Mo Babouli had already tried a long ball looking to pick out York United captain Roger Thompson in the first half. Slightly outmuscled by Mo Omar, York’s skipper just missed out on what would’ve been a great goal.
But why wouldn’t it work the second time around? Yes, it has been a trying time for the blue and green on corner kicks in most games, but if one man can take advantage of one, it’s Babouli. On the corner, his vision picked out Thompson, and the go-ahead goal was finished off. Towering over his opponents, Thompson now finally has the crown jewel of a season in which he quietly became one of the most consistent and reliable players for York. The moment couldn’t have been bigger, either. Trailing Halifax but just three points in the table, there were two possible outcomes for the Canadian Premier League’s Labour Day Classic: either Halifax leaves York in the dust, putting the playoff race to bed, or York pulls themselves back into it. It’d have to be through grit, and not a single player dressed in white, blue, and green could have an off-day.
The captain is always looked at to lead by example. Thompson certainly did that and more. Unwavering loyalty goes both ways; Thompson has stuck with the club since day one, and despite his injuries and down moments, the club has stayed loyal to him.
“It’s big for him, and Rog is big for us,” said York head coach Martin Nash, “he’s been playing well lately, his leadership and having someone older at the back is great. He has that ability on set pieces, we haven’t been good at attacking set pieces this year, it was good to get on the end of one for a change, it was a good header, great ball in too, he did his job and decided to sit down for the rest of the game, and the guys saw it out for him. It was good for Rog and good for the team.”
He made way for Trivine Esprit shortly after the goal, and it was a move that Nash, a few weeks ago, wouldn’t have been confident in making. Esprit is a talented youngster and emerged as a great player on York’s right flank, but he wasn’t cracking the XI every match. It has been only in the last three matches that York has put their foot on the gas regarding earning U-21 minutes, and with every passing contest, Nash will be more at ease with starting those players. In the heat of a playoff race tighter than any seen before, these experiences are only building character in the young core. Take Adisa De Rosario as a good example. He’s started three matches now, the last two because Niko Giantsopoulos has been injured, but the tide is quickly turning on that: even when York’s number one returns, it’ll be De Rosario’s job.
As strange as that name sounds in the context of a goalkeeper, the loanee from Toronto FC II has been simply stellar. York is undefeated with him in the net, and in this match, he was the sole reason they didn’t lose. Halifax kept up a high tempo through most of the first half, not letting York into the match or in dangerous areas. They kept winning the ball back, and excellent long balls over the top were common, and York was prone to not handling it. João Morelli snuck in all alone, and De Rosario came well out of his net, made himself big and denied Morelli. It’s those types of plays you might not get with a tried and tested goalkeeper.
De Rosario’s boldness in his movement is something you can only find in a player who is young and hasn’t been in a professional environment for too long. Those players would overthink the matter, but De Rosario will go right into the mixer on corners if he must. His agility from post to post rivals anyone in the CPL. His lanky frame helps that, but no one can deny his speed. Saving shots from his legendary dad and now-teammate older brother certainly helped his case to be one great talent in goal.
With 211 U-21 minutes, the CPL table is not the only standings they’re moving up in, nor the only one where they’re leapfrogging Halifax. Perhaps even more crucially, a massive amount of minutes have been picked up, and as it stands York has 1296. With five matches left, seeing as the performances of young players have been phenomenal, the task seems more and more attainable.
The Nine Stripes took a while to wake up and become a lot crisper in their passing. It’s a critique that is less of their fault than to the credit Patrice Gheisar’s side, who were fully up for it. All roads seemingly led to a Halifax possession, and oftentimes they were able to turn the momentum of the play on a dime. The Wanderers are great at playing out of midfield, and York was caught, for the most part, without a shape on defence, with players dragging themselves out of position in an attempt to find Babouli or Clément Bayiha dropped back in midfield, sometimes Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé was in a higher position. The Haligonians were quick to take whatever bait that’d come their way.
In some ways, York was set up to fail with the ball. The most reliable outlet was undeniably Kévin Dos Santos, his dribbling has become impeccable and he found his way out of many situations in pockets crammed with defenders. Zach Fernandez, a two-way specialist, had a lot of battles with Dos Santos, winning the ball off him with the help of Dan Nimick a couple of times. At that point, he can run himself or is only one pass away from Morelli. Brem Soumaoro being on that side of the field helped the case, it’s much more difficult to get past him. Fernandez mostly opted for dribbles down that wing, though doing that played more into Soumaoro’s hands. He is everywhere in the middle of the pitch, and on smooth grass his sliding challenges let him get to opponents much quicker.
York is blessed with a six and an eight who come ready to play every game.
“I’ve been playing Jérémy higher up the pitch, which maybe isn’t quite so natural for him, but he’s still good in possession, he’s been real good for us, gets us someone closer to Mo to help out,” Nash explained, “but he’s a really smart player because he knows when it’s time to drop in beside Brem, he’ll do so. Those two have a great relationship.”
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Soumaoro has picked up some silly cautions this season, but none more than a card he received for time-wasting while going to the bench before Elijah Adekugbe took his place. Adekugbe will most likely have to do it for a full 90 next week as Soumaoro is suspended. We didn’t see Paris Gee take the field at all, a sight very rare, so his return could also be on the cards.
Dos Santos, for his part, did so well getting away from the defenders. Between him and Bayiha, they stretched out Halifax’s backline, as common targets from the central players, Halifax always tried to leave a man on each of them. Doneil Henry was a frequent flier over to Bayiha’s side, which made for an entertaining battle. Speed versus strength was put on show, and both had their moments where one decisively won the battle, but it is certainly a possibility that if Henry hadn’t started the match and marked Bayiha on his electrifying runs, York would’ve scored a couple more because easier passes could be made.
Long story short, Halifax’s defence, which must be on the shortlist for best in the league, was pulled this way and that, out of a common order by York players cutting inside and Babouli coming in from anywhere.
Up top, it was Austin Ricci, playing as the only nine for the first time potentially since his Valour FC days. He epitomized York’s spirit in the match, reminiscent of the last time they were in Halifax: in-your-face, tracking the ball, not the man, and getting aggressive when you have to. He now has recorded two immensely successful visits for himself, helping the team across those two matches unlike anyone else. A goal on the day, one that bounced over Nimick (causing him to call it “sloppy”) and was easy for him to head home, permitted it had power, was his second in two matches, and we’re starting to see the clinical striker he was in Winnipeg.
“I joke around with guys I’m buddies with on other teams, I’m a pretty big joker off the field but I’m a psychopath on it,” Riccih said with a laugh. “But it helps, the boys, especially the younger boys get fired up when they see things like that, when they see you doing hard challenges, so I think it definitely helps set the tone and it’s contagious, right?”
If Nash wants anything from Ricci, he wants the intensity and vigour again. Every match carries more on the line than the last.
As the gaffer would say, five cup finals left.
Top photo by Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC