AGR's High-Press: Are York United starting to deliver on preseason hype?
We're officially at the quarter-mark of the 2023 Canadian Premier League season, where every team has faced each other at least once, and once again, leading the pack are the usual suspects – Forge FC and Pacific FC.
The two have been the class of the league to date, but after that? It's chaos in the standings. Who would've had York United sitting in third place at this point? The Nine Stripes have pushed up to that position after a slow start, while Atlético Ottawa, who, after winning the regular season crown last year, now sits at the opposite end of the table. A quarter of the way in, and the results have been wild and unpredictable.
Yet, that's the important thing to note from these first seven games – a lot can still change, and change comes quickly within these fine margins. Spots no. 3 through 8 are separated by just four points; a few wins in a row can quickly change fortunes.
Just ask York United, who lead the way in this week's High-Press, as we look back at what stood out from Matchweek 7 of CPL action.
Are York United… legit contenders?
It was the big surprise of matchday six, as York visited the Halifax Wanderers and ran riot over their hosts en route to a comfortable 3-0 win. Capitalizing on the absence of Lorenzo Callegari for Halifax, York were dominant in midfield, and did what they needed to do defensively.
Yet, while that win was a big boost, the next challenge was clear for York - follow it up with another result. Something they were unable to do after their big road win over Atlético Ottawa in week three, which they followed up with two losses, they needed to find a way to keep the momentum of their Wanderers victory going as they got set for matchday seven.
Which, to their credit, they managed to do in a big way, as they nabbed a crucial 1-0 win over Cavalry at home. Their first home victory of the season, it was a rather well-deserved effort, too, as they worked hard throughout the 90 minutes, and managed to see the result over the line in the end.
They did have some close calls while doing so, as Cavalry had some decent looks (and had a legitimate gripe about an offside call in the second half where they would've likely scored), but in the end, York were deserving winners, and the numbers backed it up.
Despite getting outshot (11-7) and out-possessed (67-33), York had more shots on target (3-2) and won the xG battle (1.34-0.54), doing well to create several quality opportunities for themselves.
Yet, this leads to a key trend that has become quite clear yet hasn't been talked about much over the course of the seven games - York's offence looks to be legitimately good.
They might be third-last in goals scored this season with seven, but they're second in the CPL for xG with 10.32, just 0.5 behind Pacific in first. Plus, they're third in shots and fourth in touches in the penalty area, as they've done a good job of getting to dangerous areas and making things happen.
Really, they continue to be let down by the fact that they've missed 12 big chances, which is a big reason why they're underperforming their xG by over three goals. In particular, Osaze De Rosario and Brian Wright's scoring struggles have been well-documented, with neither striker breaching the target yet after scoring a combined 19 goals in 2022 for their clubs.
That should eventually change, as the pair are getting chances (De Rosario has 1.63 xG on 11 shots, while Wright has 2.04 xG on 11 shots - for context, they're the two players with the most xG who are yet to score this season in the CPL), so those chances should breach the target eventually.
Plus, it's worth noting that they've done all this despite Mo Babouli playing just two minutes across their last four matches as he's dealt with an injury, as one could only imagine what getting him back fully fit can do for their offence, especially if he returns to the MVP pace he showed in his short stint at the end of 2022.
Therefore, when looking at all of that, there's a lot to like about York's offence right now. De Rosario and Wright should start scoring soon, Babouli will be a big boost when back healthy, and between the likes of Oussama Alou, Austin Ricci, Clément Bayiha and Kevin dos Santos, Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy and Michael Petrasso, they've got depth now, too.
Really, their big question right now has to be on the defensive side of things. For all of the joy they've had offensively, defensively they have struggled, as they sit second-last in xG against with 11.14, only narrowly ahead of brand-new Vancouver FC, and are second-last in goals against with nine.
In particular, the quality of shots they've allowed is worrying, as they've allowed 0.13 xG against per shot, which is the highest quality of xG per shot of anyone in the league.
To be fair, though, there were reasons for that, as injuries have decimated their back line all season long, which has led to some intriguing names having to fill in there from them.
Because of that, it's important to highlight the return of one key player that has helped them trend in the right direction defensively in recent games - Tass Mourdoukoutas. After not featuring in the first three games of the season, he's featured in the four games since, starting in the last three.
His first start didn't go as planned, as York fell 4-1 on the road to Pacific, but given Pacific's offensive form, that's understandable. Since then, however, Mourdoukoutas and his backline have stepped up, however, as they've kept clean sheets in their last two games, and have only allowed 1.54 xG total across both of those matches.
Yet, that's what Mourdoukatas has done since signing for York halfway through last season. Since then, he's now started in 18 games, in which York has a record of 9W-2D-7L (29 PTS). By comparison, they've had a record of 3W-5D-9L (14 PTS) in the 17 games he hasn't started in since the start of 2022.
For context, their record with Mourdoukoutas over the course of a full season would be pro-rated to 45 points, which in last year's table would've had them in fifth place, just four points behind first (thanks to the logjam that was last year's top four). Without him, their record would be pro-rated to 23 points, which would've had them just three points above FC Edmonton last year - not great.
Therefore, look for Mourdoukoutas to keep up his strong form. Given that he and his team were still able to grab those clean sheets in the last two games while starting full back Paris Gee alongside Mourdoukoutas in a back four, one can only imagine what they can do when they get some of their natural centre back options fully fit (or bolster their centre back ranks this summer).
It's clear that this offence is good - ever since the last 10 games of 2022, really - but if they can sort out their defence, they'll vault up the table, as the last few games have shown.
"I'd like a happy medium," York's head coach, Martin Nash said on the balance he's looking to find between offence and defence. "I thought last week we were good (vs Halifax), would've liked to have a bit more possession and control on the game than we did, as I thought we had that control last week even without the ball.
"This week without the ball we didn't feel that we had as much control, Cavalry had some good movements, got into good areas and in behind, but our guys battled hard, and went the extra mile to keep the clean sheet."
Halifax Wanderers' hunt for a 1st win continues
It continues to be the elusive question for the Halifax Wanderers so far - when will that first win come for them under head coach Patrice Gheisar?
Frustratingly, despite continuing to turn in strong performances, that first win has remained elusive for Halifax and their new coach, as they sit with six points through seven games with a record of 0W-6D-1L.
Even more painful is their knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, having dropped four leads in the six league games they'd played heading into their clash against Pacific this weekend.
Yet, to their credit, they showed a new side to them this weekend - an ability to go and chase a game even after falling behind.
As a result, they were able to nab a key point in a tough locale, as they split the spoils in an entertaining 1-1 draw with Pacific FC thanks to a late goal from Aidan Daniels in the 85th minute.
It wasn't the first time they've come from behind after scoring first (their entertaining 2-2 draw with Cavalry in week five saw Cavalry score first before the Wanderers responded with two goals), but it was still a huge accomplishment for them.
In particular, it's worth noting how important Daniels' goal was in context - before he breached the target with his strike off a great assist from Tiago Coimbra, the Wanderers were actually yet to score a goal in the second half of a game this season.
A very young team, one that is filled with several players taking their first steps in the professional game, Halifax's naivety has cost them at times, with their inability to hold onto leads in games being a prime example of that.
Therefore, for them to go to Pacific and fight for a point the way that they did was huge, as that's the exact sort of moment that could serve as a big galvanizer for this side.
The action areas from this match, showing how Halifax was able to control the ball and push it into Pacific's third of the field (via OPTA)
Ultimately, this team is a lot better than their record shows, but they've also been their own enemy in a lot of games. And that's understandable given their inexperience.
They've got some work to do defensively, as they've conceded nine goals and have allowed the fourth-worst xG with 8.63, but they've also been woefully unlucky at the other end, having scored just six goals on 9.11 xG.
Plus, as the eye test and numbers show, they're getting into the right areas of the pitch. Sitting third in touches in the box, fourth in shots, and first in passes, key passes and progressive passes, they're pushing the ball in the right direction with their play.
Now, they must find a formula that works in the attack (which likely circles around Aidan Daniels, Wesley Timoteo and Lorenzo Callegari), and continue to tidy up their defence (Jake Ruby could be a huge piece in that regard).
And hey, for what it's worth, the Wanderers have actually done pretty well for themselves considering the circumstances. Their upcoming game against Ottawa will be their sixth road game of the year, having played just two games at home.
Therefore, for them to actually be undefeated on the road, with five draws in five games, is not bad at all, as they'll have plenty of time to make up points with a slew of home games on the way.
Especially if they can grab a road win this weekend against an Ottawa side that is struggling to win at home… they'll be coasting, all while playing some of the most entertaining soccer in the league.
Because of that, keep an eye on Gheisar and his charges, as they continue to adapt to the high demands of Gheisar-ball and what that entails.
Alex's notepad: Quick thoughts around the CPL
Elsewhere, here are some more thoughts about everyone else across the CPL.
Atlético Ottawa will have to be frustrated with the goal that they conceded against Forge. Given that they were all over them all second half long, to get hit on transition the way they did is a huge blow, as they were far too easy to play through on that sequence. There continues to be a lot to be encouraged about their offence, which showed their potential against Vancouver FC a few weeks ago, but their defence is a worry, given that they've kept just one clean sheet. Nathan Ingham has been a big loss, but the bigger concern will have been how easy some of the goals that they've given away are. Otherwise, one last question they'll ponder this week - surely Zach Verhoven is due a start soon, right? He continues to be bright off the bench for Ottawa.
Adonijah Reid laid a big claim towards being Pacific's starting striker against Halifax, as he had a very bright performance leading the line for the Tridents. A smart striker, his quality of runs and ability to find space has been immense for Pacific, especially for midfielders Sean Young and Manny Aparicio, who seem to play off Reid nicely. If they can get their wide players more involved within that system, there's a formula to be excited about there. Also, watch out for them next week - they clearly ran out of gas against Halifax after playing the Vancouver Whitecaps in an emotional game just days earlier. With a short trip across the Salish Sea awaiting them to go play Vancouver FC in their first away derby against their BC rivals on Friday, they'll be eager to get back on track with a big win.
GOAL 🔱@Pacificfccpl STRIKE FIRST!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 28, 2023
Adonijah Reid gives The Tridents a 1-0 lead over @HFXWanderersFC with a well taken goal.
It's his first #CanPL goal and it's well deserved!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/UwjTiHsq4U
After successfully using a back three last week, Cavalry FC went back to a back four against York. It wasn't the wrong decision, say, as they were able to build up well against York, but they just didn't look as overall fluid offensively as they did with the back three. In particular, it feels like they've got to push José Escalante higher up the field, even if it means sacrificing one of Mikaël Cantave or Sergio Camargo to shift to the back three. Also, out of curiosity, it'd be interesting to see what a midfield pivot of Eryk Kozba and Charlie Trafford or Shamit Shome could do. Kozba was once again very bright on the ball in this game, doing well to push play into good areas.
Winless since week one, Valour FC probably should've grabbed all three points on the road against Vancouver, but just couldn't turn a strong second half into any goals. In particular, Anthony Novak could've had a pair of goals despite only playing 30 minutes, making one wonder how much of a difference he'd have made if he would've been able to start. Otherwise, there was a lot to like for Valour despite a lack of wins- their makeshift defence is continuing to get results, Rayane Yesli is playing like one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Matteo de Brienne is continuing to adjust nicely to playing at left back, and their deep midfield is controlling games. Along with the continued strong play of Pacifique Niyongabire and Kian Williams up front, there's a lot to like with Valour. If anything, it feels like they should have more wins than they've got so far, having drawn five of their last six matches.
It's always interesting to watch Vancouver FC these days. Especially if you like to see players playing in new positions. This time, the latest experiment saw centre-back Ibrahim Bakaré get a look at striker for the second half against Valour, before finishing the game at no. 6. To be fair, it did work in spurts, but one can only wonder what Vancouver would be able to do if they were able to deploy more players in their natural positions, especially in the attack, where they've not been as good as they can be (Afhsin Ghotbi's words, not mine). Otherwise, Rocco Romeo's return was a huge boost for the Eagles as Vancouver grabbed a second straight clean sheet. They've got lots of work to do at the other end, but it's been good to see them tidy things up defensively after the 5-0 drubbing Ottawa handed them a few weeks back.
Player of the Matchday: Triston Henry
In a weekend where just four goals were scored across the four games, as five teams kept clean sheets, it;s fitting that a goalkeeper is named player of the week, with Henry;s heroics against Ottawa standing out in a big way.
With eight saves, all of them big ones, he single-handedly won his team this game, one they had no business winning, allowing them to extend their lead atop the CPL table.
Triston Henry receives the @Gatorade Performance of the Match for leaving the crowd awestruck with his incredible saves and the game-changing impact it had against @atletiOttawa 💥 #CanPL | 📺 @OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/xPQeswJIJi— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) May 27, 2023
It's a credit to Henry, who might be having his best season yet for Forge FC.
Typically, across his Forge career, Henry has been quite consistent. Playing behind a great team defensively, he's usually done the job and a bit more, conceding slightly less than one would expect based on the shots he's faced.
Barring a few jarring mistakes, especially early in his Forge career, he's usually been very reliable, which is why he's backstopped three titles, some deep Concacaf League and Canadian Championship runs and an entry into the Concacaf Champions League with Forge.
This year, however, he's taken a step forward through seven games. There, he's made the second-most saves in the CPL with 22, despite having played one game fewer than everyone else in the top six.
Plus, he's only conceded five goals despite being expected to concede around 6.4, which is on pace for his best season in the CPL by the advanced numbers.
Therefore, a performance like this wasn't that surprising to see - he's been excellent this season, and has been very consistent with his play.
For a Forge team that has allowed the fewest xG in the league with 6.39, that's a scary proposition, showing how hard it is to score against them, something that Ottawa saw firsthand.
Goal of the Week: Clément Bayiha
Given that there were such few goals to choose from, it was a tough matchday to decide the goal of the week, but ultimately Bayiha's effort stood out among the four that were scored.
Anytime you're able to dribble around a goalkeeper, especially one of Marco Carducci's quality, it's worth highlighting, as Bayiha marked his first-ever CPL goal in style with his finish.
You gotta see this: York's sideline meets Renaissance art
Late in the clash between York and Cavalry, Charlie Trafford caught Mo Babouli with a tackle right in front of the York bench, which understandably riled them up given Babouli's recent return from injury.
Because of that, it led to a nice coming together, which delivered *this* golden screen capture from the broadcast.
Not sure what's worth highlighting more here, really. Martin Nash needing to be held back by his players? Osaze De Rosario licking his lips at the thought of revenge? Whatever's being said by Austin Ricci?
What I'm watching this week: Atlético Ottawa vs Halifax Wanderers
In a rematch of the first game of the CPL season, Ottawa hosts Halifax in a huge game for both sides.
Sitting in the last two spots in the table, with just one win between them, both sides desperately need a win out of this game.
For Halifax, they'll look to put together a solid performance over the course of 90 minutes, building off what they showed for Pacific, while Ottawa will look to tighten the ship defensively after allowing some cheap goals in recent games.
With the table being as tight as it is, a win would be massive for either side, before things really start to get spread out in the middle of the CPL table over the next couple of weeks.