York United, beaten down by injuries with plenty of talent handicapped, experienced a blow that potentially trumped them all with just a few minutes until kickoff: Mo Babouli, their driving force and the man with two goals this season, was removed from the starting eleven. In the tunnel, he had expressed to coach Martin Nash that he was willing to play, but in the end, as a caution with an even bigger occasion coming in the midweek, Babouli was removed from the team. Cue the Forge blowout?
Absolutely not. The match did end 1-0 in favour of the Hamiltonians, but York stood their ground and held strong in defeat. Terran Campbell extended his Canadian Premier League record goal tally for the lone strike of the contest. A tense match for both sides was riddled with off the ball challenges and prompts to get in each other’s faces. These scrums did happen, and although the bark was consistently louder than the bite, everything boiled over as the regular time ceded and made way for the added frame. Ashtone Morgan got a boot to the face of Max Ferrari as he was getting up from the turf, who writhed on the ground as Elijah Adekugbe and Niko Giantsopolous stormed over to have a word with the referee and Forge representatives. The first red card of the season simply had to come in this match, and it felt for long stretches of time, especially with tackle-happy Rezart Rama on the pitch, that it was coming very soon. It was probably just as well that the red card occurred so late, because affairs really would’ve boiled over had it come quicker.
“Sometimes those aren’t things that the game brings on but maybe things that are allowed earlier in the game to happen,” said recently extended Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis. “Of course, later on in the game things become a bit more aggressive because one team is trying to put the game away, the other one is trying to get back into it, there’s obviously moments that can be handled better by everyone on the pitch.”
In between the animosity were glimpses of just how good these teams can be. The Nine Stripes were resilient through the pre-match challenges. The struggling Osaze De Rosario was put in the place where Babouli would reside. He is not a chance creator, but someone who was healthy had to be there. The young talisman did manage to be firmly in the game, and once again he came very close to bagging a couple goals. It’s the same case for the man ahead of DeRo, Brian Wright. Football isn’t as much of a “game of inches” like some other sports are, but that was the nature of missed shots for Wright. His aerial presence came out, but had his vertical been just a bit higher, he’d have scored by now. The whole attacking unit seemed to flow quite well and worked well together. All united, determined to show that even without an engine, with a certain amount of MacGyvering, a car can run.
“I thought we caused them problems. I mean, we adjusted early because we lost our 10 to play a bit more direct, and I thought it caused them some issues,” said Nash of the forward corps. “I thought Brian did some good things in the air, he held the ball well, chest off in a few sets in the box. Maybe even Brian at times has to be a bit more selfish but he did some great things.” Flanking Wright was Austin Ricci, who has the chance to be the best story of the year, having not played in ages; and Kevin Dos Santos, the Portuguese who was creative and vital to York’s success closing out 2022. “I thought Austin having his first start in ooh, a couple of years, it ain’t now; I thought he was good, I thought he did some good things, he had a shot that flashed by the post. So I think he’s coming around to the player he was. It takes time, so I thought he put out a good performance. It was nice to see Kevin back the last two games, Kevin’s been good, he’s brought a lot of energy.”
Ricci, for me, seemed like a nice complement to Wright and De Rosario. For whatever reason, Ricci is someone who calms down situations, and was trusted enough to have the ball sent his way on the left. He, as were the others, was good at finding each other in the box, but it’s either the final pass being intercepted or the finish being lacklustre. Passing is an issue too, since York is not crowding the area like other teams and the ball is getting choked out easily and cleared away. Ricci simply should be starting if he can. His teammates like him, and although he’s not a goal scorer per se, he’s not looking for them. He’s looking for the smart move to get a goal, he’s trying to exploit those areas and he is just a smart footballer. At full health, Ricci could be an MVP candidate.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Speaking of MVP contenders, Paris Gee couldn’t be a wing-back because of injuries at centre-back forcing him there. That is going to be detrimental to the chances of goals, since you weren’t seeing number two bolt up the pitch with dazzling dribbles. Lassana Faye did great though.
York must stay positive and persevere much more, and as the first 905 Derby is cast in the rear-view mirror, plenty of good signs were shown. It’s not a mystery that finishing is an issue, which can be worked on easily. Nash can go into Monday morning training knowing that he must preach on doing X, Y, and Z, instead of telling the players that he can’t really figure out where the key to unlock the door lies.
It was a match of steps for York. And I mean that quite literally. Adekugbe, Roger Thompson, and Tass Mourdoukoutas were stepping. “You just have to stay calm, focus on your rehab, when the time is right you know you have to keep playing,” said Adekugbe. Sadly, many were restricted from stepping, but others stepped up to their places. The point does not change that York put their best foot forward and kept doing so, through defeat, through the hard times where Forge was battering them with tackles and challenges.
Their best foot must stay on the gas as the Vancouver Whitecaps wait in the wings for a Canadian Championship clash on Wednesday.
Top photo by David Chant
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