York United has had a strange time in the Canadian Premier League up to this point. In the overall confusing system of the 2019 season, York was not a premier, top-two team to secure a finals berth. In 2020, a Summer on Prince Edward Island, they missed the round-robin by a single point. 2021, a campaign split where the bubble burst and clubs returned home, well, this was when the Nine Stripes finally reached the playoffs. Sure, there were matches and stretches where their form was very hot-and-cold and sure, they only qualified due to a Valour choke job on the final day, but it was an achievement nonetheless. An immediate playoff exit in Hamilton ensued.
York’s 2022 was sandwiched by promising runs of impeccable form, but the ingredients inside were utterly disappointing. Though the second half of the year did somewhat put a shovel into the ground, aiding the first step of paving the way to a championship. Despite a remarkable (and, frankly, unsustainable) 17 players heading for the exits, each was replaced with sheer quality, whereas last season was derailed by injuries and therefore quantity.
There is undoubtedly a feeling of magic going into April 16th, York’s season and home opener. It seems as though the sense is that the blue and green are primed for a run into these crazy, revamped playoffs. When you put the roster assembled by Angus McNab and Martin Nash toe-to-toe with any other league team, it looks like it can become a well-oiled machine.
Players are coming from all over the league and Europe to take part in a spell at YLS. Citing “a plan presented to you” (Brem Soumaoro), and “a new inspiration” (Elijah Adekugbe), the project at York is well and truly underway. A road map has been very obviously chalked up, and the athletes do like it from what we can tell. Now, it is certain that the depth of this squad is immense, so playing time, even for some of the top guns, won’t come easily. Every training session will be a grind and a new chance to prove yourself.
What has occurred so far in the first stage of that, preseason, has definitely seen some unexpected risers. Particularly in attacking midfield, where everyone will be playing second fiddle to Molham Babouli but if York plays a 4-1-3-1 (or something along those lines), Oussama Alou or Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy came come into the fold on a more permanent basis. The latter is far more likely due to his status as a Canadian under 21 years of age. For those new to the CPL, each club must give 2,000 minutes of playing time to players of that category. Last season, York amassed an incredible 6,910 minutes coming from seven separate players.
The situation is much different this year, with only four eligible athletes. One is on loan and most likely will be purchased full-time by Werder Bremen; one is injured and won’t be here ‘till mid-season, and one is the backup goalkeeper. That leaves most of the duties to Marki. However, don’t think of it as bad for him to be roaming the pitch often. He captured the League1 Ontario Young Player of the Year in 2022.
The noticeable change is mostly due to people like Osaze De Rosario getting older and many transfers out. Though Angus McNab has been shopping all winter, and experienced CPLers such as Adekugbe, Brian Wright, Jeremy Gagnon-Laparé, and Jonathan Grant have raised the average age to 25.6. Put together, those four have three North Star Shields, three regular-season championships, and 188 games played across the league. That group is joined by other CPL veterans that have made it in this league like Matthew Baldisimo, Paris Gee, and a man that is seemingly Everything Everywhere All at Once for York, Babouli. The star attacking midfielder was brought in during August as the club was figuring out who they were (and who they could be) but the puzzle was not complete with the final piece a needle in a haystack. Luckily, McNab checked under the couch again and found it. Babouli sparked the team to unfathomable heights, or at least they would have been back when York did not win for [okay, I don’t like doing this often, but you already know it’s all-caps time] TEN MATCHES in a row.
Your confidence level should be insanely high in terms of believing that that won’t occur again.
Babouli is one thing on his own but merged with young talisman Osaze De Rosario and you have arguably (or inarguably for that matter) the greatest and most deadly one-two punch in the CPL currently.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
De Rosario was painfully close to claiming the Golden Boot last year, an accomplishment cut short by a missed penalty and a questionable offside call. His development was sped up by a spell at Rukh Lviv, where he earned tough minutes in Ukraine’s first division. He left before the war began and joined York as a triallist, being forced to earn his stripes. The decision to give him a contract obviously paid off and he was the first bit of exciting news for the club once the league went on its six-month winter hiatus. The announcement of a contract extension through 2024 was welcome news. He is no runaway favourite for the top scorer in 2023 but is certainly up there with the rest of the top strikers. De Rosario has proven that he can do it all: long range, short range, in the air, he has most definitely scored on penalties too. To say De Rosario is versatile in the front three would be correct.
Now, nothing can be 100% sunshine and rainbows. For York, where that little fatal flaw could be is on defence. Goalkeeper Niko Giantsopolous is not an issue, he was stunning. Earning six clean sheets in 18 matches is no joke. Would he have been up there with nominees for the best ‘keeper award? Probably not, and the carryover of elite netminders in this league is always something you can count on. So fellow media man Giantsopolous this season will likely casually impress, hopefully spread out over a complete season, though Eleias Himaras simply must get matches here and there to boost his development. York just needs to avoid signing high schoolers to one-match contracts to fill the spot.
Right in front of Giantsopolous is the weakest part of the squad but is not lacklustre in any sense of the word. Centre-back Tass Mourdoukoutas is one the most durable defenders this league has seen, participating in every single minute of the 15 matches he played in following York’s acquisition by the Aussie. Can he do it over 28 games plus Canadian Championship and potential playoff fixtures? That will remain a doubt.
Flanked by him will be left-back Lassana Faye, who has vast experience in the Netherlands and has even taken the pitch in massive Europa League contests. He’s a runner and will be looking to charge down the left, akin to Toronto FC’s Richie Laryea but on the opposite side. The other CBs are Roger Thompson, who has been through the thick and thin with this club since day one, Soumaoro (also a defensive midfielder but York should be relatively fine there, side for the first few weeks with Adekugbe’s injury), the aforementioned Grant, who has a great CV and can play right-back, then Gee, a top RB in the league and an assist machine.
After subtly taking you through the roster, it’s time to move on to my predicted starting XI. Now, it will not be like this for match one with the injury to Adekugbe so either Alou or Marki can pair with Babouli in attacking midfield or Matthew Baldisimo can play alongside Gagnon-Laparé, but potentially Sumaoro plays there and Thompson gets the start. It’s really tough to predict the lineup for the matchup with Valour on April 16th.
The consensus for the entire season is a 4-2-3-1, but I’ve gone with Sumaoro instead of Thompson on the right-side CB role. I think the captain of Liberia offers more up the pitch as well, which has to be a thing Nash focuses on more this season given the pedigree it has coming off the finish that was late 2022. Unfortunately, a strong defensive shape ran out of magic once Diyaeddine Abzi left and it couldn’t recover.
Also, Clément Bayiha, who spent time in the Norwegian top flight and with CF Montréal, should start down the right wing, although Michael Petrasso is still a great option. Either way, the attacking corps will be doing well.
Other than those notes, it’s Giantsopolous in goal; Faye, Mourdoukoutas, Sumaoro, and Gee on defence; then Gagnon Laparé and Adekugbe in defensive midfield; Babouli slightly further back then left winger Kevin Dos Santos (how have I not said his name once before?!?) and Bayiha on the right. This is just so Babouli has the room to operate up to his calibre.
Finally, De Rosario is up top.
The more I look at it, this team is scary. No one will be looking forward to a clash with the Nine Stripes in 2023, contrary to recent times. I fully believe this is the year of a breakthrough and a trophy for York.
So come out to a match, get a pie and watch the football before your eyes. Something special is brewing at YLS, so don’t miss out on your chance to be a crucial part of it: the voice in the stands.
My prediction for York United in 2023? Finish second in the regular season and lose in the final, however, they will become the first Canadian Premier League club to win the Voyageurs Cup.
Great things are mere months away, I believe. You should too.
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