Strong Finish: Pacific FC grind out ‘character’ victory over FC Edmonton to move on to 2nd round at ‘Island Games’

Thanks to some last gasp magic from Marco Bustos, Pacific FC were able to advance to the second round of the Canadian Premier League’s ‘Island Games’ on Sunday, as they beat Edmonton by a score of 2-1 in a must-win game. Here is our recap. 

With their season on the line, their marquee offseason signing came up big. 

Up against the ropes against an already-eliminated FC Edmonton side, Pacific FC’s big signing this offseason, Marco Bustos, came out of nowhere and delivered a huge knockout punch right at the end, as his 86th minute outside of the box curler proved to be the difference in a huge 2-1 Pacific win. 

After coming into this match, which was the 28th game out of 28 first-round games at the Canadian Premier League’s ‘Island Games’, needing a win to advance to the second round, Pacific did well to claw their way back from being down 1-0 in the 59th minute, as a late push allowed them to get the goals that they needed. 

Now, along with Forge FC, Cavalry FC and the Halifax Wanderers, Pacific can continue to dream of lifting the ‘North Star Shield’ as CPL champions, as they find themselves among the 4 out of 8 teams to make the cut for the second round.  

While there were certainly up-and-down moments throughout the 7 games that they’ve played so far at the ‘Island Games’, they came together in the games that they needed to, such as this one, paving the way for a memorable finish. 

Off of the backs of a huge offseason, during which they made some big splashes on and off the field as they looked to take another step forward after a promising yet disappointing first season, this victory is huge for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, they got a big monkey off of their back by getting all 3 points, especially after missing a glorious opportunity to clinch their spot in the final 4 in a last-minute loss to Ottawa this week. 

Secondly, they’ve shown that they can be one of the best teams in this league, as they’ve so far proved that they can hang with Cavalry and Forge, last year’s finalists, when push comes to shove. 

Lastly, they were able to win their way, which after a slow start to the game, didn’t always look like it was going to be the case. Ever since they came into the league, Pacific has always tried to play an entertaining brand of football, so to see them get results via that has been huge for them. 

But even though the improved results are a big part of why first-year head coach Pa Modou Kah and his staff have been regarded as being a big boost to this squad, the mentality of this team has also stood out, as they look motivated to play for one another on the pitch. 

That’s something that their opponents on this one made sure to point after the game, as Pacific showed that fighting spirit with the late comeback, so even though it was at the expense of his team, Edmonton’s head coach, Jeff Paulus, wanted to give his colleague some due praise for the work he’s done so far. 

“I really want to commend Pa and his coaching staff for what they’re doing at Pacific,” Paulus told reporters after the game. “I mean, they’ve taken these young lads from last year, and he’s really affected them, I’ll tell you what, I mean, it’s a character performance by them to come back, they needed it, it was a must-win for them.”

“And he’s giving them that, to do that, so full credit, first of all to Pa, his staff, and his organization.”

At the front of it all, Kah has been passionate, honest and overall just the kind of voice his young side needed after a tough first season, and that’s something that’s echoed from those in the room. 

“He’s very passionate, obviously, we can all see that, we all know that, but playing under him gives you that extra motivation,” Pacific’s captain for the day, Marco Bustos, said after the match. “When you have a coach, and the whole group wants to play for him, he’s a real leader, and we’re just trying to follow in his footsteps.”

But shifting to the game itself, it was certainly an interesting one, as FC Edmonton came out strong, with their high press doing well to disrupt Pacific’s rhythm in possession right from the get-go, forcing some errant long balls and short passes from the Tridents. 

At the other end, the Edmonton defence stood tall, making it hard for Pacific to play through them, as the Edmonton defence showed what it was capable of when they have all of their best defenders, including Amer Didic, who missed 4 of the Eddies 6 games with injury, in the lineup. 

As a result, the first half didn’t have much to write home about, with both teams struggling to break down the other, aside from a few half-chances that didn’t amount to much. 

In the second half, that would change, however, as Edmonton drew first blood off of a set-piece, which has been their bread and butter for most of the tournament. 

A curled delivery from Ramon Soria found the gloves of Callum Irving in goal, but surprisingly, the goalkeeper, who has been huge in net all tournament long for Pacific, dropped it right at the feet of Easton Ongaro, who took a touch and fired home into an empty cage. 

All of a sudden, Pacific was up against the ropes, and they needed 2 goals to rescue their season. 

And that they did. 

Pushed on by Kah, they found their first goal mere minutes after they conceded, as second-half substitute, Alejandro Diaz, sent in a low free-kick that wasn’t dealt with properly by Didic, leaving the ball in a dangerous position in front of goalkeeper Connor James in the Edmonton goal. 

Josh Heard, who played a good chunk of his youth football on Vancouver Island, would get to the ball first, and slot it home, giving Pacific an equalizer. 

From there, it seemed like only a matter of time until they’d find a lead, as they continued to press for a winner. 

“All the credit to the boys,” Kah said. “As a coach you just hope that they could find another (level to their) game, and that’s what they did. So for me, every single game I’m learning about my team, I’m learning about myself as a coach, what works, what doesn’t work. but being in these type of games, it’s all about character and heart, and that’s what we said at half time.”

In the 85th minute, that breakthrough would come, and it would be via their big offseason signing, Marco Bustos, who made the big decision this offseason to return to B.C., where he’d spent several years with the Vancouver Whitecaps and their affiliates, vowing to make things happen for Pacific. 

After a great run from fellow former ‘Cap, right back Kadin Chung, who Kah called the ‘best right back in this tournament’ after the game, Bustos received the ball just outside the area, and he did well to take a touch, look up, and curl the ball into the far corner with a precise shot. 

It was a big goal, especially for Bustos, who has been an early MVP candidate at this tournament with his play for Pacific, and he reacted appropriately, as he and his teammates revelled in the likely winning goal. 

“I didn’t know what to say, I just started screaming,” Bustos said with a smile after the game. 

But while that goal would indeed prove to be the winner, credit has to be given to Irving, who stepped his game up after his unfortunate mistake. 

Despite having all of the reasons to hang his head in shame, he kept it up, was vocal to his teammates at the water break when things were 1-1, and then made some huge stops when Pacific was up 2-1 to keep the result. 

For Kah, that was huge for his team, as he made sure to point out how vital Irving’s bounce-back was for his squad after the game. 

“He was vocal, he was telling the lads: ‘stay in the game, stay in the game’,” Kah said. ‘And that’s what you need from one of your leaders, pushing them on. The great thing about him is that even with the mistake, he didn’t hide. He played. And for me, that’s sheer resilience and that’s what we look for, especially for me. Anybody can make a mistake, but how you respond after, that is brilliant.”

So now, Pacific still has everything to play for heading into the second round of this tournament. 

With the points total now reset for all 4 teams, they have 3 games to try and be one of the 2 teams to head to the 2nd-ever CPL Finals, and with the 2 finalists from last year still remaining, they’ve got a chance to prove themselves once again against some of the best sides in the league. 

They don’t have much time to reflect on this win, as the next round starts this Wednesday, but as they’ve done all tournament, in which they’ve never had more than 4 days rest, they’ll put their heads down, get back to work, and look to make some more magic to close out the tournament. 

As one of the youngest teams in the league, they’ve already surpassed a lot of what was expected of them so far, but they don’t appear quite ready to stop doing that, either, so keep an eye on them in round 2, starting this week with their clash against 1st place Cavalry, who they did beat a week ago today. 

“Yeah, like we’ve regrouped after every game,” Bustos said of the quick turnaround to the 2nd round. “I think the longest break we had was four days. Everyone’s in the same boat, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing with each other and just try to stay sharp while in the bubble, drink a lot of water, eat healthy, and then just go again and focus on our next game.”

Up Next: Pacific FC vs Cavalry FC, Wednesday, September 9th, 17h00 PST, 20h00 EST 

Cover Image via: David Chant (Chant Photography)/CPL/Pacific FC

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