AGR's High Press: How Vancouver FC is playing spoiler in playoff race despite elimination
It’s crunch time.
All of a sudden, just two match weeks is all that remains in a marathon of a 28-game CPL season, with the playoffs now just over two weeks away from kicking off.
Yet, despite that, there is still everything to play for, especially for those between second and sixth place in the table.
At the top, all is clear, as Cavalry were officially crowned regular season champions this past weekend, sitting seven points clear of second, while the bottom has seen Vancouver and Valour eliminated over the last weekend.
Along with Forge and Pacific booking playoff spots, that’s given us some clarity on that front, but other than that, all sorts of movement is still possible with 10 points separating second and sixth.
Because of that, it should make for an entertaining end to the season. Especially with Vancouver and Valour surging a bit as of late, it feels like nothing is a guarantee, especially for those who remain stuck in the middle, capable of either missing out on the playoffs or hosting a game.
Just look at this past weekend, where a chaotic Saturday saw Cavalry clinch their title without playing, where Halifax went from clinching a playoff spot to missing out, and more.
Speaking of, however, here’s a look at what stood out from this weekend, as well as a look ahead to the penultimate matchday in the CPL, in week 24 of High Press.
Vancouver finds feet despite playoff elimination:
Don’t look now, but the Eagles are soaring.
They may have been eliminated from playoff contention a few weeks ago, but that hasn’t stopped Vancouver from finishing the season on a high note, as they’ve been on a roll as of late.
That continued this past weekend, as they came from behind to defeat the Halifax Wanderers on a late winner, claiming their first back-to-back wins as a club, while also preventing the Wanderers from clinching a playoff spot (after eliminating Valour from the playoff race just days earlier).
GOAL 🦅🦅— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 23, 2023
It's an OG as @HFXWanderersFC defender Dan Nimick scores on his own net to give @VanFootballClub all three points!
The Wanderers don't clinch a playoff spot today, they will have to wait.
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/VcLUTjEAaR
Their fourth win in seven games, they’ve really found their feet as of late, as they’ve begun to string some wins together.
With that, they’re ensuring that they’ll finish their expansion campaign off on a high note, setting the table for what’s to come next year.
To begin, they’re finally scoring goals, as they've got 10 goals over their last 7 games, which is on par with the best teams in the league (that puts them at a pace of 40 goals across a full season, which would be top three in the league right now).
Given that none of those have come from strikers Alejandro Díaz and Shaan Hundal, that’s especially impressive from a depth perspective, as it shows that this Vancouver team has varied options in the attack now, even if they’d also like for their strikers to join in on the fun. Yet, thanks to the play of Gabriel Bitar and Mikaël Cantave, who now sit tied for second place on the team in goals with five, they’ve really stepped up to make up for Díaz and Hundal’s struggles.
GOAL 🦅@VanFootballClub level things up as Gabriel Bitar scores a beauty!🔥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 23, 2023
The @HFXWanderersFC will need to respond if they want to qualify for the #CanPL playoffs today!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/3ExaU0yoPO
Then, from there, defensively, they’ve really started to find their feet over the last four games, in particular, where they’ve only conceded three goals from four games, in one of their best defensive stretches of the season.
And combined with the life they’ve found offensively, that’s allowed them to finally grab some consistency in their overall performance, as all season it’s felt like they’ve usually struggled to score when they’ve defended well, and struggled to defend when they’ve been scoring.
As seen over their last four games, though, where they’ve won the xG battle three times (something Vancouver had only done four times across their first 22 games), they’re changing that now, and it’s made a big difference in their ability to win games.
Because of that, it’ll be intriguing to see where this team ends up next year. Thanks to midseason additions such as Cantave, Vasco Fry and Renan Garcia, as well as some key returns from injury like Kadin Chung and Gabriel Bitar, this has been a new-look team lately, helping explain these results.
They’d been showing glimpses of good play over the last few months, to be fair, but this is the first stretch where they’ve shown they can really do some damage, allowing them to climb up the table.
For an expansion team, that can only be applauded, as they’re already guaranteed not to set the record for the fewest points in a 28-game campaign, which is impressive given that they’re the first expansion team to deal with similar circumstances (Atlético Ottawa’s expansion year was during the shortened Island Games, while the other six teams all started at the same time, skewing the numbers).
Now, the key will be to build on this, of course, but having done a lot of their important shopping in midseason, they’ve already gotten off to a good start in that regard.
As a result, they’ve already got a core group of players that can certainly compete, and this latest run is showing that.
Because of that, keep an eye on them over the last two games, especially as they look to continue to disrupt the playoff race, which they can certainly do with more wins, while ensuring that they do not finish with a wooden spoon in the process.
Ottawa’s late woes sinks them at worst time:
It almost defies the realm of possibility.
When Valour FC’s Walter Ponce found the net in the 95th minute of their clash against Atlético Ottawa, allowing his team to grab a 1-0 win at TD Place, many of the Ottawa players, staff and fans all grabbed their faces and groaned in disappointment.
And while that’s a normal reaction for conceding a goal like that late in a game, you wouldn’t blame them if they did so with a bit more emotion and pain than usual - with that late goal, that was the fourth time in the last five games that Ottawa had lost a game in the 90th minute or later.
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Not concede in the 90th minute or later, or even drop points - no, it was the fourth time that Ottawa had lost a game late after seemingly being en route to at least earning a draw.
So while technically they’ve only dropped four points across those games, it feels far worse than that.
Especially at this time of the year, when the games matter a bit more, this run has come at the worst time for Ottawa, and it could cost them big by the end of the year.
Atlético Ottawa's last 6 #CanPL games:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) September 24, 2023
0-0 vs Forge
2-1 L vs Cavalry (97' winner)
2-1 L @ Vancouver (91' winner)
1-1 vs Pacific
3-2 L @ Halifax (92' winner)
1-0 L vs Valour (94' winner)
Just 1 point ahead of 6th place York United, away games vs. York and Forge loom large
Having already failed to defend their 2022 regular season crown, they’ll now be in tough even to return to another CPL final, as they’re now unable to finish higher than fourth place in the table.
What that means is that at the very minimum, any trip to the final will come if they can grab three consecutive wins in the playoffs, as they’d have to win the 4v5 game, then beat the third-place team, and finish with a win over the loser of the 1v2 game, with the latter two games guaranteed to be on the road.
Yet now, to even get there in the first place, Ottawa will need to really lock in, as two crucial Ontario derby matches await, both on the road, to close out their season.
There, it’ll be important for them to return to what worked for them earlier in the season, such as when they went on a 6W-1D-1L run through July and August, outscoring opponents 15-6.
Given that in their most recent run of six games without a win, they’ve been outscored 8-5, they’ve got some cleaning up to do at both ends.
For what it’s worth, there is some reason for optimism when looking at the advanced numbers - despite losing the xG battle in four of the six games, the cumulative xG across those games is only 6.67-5.9 in favour of Ottawa’s opponents.
Yet, that comes down to two factors, which Ottawa will look to clean up ahead of the stretch run.
First, they’ll need to refind their feet offensively, as only Sam Salter (2) has scored more than one goal over that stretch, while MVP candidate Ollie Bassett has slowed down significantly, sitting with just one goal and one assist over that period.
Along with the fact that no other attacker has scored across that span, with Ottawa’s two other goals coming from centre back Luke Singh and wing back Maxim Tissot, both off set pieces, and getting the rest of the offence going in open play will be another big concern.
Then, defensively, they’ll just need to find a way to lock things down, especially late in games. To be fair, a big part of that has been due to the absence of Diego Espejo, who has missed the last eight games with an injury, so they’ll be pleased to see that he finally recovered enough to be on the bench last week, as his prospective return could be a massive boost.
From there, they’ll need the rest of the key defensive players to step up around him as he returns, helping Ottawa return to their usually sturdy defensive posture.
If not, Ottawa could miss out on the playoffs, which would be a big disappointment after their 2022 success, especially after they looked like they were set to build on it in the middle of the season.
Cavalry becomes the first team to lock in spot in playoffs:
Slowly, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus this week, as some teams start to lock in spots in the table.
Therefore, we’re starting to get an idea of what the road to the final could look like, especially at the top and bottom of the playoff picture.
At the top, Cavalry of course became the first team to lock in a spot, thanks to their status as CPL Shield winners. As a result, they’ll now host the second-place team at Spruce Meadows on the weekend of October 14th, for a chance to host and play in the final (and a second shot at making the final if not).
As for who they’ll play, just Forge, Pacific and Halifax remain in the hunt. Forge leads the race thanks to their win over Pacific, as they can lock up a spot with a win over Halifax and a Pacific draw or loss to Vancouver this week, while Pacific could take over second again with a win and a Forge draw or loss, and stays alive with a win, or if Forge doesn’t claim a victory.
In terms of Halifax’s chances of finishing in the top two, it’s a bit more complicated - they’ll need two wins, for Forge to then lose their last game (and make up a goal difference gap of four), and for Pacific to not win in their last two games (and preferably pick up a loss in there somewhere due to Pacific’s strong goal difference).
Of course, Halifax will want to make it into the playoffs, first - they’ll do so this week with a draw or win, or if York loses, but that hope of still potentially hosting a final could boost them on in that quest.
As for York and Ottawa, that’s where the fun is, and why it’s so exciting that they play each other this weekend. There, York is eliminated with a loss, while a draw keeps them alive, and a win sees them leapfrog Ottawa into fifth.
Because of that, keep an eye on that game, as that could very well determine the playoff field, or push things down to the wire, especially if Halifax doesn’t win at home to Forge.
Ultimately, though, expect there to be a lot more clarity about potential matchups heading into the last weekend, thanks to those crucial six-pointers that await over the next few days.
Player of the Week: Callum Irving
As a goalkeeper, it’s harder to have a much better week than Callum Irving did - across two games, his team won twice, as he kept one clean sheet and only conceded one goal in wins over Valour and Halifax.
Not only that, but he made six saves, too, including one on Aidan Daniels in the Halifax game that could compete for the Save of the Month.
Because of that, the veteran goalkeeper is a deserved winner of this award, as he’s been a key piece in his team’s recent surge.
Goal of the Week: TJ Tahid
It was a good week for Vancouver in these awards, as they also had the goal of the week, courtesy of 16-year-old TJ Tahid, who scored the winning goal in their 1-0 result over Valour.
And just look at the finish from the youngsters on this tally. Despite getting the ball on the bounce, he hits it well in stride, finding the corner with a powerful half-volley.
A finish that most experienced strikers would be proud of, Tahid made it look effortless, too, showing why he’s a strong candidate to be playing for Canada at the U17 World Cup later this year.
GOAL 🦅— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 21, 2023
Take a bow, TJ Tahid! 👏
The confidence 😎
The timing, perfect ✅
The technique, fantastic ⭐️
The finish, spectacular 🕺@JimmyBrennan11 sings praise as @VanFootballClub take a 1-0 lead over @ValourFootball
🔴 Watch #CanPL on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/Z9YKd5vm6H
You Gotta See This: Cavalry wins title on the plane
While the dream scenario is to win a regular season title with a victory at home, sometimes, things don’t happen that way.
Cavalry experienced that first-hand this weekend, as they ended up being crowned CPL Shield winners somewhere in the air between Toronto and Calgary, thanks to Forge’s win over Pacific.
Despite that, however, it didn’t stop Cavalry from celebrating - thanks to the purchase of some in-flight internet, they were able to track the exact moment they were named champions and celebrated accordingly.
Now, they’ll actually get to lift their trophy after the last game of the regular season on October 7th, but this moment was certainly one they won’t forget, as they claimed their first official piece of silverware.
What I’m watching this week: York United vs. Atlético Ottawa
For understandable reasons, it’s hard to look further than this game this weekend, as this is *the* playoff picture. Quite literally.
Plus, with both teams struggling to pick up wins right now, with York riding three straight losses while Ottawa is winless in six, both teams come into this with similar form, too.
Because of that, it’s felt that whoever claims this game could not only get a boost in their playoff hopes (or in Ottawa’s case, confirm them), but it could be a much-needed injection of life into the winning team ahead of the last game, as well.
And with momentum being everything in terms of being able to make a playoff run, that could be key heading into that.
So whoever wins this game might not just book their playoff spot, but turn themselves into a team to watch, too, showing why this game could be so important for the playoff picture, even beyond the direct implications on the current race.