YORK LIONS STADIUM, TORONTO – It was another case of steps in the right direction for York United on Friday night, in which they played out to a nil-nil draw with league-leaders Pacific FC. Despite being over halfway into the 2023 Canadian Premier League campaign, the Nine Stripes continue to make important strides. The fact is, with every passing match it seems we are learning something more about this squad. And if it is a negative thing, like in the previous weekend against Forge, York can redeem itself very quickly.
The best and clearest example was the passing and interplay. Every ball was placed much better, clean and crisp, and there seemed to be a lot of chemistry. The midfield battle finished relatively even after Pacific managed a great second half, but for the first frame, York dominated those matchups. The left flank link-up was incredible with Kévin Dos Santos and Oussama Alou finding each other with elusive runs in behind and electric quick, tight passes to each other.
“Our passing was quicker and cleaner…today, we moved the ball quicker, we worked on it this week,” Martin Nash said, “getting our midfielders into really good areas where they could face forward. We were hurting them with some diagonals [runs] early. Our quality in the final third maybe just wasn’t good enough tonight, but I’m pleased with the performance.”
York was able to move the ball exceptionally well, through all the channels, but there weren’t any good balls that could truly tee up Osaze De Rosario. Most crosses were on the ground and De Rosario was getting hounded by defenders, so he often couldn’t get good footing on the ball. Crossing is also somewhat of an issue when Michael Petrasso isn’t on the pitch: many will do runs by themselves, and it seems that a lot of York players gravitate toward the central areas because they’re much better there. York went a measly 2-for-15 on crosses, according to SofaScore, and only once did they have a shot on target. Surprisingly, when Brian Wright was substituted into the match, there were some positive moments in attack. Although his chemistry with De Rosario has never been too stunning, they seemed to understand each other well and going down the middle they looked better. Wright recorded one successful dribble attempt, and he did well just getting the ball back to set himself up for those situations.
With the wingers and highly-advanced fullbacks not having the best crosses, York tried the long-ball game, and it resulted in nothing much other than a couple offsides. They are trying to do more of this on the wing, in contrast to trying to find the striker on long balls like they did on Sunday. However, Pacific’s backline was fully up for the task no matter if the runner was too early or too late. Even with an unorthodox lineup with no Sean Young in midfield or Amer Didić at centre-back, a younger group was pegged back a lot and did a job. Eric Lajeunesse and Paul Amedume both stood out as more potential fixtures of this Pacific team if injuries ensue or a player departs.
“That’s something that we focus on, resting defence when we’re on the ball and when we’re attacking, we’ve got to make sure we keep balance at the back,” James Merriman stated. “Thomas Meilleur-Giguére is very good at organizing, we kept Eric Lajeunesse inside and compact, and again I thought Paul Amedume was excellent in just keeping us organized and compact, and limiting those transition moments, they didn’t really hurt us. Across the back four was really good.”
Pacific, though, had lost two on the bounce going into the match, and they were setting themselves up for a big finish. Oftentimes York’s defence didn’t look like they could compete with the speed of Ayman Sellouf, brought on at halftime, and Adonijah Reid. They just couldn’t end the match despite some very smart runs and through-balls. Manny Aparicio, who once upon a time plied his trade with York, cut through the midfield late in the match and also became a big part of the transition play. His movements were very smooth and calculated, and his win-at-all-costs spirit is big for the Tridents. At one point Max Ferrari megged him, and despite going down Aparicio got back onto his feet and won the ball back efficiently.
“Why we kind of suffered the last two, three games, I think we maybe started to coast a little bit, we started to maybe think that we were going to show up and just win games,” said Aparicio, “I think that’s one thing we tried to emphasize leading up to this game, we had to kinda get that energy back, get that grit to us that made us be at the top of the league. It’s good to start to get some of that feeling back, but I think, especially in the first half, we definitely could’ve done a little bit more to demand on the defensive side, to win the ball back more, to show that we’re the first-placed team.”
It seems like the Van-Islanders are made for the second half, and pouring that pressure on was no problem. Getting York’s defence out of sorts also happened a lot, as sometimes Elijah Adekugbe had to become a centre-back, on select plays he was stranded there. Ferrari played a variety of roles while tracking back after bringing the ball up, and he was essential again. His positioning, for someone in his first year of playing wing-back, was exceptional. When it was all said and done, Ferrari finished with one interception, five tackles, ten duels won, two accurate long balls, and one successful dribble. Standing out is a commonality, and Ferrari definitely feels like he has the freedom to do all of that.
“I’ve played it [the fullback position] a bit before, but this is the first time I’ve only played that position. I’m still learning and for me being a winger before, I still bring those tendencies. Yeah, the coaching staff, all the players, we have trust in each other. So for me to go up, if I can see Clem [Clément Bayiha] to my right or whether it’s a midfielder to my left, we’re confident in what we can do, and for me it’s just to see how the game goes on. Whether it’s the ball coming on my side today, at certain points, sometimes you’re pinned back, sometimes I’m not able to go up, I have to stay back, and watch players like those wingers, but when I can go up, it’s seeing if my wingers or my strikers are open.”
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Niko Giantsopoulos, Tass Mourdoukoutas, and Brem Soumaoro were also all key to keeping the score deadlocked. The goalkeeper was exceptional, making four saves, two of which from inside the box on Sellouf and Reid from seemingly point-blank, and punched the ball away twice. That is his specialty, and his placement was near perfect again. Of course, given some of the plays were frantic and busy inside the box, Giantsopoulos couldn’t hold onto the ball every time, and his defenders did step up. Calm and collected even with many opponents around them, dribbling the ball away or simply clearing it wasn’t an issue. A much stronger, albeit a fluctuating defence, aided York big time. The return of holding midfielder Matthew Baldisimo also brought another good athlete into the fold.
Akin to the previous meetings between these teams, the affair got a bit cagey late in the match. Pacific looked like they benefitted from it, whereas York grew more tired. The sides combined for four yellow cards in the second half, and plenty of fouls. Shirt-tugging, bodychecking, the whole lot, it just doesn’t seem that these two teams are fans of each other in any way. Ferrari was a big player in this, conceding fouls twice and being fouled four times.
“We talked about it as a team and we’ve got to show them we’re in a game, at our home, we’ve got to take it to them, and if that’s taking a yellow card or a tactical foul, you’ve got to do it. I had to do it at the end, and it shows. Obviously I got those tackles back to me in the game, and it shows we were up for it tonight.”
If there were any bruises taken, they should heal before the next game because York’s schedule is slowing down to a much more manageable pace. The next test is Valour, in the unpleasant conditions of Winnipeg, where York played well in one match there this season. They need to sustain points in order for the next match against Pacific (September 17th) to be one with plenty more on the line.
Top photo by David Chant