It was another dramatic afternoon for Vancouver FC at Willoughby Community Park, despite the rainy and miserable conditions. It took until the dying moments of the match for the home side to clinch a late victory, ruining the party for a Halifax side that could have clinched their playoff berth with a win.
Playing Brightly When Nothing To Lose
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise to have been eliminated from the CPL playoffs for Vancouver FC. Since, despite the obvious disappointment of missing out on the postseason due to the lofty ambitions of the club in their first season, the team has seemingly turned a new gear in the last couple of weeks.
While the first half had shades of their previous poor form, in which they failed to take control of the match and really threaten in their own home ground, their second half showed growth. They got punished at the end of the first half through a well-taken transition goal from Massimo Ferrin. And, according to coach Afshin Ghotbi, he really let his team have it at the break.
“Well, I’m not sure if you want to hear what I said to [my team] at half-time” joked Afshin to AFTN. “I was really disappointed in the first 20 minutes, and I was very disappointed in the first goal that we took at such a crucial moment in the match.
“My message has always been about passion. Every time you perform, every time you play, every time you put the shirt on, every time you wear this badge, you have to give your all.”
Evidently the half-time hairdryer treatment seemed to have worked because there was a renewed energy about the team after the restart. By the time Gabi Bitar scored the equalizer, the atmosphere in the stadium changed and Vancouver quickly looked like the most likely to get the winner.
Therefore it was no surprise that Vancouver indeed got that winner, albeit in a dramatic fashion at the very death. The cries of jubilation were raucous despite the low attendance due to the weather, as the club recorded its first back-to-back victory in club history in style.
Halifax Wanderers: A Missed Opportunity
While it was jubilation for Vancouver, it was heartbreak for Halifax, who could have clinched their second-ever appearance in the playoffs, and their first since 2020, with a win. It was going all according to plan in the first half, and had it not been for some heroics from Eagles’ keeper Callum Irving, it could have been a completely different story.
“I think we were brilliant in the first half,” remarked Wanderers head coach Patrice Gheisar after the match. “And if you look at the stats, we missed four big chances. You’re never gonna win a game if you miss four big chances. Never. At any level. If we had scored two goals in the first half, it’s a different story.”
But the team lost their composure in the second half and allowed Vancouver to get back into the game. Considering the identity that Gheisar has imposed on this club, it was a real shock in how they performed. A team known for dictating the tempo and controlling matches gave in to Vancouver’s pressure and were forced to sit back and defend.
“Our plan says to keep the ball and score,” explained Gheisar. “Obviously, when you score, you expect the other team to come at you hard. But then that means we need to attack spacing, and I think that is where we failed.”
Sitting in 4th position, Halifax can still clinch their playoff berth next week, but only if they either win at home to Forge, or draw with Forge and hope York United lose their match against Atletico Ottawa. It would still be some achievement for Gheisar and his revolution of this club to qualify for the playoffs in just his first season.
Building Towards 2024
The short-term goal now for Vancouver is to finish above Valour in the table. But the long-term goal is to take these last two matches to build towards the 2024 season. With a clearer identity about them, and some real experience now within their ranks, Vancouver can make leaps and bounds ahead of 2024, if they play their cards right.
“The team has evolved and matured, and it has reached a point where they want to win every game, and they believe they can win every game,” reflected Afshin about his men. “And even when they’re behind, they believe they can score two goals to win.
“We now have a certain locker room, where it’s not just about complacency, where you get paid and you train an hour and a half and go home. It’s about being the best at what you do and being the best version of yourself everyday, in training and in play. I’m obviously very happy about how far we’ve come, but we’re still very far away from where I want them to be.”
It was clear from day one that Afshin Ghotbi did not come to Canada to just participate. His experience demands results, and even though this season might not have reflected that, next season will be the true test to see how far Vancouver can truly go under his guidance.