’It’s where we want to be’: Vancouver Whitecaps aiming to stay tops in MLS West

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps like their view from the top. Now it’s a matter of staying there.

The club moved into first place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference standings this week thanks to Wednesday’s resounding 3-0 home win over Minnesota United in a game that was never really in doubt.

“It looks good,” goalkeeper David Ousted said with a wide grin. “It’s what we want. It’s where we want to be.”

Vancouver and Portland each sit on 44 points, but the Whitecaps have one more victory and seven games left on their schedule compared to the Timbers’ five. The third-place Seattle Sounders are a point back with six matches remaining.

All three teams are in action Saturday, with Vancouver (13-9-5) hosting the Columbus Crew (13-12-4), who occupy fourth in the East, at B.C. Place Stadium, while Seattle visits FC Dallas and Portland travels to face Real Salt Lake.

The Whitecaps’ methodical climb up the table started with a 3-2 victory over New York City FC on July 5 to begin a 7-2-2 run over their last 11 games.

Tied for the second-best road record in MLS, Vancouver is 8-3-3 at home and managed to avoid the usual summer swoon that has seen the club tumble down the standings in years past.

“People are going to say a lot of things about this team,” said Ousted, whose Whitecaps have won three in a row and are 4-0-1 over their last five. “You’re never as good as they say and you’re never as bad as they say.

“We need to keep focused on what got us here.”

That’s been the combination of a deep squad — Vancouver made five changes to Wednesday’s lineup from last weekend’s 3-2 win over Salt Lake without missing a beat — and an ability to compartmentalize the task at hand without looking too far ahead.

The Minnesota game was a perfect example of the Whitecaps taking care of business against a team they were expected to beat. At other points in the franchise’s history, that might not have been the case.

“We could have maybe been overwhelmed by the opportunity to get into first place,” said defender Tim Parker. “We just know what we have the ability to conquer this year.”

But while they sit first in the conference and fourth in the overall MLS standings, the Whitecaps continue to fly under the radar. It’s nothing new for a club often in the shadow of big spenders like Canadian rivals Toronto FC.

“We don’t mind. We’re humble,” said striker Fredy Montero. “We want to concentrate on what we can do on the field and let that work speak for itself.”

With the lowest possession numbers in all of MLS, Vancouver has relied on set pieces and counter attacking for the majority of its offence, although the Whitecaps did score all three of their goals against Minnesota from open play.

The rested Crew, who have just one less point than Vancouver, also enter the weekend riding high with a 3-0-2 record over their last five.

Columbus played Sporting Kansas City to a 1-1 home draw on Sunday, and a number of the players watched the Whitecaps on Wednesday from a suite at B.C. Place.

“Us coming off a mid-week game, they’re going to try and take advantage of that,” said Parker. “We have to be ready to play on our front foot and know what they’re going to throw at us.

“They’re a dynamic, attacking team.”

Crew forward Ola Kamara leads the way with six goals in his last seven games for a total of 15 on the year, but Vancouver fans and players alike will be most keen to see the return of Kekuta Manneh.

The Whitecaps traded the popular midfielder/striker to Columbus in March for midfielder Tony Tchani and US$300,000 in allocation money — funds that have gone towards the purchase of Bernie Ibini and Aly Ghazal.

Manneh showed flashes of brilliance in Vancouver, but while his talents were there for all to see, a combination of health, fit in the formation and a contract set to expire after this season paved the way for his departure.

The 22-year-old Gambian, who has struggled with just three goals in 14 appearances for the Crew, still has lots of friends on the Whitecaps.

They plan on letting him hear it Saturday.

“He must miss me a lot because there’s probably nobody yelling at him the way I did,” Ousted said with a laugh. “I’ll yell at him and make sure that he knows that I’m there.”

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