It wasn’t exactly how Vancouver FC wanted to go out of their maiden Canadian Premier League season, losing 2-1 at home on Friday night against York United, but there were signs and glimpses of promise throughout the game.
Meanwhile their defeat meant York United sealed their ticket to the play-in playoff match against Pacific FC on Wednesday.
A reminiscent start, but a better response
The game did not start off on the right foot for Afshin Ghotbi’s side. Vancouver were still glowing from a three-game win streak, their first ever winning streak this season. After beating playoff sides HFX Wanderers and Pacific, you could forgive the fans at the stadium for being full of confidence, especially at home for the last time.
However, York United had a point to prove, and with their playoff hopes very much in their hands, they did not allow the home side to settle at all in the opening stages. Vancouver seemed just a step off in the opening half an hour, lacking a bit of sharpness, concentration, and organization. This is what allowed York to score twice before the 30th minute. On the first goal, Rocco Romeo failed to react to an incoming cross quickly enough and all too easily allowed Osaze De Rosario to get in front of him and poke home his first.
On the second, the Eagles failed to clear their lines twice before Jonathan Grant was able to force Irving into parrying his shot onto the head of De Rosario for the second.
It briefly looked like it might be another start to the game akin to the early days of VFC, where the heads drop and the opposing team gets a couple more goals to make it ugly. But credit to Vancouver’s growth in mentality, instead of dropping levels, they seemed to wake up. Alejandro Diaz, who has not gotten a goal since his second game for the Eagles, should have pulled one back just on the half-hour mark after he went one-on-one with Niko Giantsopoulos. However, the snake-bitten striker fluffed his chance and sent it wide. In the end it was Mikael Cantave, fresh off his Haiti call-up, who halved the deficit for Vancouver in the 39th minute.
It was a contentious goal, with Cantave pretty clearly offside when the pass was played, but nevertheless it lifted Vancouver’s spirits and made it more interesting in the second half. And while Vancouver was not able to bounce back thanks to York’s intelligent gamesmanship, it did show how far the Eagles had come since their early days of disarray and disparity.
“I am proud of our effort, and I am proud of our spirit,” remarked Ghotbi to media after the game. “I wish we would have showed a little bit more concentration in moments, and more precision, because I think the game would have been a different outcome [if it had].”
While there is still much room to grow, these past few performances showed the potential that Vancouver have to be a playoff contender in 2024.
York mean business. Can they pull-off another upset?
It really was the comebacks of all comebacks for York United. After looking dead-and-buried for the playoffs in the middle of the summer, York were able to come back from the dead and squeaked their way into the playoff picture – in large part thanks to Atletico Ottawa’s incredulous late-season collapse.
“[Martin] Nash has said it a bunch of times, nobody wants to see us in the playoffs,” stated York United goalkeeper Giantsopoulos in the post-match press-conference to AFTN. “I think we kind of took that to heart a little bit.”
Took it they did, as they managed to get back-to-back wins after going on a three-game losing streak to edge past Ottawa into fifth place. And on the day, they demonstrated why you can’t count out York in the playoff picture. Not only do they still have the best away record, despite having multiple poor runs of form, finishing on 24 pts on the road, but they have that dogged mentality to take it to the hosts and ruin the party for the home fans.
They now face a floundering Pacific that have been on a downward spiral since July, but despite that, it’s a side that York has yet to beat, drawing once and losing against them three times. York will then need to pull out all the stops to be able to win the match and face their next challenge of playing HFX Wanderers in Halifax in the quarter-finals on Saturday, in what will be a very big turnaround and travel.
2024 and beyond for Vancouver
This debut season for Vancouver was about a lot of firsts. First goal, first home game, first win, first back-to-back victories, and more. But it was also a season of various challenges and mistakes, as can be expected from your first year.
Afshin Ghotbi recognized that it was hard to build a proper team that was good enough to compete, given how little time and the no real foundation they had, and is happy to have that time now this offseason.
“I am really happy to actually have an offseason where we can recruit the team properly,” Ghotbi told media in the wake of the loss against York. “We really didn’t have the time to recruit the players we wanted, it all happened so fast.
“We didn’t have an expansion draft, we didn’t have a youth academy, we didn’t have a second team, we didn’t even have a League1 BC team that we could build forward on, so when you start from scratch it’s not so easy. But now that people from the outside have seen the team and how it wants to play, it’ll be even easier to recruit players.”
It was a bold choice to rely on youngsters for the majority of the first half of the season, but perhaps it was the only choice they had given the circumstances. But at the very least they have shown that, alongside some experience, these young players can be competitive once they found an identity within the team.
Now it’s on them to fight for their place in the offseason as Ghotbi looks to build on the squad.
“We have to improve in certain positions,” explained Ghotbi to AFTN. “Some of the young players that helped us get our 5200 or so under-21 minutes that we got this year, they have to show their growth and maturity, and play with more consistency.”
If Vancouver bring a few more players with the experience akin to Renan Garcia, the dynamism akin to Mikael Cantave, and perhaps the leadership that Alejandro Diaz has brought, despite his lack of goals, then Vancouver might just be the surprise package for the 2024 Canadian Premier League season.
It’s a very important six months coming up for the club till their sophomore campaign kicks off.