Whitecaps host Earthquakes in knockout round looking for first playoff win

Joshua Clipperton - The Canadian Press

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Vancouver Whitecaps’ Yordy Reyna, right, leaps over San Jose Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez as he slides to take the ball away during the second half of an MLS soccer game in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday October 15, 2017. The Whitecaps like to talk about making history. They have a chance to finally do it on the big stage Wednesday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Whitecaps like to talk about making history. They have a chance to finally do it on the big stage Wednesday night.

Yet to win a playoff game since joining Major League Soccer in 2011, the Whitecaps will get another crack at post-season glory when they host the San Jose Earthquakes in the single-elimination knockout round.

Vancouver has three losses and a draw in four all-time playoff matches, including two as the visiting team at this stage of the competition.

“The last little bit is always the hardest — the playoff success,” said head coach Carl Robinson. “We’ve got to aim for it, we’ve got to focus on it.

“It’s something you’ve got to enjoy. You can’t be afraid of it. You’ve got embrace it.”

The Whitecaps failed to embrace consecutive opportunities over the final two weekends of the regular season to clinch top spot in the Western Conference for the first time following a 1-1 home draw against San Jose on Oct. 15 and Sunday’s 2-1 road defeat to the Portland Timbers.

Vancouver was instead bumped all the way down to third — missing out on a first-round bye — and faces a San Jose squad that will be buzzing after securing the sixth and final seed thanks to a dramatic 3-2 extra-time victory over Minnesota United.

The Whitecaps are 1-3-1 over their last five, with the only victory coming in a 1-0 win at Sporting Kansas City where they had just 26.5 per cent possession.

It’s a rough patch at the wrong time on the heels of an impressive 5-0-2 run.

“We’ve just got to get back to doing what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been successful,” said Vancouver right back Jake Nerwinski. “We play 34 games all season to get to this point. Now it’s knockout football. It’s the fun part.

“It’s a chance to make a run and really make this season worthwhile.”

In that draw with San Jose at B.C. Place Stadium, where a win would have clinched first, the Whitecaps missed a number of golden opportunities to stretch a 1-0 lead.

Those wasted chances allowed the Earthquakes to hang around before Valeri Qazaishvili jumped on a defensive miscue for the equalizer in the 77th minute.

“The difference now is we’re going to put one in — I can tell you this,” said Vancouver striker Fredy Montero, whose team also only needed a point in Portland to secure first. “It’s kill or be killed.”

While there might be some tired legs Wednesday, playing in the knockout round isn’t the end of the world.

The last two MLS Cup champions — Portland in 2015 and the Seattle Sounders last year — had to go through the single-elimination match, something that isn’t lost on the Whitecaps.

“You’ve seen what happens with teams in the past that get this knockout game,” said defender Tim Parker. “Hopefully we can get rolling with some momentum.”

The Whitecaps went with a lineup that had never played together against the Timbers, with defensive midfielder Nosa Igiebor making his debut for the club, while goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic once again got the nod ahead of veteran David Ousted.

Robinson wouldn’t tip his hand with regards to Wednesday’s lineup, but look for Montero and Cristian Techera to return to the starting 11 alongside Yordy Reyna and Christian Bolanos at the top of a Vancouver formation that has relied heavily on set pieces and counter attacks for offence.

“We’ve got to win this home game,” said Robinson. “It’s what we’ve prepared for, it’s what we play for. Hopefully B.C. Place can be rocking.”

Vancouver, which finished six points better than San Jose in the West standings, last made the post-season in 2015, avoiding the knockout round as the second seed before getting bounced in the West semifinals over two legs by the Timbers.

Should they advance in 2017, the Whitecaps would meet No. 2 Seattle in the semis, while the Earthquakes, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, would take on top-ranked Portland.

“It’s do or die,” said Parker. “It’s put up or shut up. We have to show up on Wednesday and show what we’re about or we go home.”

Notes: San Jose made the playoffs despite an astounding minus-21 goal difference. … The Earthquakes beat the Whitecaps 3-2 on March 11 in their only other meeting. … Vancouver is 9-3-5 at home in MLS this season. San Jose is 3-12-2 on the road.

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