You could not dream of a better day for the final match of the Canadian Premier League’s opening weekend to their fifth season.
Not a cloud in the sky and a shining sun resulted in around 25℃, with a breeze sweeping through York Lions Stadium, where a large and boisterous crowd cheered on the Nine Stripes despite the defeat, which today was 2-0, to the hands of Valour FC, the same side York closed out their home calendar last year. However, six months made all the difference since that cool September night, when York captured a 3-1 victory.
However, not six months changed this match, but rather the last few weeks. York is currently dealing with multiple injuries to key players, making the circumstances very tough for head coach Martin Nash to deal with. Tass Mourdoukoutas was listed on the bench, but was never supposed to play, and club captain Roger Thompson is out for a much lengthier term with a hip injury. Nash admitted that there was no return date on Mourdoukoutas, the Aussie defender that has become a very reliable piece of the puzzle. “We thought he might be ready this week but we’re not sure now,” said Nash.
In the end, York was forced to play with two centre-backs that actually don’t play in that position, both being new signings. Jonathan Grant and Brem Soumaoro didn’t make the worst pairing; but between Grant’s own goal – which was in no way his own fault, he was trying to get the ball out for a corner – and Soumaoro tentatively lingering back while Grant advanced in his right-back nature wasn’t ideal for defensive solidity. As a result, the Winnipegers looked a lot more potent in the middle, with the man of the match Raphael Ohin and Pacifique Niyongabire becoming a presence down the middle (but not to mention on the wings as well).
Ohin was particularly special on this occasion, which was his long-awaited return after a devastating injury that sidelined him from 2022 altogether. He supplied the cross to the own goal and was constantly being fouled by York outside the area before serious damage could be felt. Whether or not some of Ohin’s writhing was legitimate or not, that’s up to him. There were jeers from the crowd about his willingness to seemingly dive.
That marker came just six minutes into the second half, and with the momentum suddenly swung in their direction, before you knew it, the ball was suddenly once again in Valour’s court. Kian Williams hit a volley hard to the ground but its bounce was over the bar. To get a netfront volley down to a T didn’t take much longer for Phil Dos Santos’ side when in the 54th minute the visitors came charging back, where well-versed CPL veteran Anthony Novak timed everything to perfection and ended up with the goal that sealed the deal. Novak, like Ohin, was forced away from the pitch last year and is on not just a revenge tour but a campaign to show that he is still a prominent striker in this league. Dos Santos’ praise for Novak came easy. “He never quits. You know when you go through adversity and think that the game’s going to be taken away from you? You start thinking things differently and you grow, in many cases.
“Sometimes that growth is taking your career a little bit more seriously. I’m not saying I didn’t know Novak before, I know the character and the individual now, and he’s a pleasure to have around. He’s a guy that’s gonna enjoy every day and be committed.” Novak undoubtedly had a great return, but for him it’s all about replicating that form, which was another key thing that Dos Santos preached. To be fair to him, plenty of questions were asked a little too early about how Valour played so well in the first match of the season, but he shrugged them off for the most part. “For us, it’s a game at a time. We want to bring the playoffs to Winnipeg for the first time, but it’s so far. We have to relax too. We played one game, and yes, it was good, but ask me all these questions in five or six games then I’ll have a better assessment of everything.”
Valour maybe did get too far ahead of themselves to close out last season, so it makes sense that Dos Santos is trying to implement a new mentality with a very changed set of players.
From a York perspective, this match did carry some high points. Once Osaze De Rosario and Clément Bayiha arrived with around 30 minutes to go, the pace certainly picked up. The unimpressive Lassana Faye and young talent Marki Voytsekhovskyy came off. The latter didn’t offer too much, but it was interesting to see him, Mo Babouli, and Oussama Alou all playing at the same time: they are a group of attacking midfielders playing three different roles as Alou was deployed with Jeremy Gagonon-Laparé. The Dutchman did provide a spark and some aggression trying to force his way through defenders, and he did pair with Babouli nicely, so it was no bad debut. Bayiha was keeping Andy Baquero and co. on their feet as he danced into the area.
Paris Gee, the right-back, supplied plenty of long balls for the CF Montréal product to work with. Gee was, for better or worse, less offensively inclined once Bayiha came on, despite him being an assist machine at times. That right side might be a bit overloaded, and the box too. When Bayiha comes in, it seems he is trigger-happy with some of the curlers he attempted, there is no point in De Rosario and Babouli being in the box. Those two should be the guys taking shots inside the 18, period. Too much time was wasted and too many chances were scrambled in this match as York players were looking around quickly pondering whether to pass or shoot. In many ways, it was a match of highlights for York, but there was never a moment from them that would make the reel worth watching.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Goalkeeper Niko Giantsopolous served as the captain for this match, and definitely was a general at the back, encouraging his players to bounce back from the second goal. One reporter asked if it was out of anger, but the netminder cleared the air: “It’s not upset, it’s just you feel the energy isn’t there, so anything you can do to help spark something is needed. You can’t really play with anger.” He was adamant post-match that Roger Thompson is still the club’s captain, but it was cool to put the armband on.
Giantsopolous served very well though. Leading on the pitch through example as he made four saves and in the post-match media conference, he made sure everyone knew that there would be no excuses. “It would be nice to say yeah, we had nerves, because that’s an easy excuse, but no, there were no nerves, there shouldn’t be any, all those guys on the field besides Marki are veterans and have played pro for a long time, so I’m not going to say nerves was a factor.”
York’s next challenge is on Wednesday in the Canadian Championship against Vancouver FC, the first of what essentially is a two-match tie with the newest CPL team. Giantsopolous is looking forward to it.
“It’s a great opportunity to get over a loss. The way I feel personally is when you lose, you just want to get another game. To try and a write the wrong, and Wednesday’s going to be a perfect opportunity for that.”
Top photo of Clément Bayiha by David Chant
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