Vancouver Whitecaps avenge Canadian Championship heartbreak, frightening injury to Ali Ahmed dims celebrations
There won’t be any hamburgers this time for Axel Schuster and the Vancouver Whitecaps higher-ups, yet the night doesn’t necessarily feel much better.
The Whitecaps avenged their 2021 Canadian Championship loss to Pacific FC on Wednesday night with a 3-0 win in the second edition of the Ferryside Derby. Yet, Canadian homegrown player Ali Ahmed was forced out of the match and taken to hospital in the first half with a frightening injury after a hard collision with Cedric Toussaint that resulted in 17 minutes of stoppage time.
In 2021, the thoughts post-loss surrounded then-head coach Marc Dos Santos’ future with the club — Whitecaps staff ordered Uber Eats burgers to stew over their decision. This year, the worries lie off the pitch, with Ahmed, 22, and his health moving forward.
“It was a scary moment,” Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said of the challenge from Toussaint that injured Ahmed. “The game is not something that is important today, the most important thing is that he hopefully is going to be okay, and is going to be back home soon.
“To be honest, I was shocked and the team was shocked for 30 minutes.”
After tweeting that Ahmed was conscious and receiving further evaluation in the hospital, the club tweeted just before 11 p.m. local time that Ahmed would be able to travel back to the Lower Mainland with the team.
While Pacific FC came out with a motivated start, they couldn’t quite crack the Whitecaps’ three-man backline, nor goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka.
Still, they came close as Aymen Sellouf fired a shot at the Japanese international, only to spark a Vancouver counterattack and a strong finish from Julian Gressel.
Although Ahmed had to leave the match in the 20th minute, he did so with the 2-0 goal under his belt, having caught Pacific sleeping on a throw-in and firing a half-volley past Emil Gazdov to double the lead.
Despite the early lead, the moments after the 17-minute stoppage for Ahmed’s injury tested both teams, notably the Whitecaps, who didn’t control the match as they did in the opening minutes but simply killed off the half and held onto the lead they had built.
“I spoke to the guys at half-time, and I didn’t want to tell them anything about the final 20 minutes of the half because we were not thinking about the game properly,” Sartini added. “We needed halftime to regroup and [were thinking about] our friend that is in the hospital. That’s the most important thing.”
Returning for the second half, the Whitecaps regained their rhythm, having heard that Ahmed would be OK, allowing them to return to their midfield patterns and the strong play they began the match with.
Substitute and serial goalscorer Simon Becher extended the Caps’ lead in the 78th minute, sealing the victory.
Looking ahead to a new Whitecaps era
That day in 2021 changed the course of both clubs, yet for the Whitecaps, the fruits of that defeat only began to show when they lifted the Voyageurs Cup in 2022. Still, getting a dominant win over Pacific in the 2023 edition of the tournament is a watershed moment for the club, even though it may not seem it.
The 2021 loss highlighted a chaotic time for the Whitecaps and forced change that seemingly might not have come to be without it, as they promoted Vanni Sartini, who has since led the team to become one of the top defensive sides in MLS. Meanwhile, on the other side, James Merriman took over Pacific’s reigns in 2022 after helping the club under Pa-Modou Kah to win the 2021 CPL Championship.
“It wasn’t a revenge game when we don’t need to be focused on the bad memories. We need to be focused on the good memories,” Sartini added. “Today was an occasion to go to a final again because everyone remembers how special the night was at BC Place last year.”
On Wednesday, Vancouver approached the match calmly, not panicking under Pacific’s start, controlling the ball with composure when it came into their possession. While Sallouf fired the early chance, the Caps killed off the game early, showing their worth, albeit without Ryan Gauld, their highest-paid player who suffered the first Ferryside loss two years ago.
Even sweeter, they nullified electric former Whitecaps winger Kekuta Manneh, who failed to make any impact in the match when challenged by Javain Brown, much to Merriman’s chagrin, as did the other wide players.
“We needed to attack the wide spaces quicker,” Merriman said. “Centrally, it’s very difficult to play, especially the way that they play. Their formation, their setup, they’re built for that to punish you centrally and we played into it. It’s frustrating.”
With the win and newfound confidence in the Canadian Championship, the Whitecaps look ahead to hosting the Voyageurs Cup for the second year in a row as they look to defend their 2022 title against CF Montréal on June 7.
There’s no doubt the Whitecaps walked away from Starlight Stadium to a different tone this time around, victors with a ticket punched to the domestic cup final. Yet, despite barring the weight of an injured teammate, they look ahead at a chance to lift a trophy.
“We are a different team than last year. We’re better than last year. I think that last year everyone in Canada thought that we were going to lose [by] a lot in the final [against Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi’s Toronto FC] and then we made an upset,” Sartini said. “This year we can dress as the favourites.”