Vancouver Whitecaps take to the pitch against defending champions LA Galaxy at BC Place on Saturday to begin a two-week period that has the potential to transform a season that has so far failed to live up to expectations.
The 'Caps next two MLS games are both at home, but against teams they have never beaten in MLS (LA and Portland). They also have the two-leg final of the Amway Canadian Championship, a tournament they are yet to win.
After making the playoffs last season results in 2013 haven't been good enough, but the 'Caps now have the chance to kick start their year. One big positive is that they are still unbeaten at home this season, but their overall record in MLS shows they are now without a win in their last seven matches.
The Whitecaps have taken just one point from five road matches, the latest being a lifeless performance in a 2-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake last weekend which caused Head Coach Martin Rennie to openly criticize his players. It was a display that was dramatically different from a week earlier when they were unfortunate to only get a point at home to FC Dallas.
"All of them as a team need to look at themselves a little bit more," said Rennie. "I think they let the fans down. At home we have done well, but we have to improve what we are doing on the road for us to get to where we want to get to."
So as the club returns home, the stakes are high for Martin Rennie and his team. It's not just the results that are concerning, it is the manner of the last couple of performances away from home where the club seems to have regressed. There are also familiar failings both home and away that are costing points - an inability to adequately defend set pieces and a failure to make the most of chances.
Although Rennie won't use it as an excuse, the absence of his two highest paid players, Kenny Miller and Jay DeMerit, has been a big issue for the Whitecaps. DeMerit's loss in the season opener removed a key piece of their backline, while Miller's absence up top has left them lacking experience in attack. The only two matches Miller has started in this season are the two games the 'Caps won.
However, there should be enough options within the Whitecaps squad to cope with those losses. There is also enough quality to expect better performances from this group of players. "Certain players are amongst our best players on the team when we play at home, but consistently they really let themselves down on the road," said Rennie. "As individual players and coaches we have to address it, and as a team we have to do better. It is easy to make excuses, but to be a top team you have to handle that and improve on that."
The next few weeks are also a big test of Martin Rennie's managerial ability. He was able to take the worst team in the Western Conference and get to the playoffs in his first year in charge, but now he needs to galvanize a team that at times has performed well below expectations. Stability in team selection will help with that but the players must to stand up and be counted. Certain members of the squad do that on a weekly basis, such as Nigel Reo-Coker and Andy O'Brien, but others haven't shown that same consistency. As Reo-Coker said after the Real Salt Lake game, the players have to take responsibility for their own performances.
With four out of their next six league games at BC Place and also holding home advantage in the second-leg of the Canadian Championship final, the schedule is now in their favour. I believe the Whitecaps have the right people in charge and enough quality within their squad to start climbing the Western Conference standings, but they must make home advantage count over the next few games.