"It's a different mentality": Thomas Meilleur-Giguère leading by example as Pacific channels inner playoff beast
It might not have been the prettiest of stretches from them, but Pacific FC just keeps finding a way to win right now.
After a frustrating end to the regular season, one that saw them slip to fourth in the Canadian Premier League table after sitting in the top two for most of the campaign, Pacific knew that they had to tighten the screws ahead of the start of the playoffs.
As the numbers showed, they played some pretty fantastic soccer this season, sitting second in goals for, tied for third in goals against, tied for second in goal difference, first in Expected Points, first in Expected Goals (xG) and second in xG against, with all of those numbers serving as endorsements of their strong play.
Yet, while that indicated that Pacific was indeed doing the right things on most nights, even if they weren’t always winning, they knew that wasn’t good enough, hence why they finished fourth in the actual points table instead of first.
Because of that, they entered the playoffs with a new mindset. Knowing that one sloppy playoff performance could spell the end of their journey, they knew that they had to be better than they’d been heading into it, having lost three straight games.
Those three losses proved to be costly, too, as Pacific went from second place, and the bye to the semi-finals (and the second-chance opportunity it also provided if needed), to needing to play extra games, all of the elimination type.
That didn’t bother Pacific, however. Instead, they’ve just gone out and taken care of business, dispatching York United at home in the 4v5 qualifier, before heading out on the road and taking out the third-place Halifax Wanderers just days later in a quarter-final.
Both a pair of 1-0 wins, they came on the literal opposite ends of the country, too, all in less than 72 hours, showing Pacific’s resolve and determination.
Thanks to that, it’s sent Pacific back to where they want to be - a semi-final, as they now get set to take on Cavalry this weekend for a chance to qualify for their second-ever final.
Given the form they were in just earlier this month, it’s been a remarkable turnaround, yet as Thomas Meilleur-Giguère noted this week, it also just feels like Pacific is also just finding its stride once again, knowing what’s been at stake in these games.
“Yeah, I mean, for sure the playoffs are a different type of football,” Meilleur-Giguère told OneSoccer. “It's a different mentality. You have to bring a different approach because if you were to have a regular season mentality, you’d try to maybe save yourself a little bit in these games, think about rotation and other stuff, but when you’re in the playoffs, you’ve got time for none of that, your mindset has to be to give 120%, you have to do whatever it takes to win because there is no tomorrow.”
“In the regular season, if something happens and you tie the game, that’s not too bad, but in the playoffs, you can’t do that, you have to make sure that you do everything you can to win. And I think every player in our team has put in a great shift to make sure that we're all very focused, and for now, it’s worked, the two wins were not easy, it was not easy to go through everything we went through, but we’re now focused to go to Calgary and try and repeat the same thing again.”
And while it’s simple to say, it’s worth noting how important that playoff mentality has been for Pacific across those two games.
First, against York, they did well to stay resilient even as their guests pushed them, looking like the better team for large chunks of the game. Despite that, Pacific held on, made some key subs, and were able to take care of business late in that game to move on.
Then, against Halifax, knowing how tight the turnaround was and Halifax’s desire to play on the front foot, Pacific jammed things up defensively, doing well to turn defence to offence with an early goal on the counter-attack, before closing shop the rest of the way.
Instead of the free-flowing, possession-oriented soccer that they’re used to playing, it was a lot grittier and rigid than they would’ve liked, but they did what they had to do in order to win, which included some fantastic defensive interventions and some big saves from Emil Gazdov.
That’s a credit to their group, as it can be hard to buy in like that, making it impressive to see how they’ve been able to get their whole team to pull in the same direction in that regard.
“I think that's the beauty of having a squad that has already won, to be in an environment where people know what it means to win these games,” Meilleur-Giguère noted. “We can then push the younger guys to understand that while it’s nice to win a regular season, it’s a great achievement, one that’s all about consistency, but the playoffs have nothing to do with consistency, it’s about showing up on the day and doing a job, that's how it is and I feel like that’s the mentality we have.”
“We’re going through this one day at a time, and just showing up on that day, we aren’t thinking about tomorrow, not thinking about resting, getting injured, getting a red card, as who cares? We just have to win that game and the team will move forward in the aftermath.”
Will @PacificFCCPL like their odds against @CPLCavalryFC and, potentially, @ForgeFCHamilton in the #CanPL PLAYOFFS final? 🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 19, 2023
They seem to boast the most in-form playoffs player in Kekuta Manneh, after all 👀 pic.twitter.com/sy2Qf56O8i
Yet, as Meilleur-Giguère mentions, that’s also a credit to the championship mentality that exists within this Pacific side.
It’s important to remember that while Forge has historically dominated the playoffs, winning three out of four North Star Cups, and Cavalry has dominated the regular season, finishing first twice and tying for first on another occasion, Pacific has done pretty well for themselves across both of those settings.
The only other team not named Forge to have won a North Star Cup, they’ve also been a very good regular-season outfit, too, sitting with the third-most points all-time, and are the only team other than Forge or Cavalry to finish in the top four in the last three seasons (and four if you include the Island Games).
Compare that to teams like York, Halifax and Atlético Ottawa, who have bounced in and out of those top four spots the past three seasons, and that shows why Pacific can be argued to be one of the giants of the CPL through five seasons, as they’ve consistently been in the regular season and playoff mix other than a disappointing inaugural campaign.
Their performances in the playoffs have proven that, too, as they just seemed to have a physiological edge against both York and Halifax, helping them persevere in those games even if they didn’t play at their best.
But that’s a credit to players like Meilleur-Giguère, who is one of three remaining Pacific starters from the 11 that started when Pacific won the North Star Cup in 2021, as he and the others, Josh Heard (who is the club’s captain) and Manny Aparicio (the club’s co-captain) have been huge from a leadership standpoint this season.
Along with players like Sean Young and Kunle Dada-Luke, who both came off the bench to play in that final, the experiences of that quintet have proven to be quite valuable, especially given how much younger this team has been than in past years, having lost key leaders like Jamar Dixon and Callum Irving.
Given that no one else in the league other than Forge can boast final-winning experience like that within their ranks, that’s been a huge asset for Pacific, who have been able to transmit that to their younger players as the year has gone along.
“I'll be honest, I think we are really lucky with the group of guys that we have,” Meilleur-Giguère said of that experience. “Even the young guys, they're very mature in their approach, they don't get caught up in the emotions too much, they try to stay on task and make sure that the job is done. In the last two games that we played, we didn't play the type of football we usually do, but it was more about winning, and I think it's sometimes it's harder to understand for a young player who wants to show their skills and enjoy playing with the ball, but at this time, everyone puts that behind them, it was about doing your job, such as defending in a good shape, making sure that everyone is focused.”
“And the maturity of the young players to see them show up and do that was amazing. It’s nice to have players that started in finals, but it’s not just about us, we're only three guys that started in the final, some guys were also in the squad like Sean Young and Kunle Dada-Luke, but all of the guys understand what we have to do, and it just proves that they're very mature and they're ready to learn and they were ready to accept that maybe they don't know everything in football, that there’s a lot to learn, and they’ve certainly shown that.”
Would a less experienced Pacific side have had as complete of a defensive performance against Halifax, say, where they kept their hosts to 0.86 xG on 14 shots despite only holding 27.8% possession? Potentially, but for a team that was as proficient offensively in the regular season as Pacific was, one would’ve imagined they would’ve preferred to stick to their guns.
To add to this, despite Halifax holding 72.2% of possession, they were only able to generate 0.86 xG, as Pacific were fantastic defensively, with their back four putting in a huge shift— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 14, 2023
Defence wins championships, and with b2b clean sheets, Pacific's trending in the right way
Instead, however, they put that aside and committed to the cause, which was to defend like their lives depended on it, and in the end, they were rewarded for that.
“It’s important that everyone really buys into the idea, that was not something that we expected, but something that we needed,” Meilleur-Giguère said of that defensive effort. “So the fact that we all bought in, that was amazing to see. In the season we had a lot of games with a lot of goals scored, but we also had games where nothing was going in and we just couldn't score so we had to rely on our backline and defending as a team. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t, and that’s why we finished fourth.”
“So seeing that our attack might not be what’s working the best right now, we’ve only scored one goal in each playoff game, and one of them was an own goal, we knew that we had put in work on the other side. And when I see us doing that work, and it’s not just the backline, either, it’s Easton Ongaro working with Djenairo Daniels up front, it’s Manny Aparicio with Sean Young in midfield, it’s out wide with Kekuta Manneh and Adonijah Reid, it was a great team performance in terms of our defensive work, our pressing, closing down space and then getting the ball and move forward, all of that was great, as that sort of performance reminded me of our 2021 final win.”
Now, however, while Pacific is pleased with how their run has gone so far, they know that it won’t be remembered unless they go all the way to another playoff title.
To do that, a herculean task awaits - they must now head to Calgary and beat Cavalry in the semi-finals, who as a reminder finished first in the CPL by 13 points in the regular season, and have the best home record in the league (something Pacific learned first-hand given that they lost both of their away games in Calgary, the only stadium where they haven’t won this year).
Then, if they do that, they’ve then got to go to Hamilton and defeat Forge, who booked their spot in a fifth-straight final in their win over Cavalry last week, and based on their performance in that game, look like favourites to win a fourth North Star Cup in five years.
Here's @PacificFCCPL's path to the #CanPL North Star Cup:— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 15, 2023
Defeat York United ✅
Defeat HFX Wanderers ✅
Defeat Cavalry FC _
Defeat Forge FC _
Talk about a challenge 😅
DETAILS 👇https://t.co/dVzKUgLJft pic.twitter.com/nrzWSHO3mG
Safe to say, if they thought their journey just to get to the semi-finals was tough… they’re in for a reality check.
At the same time, if there’s one team who could do it, it’s Pacific, who may be getting a bit of déjà-vù when seeing what’s been laid out in front of them.
And that’s because this isn’t the first time they’ve stared down this sort of mountain. When they won in 2021, they had to defeat Cavalry on the road in the semi-finals, and then defeated Forge in Hamilton in the final, in what was arguably the most impressive run to the North Star Cup that we’ve seen from a team yet.
Because of that, Pacific will look to conjure up some similar magic this time around. It won’t be easy, especially given that Pacific have struggled against both teams this season, winning just one of a possible eight meetings in league play, but they’ll use their past playoff success as a reason to believe why they can do that.
Given their history of showing up in big games, it’ll be hard to dispute that belief, one that’s been on full display throughout these playoffs, and they’ll hope to conjure up once again this weekend.
“I don't think the fact that we did it before changes something for us, because other players are no longer here,” Meilleur-Giguère said of his team’s 2021 run. “What we do know is that we’ve played against these teams in the regular season, and we struggled against those two teams, home or away. So we’re thinking more about the opportunity of righting those wrongs, because with Cavalry, we lost three times to them, and that’s not a nice feeling.”
“But at the end of the day for sure, if you show up in the playoffs, no one will remember what happened during the season, no one will care. So that’s our mindset, we want to go and try to make things right, because we know we have a great team, a great squad and a great coaching staff, and we’ve got quality in everything that we do, but we just have to show it on on Saturday, and make sure that we know that know we can win no matter where it is, and if it goes to extra time, penalties, all of that, we will still do everything and anything to win.”