In the midst of an unusual season punctuated by a gruelling schedule, the Vancouver Whitecaps are taking on yet another challenge this week — game day travel.
Usually the team would fly into California a few days ahead of Wednesday's match up with Los Angeles FC. But due to COVID-19 concerns, teams across Major League Soccer have been opting instead to stay home — or in the case of Canadian clubs, at their temporary U.S. homes — as late as possible to minimize exposure.
That means the 'Caps (5-7-0) will be waking at their hotel in Portland, Ore., around 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday for a 7:30 p.m. game. In between, they'll have lots of travel, including a nearly two-hour flight, and just a brief rest at a hotel in L.A.
"The strain before kickoff is already too high for me," coach Marc Dos Santos told reporters this week.
"Should you play professional games of any sport like that? No. But is it an opportunity and a learning experience to show how strong you can be mentally? Yes, a huge one."
The Whitecaps head to California in good standing, having won three of their last four games, and currently sit above the playoff bar.
L.A. (4-5-3) has lost three of its last four outings, and are coming off a 3-0 road loss in Seattle on Friday.
Still, the 'Caps and LAFC are tied for points, with Vancouver sitting just two spots above the Black and Gold in the Western Conference standings based on wins.
In order to stay in the post-season race, the Whitecaps need to battle the fatigue that comes with playing a packed schedule.
"Three games in one week is difficult for any team in the world, especially when you play against a big team," said 'Caps left back Ali Adnan.
"We have so many games right now and we have to take care of the body. Because if you're going to play the 90 minutes and you don't rest well, you're going to feel it so much in the game."
Getting players to take care of themselves hasn't been an issue for Dos Santos.
"We have a group of players that's extremely professional," he said. "We don't have to tell them to go for naps. They actually love to nap."
The club's trainers also ensure players have everything they need to recover properly between games, he added, including proper nutrition, massage therapy and appropriate training sessions.
It isn't only the 'Caps who are feeling the grind of an unusual season, Dos Santos said. Fatigue is an issue throughout the league.
"It's hard for me to think that the teams are playing at their full physical and mental capacity," he said. "Because right now, playing every three days, such a condensed schedule, with the type of travelling in and out, for sure it affects fatigue, it affects fitness levels, concentration levels in some moments. And that is something that is a new experience for all of us."
But the journey to the playoffs isn't getting any easier. The MLS released its schedule for the rest of the year Tuesday, confirming speculation that the 'Caps will not play another game in Vancouver this season.
Instead, the club will keep its "home base" in Portland, living in a hotel, training at the University of Portland and hosting six games at Providence Park.
Dos Santos has previously referred to the first of those games as a "fictitious home game" because Vancouver will play the Portland Timbers, who have called Providence Park home since 2011.
The 'Caps will also host Real Salt Lake on Oct. 10, LAFC on Oct. 14, the San Jose Earthquakes on Oct. 24 and the Seattle Sounders on Oct. 27 and the L.A. Galaxy on Nov. 8.
Vancouver has five more road games this year, starting with Wednesday's match against LAFC. The team will also visit the Sounders on Oct. 3, the Earthquakes on Oct. 7, the Galaxy on Oct. 18 and the Timbers on Nov. 1.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (5-7-0) AT LOS ANGELES FC (4-5-3)
Wednesday, Banc of California Stadium
LAST TIME OUT: The two clubs last met on July 6, 2019, with L.A. torching Vancouver 6-1 for a home victory.
BIG SHOOTER: LAFC's Diego Rossi leads the league in both goals (10) and shots on goal (25).
FOND MEMORIES: Dos Santos was an assistant coach in LAFC's inaugural MLS season. His first win as head coach of the Whitecaps was a 1-0 victory against his former club on April 17, 2019.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2020.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press