Wednesday night at Starlight Stadium in Langford, the Vancouver Whitecaps will take on Pacific FC in the Canadian Championship semi-finals.
This matchup needs no introduction and already feels steeped in history despite the fact that these teams have only met once in their collective franchise histories. Perhaps it’s because there’s been so much crossover between these clubs in terms of players, coaches, and staff historically. More simply though, perhaps it’s because of the way the rivalry began, which was something completely unforgettable.
Before TSS Rovers triumphed over Valour this year, Pacific’s shock win over the Whitecaps back on August 26th 2021 was undoubtedly the most memorable upset in recent Canadian Championship history. Beyond the match itself, it was also a landmark occasion for both clubs. While it provided Pacific with the confidence they needed to go on and win their first CPL title, the Vancouver Whitecaps parted ways with Marc Dos Santos soon after, and in the process they fundamentally changed the trajectory of their organization, eventually backing Vanni Sartini, who was coaching the Whitecaps Development squad at the time of the upset, as Dos Santos’ permanent replacement.
If you want to revisit the historic occasion, I highly recommend the YouTube documentary which was put together by our friends at DARBY magazine.
Fast forwarding to 2023, both of these clubs are in a much different place. Pacific has established itself as a perennial contender for the CPL title, while Vancouver has taken a lot of positive steps, and likely boasts their most complete roster in their MLS history.
So far this season, Pacific sits 2nd in the CPL with 3 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss through 6 matches played. While scoring was a concern early in the season for this Pacific team under James Merriman, they have come a long way in the department over the last few weeks, especially with the return of Manny Aparicio from injury. While Pacific cooled off on the road this past weekend with a 1-1 draw against Valour, where they rotated their squad pretty significantly, their previous two outings saw them score 4 goals each against York United and Ottawa, winning both matches 4-1.
Defending has been a consistent strength for Pacific, as they sit joint top of the table with Forge in terms of goals allowed (5GA through 6GP). Amer Didic and Thomas Meilleur Giguère may very well be the best CB duo in the CPL, while Kunle Dada-Luke and Georges Mukumbilwa round out a very solid back four. Through the midfield, outside of Aparicio, Sean Young has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the campaign so far, as the 22-year-old Victoria native has taken a big step forward and has been one of the Tridents’ most important players. Up front, Josh Heard remains a threat and I’m sure he’ll give Javain Brown some flashbacks if the two match-up against one another in this one. A silent wildcard to watch out for as well is Kekutah Manneh, the former Whitecap has not played many minutes this season, but you never know what Scooter will be able to pull out against his old club. Easton Ongaro, the former FC Edmonton striker and WFC2 product has been inconsistent this season as he adapts to Pacific’s possession football, but he is always a threat on the right day.
Turning attention to Vancouver, the message from Vanni Sartini on Tuesday was very clear, the team is going all out to win this match. Beating Seattle 2-0 on the weekend really helped, especially being up by two early enough where Sartini could manage his players’ energy levels for this one. Sartini confirmed that Yohei Takaoka will start for Vancouver, and that after a dalliance with three at the back on the weekend, the team will return to their traditional back four shape going forward. With Hasal out of the picture, Ali Ahmed and Ryan Raposo look like guaranteed starters, while Russel Teibert, Karifa Yao and Levonte Johnson round out the Canadian options (I’ll remind you that one of those three will have to start to meet the Canadian player quota).
The big challenge for the Whitecaps in this match will be breaking down a very disciplined, technical and tactically competent Pacific FC side that will have the home crowd behind them. On paper at least, this should not be the hectic, back and forth slopfest we witnessed back in 2021. If anything, I think the concern for Vancouver is that this match goes well into the second half without a goal, and at that point, one heavy touch or moment of brilliance can change everything.
In terms of predictions, while the chaos of another Pacific upset would make for fantastic content, I can’t logically predict it happening a second time consecutively. Make no bones about it, Pacific can absolutely win this match and go on to win the Canadian Championship, but I think the Whitecaps have a combination of depth and game-breakers which vastly outshines their 2021 iteration. As such, I’m predicting a 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps win.