Just as well they changed the rules, eh? Otherwise, the Vancouver Whitecaps wouldn't have made it. But they did, so they did.
Everybody knew about the adjustment to Major League Soccer's playoff system before a single ball was kicked in 2012. Not everybody agreed with it, but no one can complain they didn't see it coming. One could even argue the Whitecaps timed their post-season run to perfection.
The introduction of the wild-card berth has had its critics. In a league consisting of 19 clubs, more than half are handed the opportunity to contest the post-season. It is either rewarding mediocrity or keeping the interest and regular season alive for more, for longer. The fans will keep coming if there's the possibility of something to play for. Certainly, no one's complaining in Vancouver.
Just how long that post-season adventure lasts is anyone's guess. It may very well be short and not very sweet. Plenty believe it will last precisely 90 minutes, give or take some injury time, in Los Angeles on Thursday. After all, the Whitecaps have never won at the Home Depot Center and there's no reason to suspect that is about to change.
Let's be honest, Martin Rennie's team did not march into the playoffs. The Whitecaps stumbled over the finishing line rather apologetically. The victory over Chivas USA isn't fooling anyone. That game apart, the Whitecaps haven't scored a single goal in the final month of the regular season. It's hardly the sort of form to raise optimism heading into the unknown of the playoffs.
It is not as though Rennie doesn't have offensive options. Darren Mattocks, for example, may well be on the rookie-of-the-year ballot and his speed, combined with that of his fellow Jamaican Dane Richards, can cause conniptions for defenders. Kenny Miller's big-game experience and goal poacher's instinct should not be underestimated, while Camilo's Brazilian flair can unlock the best of defences.
But we're forgetting something. There's nothing regular about the playoffs -- this is knockout soccer. There are no points to play for, only the chance to advance. The Whitecaps will, naturally, take the role of underdogs against the host Galaxy, but underdogs don't always mooch away with their tail between their legs.
GALAXY UNDER PRESSURE
Bruce Arena's all-stars are also under pressure.
The reigning MLS Cup holders are expected to take out the Whitecaps with something to spare. For a team bristling with talent, failure at this stage of the competition would be seen as a major underachievement. Clearly, the Galaxy are not contemplating such a catastrophe. Their website is already selling tickets to the semifinal match up against San Jose.
It may, however, be worth bearing in mind that the Galaxy conceded six more goals overall than Vancouver during the regular season. It is definitely worth bearing in mind that they lost to the league's worst team, Toronto FC, on their own field in the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League at the start of the campaign. Sometimes, sudden-death soccer does that to you. In other words, foregone conclusions are not always what they seem.
The possibility of a 'Cupset' is always a scenario which must be considered, no matter the apparent gulf in class between the two contestants. History doesn't lie -- every now and then, David does, indeed, slay Goliath.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Ultimately, this is more than just about one game.
For the Whitecaps, it is about building a reputation within MLS. The expansion season was little short of an embarrassment, so to make the playoff in Year Two is an achievement in itself. Across the border in Portland, Ore., the Timbers have gone backwards, while Vancouver 2.0 has shown tangible progress.
Vancouver's franchise has given itself a platform on which to build. Rennie has proved himself a capable steward at this level and has compiled a well-balanced roster which requires more tinkering rather than a major overhaul over the off-season.
The Scotsman will also lead the Whitecaps into 2013 as the top seed in the Canadian championship. The trophy still has to be won, but Vancouver will start in the pole position. When the Voyageurs Cup finally ends up on the West coast, it will all have been worthwhile.
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