A surprising draw against Western Conference lowliers Chivas USA over the weekend has made the Vancouver Whitecaps' final eight games a whole lot more compelling.
Last season, the club looked on course to comfortably make the MLS Cup playoffs, but then took fans on a roller coaster ride by checking out about two thirds through the season and drifting into the postseason tail-first thanks to a little help from their friends.
This year, we're not quite there yet, but Sunday's 2-2 draw with Western Conference bottom-feeders Chivas USA has certainly added more pressure to a Whitecaps club which now plays three times consecutively away from BC Place, starting with a Texas showdown this Saturday against FC Dallas.
The result means the club is now winless in three games and has picked up just one win in its last seven.
Depending on how the next game or two goes, comparisons to last year's meltdown could very well be on the menu.
As for the nature of Vancouver's remaining games, head coach Martin Rennie disputed the idea that his side's schedule is more challenging than other sides pushing for a playoff spot in the west.
“I don't think that's the case,” Rennie retorted when a reporter purported that his team's final eight games are particularly challenging. “Everybody is pretty much playing everybody in the league. So if ours is hard, everyone's is pretty hard. We've got a couple more games on the road which is always a little bit more of a disadvantage, but I think something that we can embrace and make the most of.
“We don't have to play LA again, that's a positive thing. We play [Real] Salt Lake at home as opposed to on the road – there's lots of reasons why I think our schedule isn't any tougher than anyone else's.”
Rennie also emphasized that the final standings won't be as a result of theories based on predictions and past results, but rather determined by the performances and results on the field.
“People start to look at it, and say, 'well, they're going to lose this game and that game and the next game and they might win this one and that one but that's not going to be enough,'” Rennie said. “That's not the way the game works. You have to play every game. If the points were already given out, then we would know who was going to win the league before the season starts.
“Basically, we've just got to focus on playing this one game this weekend and do everything as well as we possibly can.”
One player who won't play a part is Russell Teibert, as the right-sided winger links up with the Canadian national team for Benito Floro's inaugural training camp.
That could mean a spot for Erik Hurtado in the starting lineup, or perhaps a more drastic tactical rejig.
“We've got a few people who can come in and play,” Rennie said. “Erik came in for [Teibert] on the weekend and did a very good job. Created chances and also defended well, so we're in a good position to have a few choices there.”
The club will also benefit from the return of Nigel Reo-Coker, who missed Sunday's match due to a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Other changes are possible too, and perhaps even likely. Captain Jay DeMerit could essentially return any week now if required – or to spice things up a bit – and it's possible certain supposedly undroppable players could lose their spots.
Given Reo-Coker's performances at right fullback during crucial away games earlier this season, that option in particular could be an effective strategy. Lee Young-Pyo didn't look good against Chivas over the weekend and his road struggles this season are well documented.
“We have to do better on the road,” Rennie said. “We have to defend better. I think we'll score goals, I think we'll create chances. But we must be more solid at the back and I think that we've got a great chance to do that.
“The guys are in good spirits and this is the most important point of the season and I think it's time to do well.”