Head coach Vanni Sartini knows the playoffs are still a long shot for his Vancouver Whitecaps.
Even after collecting their second crucial win of the week — a rare 2-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders Saturday — the ‘Caps sit below the post-season bar in Major League Soccer’s competitive Western Conference.
“The playoffs are still very far. The playoffs are still very far,” Sartini said after the win. “We still need results to go our way and even winning both the game doesn’t give us the possibility to be in the playoffs.”
But the coach has seen his team achieve the impossible before.
Just last season, the ‘Caps climbed from the bottom of the standings to clinch their first playoff spot in four seasons.
“It seems like we like to make an impossible mission,” Sartini said. “So let’s try to do another one.”
Saturday’s result vaulted the Whitecaps (11-14-7) over the Sounders (12-16-3) to ninth spot in the Western Conference.
Vancouver still sits two places and three points out of a playoff spot with two games remaining in the regular season while Seattle is four points and three spots out of a post-season berth.
Making a playoff run hasn’t been the Whitecaps’ driving force in recent matchups, said defender Julian Gressel.
“I think the last two games for us haven’t been like, ‘Ah, we have to win in order to keep being in the playoffs.’ No,” he said. “We have to do what we train every day, what we believe in every day, what our principles are in terms of giving us the best chance to win.
“And I think we did that over the past couple of games and you show that you reap the benefits of that. And the bigger picture benefits of that are that you pick up three points and you move closer, you stay alive.”
Saturday’s victory marked the first time the ‘Caps have defeated their regional rivals in 15 games, with the Sounders boasting a 10-0-5 record dating back to April 14, 2017.
Vancouver’s Pedro Vite opened the scoring in the 29th minute and Gressel doubled the lead eight minutes later.
Will Bruin responded with a goal for the Sounders (12-16-3) in the 89th minute.
Goalkeeper Thomas Hasal stopped two on-target shots to collect his fourth win of the season for Vancouver and Stefan Frei made three saves for Seattle.
The ‘Caps were coming off a 3-0 victory over the L.A. Galaxy on Wednesday while the Sounders had not played since beating Austin FC on Sept. 10.
The impact of the packed schedule showed at times in the second half, with Seattle pressing hard and Vancouver’s players occasionally looking gassed.
Former Whitecap Fredy Montero set up Seattle’s lone goal of the night in the 89th minute, sending a ball into the penalty area where it glanced off Bruin’s head and into the net.
Bruin came off the bench in the 72nd minute, replacing Josh Atencio.
The Whitecaps briefly appeared to go up 3-0 midway through the second half when Luis Martins put a ball on the foot of a sliding Brian White.
The Vancouver striker looked to slide a shot into the net in the 61st minute but Frei scooped the ball back up before it fully crossed the line and play continued as boos rained down from the crowd. The video-assisted referee checked the sequence and the no-goal call was upheld.
Seattle controlled 66 per cent of the possession through the first half but it was Vancouver who led 2-0 on the scoreboard heading into the locker room.
The Sounders’ first on-target shot of the game came in the 48th minute when Montero took a right-foot attempt from outside the box, forcing Hasal to make a diving save.
Gressel doubled the home side’s advantage 37 minutes in with a stunning strike.
Martins threw the ball in from the sidelines, finding Ranko Veselinovic for a header in traffic, and the ball bounced out to Gressel at the top of the penalty area. The German blasted a right-footed shot through Frei’s outstretched hand to give Vancouver a 2-0 lead.
“It was a lofted ball, very high. And I was like, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do with this?’ And I just kind of ran through it and tried to get a clean strike on it. And I did, ultimately,” Gressel said. “Pretty good goal.”
Eight minutes earlier, Ryan Gauld snuck around his defender and delivered a pass to Vite, who tapped the ball in from the top of the six-yard box for his second goal in as many games.
Sartini was impressed by the play.
“The first goal, guys, is beautiful,” he said. “I don’t want to say what it’s better than, because we are in PG-13 (environment). But I can say it’s a soccer orgasm, the first goal.”
Vite said Sartini has challenged him to up his intensity in training, and the results have shown in games.
“It’s actually something very personal. Because to be honest, I want to be at the World Cup to play for my national team, Ecuador,” he said through a translator. “And at the end of the day, it’s up to me to work hard and push hard to achieve what I want to achieve.”
The Whitecaps are now off for the international break and will return Oct. 1 when they host Austin FC in their final home game of the season. The Sounders take on FC Cincinnati in Seattle on Sept. 27.
FOOT NOTES: Whitecaps midfielder Andreas Cubas left the game with an adductor injury in the 33rd minute. … Seattle’s Alex Roldan was shown the yellow card in the 25th minute for grabbing Gauld’s jersey. Sounders captain Nicolas Lodeiro was cautioned in the 81st minute after taking down Gressel along the sideline. Gressel got a yellow a minute later for another confrontation with Lodeiro. … A crowd of 19,722 took in the game at B.C. Place, marking the club’s largest attendance of the MLS season.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press