There is truly never a dull moment in the world of York United. Since the season began, they’ve encountered incredible highs and lows, transferred players in and out, and experienced some serious schedule congestion (yet fought through it incredibly well). Sitting at second in the Canadian Premier League table – albeit only one point ahead of third-place Forge and with two more games played than most clubs – York is in an enviable position. The team is working very well together, and are leaps and bounds from where they started the season. Multiple players have returned from crushing injuries (some even twice) and come back stronger. Nashball is working incredibly well.
Inevitably, it can’t be all sunshine and rainbows. You’d wish it was, since York put on a show with a dramatic win when they wore rainbow colours in early June, but some issues have risen and will be themes throughout the second half of the season. For example, Canadian U-21 minutes (of which every CPL team must amass 2000 of to be eligible for the playoffs) have been hard to come by. With only four players to choose from, and that group being the backup goalkeeper, a third-choice centre-back, an injured, third-choice attacking midfielder, and a striker recovering from a quad surgery; naturally not many have played. In fact, York needs to record 118.5 minutes of U-21 play per match down the stretch. It’s truly not an ideal situation.
Who could forget the ongoing saga that is the ownership situation? York remains operated by Canada Soccer Business in a very unideal situation for the people paid by the club and the fans; it’s a state of limbo. However, York does have a big market that just hasn’t caught word of the club yet, and it is totally plausible that anyone with an interest in football ownership would like to go for the role as owner.
With some of the bad vibes out of the way, what can’t be ignored is all the incredible moments and performances we’ve seen in this semester of York United football. Breaking out of a rut by going to Halifax and dominating the Wanderers, coming away with a 3-0 win. That match and the lead-up to it was so important, and it was preached a lot by head coach Martin Nash in press conferences. He spoke of the mentality to “regroup” while on the East coast and how it helped build back some trust in each other. It is not a mistake that following the win, York embarked on a club-record three straight wins and five matches undefeated. It was at that point when York soared up the table and got the leaguewide attention they deserve.
The style in which they played alternated too. The Nine Stripes became much more of a counter-attacking based team rather than one just trying to get shots in any way. Powered by the fullbacks, York have been playing plenty of balls over the top to the streaking wingers. Kévin Dos Santos and Clément Bayiha have been incredible, and the latter is fitting right in with this team. Possessing a gift of being by far the fastest man on the team, Bayiha is elusive with defenders and has a knack to leave them in the dust. One thing that makes Bayiha so special is that he can sustain these types of plays for entire matches. His dribbling a strong point, but maybe distributing could be his next step. Bayiha isn’t the biggest crosser, and if he threw that into his arsenal then York would be even happier to have him on a two-year pact.
Bayiha and Austin Ricci are a very good winger combo. They can switch sides of the pitch and be effective in both slots, driving forward to create scoring opportunities. And yes, Ricci is similar in the sense that he will create more offensive chances for himself than anybody else, but it does work. Ricci has been like a bull this year: barreling forward and unafraid to get in the thick of things when spirited disputes come to light. He is nothing short of essential to this team, one that missed him in 2022. Ricci has suffered injury after injury in the last couple of years, but that trend has fortunately come to close. One of just two players to be active in all 14 CPL matches thus far (and scoring against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Canadian Championship play), Ricci is himself. Averaging 1.7 succesful dribbles per game (via SofaScore), he is leading by example to threaten backlines across the country.
Now, we know how good play on the flanks has been for Nash’s squad, but down the middle it’s a different story. Brian Wright and Osaze De Rosario have immensely struggled this season. Granted, both started to pick up pace in the month of June, Wright as more of a playmaker and De Rosario has started to find the back of the net. But that won’t affect anything unless it becomes clear as to who will play. Wright has earned most of the starts, and you’d have to assume it means he does well in training, but De Rosario has had a few himself. The pair on the pitch at the same time (they linked up for the winner in Vancouver over the weekend) doesn’t work out on most occasions. That is the lone bright spot. Although Wright is becoming more of a false nine, it just isn’t natural to have him further back because he gravitates to the top of the pitch. Both have struggled in front of goal for different reasons: Wright just isn’t getting on the end of crosses, low or high; De Rosario has had his own shots but can’t seem to finish them
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Whether or not they can pick up the pace will be pivotal to York winning games. Nash has kept the faith in his strikers but it does seem that the up-and-coming Theo Afework might find himself quite a few minutes.
The midfield is a constantly evolving aspect of York. Mo Babouli is the consensus attacking midfielder, but in his injury absence Oussama Alou has had his looks too. Alou, a young Dutchman with a spark of creativity in his boots, has been doing a lot of holding midfielder work with Brem Soumaoro. The magical goal against Forge will be remembered forever, but Soumaoro is much more than that. He was forced to play centre-back early in the season due to injuries, which was not pretty. However, in defensive midfield he’s been a beast. Massive tackles have been seen often, some a bit too audacious given he finds himself on yellow cards quite a bit, but he is so effective and calculated when making them. A vital aerial presence too as someone over six feet, him and Tass Mourdoukoutas do well at the back of corners. Soumaoro also seems like he gels nicely with anyone in defensive midfield. Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, whose ankle injury has been left in the dust. Both are great elements in the game going forward, if York goes through the middle, those two are big parts of the plan.
It is too bad not seeing Elijah Adekugbe out there. He is excellent but has a knock that seems like it never goes away. At least he’s come into games off the bench recently. Maybe something’s there on the road to recovery.
Last but not least, we have defence. York has half of the centre-backs figured out with Mourdoukoutas, but on the left side there has been a rotation of Paris Gee (the definition of a Swiss Army Knife), Roger Thompson, or Noah Abatneh. The latter is likely, in a perfect world, who York relies on. As someone who can garner U-21 minutes and be a very solid defender, Nash shouldn’t have to hesitate putting him in the team sheet. He’ll have to upgrade his fitness, and fast, because in his only start to date he had to be substituted out with 20 minutes to go. Thompson came in and made a critical error that led to York losing.
Thompson is the spiritual captain, and a day one at York, but he’s repetitively caught the injury bug and just isn’t effective enough. Every good tackle or play he’s made is immediately followed up by an injury. He won’t be the answer going forward. If Abatneh plays there, then Gee can be his best self at fullback. It’s been a blend of him, Max Ferrari, and Johnny Grant. They constantly run as wingers while also being super aggressive in trying to win the ball back. You could say that those three, just based on their role in the system, are the most valuable and best players on the team.
Niko Giantsopoulos has been holding down the fort between the sticks. He has three clean sheets and 39 saves in 13 games and looks to be a contender for Goalkeeper of the Year again – preferably playing the full season. The amount of times he’s saved York from disaster is remarkable.
This simply has to be York’s best squad yet, both on paper and on the pitch. If these guys can keep up what they’ve been doing, a title challenge could be mounted against Pacific, as difficult as that may be. York opens up the second half of the season and the Summer break swing with a massive derby match against Forge on Sunday. The winner will advance to second, while the loser will be left firmly in the dust. Character will have to come up to get a win.
York has everything it takes.
Top photo by David Chant
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