Wednesday night had started exactly how York United would want it to. In just their second playoff appearance to date, they had all the momentum compared to Pacific FC, losers of three in a row. York quickly established a tempo to the contest, and luck seemed to be on their side. Pacific scored an offside goal and was denied on the goal line due to some Niko Giantsopoulos heroics.
Despite every massive moment swinging the way of the visitors, when it mattered most the trend reversed. Adonijah Reid hit a bouncing ball lightly past Giantsopoulos even though York’s defence had been playing very well, man-marking to the point where Pacific had no space. It just came out of the blue, to York’s dismay. The same could be said for Paris Gee’s incredible bicycle kick under a minute later, ruled out thanks to offside. York was all too close to pushing the match into extra time, and if that was the case, they’d have to be favourites. Even though their bench was beaten up by injuries, York chased every ball and displayed how much being on this stage meant to them.
“I don’t think anything went wrong [at the end] necessarily, I think it was a bit of quality from them, a really good ball in, and they got the end of it,” Giantsopoulos said. “I feel like in playoff games like that, whoever gets a little bit of a moment is gonna win, tonight it was Pacific.”
It’s fair to say York had their moments. Osaze De Rosario, fresh off a brace that won him Canadian Premier League Player of the Week, was played through early on as York showed off some tiki-taka football early on. He chipped Emil Gazdov but Georges Mukumbilwa, a presence that thwarted York’s crosses and shots often on the day, cleared the ball off of the goal line. Tass Mourdoukoutas swung and missed on a volley from very close range. Pacific had a lot of resets, and Gazdov was very quick to distribute, but nothing could stop York from getting ever closer to a goal on the next play.
The Tridents built their offence around speed: Manny Aparicio cut through the middle with dazzling runs, catching up to target man Easton Ongaro. They sure wouldn’t have been hoping to resort to counter-attacks for most of the match, but York pegged Pacific back often and they couldn’t pass the ball around their midfield when resting. Max Ferrari and Clément Bayiha would blitz wingers Josh Heard and Ayman Sellouf, with the latter uncharacteristically playing sloppily. He gave the ball away plenty of times and couldn’t find the passes nobody else can which makes him the player he is.
Leaving many numbers up the pitch, York never had to worry about De Rosario not matching the speed of Bayiha or Kévin Dos Santos since they were all in unison. Mo Babouli suffered a gash early on at the hands of Sean Young’s tactical foul but was working some incredible magic. He wasn’t being a hothead, just purely in the game and fighting for his team. Dos Santos has been dealing with a recurring groin injury, so Babouli covered for him out wide.
Kadin Martin-Pereux was fantastic again, and if we are suddenly at the point of looking ahead to the offseason, securing his signature must be a priority. The positional depth he offers down the left wing is valuable, and he has great crossing ability. York’s offensive players – Dos Santos and Babouli in particular – need to be cohesive and have strong partnerships with others down their channel because playing off each other is so crucial. Martin-Pereux brings all of that into the fold, and as York’s pressure was absorbed and they were pushed back, Dos Santos started to go for goal from long range while Martin-Pereux became the left winger.
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Gradually, the big centre-backs Amer Didić and Thomas Meilleur-Giguére were too imposing to break, just as Mourdoukoutas and Gee had been all game long at the other end. Brem Soumaoro had a couple of shots that, knowing his history with long-range goals, were far too close. Babouli just barely hit a free kick over the target. Gazdov was always in the right place and was diving everywhere and deserved the clean sheet. Pacific head coach James Merriman has always preached the club’s attitude of developing young talent, and he certainly didn’t shy away from the mantra by starting an 18-year-old in the postseason.
Eventually, the speed chipped away at York, and they faltered. Aparicio was dragging the boys in purple forward and others matched his desperation and effort. As the ball went in, nothing could’ve saved York. Maybe Pacific, though, as 2021 CPL champions who know what it takes to win in knockout football, were better built to be in it for the long haul.
“These games are different,” said Merriman, “it takes a different focus, a different mentality, teams can be tight, you don’t want to concede, it challenges to players but this is what it is in playoff and knockout football. Keep emotions under control, things will go your way, things won’t go your way, and you need to keep focused. Overall, I thought we did a good job of that.”
The result hurt York, but they could never beat themselves up about it. This performance was more than strong, and the players will not regret the effort – though won’t forget the sinking feeling.
York United’s 2023 team was loaded with people who have proven where they belong in this league. Babouli, Jonathan Grant, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and others. Coupled with players from around the world like Soumaoro, Dos Santos, and Mourdoukoutas make a side with massive potential. It begs the question, why couldn’t they go farther?
Constantly shorthanded regarding players’ fitness, travel schedules, and the burden of reaching the U-21 minutes certainly didn’t help Martin Nash’s management of the team. Somehow, some way, they still qualified for the playoffs and did so with the best season in club history. These are things that can be built on for the following season. York carries plenty of young Canadians who can get the minutes again next season.
There’s always roster turnover in the CPL, and one would hope that as much of this York locker room can be retained, it feels as though they really started to come together. Bonds were formed, memories made. Bowing out much earlier than they would have hoped is never easy, the flight home will be long. At the very least, they went out unified and strong.
“It’s bitter right now, we’re all pretty numb,” added Giantsopoulos, the heart and soul of the team. “It’s not just a loss now, it’s the end of our season, there’s a lot on everyone’s mind right now.”
Players have come and gone since mid-April when the season began, a rollercoaster played out since then. One of the constants was Nash having confidence in his squad and making them believe through the rough patches.
“Yeah, it’s always a long season,” said Nash of the group’s development, “we had a lot of injuries at the start of the year so we kind of had to find our way, but I think, yeah there were some ups and downs along the way but we had 11 wins, all the teams from second to fifth had 11 wins. It was a few performances in between that put us into fifth place. But when we needed it the guys came together, worked for each other, that’s all you can ask for.”
The offseason is a long time. But York edged ever closer to the goal. Levels of hunger remain the same even when they drastically improved on 2022.
Spring can’t come soon enough.
Top photo by Sheldon Mack