York United certainly won’t make excuses for itself after a 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps in a Canadian Championship quarterfinal, but if it had to, there would be options aplenty.
While York was not as short-stringed as they were in this fixture last year, barely putting the puzzle pieces together just to field an eleven before losing, but barely. In a certain way you could frame the match this time around as the same situation for the Nine Stripes: held back by injuries, most prominently star man Mo Babouli, who will be out for longer than expected with a quad knock; and the fact that the Whitecaps do have the added quality of playing against a whole other level of opponents. And even then, it must be clarified that they are on an eight-match undefeated run in league play, while York has had pretty much the reverse fortunes.
However, more building blocks have been established once more. This is a confusing time of the season, with the tempo out of the gates increased by the Voyageurs Cup ties. We’re still figuring out who can play where at York due to the injury crisis that continues to run rampant. It seems to be for every success like Austin Ricci, who scored York’s lone goal and is coming back in resounding fashion after back-to-back ACL tears, there is a Jeremy Gagnon-Laparé, who will play a pivotal part but remains sidelined. “It’s just that certain injuries are unfortunate, you get unlucky in certain scenarios,” said Ricci, “I guess that’s part of it, I think we’ve just been more unlucky than you should be or any team should be, but I think you’ve just got to put your head down, work hard and try to get as healthy and fit as you can.”
A sense of calm amid the flurry of chances the Whitecaps managed early on was shown. With two first-choice, actual centre-backs opening the match all was well. Captain Roger Thompson made a sliding block and Tass Mourdoukoutas truly doesn’t look like he skipped a beat. Vancouver made York run, hard and fast, with quick passing that flowed from the back to the middle, where designated player Ryan Gauld amassed chances from his office. York did seem to have a gameplan for the Scotsman, they certainly let him shoot but didn’t give him the room to create even better opportunities for his teammates. Taking Gauld out of the match removed the greatest effects of both Simon Becher and Deiber Caicedo. Becher did score, but off a crucial mistake from Niko Giantsopolous. The goalkeeper didn’t even have that bad of a night, recording four saves, two of which from inside the box. Ultimately, multiple mistakes did trump his good form, making both toetip and fingertip stops.
Another player whose spirits will be dampened despite a decent performance is Brem Soumaoro. The Liberian captain caught a glimpse of playing his natural position, which he held down very well alongside Elijah Adekugbe; it was the first time this season that York has played two defensive midfielders in the defensive midfield. Unfortunately for the hopes of Nash, the look at Soumaoro’s ability in the space that he was signed on for ended abruptly. Thompson suffered a hamstring blow in the 25th minute and was immediately removed from the field. Thus, Soumaoro tracked back while Matthew Baldisimo came in for the midfield assignment.
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Luckily, it isn’t really a problem. Soumaoro’s presence as a lanky but physical six-foot-one frame fits perfectly in place, and his awareness of where he is on the field is great. He can lean into more of a leadership role at some point once the players gain more familiarity. “Brem’s got a good attitude. Wherever you play him he’ll play. Obviously it was great to give him a chance in his natural position, I thought he did well, but obviously we had to change things around when Roger came out. I thought Brem did well even at the back, we opened up late and left us a bit too exposed still, but we were trying to push forward and get back into the game.”
Soumaoro not shying away from getting under the skin of the Whitecaps players did reach a climax when following Ricci’s goal on a quick play from the kick-off, he questionably drew a penalty that was converted. There was surely contact but given the context it might not have been the wisest of calls by Drew Fischer. Canada’s most accomplished referee may have had a lapse in focus at the other end minutes before, when Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy was tripped off the ball. Voytsekhovskyy helped bring plenty of energy for the 15-minutes-or-so he took part in the match. When he came on, he joined a revised attacking third whose fresh legs brought York back into it briefly. Brian Wright, Ricci, and Clément Bayiha were all brought in at once, with 25 minutes to go.
“It always the plan. I was actually in the midst of making the subs before they scored, maybe I was a little bit slow with it, but at the time we were in a decent place and I thought he came on and had some good energy. Austin did really well playing a little bit deeper; you know Brian holds the ball really well; , and Clem’s pace is electric when he gets going and gets into the open field, he put a couple of good balls in. And I have to look back at again, but I thought Brian was going to score that one at the near post, he made a good run and it was a good ball [by Paris Gee] but he just didn’t connect.”
Wright’s finishing remains an issue. His biggest moment came and went so quickly, with Gee whipping one in and he may have got Vancouver’s wall, Yohei Takaoka, cleanly beat since the ball was going so fast. If he can time his leaps and bounds correctly, the thin margins will vanquish and York will have much less of a problem scoring.
Gee has undoubtedly been a highlight of this campaign, but coming away from this match it was the other fullback, Lassana Faye, that impressed more. On the left wing, he combined with Kevin Dos Santos to challenge Mathías Laborda. Faye managed to curl the ball around Dos Santos to keep him on it a couple of times, and it would be able to set up a couple phenomenal chances had Osaze De Rosario hustled to get into a prime chance in the box more often. That seems to be a chemistry with fine results. Faye is starting to hit a groove, and he has embraced more of a role with set pieces now on the job description.
When push came to shove, York United was all up for it in what will be their toughest match of 2023. At points there were certainly disgruntled players, and their pride will take a hit after the Whitecaps made the blue and green work hard and send them to their limit. But the pace was kept, and York will remain chugging along. Now, the focus has been narrowed to one goal: make noise in the league. Priority number one is leaving a brutal road trip stretching over 10,000 kilometres with points in hand. Is there momentum? No. Motivation? Certainly.
Top photo by David Chant
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