What a difference 12 months makes! After finishing at the bottom of the pile in MLS in their inaugural season in the league, the Vancouver Whitecaps are now playoff bound. On Sunday, they became the first Canadian club in MLS history to qualify for the post-season, completing a major turnaround. However, celebrations in Vancouver have been tempered by the way in which the 'Caps have stumbled towards the end of the year.
Vancouver's 1-0 loss at home to the Portland Timbers at BC Place meant they needed a big favour from their Pacific Northwest rivals Seattle Sounders. The Sounders duly obliged, dispatching FC Dallas 3-1 and ending the Texas club's pursuit of the Whitecaps. The defeat against Portland means the 'Caps current run is now just one win in the last nine games. However, that shouldn't overshadow a landmark moment.
It's the nature of sports fans that they always want better for their team, but the magnitude of the Whitecaps success seems to have been lost amongst the disappointment of a late-season slide. They limped over the finish line, but the only thing that should really matter is that they managed to cross it. This is a team that finished last in MLS just twelve months ago - now, they've qualified for the post-season with a game to spare. That is a major achievement, yet doom and gloom has permeated through much of the discussion following the weekend's action.
Of course, there are reasons for the 'Caps fans' frustration. The performance against Portland wasn't anywhere near good enough. The fact the Whitecaps failed to produce on a night when everything was on the line is certainly reason for concern. Designated Players Kenny Miller and Barry Robson struggled to influence the game and the 'Caps looked far from the rampant attacking force that had destroyed Chivas USA in the previous match. By the time Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks were brought into the game there just wasn't enough space for them to use their pace with the Timbers sitting so deep defending their lead.
Critics point to the mid-season overhaul of the squad as being the reason for recent struggles after an extremely impressive start, but there's very little that can be achieved by playing the blame game at this stage of the season. It's impossible to tell how different the outcome would have been if the 'Caps had stuck with Davide Chiumiento, Sebastien Le Toux and Eric Hassli.
In my opinion, Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie deserves massive praise for what he has managed to achieve in his first season in MLS. He has transformed a team that finished as the league's worst last October. He's learning, building for the future and has still managed to bring success.
I'm sure Rennie would acknowledge that along the way he has made some mistakes this year - but that's to be expected with a rookie MLS head coach. In fact, that's to be expected from any coach of any age anywhere around the world. Rennie has been charged with laying the foundation for long-term success but has also managed to deliver on the 'Caps number one pre-season priority of qualifying for the playoffs.
While fans are clamouring to see greater production from Kenny Miller and Barry Robson, the addition of Andy O'Brien in the centre of defence alongside Jay DeMerit has made the club look much more solid at the back. The 'Caps had kept two clean sheets in a row heading into Sunday's match against the Timbers and were only beaten by a Jack Jewsbury wonder-strike. That partnership will be key to Vancouver's chances of advancing past the reigning MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy.
Heading into the playoffs, there are big decisions ahead for Rennie as he looks to find the right formula at the other end of the pitch. With Miller, Mattocks, Richards and Camilo plus Omar Salgado now available there are no shortage of options. For the Whitecaps, the challenge is getting the best out of those players for the maximum benefit of the team. It's certainly not an ideal situation. At this stage of the year it would of course be desirable to have a settled lineup that exudes confidence and belief.
If the Whitecaps don't dig deep and find big improvement from Sunday's performance their first taste of the MLS playoffs won't last long, but right now there are nine other clubs that would gladly switch places with them. Whatever happens against LA, this season should be declared a big success and the club's progress in the space of 12 months indicates even better times are just around the corner.
LA Galaxy against Vancouver Whitecaps will be live on TSN on Thursday November 1 in the MLS Playoffs Western Conference Knockout Round.