YORK LIONS STADIUM, TORONTO – One wouldn’t be blamed for thinking York United has willed their home-pitch demons away after Friday night’s 2-1 comeback win over Vancouver FC. As Austin Ricci found the winner on a sweet half-volley late in the match, the only way to describe it would be emphatic. Ricci, who has been a constant workhorse for this team and a model player despite not always coming up with a goal, found that bit of magic he’d been missing at times.
That goes for the entire squad. After a first half in which many things went right but in the final third nothing was being executed well, and of course Vancouver having a lead, York easily could’ve bowed out. Right at that moment, the hopes of qualifying for the playoffs hung in the balance, and it really was up to the players to decide which fate would be on the cards for York. They turned up, putting it all together in the second frame, and coming out of it with three points more crucial than ever.
Ricci has been a man for the moments this season – it’s his third goal of the campaign, but his second winning goal, the other coming against Vancouver Whitecaps – he’s always been made for it. He’s an aggressive player in terms of getting right up to defenders, and never halting a good run. Coming into the match for Max Ferrari, who, outmuscled and outrun, committed a horror at the back leading to Vancouver’s goal, Martin Nash pulled the plug at the right time with the right people. A three-centre-back system has worked for York to this point and didn’t falter. Ricci also brought a key attacking piece who has proved himself on either flank or down the middle. It’s that flexibility that got him the goal. Adding an extra man in the box, Paris Gee’s brilliant cross wouldn’t have gone anywhere in a crowded area if Ricci hadn’t taken advantage of the extra space that hasn’t been taken advantage of properly by York this year. While Vancouver’s defenders tried to contain the on-form Brian Wright, all he needed was a touch away from himself. There was no need to overthink things, and after Ricci smashed the ball home with purpose and power, he is someone who his teammates know even more now will get the job done.
York scoring in the way they did looked a bit unfathomable given where their attack was coming from. Nash has struck a gold mine with starting wingers Clément Bayiha and Kévin Dos Santos. They flip the pitch effortlessly, and it keeps opponents on their toes when they end up on different sides of the field. Both are special for their own reasons, Dos Santos brings great dribbling, and Bayiha brings the speed, but an overlapping skill is their great movements with the ball, and taking it right into the box. Crosses haven’t come naturally always with this York team, so getting right into the thick of things for close-range passes makes the most sense. Callum Irving in the net made sure plenty of these potential goal opportunities didn’t come, as the Eagles goalkeeper claimed the ball in the box plenty of times, stifling the wingers. It didn’t stop them from continuing to attack relentlessly and getting the ball to Wright or Mo Babouli.
“I thought [Bayiha and Dos Santos] both had very good performances, they’ve been playing pretty consistently well for the last four games,” Nash said of the dynamic duo. “They’ve both got at least a goal and an assist in the last four games… they’ve been playing well, Brian’s been playing well, there was a nice set-up today for Austin’s winner, Brian getting in the right spot, our front four have been doing well, I have to mention Mo, a couple goals in the last four games, we’re doing a lot of good things going forward, you know, like challenging the other team to be better defensively, and I thought we were today, we controlled the transition quite well, they’re a dangerous team in transition and they found a few moments but our counter-press was really good, we got in their face, we made it difficult for them.”
Vancouver struggled in the final third to create for themselves. Gaby Bitar was a force down the left wing and got plenty of the ball, while fullback Tyler Crawford was often left with acres of space but didn’t manage close to the amount of touches when he switched the side of the pitch he occupied, or Bitar went into the middle. It might be a case of Vancouver still coming together as a team, it was never going to be easy with an expansion club, especially with so many Summer signings. So much has changed Vancouver’s 2-1 win over York in Toronto back in April.
“I’ve always said, and I’ll say it now, York has a lot of talent, they’re a fantastic team, especially on defence, and from midfield up until the front line, and we feel that we knew what we had to do to defend, and how to close them down, and I feel that we were very good in the counter-attack a few times. I think what we need to do better is more of my wide defenders get involved in the attack, I would love to see my midfielders too come in in second lines and shooting on goal, especially with a young goalkeeper in goal, and I would’ve liked to see us, when he have the ball, be more calm and keep the ball with the team,” Vancouver boss Afshin Ghotbi said of just went wrong and what prevented Vancouver from doing what they did the last time they were at York Lions Stadium.
Springing counter-attacks became a headache for York. With a defence that, for the most part, was really active in holding onto the ball and passing into the middle of the field, Vancouver could’ve taken advantage of it because York’s defence did look a bit out of its shape, and both centre-backs recovering wasn’t too common. Roger Thompson, in fact, sent a desperate tackle on Mikaël Cantave on the edge of the area which could be seen as a red, but also considering there was no contact between Thompson and Cantave until the latter put a foot down on York’s captain, wouldn’t have appeared as the most convincing send-off. Ghotbi stated that the entire Vancouver team felt robbed after that, and some other calls, like an appeal for a handball in the second half.
“Probably the most positive part of the match is Kadin Chung, his injury was a massive injury and for him to come back, all the doctors, all the medical staff and himself, they worked so hard for him to come back and he comes back after so many months of therapy, treatment, and a pin in his shoulder, and then in his first game, they gave a penalty against him. It’s sad to see that because he worked so hard,” Ghotbi added. Chung will be so crucial to this Vancouver team, because defensive instabilities and blowouts have been a frequent occurrence. In Chung, they have a reliable defender and leader more than anything.
The Road To Olympic Gold – FC13 Podcast
While Vancouver struggled to break into the box and execute passes just to be in those areas, York wasn’t doing it in the mixer. They lost some of the pace on passes as soon as the margins were tighter, but as he does so often, Babouli came in with two moments so crucial to the match. He had open space going right up to the penalty spot, but so did Dos Santos. A smart, deft touch to the Bissau-Guinean proved to be the right move as Chung brought him down for a penalty. Babouli, calm as ever, blasted it into the top of the net. It’s Babouli’s second penalty goal against Irving this season, not the easiest feat. Yes, maybe he made some decisions with the ball that cost York, but at this point you can’t say Babouli doesn’t show up when it matters. He is prone to keeping the ball and advancing when he should be laying it off to someone else. Luckily for York, he made the right call in the biggest of Mo-ments.
Can all this be taken with a little grain of salt given Vancouver is in the basement of the league? Maybe a pinch of it, but York still showed two things on Friday night: they can really control a match and maintain positives throughout the match, but also they won’t falter at first chance. A goal within the first minute deflated them against Cavalry, and an unfortunate error within the first 15 minutes happened here. Tass Mourdoukoutas, who was right on the crime scene for both goals, thinks something has changed since last week.
“Look, you play the occasion as well, I think with all due respect to Vancouver, I think going to Calgary, who are top of the league, that sort of thing is more difficult. They’re a very solid team [Cavs] so when you give up a goal to them nice and early it’s very much a lot harder to come back from it, not impossible whatsoever, but a lot more difficult.
“This week, it was another early goal which we didn’t want to concede but that’s football and it happens, like I said, building on that, realizing the mistakes we made the other week and shifting our mentality to know that we’re still in the game, we can still bounce back, and we did so and I think we proved that we’re a team that’s gonna fight always to the end and we have a huge, huge few games remaining and just a push for the playoffs was what was in everyone’s minds. The boss spoke pre-game about every game being a cup final, so I think we proved that, that a game’s 90 minutes long and we’ve got to give it everything. Early goal or not, doesn’t matter when it went in, we can win that game.”
One more down, six to go, with each being more critical than the last. A trip to Halifax on Labour Day awaits, a ground and fixture York has started to love in recent years. If they win then, it’s advantage York for the rest of the way. As it was in this match, the players had to make a choice to show up or show out. It’ll be the same going forward. The race is well and truly alive again.
Top photo by David Chant