Whitecaps host lowly Rapids looking to hold onto top spot in Western Conference

VANCOUVER — Carl Robinson was involved in a number of tight races at both the top and bottom of the standings during his playing career in England.

The head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps is now sharing some of the lessons he learned as his team prepares for a mad dash to the finish line in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.

“Keep your calm, keep your cool,” Robinson said this week as the Whitecaps prepared to host the lowly Colorado Rapids on Saturday. ”It’s important you don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Vancouver (13-9-6) enters the weekend first in the congested West with 45 points, one up on the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders.

The Whitecaps, who missed the playoffs last season, and Sporting each have six games left on their schedules, while the Sounders have five matches remaining, and the Timbers just four.

Unbeaten in six (4-0-2), Robinson’s men visit Seattle and Kansas City next week to wrap up a stretch of three games in eight days after playing Colorado, but know their focus must be squarely on the Rapids (7-16-5), who sit last in MLS.

“They have nothing to lose,” said Whitecaps defender Marcel de Jong. ”They’ll play more freely and might go all out in an all-or-nothing kind of game. We have to be prepared for that and not lose our heads.”

Colorado fired head coach Pablo Mastroeni in the middle of August, replacing him with assistant Steve Cooke on an interim basis. The Rapids went on to lose the next four, but picked up their first road win of the season at Houston on Sept. 9 before securing a home draw with New York City FC, which sits second in the East, last weekend.

“They’re coming in to play for their jobs,” said Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted, whose team is 7-2-3 over its last 12. ”They’re coming in without any pressure.

“That’s always dangerous.”

The Whitecaps will be wrapping up a four-game homestand that saw them collect seven of a possible nine points in the first three matches, which were also played over an eight-day span.

Vancouver picked up a 3-2 victory over Real Salt Lake and a 3-0 decision over Minnesota United before salvaging a 2-2 draw with the Columbus Crew last Saturday.

One of the reasons the Whitecaps have been able to methodically claw their way up the standings has been an ability to avoid a letdown against teams below them — something they will need once again against Colorado.

“We’ve got a group of men in that locker-room that deal with scenarios,” said Robinson. ”We’ve been up against the wall in certain games, and we’ve not gone under.

“They give me everything they have every day and every game that we play, and I can’t ask any more.”

But one area where the Whitecaps have struggled is holding onto the ball. Vancouver is last in MLS with an average of just 44.5 per cent possession over its 28 games, relying heavily on set pieces and counter-attacks for its offence.

While those numbers aren’t ideal — the next nine teams with superior possession stats, including the Rapids, all currently sit outside the playoffs — Robinson isn’t overly concerned.

“Do we want to be better in possession? Yes we do,” said the Welshman. ”We can be better, and we’re striving for that. When we get into a position in the game, whether we’re ahead or we’re behind, we sometimes don’t play how we would like.

“But it’s all about what you do in both boxes. We can be better in all areas — set pieces included, transition included, possession included, defensive play.”

Having already earned four of a possible six points at altitude in Colorado this season, the Whitecaps need three more at home this weekend against the Rapids if they’re going to have a realistic shot at holding onto first with four of their last five games on the road after Saturday.

“I’ve been on teams where you’re looking to ruin someone’s streak or ruin their year,” said Vancouver central defender Tim Parker. “We have to be ready to take what’s ours.”

Notes: Kendall Waston is suspended due to yellow card accumulation for the Whitecaps, meaning that either Andrew Jacobson or Aaron Maund will slot in beside Parker. … Apart from the upcoming visits to Seattle and Kansas City, Vancouver must also travel to Portland on the final day of the regular season.

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