MATCH ANALYSIS: Vancouver Whitecaps find Starlight Stadium redemption with CanChamp semifinal win over Pacific

Final Score: Pacific FC 0-3 Vancouver Whitecaps
Goalscorers: Gressel 14′, Ahmed 17′, Becher 78′
2023 Canadian Championship

Match in a minute or less

The Vancouver Whitecaps are now one match away from repeating as Canadian Champions after a decisive 3-0 victory over Pacific FC in front of a record crowd at Starlight Stadium.

A pair of early goals from Julian Gressel and Ali Ahmed inside the opening 17 minutes were ultimately the difference as the Caps earned a measure of redemption for a 2021 loss to their CPL rivals.

Unfortunately, mere moments after scoring his goal Ahmed suffered a serious injury and was taken to hospital. The match was delayed for 17 minutes, and the severity of the situation understandably affected both sides. The Whitecaps provided an update late on Wednesday night saying that Ahmed had been cleared to travel back with the team to Vancouver after receiving a full evaluation at the hospital.

Pacific pushed to try to get back into the match, but the Whitecaps put the tie to bed through a late goal from Simon Becher on the counterattack in the 78th minute.

Vancouver will now host CF Montréal in the 2023 final, to be played on Wednesday, June 7, 2023 at BC Place.

Three Observations

Direct, decisive play leads to early Whitecaps scoring spree

In much the way they did in the last meeting between the two sides, Pacific FC came out flying in the opening minutes pressing high up the pitch and causing problems for the Whitecaps backline, leading to a number of early half chances.

However, it was the visitors who were more direct and decisive in the final third, which ultimately led to a pair of goals inside the first 17 minutes of the match. The most obvious example came on the opening goal, off a sequence in which Pacific had actually created a few good chances around the Vancouver area.

When the ball fell to Cédric Toussaint at the top of the box, however, the Pacific midfielder decided to shift it to his left foot instead of hitting it first time. He would ultimately be dispossessed and the play turned the other way.

Gressel, who won the ball off Toussaint and played it forward, then broke down the pitch on a counterattack. When he had the space to shoot, Gressel didn’t hesitate, hitting a brilliant clean strike across goal and into the far corner.

Just four minutes later, Mathías Laborda sent a long throw into the Pacific box which, after being only partially cleared, Ahmed confidently volleyed home.

“I think they were decisive and clinical in their attacks,” said Pacific FC head coach James Merriman. “I think their attacks came from our mistakes, I think we were naive in the moments because we know this is how they play, this is what they have been doing a great job of and they are doing it effectively…we invited those.”

There wasn’t much difference in the match statistically, as Pacific had 16 shots and 0.91 xG to the Whitecaps’ 1.14 xG on 10 shots. But the MLS side were far more decisive, especially in the early moments, and as a result, now have a chance to defend their Voyageurs Cup title.

Tough lesson learned for Pacific FC, who can’t find enough width against dangerous Whitecaps midfield

There is no question that Pacific FC possesses one of the Canadian Premier League’s best midfield trios, capable of playing through just about any side with quick, clever passing and movement.

The issue they ran into on Wednesday night, however, is that especially on a narrow pitch the Whitecaps have a midfield that is incredibly adept at winning balls in the middle of the part and quickly turning those into offensive opportunities.

With that in mind, the directive from Merriman and his coaching staff was to limit the number of balls his side tried to play through the middle, and instead try to use their width to avoid one of the Caps’ biggest strengths.

But that plan wasn’t executed on the night, and instead, the Whitecaps were able to win several balls centrally and convert them into scoring chances and goals. The chart below shows the defensive actions from Vancouver on the night, including just how many interceptions and recoveries were made in the middle of the park.

Vancouver Whitecaps Recoveries (Courtesy: Opta)

“We tried to speak to avoid that, and find the wide spaces, try to attack spaces quicker, and I don’t know, I don’t know, maybe the occasion was there and we still wanted to try it a couple of times, but again they were quite ruthless with those moments, so it is a lesson learned for us,” said Merriman after the match.

Whitecaps destroyer Andrés Cubas, in particular, feasted on balls that Pacific tried to play through the middle, winning possession back 12 times. That included the sequence that led to the counterattack on which Becher put the match to bed with the Caps’ third goal of the night.

Sellouf, Daniels continue to provide offensive spark for Pacific despite the loss

If there was a positive to come out of this match for Merriman and his side is that against a very good Vancouver Whitecaps team he got a better idea of which of his players can raise their game to another level. Two of the standout performers for Pacific came from their incredibly deep front line: Djenairo Daniels and Ayman Sellouf.

Both have been excellent to start the 2023 season, but the Dutch pair solidified their places as key members of the Pacific attack with strong performances on Wednesday night against the MLS side.

Daniels was relentless in pressing the Vancouver backline and created multiple chances through his work rate alone. He also had four shots, including a looping header that struck the crossbar — as close as Pacific would come on the night. He also contested 11 duels and made two tackles.

Sellouf, meanwhile, showed his technical skill and the multiple facets of his playmaking ability. He created two chances, and had three successful dribbles, while also firing six shot attempts, two of which were on target.

As Pacific look to build towards their other objectives this season — starting with yet another match at Starlight Stadium in CPL action this weekend against the Halifax Wanderers — Sellouf and Daniels are shaping up to be important parts of their long-term success. Player of the Match

Julian Gressel, Vancouver Whitecaps 

Gressel scored the critical opening goal on a stunning finish and was a thorn in Pacific’s side all night, winning possession back three times in the final third and creating two other chances.

What’s next?

The Vancouver Whitecaps will now host the 2023 Canadian Championship final on June 7, 2023 at BC Place, where they will face CF Montréal with kickoff scheduled for 7:00 p.m. PT. In CPL action, Pacific host the Halifax Wanderers on Saturday, May 27 at 7:00 p.m. PT.

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