The Vancouver Whitecaps are looking for their lost confidence as they close out the Major League Soccer regular season.
In terms of the standings, Saturday's road contest against Real Salt Lake ( 9 p.m. ET) means nothing to the Whitecaps (11-13-9). They have already become the first Canadian franchise to make the MLS playoffs and can finish no better than fifth in the Western Conference.
But the regular-season finale offers Vancouver an opportunity to make amends for an embarrassing 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers last Sunday.
It also gives the Whitecaps a chance to improve their poor road play and prepare for a do-or-die playoff game in Los Angeles against the defending MLS-champion Galaxy on Thursday.
"It's a great achievement to get into the playoffs," said Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie. "It's tainted a little bit by a disappointing result in that [Portland] game, so we need to get back on track against Salt Lake in the next game."
Despite the loss to Portland, the Whitecaps made history after the Seattle Sounders beat FC Dallas later Sunday, eliminating the Texas club and ensuring Vancouver's fifth-place position. The playoff berth came after the Whitecaps placed last overall in their 2011 expansion season.
But the 'Caps are just 3-10-3 away from B.C. Place Stadium and have not posted a road victory since July against the Colorado Rapids. Vancouver has scored only 10 road goals compared to 25 at home.
Real Salt Lake (17-11-5) can't afford to take the game lightly either, because it's battling for second place in the West and home-field advantage in a second-round playoff series against Seattle. (The top three teams earn first-round byes.)
Vancouver and Real Salt Lake split their first two meetings this season, but the 'Caps posted their win at home. Rennie, who does not plan to rest his chosen playoff starters, said RSL will help his club tune up for the Galaxy.
"There's definitely similarities between how Salt Lake play and how L.A., play, and both games are on the road," said Rennie. "I do think [a road game against RSL] is a little advantage to just get in that [playoff] mindset. It'll probably be a similar way of playing both games."
Struggles on road remain
The Whitecaps began the season by posting two wins and a tie in their first four league road games. But lately, Rennie's crew has looked like the squad that went winless on the road in 2011.
The road struggles have coincided with a drop in overall play. After beginning the season with considerable promise, the Whitecaps have posted only two wins in their last 10 games while dealing with injuries, inconsistency, suspensions, national team commitments and the introduction of several new players through trades and signings.
With their early success, said Rennie, the Caps got away from playing their compact style and tried to open up and score more goals. While the play was more entertaining, it did not produce the desired results.
The Whitecaps also struggled while placing greater expectations on themselves after being an early-season underdog.
"It is kind of ironic, based on coming from where we were, to get into the playoffs," said Rennie. "At the start of the season, it would have been a massive achievement, and something we'd all have been ecstatic about.
"But because we haven't finished it as we should have, we feel a different way. And, honestly, I don't think that's a bad thing going into the playoffs. We're definitely not going in over-confident, that's for sure."
The coach wants his players to appreciate their achievement of qualifying for the playoffs, recognize and correct things they did wrong against Portland and execute a clear game plan against RSL.
He has called for his club to start winning big games after the poor outing against the Timbers followed a crucial Canadian final series game to lowly Toronto FC that enabled the Reds to take the title. Vancouver goalkeeper Brad Knighton said he and his teammates have to approach the game positively after they "didn't show up" last weekend.
"We've locked up the playoff spot, and you can pretty much just write off this last game, but that's not the way we're approaching it," said Knighton. "We're approaching it as: This is a huge tuneup for us. We feel like they play similar styles; and if we can do the things that we want to do right defensively this weekend, it's going to bode well for Thursday night [in L.A.] So we're looking for a good foundation defensively, and the rest will take care of itself."
Noting the club's recent losses have been by close scores, Knighton said the struggles in high-pressure games have left players scratching their heads. But a good result in Utah will help make up for the poor effort against Portland.
"Obviously, we want to go into L.A. with some positive things to look on to," said Knighton.