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Top teams Whitecaps, Galaxy to battle in wild-west matchup

Ryan Gauld Vancouver Whitecaps Ryan Gauld - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — Last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps climbed to the top of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.

This week, they're fighting to stay there.

The Whitecaps (4-1-1) will host the L.A. Galaxy (3-1-3) Saturday in matchup sure to impact the standings. Going in, the two sides are separated by a single point.

Vancouver is on a high after taking a decisive 4-0 victory over Canadian rivals Toronto FC last week, and head coach Vanni Sartini said they're lucky to be facing a tough opponent this weekend.

“You don’t have to motivate the players or something. It’s No. 1 against No. 2," he said. "So everyone, hopefully, is going to be on top of their game.”

Galaxy is coming off their first loss of the season, having dropped a 2-1 decision to Los Angeles FC last week, but the 'Caps won't be taking the visitors lightly.

“It’s how MLS is. It’s a very tight league. So we cannot relax," Sartini said.

The Galaxy is an exciting club, he added, with weapons including striker Dejan Joveljic, who is tied for second in the league with five goals on the season.

Sartini said the Whitecaps will need to try and win the ball high in order to stop Joveljic and the Galaxy's other stars from getting chances in dangerous areas.

Vancouver's defence has been a strength so far this season, conceding just six goals across its first six games and leading the league in goal differential (+8).

Continuing that defensive structure on Saturday will be key, said Whitecaps striker Brian White.

“It's just sticking to the principles," he said. "They've worked well for us so far, so it’s not getting away from that regardless of what happens.”

Vancouver has been an offensive force, too, early in the 2024 campaign.

The club is tied with the Galaxy and the Portland Timbers for most goals in the West (14) and leads the league in goals per game (2.3).

Instead of relying on a single star to find the back of the net, the 'Caps have a league-leading nine players who've scored.

That's no surprise to White, who's put up two goals and two assists.

“I think we emphasize putting a lot of numbers in the box and getting guys up the field. So when you have a lot of guys in front of the box, I think there's a bigger chance that you're going to have multiple goal scorers," he said. "And hopefully we can continue that."

Off-season acquisition Fafa Picault leads the Whitecaps with three goals and three assists in his first five games.

Now in his eighth MLS season — and playing for his fifth club — Picault said what makes Vancouver's group special is how the entire team has bought into the mentality of family.

“I think everybody knows they have to step up in key moments. And we don’t have a group of egos, which is very important," he said.

"We know that certain guys have to score goals and that’s part of our jobs, but we also count on guys making big plays and moments where maybe we don’t expect them. Everybody’s willing to chip in and do their job and that’s what’s holding us together."

With 28 games left in the regular season, the team knows there's still ample work to be done.

Staying high in the table will require everyone to maintain level heads, Picault said.

“In the moment that we're in, we don't want to get too high and start underestimating other teams," he said.

"We have to get used to being that team that other teams look at as being a good team. And now that's going to be the new challenge, not just being the underdog but also being a team that other teams consider a threat."


LOOKING BACK: Galaxy has a 14-11-7 edge over the 'Caps in regular-season matchups between the two sides. Vancouver took a 4-2 victory when L.A. visited B.C. Place last July.

TURNING HEADS: Three Whitecaps were named to the MLS Team of the Matchday last week, including defender Ranko Veselinovic, who scored his first goal of the season against Toronto. Midfielder Alessandro Schopf was also recognized for a performance where he recorded an assist, four key passes and nine recoveries. Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka got a nod after making three saves for his second clean sheet of the season.

MAKING HISTORY: Three Japanese players could start an MLS match for the first time on Saturday, including Vancouver's Takaoka and L.A. defenders Miki Yamane and Maya Yoshida.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.