YORK LIONS STADIUM, TORONTO – In the heat of battle, Kévin Dos Santos was dancing around defenders on his way to the dramatic winning goal for York United on Sunday.
And after the match, he continued to dance all night long, though now in the locker room. The fun times were interrupted so Dos Santos could fulfill his media duties, but the good vibes carried on as the Bissau-Guinean beamed from ear to ear. It was the second time that Dos Santos scored a goal that caused him to be peppered with questions about it, which speaks to his ability to not only be clutch, but also him being one of the few players in the Canadian Premier League that is truly box-office. The fans couldn’t get enough of him as he signed autographs and took photos long after the final whistle.
So, needless to say, it was a good day for him.
“I don’t know what to say really, it’s just so nice to celebrate with the team after that goal, after that huge performance from the whole team,” said Dos Santos. “[My] feeling is over the moon, I’m so happy.”
A theme amongst the entire York squad as they battled to a 1-0 win against Atlético Ottawa was the bounce-back. A four-match homestand promised to be a source of good form, but frustratingly it didn’t go that way at all. After two matches lost by blowout scorelines, York came very close to picking up a point the previous Saturday. They failed to do so, meaning the final Ontario Derby of the season was do-or-die, and York came through with their biggest win, possibly ever as a club.
The best part about it? Everybody who got playing time chipped in and put their best foot forward. As they came together for the goal celebration, it was sparked by Dos Santos, yet it wasn’t about him necessarily: the revelry, everybody jumping onto each other with joy, was vindication for a season that has seen difficult runs of form and certainly heartbreak. Few times this season has York truly been united, but on the day the bond between players was stronger than ever.
“This game was just so important,” added Dos Santos, “every day in training everyone is focused, every detail mattered. And like you said, we’re united. Especially for this game we had to be, to get that win.”
Certainly, the stakes of this contest and the opportunity to prove that York wasn’t dead just yet were taken to heart. Look at Niko Giantsopoulos, someone who has always gotten up for the rivalry fixtures and craves a playoff berth with his hometown club. He made six stops, called into duty early and late in the game, looking like his best self again. Giantsopoulos is a player who kept York in so many matches earlier this season. After making an excellent leaping save to deny Zach Verhoven, you’d be remiss not to say he did just that again. His room-mate and defensive ally, centre-back Tass Mourdoukoutas, also had himself a game, making two tackles, clearances, and interceptions.
Additionally earning praise will be the efforts of Mo Babouli and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé in midfield. The chemistry between those two is as strong as ever, and Babouli passed the ball around a lot more, finding teammates in open space partially because he was often in said open space, utilizing sidekick Gagnon-Laparé in the best way possible. Babouli, who was last seen sullying his name by storming off the pitch after being sent off, had so clearly changed, playing with freedom, finesse, and unmatched skill you come to know him by. Ottawa did their best to pack the pockets Babouli occupied, triple-teaming him late in the match, but he still found ways to move the ball progressively. “I think it was important, he’s quality,” said York head coach Martin Nash of Babouli. “I think at times today we needed to find him more on the ball because he can unlock defences. But he’s big for the group, he always puts in a shift, and he’s a quiet leader. It was good to have him back.”
Praising every player for their performance is easy because Nash deployed them in such a way that they could be versatile; either sticking to their positions or taking on another role. Although Ottawa did open the door for York to spend much more time on the ball (62% possession from the blue and green), there was no overlap between fullbacks and central attackers, or wingers and strikers. Organized down to the T, York set to work slowly breaking down Ottawa, though the visitors found ways to keep their defensive wall up. The occasional break from an Ollie Bassett turn or a through ball for Jean-Aniel Assi was never enough, and interestingly Ottawa seemed more desperate on offence: they left as many as four numbers up the pitch when York stripped the ball from them, hoping Alberto Zapater or others could poke the ball out and send it forward.
After watching York over the past three matches, one takeaway is that on any given play the ball can go in, even ones that aren’t of big quality. There were times when Ottawa did get into the box and looked destined to end the contest because some plays had quality. They often hesitated too much to shoot the ball, especially Ilias Iliadis, who once attempted three spins before the ball was swept out from under his feet. Bassett did all he could really, and no one on Ottawa’s side looked as offensively potent as the Northern Irishman. In the end, it was Ottleti head coach Carlos Gonzalez citing York’s offensive prowess rather than his own club’s.
“They have really good, talented players up front, it’s a very talented team with a lot of power. You see the subs, the players that came off the bench for them had a big impact, and we didn’t have so many tools, you know? I think [the result] was a little of that.”
The gaffer will certainly have a big task on his hands motivating the players to simply get up and train come Monday morning. They are still alive in the hunt, but York’s Friday night match with Vancouver FC determines whether or not Ottawa will be playing for anything against Forge the following day.
Gonzalez is right when talking about the bench being deeper for York. Nash still made a couple of risky changes midway through the second half. It seems silly to say that Dos Santos entering the fold was a risk, but he was prevented from playing opposite of Clément Bayiha, a partnership that has been so dangerous this campaign, especially against Ottawa. Then there was Osaze De Rosario leaving, who came through with lots of interplay by getting in the mixer. But Nash felt confident in his decisions, and they paid off big.
“I thought Clem was getting a bit tired, he was dropping deeper so he wasn’t getting in behind as much, I thought that he played a good game but I think his impact in the game was lessening,” Nash explained. “Whereas Austin [Ricci] still had an engine and was still running, so I decided to get Austin to switch wings and put Kévin at left wing.
“I made the Osaze sub at the same time, I thought Brian has done well against Ottawa this year, and you know, I thought it was a perfect time to change things up and try to get something.”
The team made Nash proud, who took part in jubilant post-match celebrations, finally having a moment where he could relish the taste of a victory, and a win that could prove as the one to push York into the postseason. He was adamant that it was a team performance and there is still one match to go, but positivity radiated off of Nash.
York is quite far from champagne popping, though you’d be permitted to, just like Dos Santos, dance the night away. Maybe grab somebody and drink a little more.
York United’s fate is in their hands.
One more match.
One more cup final to book a ticket to the big dance.
Top photo by David Chant
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