Stick to the plan: Pacific don't 'feel threatened at all by Ottawa' ahead of Leg 2
It was all laid out so perfectly for Pacific FC.
In their first-ever home playoff game and in front of a vocal crowd of supporters at Starlight Stadium, the Vancouver Island-based 'Tridents' were eager to kick off their 2022 Canadia Premier League playoffs campaign on a strong note with a positive Leg 1 result over visiting Atletico Ottawa last weekend.
This is a Pacific FC team that seemed to thrive in the biggest moments, especially at home. Instead, Ottawa frustrated their hosts and got the last laugh in their first-ever playoff game, taking a 2-0 win back to the nation's capital for Leg 2 on Sunday, right here on OneSoccer.
But even more frustrating for the defending champions? How they lost the game.
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It took two goals in the final 12 minutes of play to all but sink Pacific's hopes of a finals return; before that, the two teams were evenly-matched. Then Ollie Bassett set up Ballou Tabla for what ended up being Ottawa's winner. The second goal, a few moments later, compounded Pacific's frustrations. It was textbook Atleti soccer, sitting comfortably to defend before punishing on limited chances.
"It was a disappointing result," Pacific forward Josh Heard told OneSoccer this week. "I know Ottawa like to play that certain way – where they like to give up the ball and defend 11 guys behind the ball – but I think we did well in moving the ball, and in finding the second ball, plus our defending was good ... but we just needed to finish our chances. That's really what it came down to."
By this point of the season, Ottawa's strategy is anything but a secret, so Pacific thought to try to counter by playing their own brand of attacking, pressure-heavy football ... only to watch that plan fall by the wayside.
"Credit to them, they do what they do and they do it very, very well," Heard said of Ottawa. "I try not to think too much about them, though. It's more about us, and what has gotten us to this point.
"We know we can score goals; it's about reiterating that belief that we can do it, and focusing that little bit more on that final third. Then it’ll come. We'll get that first one, and there will be more from there."
You won't get to a final without steadfast belief, so on that point, Pacific remains on course. And there was a lot Pacific can be happy with as they get set for this second leg.
Holding 65 percent possession as they did is never a bad thing. Neither was limiting Ottawa to just three shots on target for a total of 0.78 Expected Goals (xG). On most days, that would see Ottawa score maybe one goal, if that, giving them a bit more breathing room to find their touch offensively. That last part is key, though.
"We can play in front of them all day, and that looks nice and all, but if it doesn't translate into a goal, then it's not exactly useful," Heard offered.
Still, that stat line points to the idea that if Pacific can keep their defensive output consistent while finding that magic offensively, the tides can shift in their favour in Leg 2.
That's the theory, anyway. Soccer is rarely so straightforward. Still, the plan remains the same.
"Would I change anything? No, I don't think so," Pacific FC head coach James Merriman told OneSoccer. "Our final act was lacking. We just need that little bit of quality to go to the goal. But honestly, I didn't feel threatened at all by Ottawa."
In their first ever playoff game, @atletiOttawa went to Langford and came away with a 2-0 victory over @Pacificfccpl in the first leg of their semifinal ⚽️— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) October 17, 2022
Here's a behind-the-scenes look from Starlight Stadium, with a mic'd up @James__Merriman ⬇️#CanPL I 📽️ @kaedwards14 pic.twitter.com/jkZiWVDLA2
Unfortunately for Merriman, Atleti supporters could say the same about his Tridents.
After the match, one of the biggest talking points surrounding Pacific was the team's lack of teeth up top, as questions surrounding the mid-season sale of league Golden Boot striker Alejandro Díaz returned to the forefront.
Considering that Pacific have scored more than one goal in a game just once in the 13 games since Díaz's departure, this weekend's task isn't exactly a cakewalk.
Despite that, Pacific feels they're close to finding a breakthrough, fully aware that it hasn't been easy to replace Díaz. They could be bolstered by the return of Gianni Dos Santos and Djenairo Daniels, both hoping to return this weekend after missing Leg 1 through injury.
Still, Díaz's shadow looms large.
"It's no secret – losing a 16-goal striker is always hard, and I don't think he's a player that you can easily replace," Heard said. "But that's football. It's about that next man up.
"Yes, he was this certain type of player and we played a certain way with him, but now we don't have him, so we have to adapt and change our style to figure out a way to score goals without him. I think we've done that up at certain points of the season. But now it's time to really lock in."
As Heard and his teammates prepare for this Leg 2 clash, they know full well that they could be defending champions for only 90 more minutes in 2022.
But, as usual, you give Pacific FC a mountain to climb, and this team has the talent to reach the summit.
"Our backs are against the wall a little bit, but we’ve got nothing to lose here, as the pressure is on Ottawa now," Heard concluded. "They're up 2-0, so they can just hang on, so we’re going to have to go at them.
"If anything, I feel that we like it a little bit when our backs are against the wall. We like getting up for big games, so I think we’ll use that as an opportunity and relish it."