,” the ever-philosophical Sartini said of their time in Colorado. “We enjoyed last time … I think it was a big part on our team-building. The fact that we were there and all together and to be honest, our road form changed after that. It was … an accident that helped us cement the group.”

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The happy little accident didn’t show up immediately, as they still had to suffer through their worst loss of the season — a 3-0 defeat a week later in Sporting Kansas City — and a 3-2 home loss to Seattle the week after that. But their away form began to improve dramatically, a point hammered home by a 3-2 Leagues Cup win over the L.A. Galaxy in Carson, Calif., and then going 3-0-1 to start their mammoth seven-game road swing.

“I think the game against LAFC was a big turning point for us,” said Ahmed, who missed that contest on international duty, as did Brown and Gressel. “We were down a lot of bodies. We were super-short. But that shows the fight in his team, the depth in this team, that stepped up. To come home with a 3-2 win against LAFC short-handed, it gave us this type of belief that yeah, we could do something.

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“I think that changed our mindset, and definitely it’s shown on the road after that.”

And the date with Colorado was rescheduled to this Wednesday, the postponed game in hand giving the Caps a leg up in their drive toward a top-four finish.

The Rapids (4-15-10) are the only team in the West to have been eliminated from playoff contention — TFC has matched the dubious feat in the East — providing a golden opportunity for the Whitecaps (11-10-8) to crack the conference’s top four once again. Houston (fourth) and Dallas (eighth) are also in action Wednesday, but both are playing Eastern opposition.

“When you play a team that is in a situation like Colorado — where they’re out of the playoffs, (with an) interim coach, I think every player wants to shine,” said Sartini. “The best way to approach this game is (to be) the most collective as we can, more stick to the principle, stick to the tactics, be very focused there, because if we go to an individual battle, actually, I think individually maybe they have more motivation than us. But collectively, we have more motivation.

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“We can’t be complacent. The objective is there … We are playing for something … enormous. Because you get into the top four or in the playoff, it would be kind of a treble this season after the Canadian Championship and the Cascadia Cup.

“I don’t think we need an extra motivation. I don’t think we’ll be complacent, because it’s a game that is extremely important for us.”

Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake
Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s Ranko Veselinovic (right) battles with Real Salt Lake’s Justin Meram for the loose ball during second half MLS soccer action in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, February 25, 2023. Photo by Rich Lam/CP /PNG

After Wednesday, just four games remain in the regular season for Vancouver, and three of those are at B.C. Place. First up, D.C. United (9-13-9, 10th East) on Saturday, followed by three dates with the top three teams in the West: St. Louis (first), Seattle (third) and LAFC (second).

Vancouver can’t afford to look ahead to those, even if they’re finally going to play a league game at home for the first time in more than a month.

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“These games are kind of tricky ones … ” Ahmed said of the Rapids. “They’re a team with nothing to lose, but those ones are pretty dangerous. They still have a lot to play for. It’s fun eliminating other teams and seeing other teams’ downfall.

“We can’t take it lightly … They don’t care if they’re last place. It’s never easy winning on the road in MLS. So we got to prepare the same way like we always do, like we’re playing a top team.

“From the coaching staff front office to the players we have this serious belief that we could be playing in December. It starts from games like this. So we want to take care of business from now, to set ourselves right when the playoffs come.

“We want to have home field advantage. So we got five games left. Everybody’s locked in. We got 25 quality guys. Everyone’s bought in … We’re going for that.

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“If we take one foot off (the gas), it will come back to bite us right away.”



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