Vancouver Whitecaps didn't get the win they desperately wanted when they faced Pacific Northwest rivals Seattle at BC Place on Saturday, but they did give a performance that provides much optimism heading into their final three matches of the regular season.
With two home matches remaining against teams below them in the Western Conference standings, the Whitecaps remain in pole position to beat FC Dallas to the fifth and final playoff spot. At the start of summer, a place in the post-season looked inevitable - but, with their winless run now standing at seven matches and FC Dallas making a late-season surge, the 'Caps still have much work to do.
Through the Whitecaps recent five-match losing streak, much of the attention was focused on the club's inability to score goals. That was clearly an issue, with just one goal coming during that stretch of games, but the defence was far from settled during that time, and looked nothing like the unbreakable wall that started the season so well.
Against Seattle on Saturday, there were strong performances throughout the lineup, including the likes of Gershon Koffie and Matt Watson in midfield, but the biggest improvement was in defence, where the return of Andy O'Brien made a massive difference to a backline that had looked so disjointed when allowing Colorado to score a late leveling goal a week earlier.
O'Brien was brought to the club by Martin Rennie at the start of August to provide another option in defence. At 33 years old, O'Brien has seen it all in almost 500 games as a professional, many of which were spent in the English Premier League. Injuries have limited the Irish international's appearances during his first two months with the 'Caps, but his presence against the Sounders helped Vancouver shut out the opposition after a run of 12 games without a clean sheet. He brought a calming presence to the team, a virtue that will be vital in helping the club cross the finish line over the next few weeks.
O'Brien was partnered alongside captain Jay DeMerit, and after the match, DeMerit highlighted O'Brien's communication as one of the reasons why the partnership worked so well. "I think what Andy brings is a wealth of experience and is someone who has been there and done it at the highest level for many years," said the Whitecaps captain.
"When you combine that with someone who can communicates and is dependable, that means it's a good partnership. I thought we did well considering we've never played together other than the Portland game. I thought we communicated and played well together as a partnership and that's a huge thing to build upon for Wednesday."
As DeMerit was quick to point out, managing to keep the Sounders scoreless was about more than the performance of the back-line. "The clean sheet comes from the eleven, not just us four at the back. It's a team effort. If you look at the guys, there were a lot of tired bodies out there. That's because we got behind the ball and did our work and we kept a good Seattle team scoreless."
The Whitecaps must continue to build on their defensive solidity, but when they return to the pitch on Wednesday night against Chivas USA at BC Place they must be more clinical in front of goal. The 'Caps still have their playoff destiny in their own hands, but it was a close call on Saturday night. San Jose's stoppage time goal denied FC Dallas three points and kept the Texas club two back of Vancouver. However, the Whitecaps can't afford to rely on other teams doing favours for them any longer. Against the worst team in the Western Conference this week, a win seems to be the only acceptable outcome.