Words to describe York United’s quest for a playoff berth in 2023 have gone somewhat along these lines: nothing worth having ever comes easy. For one last match in the regular season, a trip to Langley to play Vancouver FC, that echoed true as they worked hard to secure a 2-1 win over the expansion club. Between York getting ahead of themselves, conceding possession sloppily plenty of times, and Vancouver having won three in a row leading up to the game, there couldn’t be any nonsense on the pitch. York kept their heads down, worked hard defensively to make up for their errors, and clinched a spot in the postseason as a reward.
“I think Vancouver, especially since they got that goal, they got a lot of energy from the crowd and made it difficult for us,” goalkeeper Niko Giantsopoulos said, “it would’ve been nice to kind of kill the game and get that 3-1 goal but it wasn’t meant to be. I think the last time we were here it was also a 2-1 result, kinda similar end-to-end, good to get the result.”
It’s hard to say what head coach Martin Nash and assistant Mauro Eustaqio will have the team do in training this week, as they’re riding a high that shouldn’t be messed around with. Those giveaways while under tight man-marking and amplified pressure will only increase, because other sides will be sure to do that in the playoffs. York was forced into plenty of back-passes, which are the plays that those giveaways came from most.
York had to calm down a lot, they were all-systems-go evident even from the warm-ups. “We didn’t really have to rally the troops, before the game I actually watched warm-ups, was talking to Mauro and we were like, ‘we’ve gotta calm them down a bit,'” Nash explained. “because they’re ready to go. You don’t want them being over the top, we have guys like Austin [Ricci], he’s a passionate player.”
Other than those small technical things, the main priority in the locker room is to keep the good vibes rolling. The dramatic home win over Ottawa without a doubt felt like the match in which York clinched, but since it all came down to this, with their fate in their own hands, the players stayed quite focused on the goal throughout. It’s clear that the players had the belief they could secure playoffs last week, while on Friday they knew they could.
That doesn’t make the joy of qualifying for the next phase of the season any less sweet. York has dealt with adversity throughout 2023, facing plenty of roadblocks. Having overcome each (as far as the regular season goes), this moment was well-deserved.
Giantsopoulos was in a great mood, beaming from ear to ear in the press conference after the whistle. As a player who has been part of playoff-calibre clubs yet has never played a playoff game himself, acting as the backup to both Marco Carducci and Nathan Ingham, he deserves this chance. “Yeah, it feels great, it feels good, there’s not much to say, just happy to qualify for the playoffs, and I’m happy I’m on this team now, not much to say otherwise.” A field general on the day, Giantspoulos was aided by fellow defenders in big ways, prominently Matthew Baldisimo blocked a shot from close range by Mikaël Cantave. Though it was Giantsopoulos, who, as he’s done so often this season, was the voice rearranging the defence and keeping them awake and alert.
Some of the defensive instabilities were made up for by fullbacks Paris Gee and Jonathan Grant. The tandem pulled York up the pitch in the first half, with Grant utilizing his electric pace to collect a long rebound which turned into the cross that Callum Irving got his gloves on, only for the ball to be headed home by Osaze De Rosario. De Rosario was truly exceptional on Friday night, scoring half as many goals as he had all season. The past is the past now, and the talisman can’t beat himself up about previous mistakes, because currently, he is setting himself up for a promising run of form. We know De Rosario scores in bunches, that’s why Nash has given him patience this season, waiting for the moment when he breaks through, and patience has proved to be the right move.
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Coming back to Gee now, he was forced to switch his position at halftime. Gee has remarkable talent playing centre-back and great chemistry with Tass Mourdoukoutas, who played excellently again. He had to come inside because Noah Abatneh suffered a relapse of a niggling injury. Not only is it bad that he could be sidelined while playing the best he has all season, but at least for the time being it threatened York’s chances of reaching the required 2,000 domestic U-21 minutes.
Luckily, the lightning-quick Kadin Martin-Pereux was playing a great game again and remained active for 85 minutes. Nash has said in the past that he’d like Martin-Pereux to play wing-back, though he was at winger for this clash. His speed is almost overwhelming, and in a way, he’ll have to watch it so the striker – whether it’s De Rosario or Brian Wright – can catch up. That’s why York was forced to play long balls to him, whether it hung in the air or rolled on the ground, it gave some extra time for the number nine to find space.
Facing a physical mismatch against Ibrahim Bakaré, Martin-Pereux managed to get in behind him plenty of times. He made a beautiful cross right on the touchline that De Rosario finished for his first of the night. A young, bright career has begun for Martin-Pereux, and considering both of his starts have been successful, as well as Ricci being suspended for the midweek clash after receiving a yellow card while on the bench, there’s somewhat of a perfect storm arriving to give Martin-Pereux a start.
At certain points in this campaign, it seemed unfathomable that York would manage the U-21 minutes. The same can certainly be said for the playoffs. Fighting for those achievements and respect constantly, the big win was vindication for a wild regular season.
“It feels nice now, after all the ups and downs of the season,” Nash added, “I thought we could’ve made our playoffs a lot easier. There were frustrating moments in the year and we had to deal with, obviously, the stuff off the pitch that we all know about, but we kept the guys focused and kept the goal in mind. I thought coming down the stretch here, we got two wins we needed to [have] after we faltered three games at home, we showed up when it really mattered and chips were on the line. It’s made it worth it now, you kind of forget some of those performances, but we can’t because we want to make sure we’re in the right headspace for whatever test we have Wednesday.”
For just the second time in club history, York has entered the playoff bracket. This season, it won’t be an easy path to the final. The new format means York is on the road for the duration of the tournament, though if one team could pull off a miracle and go all the way on the road, it’s York, the best away team in the league.
Preaching the mentality of every match being a cup final got York to this point; now, though that term Nash has coined is truer. York can actually get to a cup final.
You’d be a fool not to say they aren’t capable of a feat like that.
The big dance begins on October 11th.
Top photo by James Glezos
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