TORONTO — The Vancouver Whitecaps made an impression at the MLS is Back Tournament last month when their depleted but resilient squad advanced out of the group stage and came within a whisker of a spot in the quarterfinals.
Among those who took notice was Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney.
"I thought they did a nice job. They have a clear identity," Vanney said Monday. "I think they're starting to build a culture there, the guys are buying in.
"I think they showed in some moments, some real resiliency. They stuck together."
Toronto and Vancouver will meet Tuesday night at BMO Field to kick off a run of nine games between Major League Soccer's three Canadian clubs. TFC, the Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact are staying in Canada for this phase of the season because of border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each team will play six games — three each against the other two teams — during the all-Canadian portion of the schedule, which runs through Sept. 16. The stakes are high, as the results count in the MLS standings, and the team that earns the most points over this stretch will qualify for the 2020 Canadian Championship final.
In a normal campaign, MLS results have no bearing on the Canadian Championship.
"The difference is that at the same time we're playing for a Canadian Championship finalist spot, we're also playing for points in the MLS standings," Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos said in an availability Friday. "But it has all been an adjustment this year. So our approach is we have to get points as soon as possible.
"We have to use these games to not only add points in our standings, so we could keep our playoff spot, but also get points to be the highest seed team that would allow us to play in the Canadian Championship final."
The MLS team that gets into the Canadian final will face the winner of the Canadian Premier League's 2020 season, currently being played in Charlottetown. The winner will capture the Voyageurs Cup and advance to the CONCACAF Champions League, something Dos Santos has called a priority for the Whitecaps.
Vancouver's quest for a spot in Champions League will be buoyed by the return of several players who did not travel to Orlando, Fla., for the MLS is Back Tournament due to COVID-19, either for family or medical reasons. Forwards Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts, along with defender Andy Rose and defender/midfielder Georges Mukumbilwa, did not make the trip but are now back in the fold.
Dos Santos said its been encouraging to have most of his team together for training. The MLS suspended its season March 12 due to the novel coronavirus, and teams were off before being allowed to return to small-group training on May 28. The Whitecaps finally got back to full-team training on June 15, only to be split up again by the MLS is Back Tournament.
"It's going normal now. It's going how it should be," Dos Santos said. "It was really hard to train with such a limited type of group and it's just good to have the full team together. It even changes the environment in training and the mentality.
"Teams should be together. And it was hard the last few months where we were separated and training by groups. So it's very positive to have everyone together."
Both Toronto and Vancouver made it to the round of 16 in Florida, a disappointment for the Reds and a triumph for the Whitecaps.
TFC entered the tournament as a favourite to go deep and finished first in its group without dropping a game in the preliminary stage before being soundly beaten 3-1 by New York City FC in the knockout stage.
The Whitecaps not only came to the tournament with a depleted roster, they lost starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau to a broken left thumb in a game against Seattle.
With backup Bryan Meredith away from the team due to the death of his mother, 21-year-old Saskatoon native Thomas Hasal was thrust into action. He turned out to be a revelation, backstopping Vancouver to a 2-0 win over Chicago to advance to the round of 16 then holding Sporting Kansas City to a 0-0 draw before the Whitecaps fell 3-1 in penalty kicks.
Still, thanks to a 1-0-2 preliminary record, Toronto FC enters this stretch of games in second place in the Eastern Conference. They are unbeaten in 15 straight regular-season games dating back to last season.
"In the regular-season games we haven't played from behind at all but we've managed to drop four points from leading situations that we would want to close out that would have put us in a slightly better position, but that's one of the things that we're focusing on," Vanney said.
"During this stretch, while the backdrop is the Canadian championship final, we still want to collect points and we're still going to keep pushing to get results in each of these games."
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (2-3-0) AT TORONTO FC (2-0-3)
Tuesday, BMO Field
COOL CANADA — Vanney expects the games in Canada to be more fiercely contested than the ones in Orlando, and not just because of what's at stake. Gone are the oppressive Florida temperatures, which necessitated some 9 a.m. kickoffs for teams looking to beat the heat. "The temperature outside is beautiful, so the guys aren't being beat down by heat and sun and humidity, and that will help them to be able to recover and keep their intensity level higher, Vanney said. "It's that time of year when guys really start to enjoy playing as the weather starts to cool off."
ROSTER REPORT — Dos Santos said both Meredith and Hasal will be available to tend goal Tuesday, but didn't let slip who might get the start. Meanwhile, Vanney said forward Ayo Akinola, who scored five goals in three games at the MLS is Back Tournament, is "very questionable" as he comes back from a hamstring injury.
QUIET RETURN — A lack of energy with no fans in the stands won't spoil the BMO Field return of Ricketts. "This has been a matchup I've been looking forward to since my departure and since my arrival back in MLS," the pacey forward said. Ricketts played in Toronto from 2016-18 before joining Lithuanian club FK Sudkva. He joined the Whitecaps during the 2019 season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2020.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press