The MLS is Back Tournament has been a test of the Vancouver Whitecaps' resolve and resilience — perhaps even their faith.
They had a start to forget. Missing almost a third of their roster through injury or personal reasons, the Whitecaps blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads in a 4-3 loss to San Jose in their tournament opener and were blanked 3-0 next time out by Seattle.
"We didn't put our heads down. We used those games to grow and to become better," said Vancouver coach Marc Dos Santos.
"When we went into the Chicago game, we always believed that we had a chance of moving forward. The important (thing) is to learn with the bad moments but also learn with the good ones.
"What happened in the last 30 minutes against Chicago definitely boosted the confidence of the guys and now there's a belief that even with everything that happened and the amount of guys that we don't have here, we could still have a chance of moving forward."
Vancouver rallied late Thursday against Chicago, scoring 65th- and 71st-minute goals for a 2-0 win that secured passage to the knockout stage. The goals came after a lengthy weather delay an hour into the match.
The Whitecaps' fighting spirit, as well as their defence, will be tested again Sunday against Sporting Kansas City.
With six points gained from their group games at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex in the Orlando area, Kansas City (4-1-0) now sits atop the Western Conference standings with 12 points, six ahead of Vancouver (2-3-0)
Peter Vermes' team has scored 13 goals in five games this season, second only to LAFC's 15.
In contrast, Vancouver has been on the back foot for almost the entire tournament. The Whitecaps were outshot 74-19 (23-6 in shots on target) in their first three games and conceded 41 corners, including a league-record 22 against San Jose.
History is also against the Caps, who are winless in their last five meetings (0-1-4) with Kansas City and have been outscored 17-3. Vancouver lost 3-1 to visiting Kansas City in their season opener Feb. 29 with Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda and former Whitecap Erik Hurtado scoring for SKC.
Vermes dismissed that result, saying all the teams have rebooted at the tournament. Plus knockout games are different, he added.
"They're finals and you have to prepare for them as such. You don't have another game. You go in playing like a final so it will be a different animal."
Kansas City gave up stoppage-time goals in the 92nd and 97th minutes, dropping a 2-1 decision to Minnesota United in its tournament opener before beating the Colorado Rapids 3-2 and Real Salt Lake 2-0 to win Group D.
Vermes said his team remains a work in progress despite its success.
"I thought that we were in much better form the start of the season. This second restart has been a lot more difficult. The good thing is we have gotten better from one game to another in these last three games. And that part's important.
"But we have a long way to go. We really do. We've got to get back in the rhythm of our play. There's a lot of pieces in our game that need to get sharper."
Sunday's winner will face either Philadelphia or New England in next Thursday's quarterfinal.
Unlike the group games, the knockout-round games don't count in the regular-season standings.
"We wanted to make sure that we secured result there first," Vermes said of the group phrase, given its importance to the standings. "And whatever happens after that is icing on the cake."
The Whitecaps' personnel problems at the tournament have been well documented.
Forwards Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts, along with defender Andy Rose and defender/midfielder Georges Mukumbilwa, all stayed home because of personal or medical reasons.
Defenders Janio Bikel (adductor strain) and Erik Godoy (quadricep strain) were injured in training.
Dos Santos said Tunisian defender Jasser Khmiri who left the Chicago game late in the first half, with a left knee injury has not been ruled out but was to be checked out again later Friday.
Starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau broke his thumb against Seattle. Backup Bryan Meredith had already left the team to join his family in New Jersey after the death of his mother.
Third-stringer Thomas Hasal, a 21-year-old from Saskatoon, made his MLS debut in relief of Crepeau in the Seattle game and earned the clean sheet against Chicago.
Vancouver was still trying to secure an emergency backup Friday after teenager Jonathan Sirois was returned to the Montreal Impact following a one-day loan that covered the Chicago game.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2020.
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