VANCOUVER — Carl Robinson raised his arm above his head to make a point while addressing the Vancouver Whitecaps in the middle of their training pitch this week.
The head coach's message was clear for all to see — every player needs to be at their highest level or they will quickly find themselves on the bench with the club set to embark on a critical run of three matches in just over a week, beginning Saturday against the Houston Dynamo at B.C. Place Stadium.
Coming off a 1-1-1 road trip that culminated in a 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution, the Whitecaps (9-9-4) sit a point back of the final playoff spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference, but have at least two games in hand on five of the six teams ahead of them in the congested standings.
"Games in hand are irrelevant if you don't pick up points," said Robinson. "We've been away for a while, we've picked up points on the road. We've played really well in games and got nothing from them, and we probably didn't deserve to win games (that) we have won.
"We've just got to focus on Saturday — tough game, good team. We're a good team. We'll be ready for it and we'll give it our best."
The Dynamo (10-7-7) are in three-way tie on points for first place in the West with 37 — it could be a four-way tie depending on what happens between the Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls on Friday night — but have just one victory from 12 road games (1-7-4) in 2017.
Houston beat Vancouver 2-1 in Texas in the clubs' first meeting back in May, and have been paced by star striker Erick Torres' 12 goals, although the Mexico international hasn't scored in his last four appearances.
The Whitecaps lead the all-time series 5-4-2, with an unbeaten 5-0-1 mark in Vancouver.
"They've got a lot of quality," said Whitecaps defender Jordan Harvey. "They can hit out on the counter, they've got some big boys up top, some good finishers. We're going to have to be keyed in defensively, be balanced. If you're one way or the other they're going to make you pay.
"They've got a good corps defensively and then their attackers break, and break fast."
The Dynamo picked up their first road win of the season on July 22, and have three victories and three ties combined over their last six outings.
"We had a good game early in the year against them," said Robinson, whose team is six points back of top spot in the West. "First half we were OK, second half I thought we dominated the game, but were unable to get the result."
The Whitecaps will begin life without Matias Laba on Saturday after the defensive midfielder tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against the Revolution, ruling the Argentine out until next spring.
Andrew Jacobson and Russell Teibert are the obvious short-term replacements in the starting 11 while Egyptian international Aly Ghazal, who signed just last week and plays a similar style to Laba, gets into game shape.
"I feel bad for (Laba)," Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted said. "You always do when something like that happens, but a player or Mati's quality and mental capability, I know he's going to be back, and back even stronger.
"We're here to support him. We're here to go play for him and make sure that he's still very much a big part of this team."
After the hosting the Dynamo, the Whitecaps welcome the Seattle Sounders — one of the teams tied with Houston atop the conference — on Wednesday before crossing the continent to play Orlando City SC on Aug. 26.
"Just focus on one game," Robinson said of what he told his players. "Twenty-four hours is a long time in football, as we've seen last weekend.
"We go from trying to get within three points of the top of the table to losing my best player to a crucial injury."