Much of the attention in the build up to Saturday evening's clash between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders has been focused on the long-standing rivalry between the two sides and the potential impact of the results on the Cascadia Cup standings. And to be certain, those are both compelling and important (to those involved, at least) storylines. But in terms of the big picture, they're of secondary importance. With just 4 regular season games remaining for the Whitecaps and 5 still to play for the Sounders the MLS season is very much in the home stretch, and neither side can afford a loss with the playoff race heading down to the wire.
Though the Sounders have yet to clinch playoff qualification, it would take a monumental collapse to keep them out of the postseason for a fourth consecutive season. But in a season that looked at one time to hold promise of a Supporters Shield run, qualification isn't enough. After enduring playoff disappointment three years in a row, the Sounders and their fans are desperate for more. Were the season to end today, that would be a difficult hill to climb; Seattle currently occupies 4th place in the Western Conference, meaning they would need to beat the 5th seed in a mid-week one-off game to even have a chance to improve on their previous playoff showings. Thankfully for Seattle, the season doesn't end today; Seattle trails both the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake by a point, but they also hold a game in hand and have another crack at each team in the season's final month. But a game in hand isn't the same as points in hand, and it's vitally important that the Sounders keep pace with their opposition.
On the opposite side of things, the Whitecaps would likely be ecstatic to see the season draw to a close without any more games taking place. While it once looked as though Vancouver's place in the postseason was all but a given, a bad stretch that began in mid-July has gotten progressively worse and the Whitecaps find themselves winless in six and just two points ahead of FC Dallas for the final playoff spot. While correlation does not prove causation and hindsight will always be 20/20, the mid-season shakeup that was met with some confusion while it was occurring increasingly appears to have been a complete disaster. New signings Kenny Miller and Andy O'Brien have not had the desired impact, and though Dane Richards has played well it would be difficult to imagine that Vancouver wouldn't be better off with Sebastien Le Toux. And though time might show Martin Rennie's approach to be correct, for Vancouver miss the playoffs given the advantage they once held would be an enormous disappointment.
The Sounders ought to be very close to full strength for the first time in several games, with Mauro Rosales looking very likely to make the start and Eddie Johnson returning from suspension. Defender Patrick Ianni is unlikely to make the starting XI due to an adductor strain suffered last weekend against the Earthquakes, but given Seattle's tendency to rotate at centerback it's an absence that likely won't cause as many problems as might typically be expected. Vancouver will likely be missing only one regular, but the absence is a rather big one as Dane Richards will be serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Given Vancouver's horrible form of late the Sounders will enter the game as favorites, but it's never so simple in this league, especially with the rivalry taken into the equation. The Whitecaps are clearly struggling, but they're not nearly as bad a team as their recent record would suggest and slumps can end at any given time. Seattle having their full complement of attacking options is a major boost, but merely having them on the pitch will not be enough in-and-of itself. The Sounders defense will need to tighten up and improve on their recent efforts, while the attack will need to click in spite of not playing together as a unit for nearly three weeks. The time for this team to come together and unleash its full potential is running short, and any delays could end up costing them dearly.