VANCOUVER - For much of the season, it was almost considered a given.
But as the end of Major League Soccer's regular season draws near, the playoff spot that seemed to be a sure thing is not necessarily so anymore for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
With that in mind, the visiting Whitecaps will attempt to put some distance between themselves and FC Dallas in the standings when the teams meet Saturday in a Texas showdown.
The fifth-place Whitecaps (10-11-7) lead sixth-place Dallas (8-12-9) by four points in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
After a strong start to the season, Vancouver has struggled through most of the second half. The Whitecaps have lost four straight, while surging Dallas has gone 3-1-2 in its past six.
"You have to be smart and not panic, because we're not in a panic stage," said Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit. "We're still in a good spot. After a pretty long slide, we're still in a pretty good spot, so that's a major positive for us, because we know that we've had great instances of character this year."
They need a another one now.
The Whitecaps are coming off a disappointing 2-0 away loss to Los Angeles and a two-week international break due to World Cup qualifying. Several regulars did not suit up against the powerhouse Galaxy because of suspension, injuries and coach Martin Rennie's desire to rest players before the stretch drive to the season's finish line.
Most of the regulars are expected back, including top scorer Darren Mattocks, who was suspended for the L.A. game after picking up a red card against Portland, and steady defenders Young-Pyo Lee and Alain Rochat, who were rested.
Their return offers an opportunity for a better result. However the Whitecaps are still trying to develop more consistency after making several mid-season roster moves. Newcomers Barry Robson, Dane Richards, Kenny Miller and Andy O'Brien have played well, but have not yet made a difference in the standings.
Still, DeMerit is confident that the Whitecaps can excel at crunch time.
"We've bounced back and had some good performances, and the guys that have done that are still here," he said. "We've added quality players that are still trying to work into doing that with us … we all know that there's enough in the dressing room to go not only to the playoffs, but to try to compete in the playoffs. That has to be our goal."
Saturday's contest is Vancouver's second-last road test of the regular season before four home games and a season-ender in Salt Lake.
Rennie said he is not overly upset about the team's play of late, but he still wants to see a better effort.
"It's something that we have to improve on, but I'm more focused on what we do next rather than what we did before," he said.
The coach and his staff have focused on keeping the team's confidence high during the rough patch and getting better. Never mind that the four-game losing skid is Vancouver's longest of the season.
"We're not getting too down about it, but at the same time we know that it's a very important time in the season — and we know that it’s most important that we finish strong," said Rennie.
As it stands now, the second-year Whitecaps are in a much better position than they were at this time last season, when they finished with just six wins — all at home — and finished last in the league. Even with another loss, they will have an opportunity to control their own destiny in the final homestand.
But president Bob Lenarduzzi did not downplay the importance of Saturday’s game in relation to the team’s post-season hopes.
"We need to get out of (the losing skid) … you have to play your way out of it, and that's where the coaching staff and the players need to come together," he said. "If you can't get up for the next game against Dallas, you shouldn't be in this league. That's a game that, if we get the right result, we could pretty much see them off in terms of catching us."