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VANCOUVER — Defender Jake Nerwinski knows the Vancouver Whitecaps aren't considered the favourites heading into the Major League Soccer playoffs.
After all, the 'Caps (12-9-13) are set to make their first post-season appearance in four years Saturday when they visit Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7).
Nerwinksi doesn't see being the underdog as a disadvantage, though.
“We’ve been that the entire season. We’ve been that since I’ve been here, for five seasons now. That’s fine, we own that," he said. "But anything can happen in MLS playoffs. We’re going to go in with just as much confidence as they have.”
The veteran defender is one of the few players who were with the squad back in 2017 when the Whitecaps last saw playoff action. After demolishing the San Jose Earthquakes 5-0 in the knockout round, Vancouver faced the Seattle Sounders in a two-leg aggregate conference semifinal.
“I actually hurt my hamstring pretty bad in the 30th minute in Seattle. I had a Grade 2 tear. So not a great memory," Nerwinski said of the final game. "And we also went out, too.”
Now he has a chance to make better memories as the 'Caps take on the Western Conference's No. 3 seed.
The energy and atmosphere of the playoffs is completely different than a regular-season game, Nerwinski said.
“It doesn’t matter that we’re sixth seed, we’re going away to Kansas City to a team that’s been good probably since they’ve been an MLS team. But it doesn’t matter. Anything can happen," he said. "I think that’s kind of the excitement of the MLS playoffs because there’s always upsets. So I think we just need to go into it playing free.”
Adversity is nothing new for this Whitecaps squad. The regular season saw the club go from bottom of the Western Conference to No. 6 seed thanks to a 10-2-10 run.
The club capped the campaign with a 1-1 draw against the Seattle Sounders on Nov. 7, extending their unbeaten streak to six games (3-0-3).
“It’s no secret where we started, bottom of the table, and not a lot of people have given us respect," said striker Brian White. "I think we’ve proven that we can get results against the top teams in this conference and we’re looking to continue that trend into the playoffs.”
Vancouver and Kansas City met twice in the regular season, with each side taking a victory. Sporting blanked the 'Caps 3-0 at Children's Mercy Park back on May 16, but the Whitecaps got their revenge on Oct. 17 when they downed the visitors 2-1 at B.C. Place.
"Just because we beat them once doesn’t mean we’re going to beat them again," White said. "We have the players, we have the ability to do it. But we know it’s going to be a challenge because they’re such a good team at home. In the playoffs, it's going to be a tough atmosphere to go into and play."
Sporting struggled through the end of the season, dropping three games in a row, including a 1-0 decision to Real Salt Lake on Nov. 7.
Like the Whitecaps, though, the club has had nearly two weeks to rest, recover and train. Some of SKC's biggest offensive threats — including striker Alan Pulido and captain Johnny Russell — could return to the lineup Saturday after missing time with injuries.
The Whitecaps know what they need to do in order to get a result in Kansas City, said interim coach Vanni Sartini.
“We can’t afford let them have time and space on the ball. The only way for us to win is to be as aggressive as we can," he said.
Vancouver will need to keep track of SKC's Daniel Salloi, who had 16 goals in the regular season, tied for fifth in MLS. Pulido could also pose problems — the Mexican forward registered eight goals and three assists before undergoing knee surgery in early October.
On the other side of the field, the Whitecaps will need to find a way to get the ball past 'keeper Tim Melia, who ranked third in MLS with 14 wins in the 2021 campaign.
Sporting won't be easy to beat, Sartini said, but he doesn't see the tables as being tilted in Kansas City's favour, either.
"I consider us having the same chances. It’s one per cent more for them because they play at home. That’s the only advantage that they have," the coach said.
"But I think now that we have the awareness and we believe in us. We didn’t make the playoff because something happened, we made the playoff because we deserve it and we know that in the playoff anything can happen.”
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (12-9-13) AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY (17-10-7)
Saturday, Children's Mercy Park
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: Sporting had a 9-5-3 record at home during the regular season. The Whitecaps were 2-5-10 on the road.
AMPLE EXPERIENCE: While the Whitecaps are making their first post-season appearance since 2017, SKC are perennial contenders. The club is in the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
MAKING HISTORY: Vancouver and Kansas City haven't faced each other in the MLS playoffs before. The two clubs did play in the CONCACAF Champions League back in 2016, where the Whitecaps won both games in the group phase. They also met in the knockout round of the MLS is Back tournament in 2020 with Sporting taking a victory on penalties following a goalless draw.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press