YORK LIONS STADIUM, TORONTO – This was supposed to be Max Ferrari’s moment. Wearing the captain’s armband, making history for his hometown club as the all-time appearance leader… it was a perfect storm for him to show up and show out.
Instead of a romantic, blissful outing, though, Sunday evening’s contest went south pretty quickly. Ferrari was putting in the work, and everything was going decently well until he went in for a challenge on Kunle Dada-Luke. The tackle was perfectly timed and well executed, it’s just that the ball bounced over the fullback instead of out of play. Dada-Luke had hopped over Ferrari, and now given the ball and some space, he could operate. Pacific FC went to work creating their first of four goals on the day.
There was pretty passing from the visitors, speed and aggressiveness too, and York just couldn’t keep up with the high tempo with which James Merriman’s squad was playing. In a match York had to win (or at least collect a point) to stay in the competitive playoff push, they faltered. The difference in quality by the teams was gargantuan, especially when compared to York’s now-slim hopes of qualifying for the playoffs.
Worse still, the players did this to themselves. Outside powers couldn’t have affected this game, the refereeing favoured no one. It was athletes wearing blue and green who couldn’t stick to the system or play as they had in previous fixtures.
“Yeah, I think it was sloppy,” said York head coach Martin Nash, “technically as well, especially early, and we were playing in areas that we didn’t plan to play in, we had a gameplan of how we wanted to break them down and how we wanted to hurt them, and it was like we never worked on that all week. So we had a full week of training, it’s almost like we scrapped it up and threw it out the window, and did our own thing a little bit. The goal was the one play where we did what we wanted to do against them, but it was too little too late by that point.”
The calamity started early. Lazy passing and an unorganized defensive structure were the standout miscues from Martin Nash’s side. York recorded 24 unsuccessful passes coming out of the final third, excluding those from goalkeeper Niko Giantsopoulos. Those types of mistakes, especially with a team flying high like Pacific ready to jump on each and every ball, are inexcusable. The Tridents did just that, turning around the play quickly and catching York with few defenders. In a strange way, Pacific embarrassed themselves just a bit because they could’ve scored more. They held onto the ball or passed too late in a few scenarios, overthinking easy plays.
Regardless, the speed of Manny Aparicio, Kekuta Manneh, et al. constantly breathed life into Pacific’s offensive scheme, while for York nobody stepped up to drag them back into it. It also seemed as though Pacific’s pressure stymied York, and they just couldn’t deal with the pressure of incoming attackers. York looked to be playing on their toes, trying to play their way out of mistakes that hadn’t even happened; but in doing so created more for themselves.
Given ample opportunity to pounce, Pacific started to ease back into looking like the team that started the season. The summer treated them poorly, and a whole new version of the Vancouver Islanders emerged, one that just couldn’t score. Something has clicked recently, though, and York, despite their wishes, didn’t play the mid-season Pacific. This one was much more tenacious and free-flowing, but the key was just working more than York. There is a strong mentality in the visitor’s locker room, and it has remained strong through their ups and downs.
“I think staying steady, staying calm, not getting too low [was the mindset],” Pacific bench boss James Merriman explained, “because we know where we were, and we know we went through that dip and it’s easy to start to get low and allow guys to drop their heads. We stuck to our process. We kept working through it, we tried to improve where we felt we needed to improve, we got better on the ball again, we took back the ball, we’ve been quite dominant with it the last few matches, and then it’s the final third, which was there tonight.”
Letting up a bit toward the final whistle of the first half let York breathe. The occasional counter-attack was sprung, they got two from York’s wingers coughing up the ball, though they seemed less eager to get down the pitch at 2-0 up. United pinged the ball around the back amongst themselves, looking for a gap to widen up but couldn’t; or at least through the middle, which would’ve been best for them. Paris Gee had to cut inside playing off Clément Bayiha on the right flank, unnatural for him but he still did the job, a metaphor for all Gee has done this season.
Brian Wright didn’t bring too much intensity on the high press, and Austin Ricci had to do that, essentially taking the role of the number nine again. Wright unfortunately doesn’t offer much. He missed a volley from point-blank in front of goal after finally doing everything right in the build-up. After a good few weeks of the Ricci and Mo Babouli combination, the revert back to one of York’s on-paper strikers didn’t help anybody.
“We didn’t move the ball quick enough to break them down, and we didn’t switch play quick enough, everything was short,” stated Nash, “which allowed them to jump on every pass. You know, we talk about it all the time, you don’t skip, you don’t skip players out, you’re gonna get into trouble and you’re gonna be forced negative. We were making bad decisions, playing into their traps, and they countered off it, it could’ve been worse than four.”
Another crucial link that broke was in defensive midfield. Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé has been phenomenal all season, but operating as a double-pivot was never going to work for this particular clash. With Babouli suspended, there was no reason to head upfield and support the central attacking midfielder, in this case Ricci. Ricci could play off Wright, a player who can’t seem to score often but does come up with some big assists. Gagnon-Laparé got too stuck in trying to help players that didn’t need it as Babouli did, and in doing so left Trivine Esprit stranded at the back.
Esprit has boosted York in all the games he’s played this year. He’s got good offensive instincts paired with a hard-nosed defensive mindset and doesn’t necessarily seem like a rookie on the field. A bright spot on a dark day, Esprit was perfect in all his timing and moves. When Pacific broke through on a two-on-one midway through the first half, Esprit was the one man back. He observed the situation, picking just the right time to bite and knock the ball away from Adonijah Reid. Naturally, there’s a limit when it comes to someone doing a team’s task on his own, but Esprit displayed hustle that not even the well-seasoned veterans came close to.
Brem Soumaoro on the bench due to just recently returning from international duty was a big loss, however, Esprit starting doesn’t bring York down, it elevates both the team and his Swiss-army knife skillset. It’s the third different position he’s played this year, looking cool and collected every time.
Also gathering U-21 minutes was Kadin Martin-Pereux, coming off the bench for 29 minutes. York is still in the mud when it comes to finishing the required 2,000 Canadian U-21 minutes, although Sunday presented itself as a good time for Martin-Pereux to get experience. He nearly bagged a goal but missed the target on what was a relatively easy header. As a consolation, he did manage an assist on York’s lone, late goal by Osaze De Rosario.
It’s truly a shame a match with huge implications ended up being a source of U-21 minutes. That’s the bed that’s been made, it’s time to sleep in it. It seems like in every aspect of the Canadian Premier League this season, York couldn’t keep up. Not with U-21 minutes, not with Pacific, and, primarily depending on Monday’s result, Halifax and Ottawa.
Maybe not mathematically today. And maybe not mathematically next week. But for a playoff berth, these are emotionally do-or-die contests.
York United’s season is a pile of dynamite. There is a long rope hooked up to it, and a little flame is steadily moving along to trigger the looming explosion.
It’s closer than ever now.
Three cup finals left.
Top photo by David Chant
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