Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson was miserable the last time his team played Real Salt Lake — and not just because of the result.
“My feet were freezing on the sidelines,” the Welshman said of the 3-0 defeat in April where a Utah blizzard blanketed the pitch.
Whitecaps defender Tim Parker, meanwhile, had flashbacks to his childhood in Hicksville, N.Y., where he would sometimes have to shovel snow off the practice field before training.
“It was cold,” he said. ”It was a really, really hard game to play in.”
While it’s a memory the club would no doubt prefer to erase, there’s no concern about the conditions in Vancouver. The Whitecaps (11-9-5) return to action against Real (10-13-5) on Saturday night after a week off, beginning a busy stretch that should go a long way in defining their season.
Fourth in Major League Soccer’s congested Western Conference standings, Vancouver is just four points back of the first-place Seattle Sounders, and has anywhere from one to three games in hand on the five teams currently above the playoff line. But the Whitecaps are also just three points up on eighth-place Real, which has played 28 matches to Vancouver’s 25.
Those games in hand are good news for a team looking to make a move — the Whitecaps host the next four at B.C. Place Stadium, including a stretch of three in eight days beginning this weekend.
It also means the roster depth that has been put to the test this season because of a crowded schedule, injuries and international call-ups will once again be at the forefront with six of Vancouver’s nine remaining matches to be played between Saturday and Sept. 30.
“It’s definitely been a team effort,” said veteran defender Jordan Harvey. ”As opposed to other years when we’ve talked about the depth, we actually implemented it on the field and we’ve shown it.
“There’s been some road games where we played different lineups and pulled out great results.”
A perfect example came in the Whitecaps’ 2-1 victory at Orlando City SC on Aug. 26. Vancouver’s third match in an eight-day stretch that included a brutal travel schedule, Robinson made nine changes to his starting lineup that night, and his players rewarded him with their West-leading fifth away win of 2017.
“We used to look down the bench and think, ‘Who are we going to put on?’” said Robinson, who’s in his fourth season in charge. “Now I’m having to leave players out that probably deserve to play.”
Some of those players currently on the outside are sure to get a chance this month.
A couple of Whitecaps are on the verge of suspension because of yellow card accumulation, midfielder Matias Laba is gone for the year with a knee injury, and the likes of defender Kendall Waston and midfielder Christian Bolanos — who both started Costa Rica’s recent World Cup qualifiers — will need a break at some point.
“The depth creates battles for positions on the field in a good way,” said midfielder Brek Shea. ”It makes people better.”
But while the Whitecaps are feeling pretty good about themselves, the same can be said for Real, who are 5-1-3 since the end of June and also haven’t played since Aug. 26.
“We know they’re a dangerous team, but we’re at home. We focus on ourselves,” said Robinson. ”We know what their strengths are, we know what their weaknesses are.”
One of the Whitecaps’ strengths is an ability to swap players in and out of the lineup and not see a dip in performance.
“The guys all know we have something special within this group,” said Parker. ”It’s not about playing every week or being the star player or scoring the winning goal. Everyone wants to do their role.”
Just as long as that role doesn’t involve shovelling snow off the field.
Notes: Robinson said midfielder Aly Ghazal could make his debut Saturday. The 25-year-old Egyptian international signed last month after he was released by his club in China, but has taken some time to get his fitness levels up to par. Ghazal is viewed as potentially a key piece in the centre of the pitch with Laba out until next spring. … The Whitecaps host Minnesota United on Wednesday, the Columbus Crew on Sept. 16, and the Colorado Rapids on Sept. 23 to round out their homestand.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press