The Vancouver Whitecaps could hardly have asked for a better situation than the one the club found itself in on Sunday night.

The Whitecaps were on the verge of becoming the first Canadian team to reach the MLS Cup playoffs, and all they had to do was beat the rival Portland Timbers in front of a packed BC Place.

Portland entered the contest well out of the playoff picture and had yet to win a game on the road this season, so surely Vancouver would have little trouble taking care of business.

Well, not exactly.

Instead of coming out and taking the game to Portland by feeding off the energy of the crowd, Vancouver came out flat and never really woke up.

The end result was a thoroughly disappointing 1-0 defeat that saw Vancouver manage just one shot on goal, although the Whitecaps still locked up the final playoff spot in the Western Conference a few hours later when FC Dallas lost at Seattle.

"We've got ourselves right up for this game tonight with a chance to go and win the game and confirm our playoff spot, and for some reason we never started at all tonight," Vancouver forward Kenny Miller told reporters following the game. "There wasn't too many chances for us - even at 1-0 down you think you'd be throwing everything at them, but there just seemed to be something missing."

With a match of that magnitude in front of them, it's hard to fathom why Vancouver played such a lackluster game.

But Sunday only really continued a worrying run of poor form that threatens to make Vancouver's trip to the playoffs a brief one.

The Whitecaps have won only one of their last nine games, and maybe just as troubling is the fact that the team has been held without a goal in six of those contests.

Of the 10 teams that have qualified for the MLS playoffs, Vancouver has scored the fewest goals, and there is really no sign of impending improvement.

Darren Mattocks leads the team with seven goals but has scored just once in the last 11 games following a strong first half of the campaign.

Miller was signed over the summer and was expected to bolster a sputtering attack after making the move from Europe.

The Scotland international finished as the leading scorer in the Scottish Premier League during the 2010-11 campaign as a member of Rangers. But he has yet to get up to speed with Vancouver by scoring just two goals in 12 matches.

A date with the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs now awaits Vancouver, and it's difficult to envision the road really going anywhere beyond that.

But after an inaugural campaign that saw the club win six of its 34 games last year, what head coach Martin Rennie has done with the Whitecaps this season shouldn't be overlooked.

Such a big improvement offers plenty of hope for the future of the team, especially when compared to the first Canadian MLS side, Toronto FC.

Since its inclusion in MLS in 2007, TFC has yet to make a playoff appearance and has spent most of its time floundering at the bottom of the league.

So all things considered, no matter how Vancouver's season ends, it has to be viewed as a success.

The disappointing part is that Sunday should have been a coronation of sorts for a Whitecaps side that has made great progress in only its second MLS season.

Instead, Sunday's game served as a reminder of how far the team still has to go.