MATCH ANALYSIS: Valour and Pacific trade second half goals, settle for 1-1 draw at IG Field

Final Score: Valour FC 1-1 Pacific FC
Goalscorers: Niyongabire 69′; Young 49′
Game of the 2023 season: 23
CPL match: 390

Match in a minute or less

Valour FC and Pacific FC drew 1-1 on Saturday in a match that both sides felt as though they could have had more, but ultimately were okay with at least a point.

After the woodwork denied goals from both teams in the first half, Sean Young gave the visitors the lead less than five minutes after the break. The Pacific midfielder smashed a shot over the head of Rayane Yesli from inside the penalty area, taking advantage of his chance to shoot after being the first player to get to the rebound of a shot from Ayman Sellouf.

Valour responded 20 minutes later through Pacifique Niyongabire, who impressed again for the home side. The Burundi international ran onto a long pass downfield from centre-back Klaidi Cela, taking a touch with his chest before firing a low shot across goal off the post and in.

Pacific move one point back of Forge FC again at the top of the table, and will end the weekend in second place. They turn their attention now to a huge match, a Canadian Championship semifinal at home on Wednesday against their MLS opponents from across the province, the Vancouver Whitecaps. Valour, meanwhile have a week off before taking on Vancouver FC in CPL action in Langley next weekend.

Three Observations

Sean Young continues to emerge as one of the CPL’s best midfielders

One of just three players from last week’s 4-1 win over York United to remain in James Merriman’s starting lineup for this match, Sean Young put up another brilliant performance in midfield for Pacific FC.

Wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of fellow local product Josh Heard, Young was again a commanding presence in the middle of park. He had a solid season a year ago, but this year has emerged as an indispensable part of what is looking like one of the strongest teams in the country to start 2023.

The Victoria, BC native scored the opening goal in Winnipeg on Saturday, arriving into the box to fire home a rocket of a shot after a rebound fell to him inside the penalty area. He smashed his powerful effort past Rayane Yesli, giving the Valour goalkeeper no real chance to make a save. Young’s offensive responsibilities have increased in 2023, with him often making runs into the box like that one to help out the team’s attack.

His passing range, and ability to make plays defensively as well, have seen him become a well-rounded player. Young led the team in chances created (3) and passes into the final third (16), but also in the number of times he won possession back from Valour (1o).

Part of the reason for him elevating his game is a better awareness of where to be in certain moments, and a confidence and fearlessness that can’t really be taught. Young now possesses those intangibles, and the ability to stay composed and make things happen when he has the ball at his feet. The sky is the limit for a player who is also not afraid to use his tall and strong frame to his advantage.

With a massive Canadian Championship semifinal on Wednesday at Starlight Stadium, Young — if he starts again, as is expected — has a huge opportunity on a personal level as well to test himself against strong opposition and prove he can go head-to-head with MLS talent. It will take a full team effort to knock off an MLS side like the Whitecaps, but Pacific have done it before. It will take moments of individual brilliance as well as a strong collective performance if Pacific are to move onto their first Canadian Championship final, and Young could be at the forefront of that.

“He’s playing with confidence, he’s found his form early in the season which is great for him because now he’s adding detail to his game,” Merriman said after the match. “He scores a great goal today, he’s wearing the captain’s band. This is the respect that the group has for him, he’s 22 years old.

“What we’re seeing off the ball and on the ball, he’s playing his best football right now.”

Young spoke after the match as well, and touched on what wearing the captain’s armband meant to him.

“It’s obviously really special,” Young started. “I was really happy I could lead the boys out today. It means even more being from Victoria, and representing Pacific and the Island and everything.”

Valour defenders continue to fight the injury bug as Samaké and Haynes go down

Valour FC can’t catch a break with injuries at the moment, as two more players joined the several defenders already on the sidelines on Saturday.

It started before the match even began, with centre-back Abdou Samaké picking up an injury in the warmups. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Jordan Haynes, something of a last-resort option in the position as Haynes is a left back and is only just returning from an injury of his own. Haynes started the match well in an unfamiliar position, but it went from bad to worse for the Winnipeggers, as Haynes himself went down half an hour into the match, seemingly grabbing at his hamstring after sprinting back to defend against Djenairo Daniels.

Haynes would be forced off the pitch moments later, visibly frustrated and sending Valour FC coaches Daryl Fordyce and Jay Bhindi — who were standing in for head coach Phil Dos Santos, who was absent attending a coaching course —  into a bit of a frenzy as they quickly had to decide who would fill in at the back. They decided to move right back Andy Baquero to centre-back, and replace Haynes with Eskander Mzoughi, who took over in Baquero’s position.

It was far from an ideal situation, but the makeshift backline was able to hold its own against a physical and talented Pacific attacking unit that featured Ayman Sellouf, Djenairo Daniels and David Brazão. It was an inspiring performance from a side that has faced a lot of adversity in this early part of the season.

“Very proud of the players, they kept going,” said Fordyce after the match. “We said to the players inside the locker room what a mentally strong, tough group that we have, that’s something to be proud of for sure. The circumstances when Abdou goes down in the warmup, and then Jordan comes in, and then Andy is in the backline as well and you’re shuffling the pack — the boys stuck at it, they were excellent today, and they kept going.

“Obviously a tough game, Pacific is a top team, and [I’m] very proud of the resilience we showed today.”

Samaké and Haynes join a list of defenders out with injury that also includes Guillaume Pianelli, Andrew Jean-Baptiste (who is yet to play this season), and Matthew Chandler — who is likely out for the season with an ACL injury. Marcello did well in his return from injury in this match, playing the entire match in midfield, and often dropping deep to help with those defensive duties.

Fordyce, in his first season as an assistant coach for the club he captained and ended his playing career with last season, had no updates on what was troubling Samaké or Haynes, just that they were already getting looked at and will get further evaluations in the coming days.

Pacific’s depth impresses as Merriman rotates his squad heavily ahead of CanChamp semifinal

Pacific FC head coach James Merriman said on Friday that his side was fully healthy ahead of Saturday’s match against Valour FC at IG Field, but still opted for a heavily rotated side in this match — making eight changes from the side that beat York United last weekend.

Kieran Baskett replaced Emil Gazdov in goal, behind a backline that featured Bradley Vliet at left back, Paul Amedume and Eric Lajeunesse at centre-back, none of whom started last weekend. Georges Mukumbilwa started at right back after starting at left back more often in recent times. In midfield, Steffan Yeates got a start in the middle of the park, playing alongside the other two players that returned to the starting lineup, Cedric Toussaint and Sean Young. Up top, Ayman Sellouf returned returned to the squad after getting the day off against York. He started on the left wing, with David Brazão on the right and Djenairo Daneils getting the nod at striker.

The Tridents had a smaller squad overall on Saturday, only naming five of the allowed seven players to the substitutes bench. Gazdov was the backup goalkeeper, joined on the sidelines by Kunle Dada-Luke, Adonijah Reid, Pierre Lamothe and Easton Ongaro. Missing entirely from the squad were some of Pacific’s best players and automatic starters — captain Josh Heard, fellow attacker Kekuta Manneh, midfield maestro Manny Aparicio and first-choice centre-back duo Amer Đidić and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère.

“The guys that we left at home needed a bit of rest, and the players that we asked to step up were excellent,” said Merriman in his postgame press conference. “Paul Amedume, Eric Lajeunesse, it’s not easy to get thrown into a game as a pairing without Tommy (Meilleur-Giguère) or Amer beside them, but I thought they were very solid for 90+ minutes. Kieran Baskett stepped in after not playing for a couple of matches, I thought he was very good as well.

“And then changes across the top as well, Brazão coming in, DJ (Daniels) coming in, and Ayman back into the group. I think it speaks to the depth that we have, and the confidence that we have in the squad that we’re able to rotate players and still believe that we can go and win a match and get something out of the game.”

Sometimes when a team rotates heavily like that, there can be a lack of cohesion between players or a significant drop in quality, but neither one was the case for Merriman’s side on Sunday. Amedume and Lajeunesse were sharp at the back, Daniels put in a strong shift up top and came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, while Yeates hardly put a foot wrong in midfield as part of a young trio alongside Sean Young and Cedric Toussaint.

Merriman said that he was pleased with how the new additions to the lineup contributed.

“I think the players that played today showed why we have that confidence in them,” Merriman added. “We take a lot from this game and we’ll keep moving forward and switch focus quickly to Wednesday.” Player of the Match

Sean Young, Pacific FC 

Wearing the captain’s armband for his hometown club, Sean Young put in another great shift for Pacific FC, scoring the opening goal and running the Tridents’ midfield.

What’s next?

Valour FC head to Langley for the first time next weekend, for their first match against expansion side Vancouver FC on Sunday (7 pm CT/5 pm PT). Pacific will host the Vancouver Whitecaps in a huge Canadian Championship semifinal on Wednesday (7 pm PT/10 pm ET), before turning their attention back to the CPL on Saturday when they’ll host the Halifax Wanderers (7 pm PT/11 pm AT).

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