MATCH ANALYSIS: Whitecaps top York United with slew of late goals in CanChamp QF

Final Score: York United FC 1-4 Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Goalscorers: Ricci 90′; Adekugbe (o.g.) 64′, Becher 76′, Johnson 88′, Gressel 90+1′ (pen.)
2023 Canadian Championship

Match in a minute or less

In the third 2023 Canadian Championship quarter-final, Major League Soccer club Vancouver Whitecaps FC defeated Canadian Premier League side York United by a 4-1 scoreline at York Lions Stadium on Wednesday.

York managed to get the match to halftime knotted at 0-0 thanks to some strong defensive work, keeping the majority of the Whitecaps’ chances to the outside of the box and less dangerous areas. They opened the second half continuing in that vein, and offered a few attempts of their own, but just after the hour mark it was the Whitecaps who found a fortuitous opener. Ali Ahmed sent a low cross from near the end line that goalkeeper Niko Giantsopoulos kicked away, but Russell Teibert sent the loose ball goalward and it ricocheted off the crossbar and at Elijah Adekugbe’s back, trickling in before the York midfielder could do anything about it.

The Whitecaps added a second goal about 10 minutes later, as Giantsopoulos came out of his box in an attempt to fend off a quick Vancouver attack but Simon Becher sent it goalward from distance and found the open goal to make it 2-0. On the brink of fulltime, the MLS side put the match to bed, thanks to a well-finished counter-attack by Brampton native Levonte Johnson.

York got one back late via Austin Ricci, but the Whitecaps won a last-ditch penalty kick down the other end which Julian Gressel buried down the middle to make it 4-1.

Now, Vancouver will have to wait and see who they play in the semifinal, where they’ll meet either Pacific FC or TSS Rovers.

Three Observations

Strong early start turns to trouble in transition for York

York United boss Martin Nash would’ve been fairly pleased this week to be able to field a lineup complete with players slotted into their natural positions — which has rarely been the case for them this season. With centre-backs Roger Thompson and Tass Mourdoukoutas (the likely starting pair in a first-choice XI) both able to start, Brem Soumaoro was able to play further forward in midfield alongside Elijah Adekugbe, which also let Dutchman Oussama Alou push on into his own natural number 10 spot.

Until, that is, York suffered another cruel injury blow in the 25th minute: Thompson took the brunt of a challenge and couldn’t continue, going straight down the tunnel upon leaving the pitch. Nash called upon Matthew Baldisimo to play against the club whose academy he began in, as Soumaoro stepped back into defence alongside Mourdoukoutas.

Playing against a Major League Soccer team, York knew in this game they’d have to be extremely well-organized defensively to stand a chance; CPL sides have learned over the years that a key difference at the MLS level is how quickly mistakes will be punished. The first half went quite well in that respect despite the early substitution, as the back six repeatedly forced the Whitecaps to shoot from outside the box or tough angles — just two of their 11 first-half attempts were on target.

The second half, though, was where it came off the rails for the home side, in similar fashion to the semifinal between these teams in last year’s tournament. They were somewhat unlucky to concede the opening goal, with Teibert’s shot deflecting unfortunately off the crossbar onto Adekugbe’s back and in.

After that, with just half an hour left, York had no choice but to open up in search of an equalizer. Nash opted to move into a more attacking mode soon after the goal, making a triple substitution to add Austin Ricci, Clément Bayiha and Brian Wright for the final 20 minutes. According to Nash, that was a move he’d always planned to make at that point in the match, but it turned out to arrive at a turning point of the match.

The change didn’t exactly go to plan for the Nine Stripes, who conceded about six minutes after the triple change when Simon Becher found the open goal from distance after Niko Giantsopoulos gambled by coming out of his box and couldn’t get in front of the loose ball.

From there, the game remained very transitional, with the Whitecaps comfortably in front. York did get on the scoresheet late thanks to a well-taken finish by Ricci — who, it must be said, deserves a lot of credit for finding his form again after two devastating long-term injuries the last two years. Still, Vancouver made it a safe scoreline in the end with two more goals from counter-attacking chances (the second being a penalty kick drawn by a fast break).

“We did well up until they scored as far as limiting quality chances,” Nash said. “They’ve got a fantastic team but I thought in the first half we defended well, the chances they had came from, in my opinion, silly giveaways in areas we talked about not playing … I thought our guys gave a fantastic account of themselves. They worked real hard, didn’t give up right until the end.”

Ultimately, an unfortunate result for York, but the scoreline may not be indicative of the balance of play; late goals on the counter are the price a team pays for being aggressive in search of a comeback — in a cup tie, there’s no difference between losing 2-1 and 4-1.

(Photo: David Chant/York United)

Second-half shape change gives Whitecaps greater attacking bite

Although Vancouver had a lot of the ball in the first half, coach Vanni Sartini was not pleased with his side’s ball movement or tempo in the early going.

He explained postmatch that he felt the front three — strikers Déiber Caicedo and Simon Becher in front of Ryan Gauld — hadn’t been finding the right spaces to get in behind a well-organized York back four. They were playing fairly narrow up front which generally suited York with a double-pivot in midfield in front of the centre-backs.

Around the hour mark, though, Sartini made a sharp tactical change, rearranging his side into a 4-4-2 to provide some more width, pushing Ali Ahmed to the left flank — which was where he was able to put the ball into the six-yard box and create the chaos that led to the Whitecaps’ seal-breaking goal.

“I decided to change the shape and go 4-4-2 because, since we are not getting into the space, let’s create a space,” Sartini said. “You get to create a structure that is a little bit more open. And it went well, we scored immediately. You know in this kind of game when you score the first goal you have to open up a little bit and then it’s quote-unquote ‘easier,’ but for 60 minutes it was very hard.”

Earlier in the game the Whitecaps had been slower with the ball, trying to work it methodically to the top of the box to find Gauld’s left foot. The Scottish designated player did end up with seven shots, as well as three chances created, but York’s flat defensive line made it difficult for him to find more dangerous spaces. The shape change got him in the half-spaces more than the middle channel, which ultimately made him more dangerous as well.

Whitecaps’ Canadians come through when needed

The Whitecaps deliberately rested their Canadian players over the weekend in order to have the likes of Russell Teibert, Ryan Raposo, and Ali Ahmed at full capacity for the domestic cup tie. All three therefore started, with coach Vanni Sartini expecting them to play a significant role on Wednesday.

That they did, as it was Ahmed’s run and cutback cross that produced a loose ball in the 64th minute, and the captain Teibert whose shot off the crossbar ended up in the net via York’s Elijah Adekugbe.

Levonte Johnson, a 2023 MLS SuperDraft first round pick, made his first-team debut with the Whitecaps after signing a short-term contract for this match earlier this week, and the Brampton native was excellent in a half-hour shift off the bench, scoring the third goal for Vancouver.

Sartini explained after the game that he puts a lot of stock in this Canadian Championship competition, especially knowing how much it meant to the Whitecaps to lift the Voyageurs’ Cup in 2022. Although the rules only require teams to have three Canadians in the starting lineup, Sartini said he made an effort to ensure they had three on the pitch at all times: Ahmed came out, Johnson came in; Teibert came out, Karifa Yao came in.

The latter, formerly a Cavalry FC defender, made a cameo appearance in the last 10 minutes on a pitch he knows well from his two years in the CPL. Yao looked strong in just his third appearance for the Whitecaps’ first team, winning a tackle and making three clearances despite his limited time on the pitch.

“I think this is a very important chance for the Canadian players, the domestic players we have in our roster to send me a message,” Sartini added. Player of the Match

Simon Becher, Vancouver Whitecaps

The young striker was an absolute menace all evening for the Whitecaps, not only scoring the second goal but producing five shots with 12 touches in the box as well as four chances created. The 23-year-old has six goals in nine games (all competitions) this year in what’s been a torrid start to the season for him.

What’s next?

The Vancouver Whitecaps move on to the semifinals, where they’ll play either Pacific FC or TSS Rovers. York United, meanwhile, turn their focus back to CPL play, with a trip to Vancouver Island to play Pacific this Sunday, May 14 (6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT).

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