The Vancouver Whitecaps may be the defending champions of the Canadian Championship, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have ghosts to lay to rest in this year’s tournament.
On Wednesday night, in the 2023 Canadian Championship semi-final, the Whitecaps are seeking to banish the demons of 2021, when then-CPL champions-in-waiting Pacific FC pulled off the upset of the year with a 4-3 win over their more illustrious BC rivals at Starlight Stadium in the competition’s preliminary round.
Such was the shock and the anger at that defeat, the ‘Caps sacked their then-head coach Marc Dos Santos the very next day.
Now, BC soccer fans — and intrigued onlookers from across the country — are faced with the tantalizing proposition of a Ferryside Derby rematch at a far more important stage of the tournament.
“Whoever was here in 2021 knows it’s going to be a really tough game. We have bad memories of that game that we want to put right,” said Whitecaps midfielder Ryan Gauld, who scored twice in vain in that last meeting. “It’s a tight pitch against a team, who are gonna be really up for that. They’ve started the CPL [season] really well and they’re going to be confident coming into it.”
A heavily rotated Pacific side drew 1-1 with Valour in Winnipeg on Saturday, a point which leaves them second only to repeat champions Forge FC in the CPL table after six games played.
Gauld is under no illusions that the Whitecaps, who beat west-coast MLS rivals the Seattle Sounders at the weekend, are in for one hell of a battle again.
“It’s the kind of game where we’re gonna have to be our best if we want to beat them. They came out flying against us a couple of years ago and they got the better of us for the full 90 minutes, so we know what to expect and we’re gonna have to make sure we don’t make the same kind of errors that we made before.”
But, while Gauld suggests the ‘Caps know what to expect, that’s not entirely true. Both teams have gone through wholesale changes since their last meeting. Two different head coaches will be in the dugout, and a host of personnel on both sides have no experience or memory of the 2021 clash.
One thing that is the same as 2021, when Pacific ultimately won the CPL North Star Shield, is that the CPL side are highly dangerous.
No CPL side has scored as many goals as James Merriman’s team, and they’re also adept at pressing intently and harrying their opponents in possession, something which could get under the ‘Caps skin in a hot atmosphere at Starlight. On the note of atmosphere, there is sure to be spice: not only is this a derby, but Pacific has worked with the city of Langford to temporarily add extra capacity to their Starlight Stadium after more than 75 percent of tickets were sold out more than a week in advance of Wednesday’s game.
Vanni Sartini’s Whitecaps have proven to be heavily susceptible to long balls and aerial bombardment, something that has been another strength of Pacific’s so far in 2023, particularly dangerous in the air through players such as defender Amir Đidić.
However, the ‘Caps clearly pose their fair share of danger. There’s a school of thought around BC Place that this may be the best VWFC side for many years, even with their flaws. The defence, save for the odd lapse, is solid. Gauld and Julian Gressel are a twin threat from midfield. And, while the strikers in Sartini’s side have not proven to be prolific so far in 2023, they have a high expected goals total and have threatened strongly in attack in virtually every game they have played this season.
With the likes of Levonte Johnson expected to feature again, as he did against York United in the last round, Sartini will rotate. Still, though, if Pacific are to topple their rivals again, it will likely require monumental respective efforts in both defence and attack.
Merriman, who was Pacific’s assistant coach at the time of the 2021 meeting before stepping up to the top job at the end of that season, said that famous 4-3 win two years ago “changed the direction of how we were as a club and where we were in the Canadian Premier League, in the country.”
Another win, and a first-ever spot in the Canadian Championship final, would be another all-time statement for the Tridents.
The dangling carrot, other than Vancouver-area bragging rights, is that the winner of the Ferryside Derby will have home advantage in the 2023 Canadian Championship final between June 6-8. There, they will play the winner of Wednesday’s other semi-final between MLS side CF Montréal and CPL champions Forge.
Last year, the Whitecaps’ crowd of 24,000 fans helped them over the line against Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi’s TFC to win their second Voyageurs Cup. Either they or Pacific will get those benefits again this year, with a trophy and a spot in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League on the line in next month’s showpiece final.