Under the strong Victoria rain Wednesday, the two Candian Premier League coastal sides, Pacific and Halifax, played out to an exciting 1-1 draw at Westhills Stadium.
Under the rain at Westhills Stadium, Pacific FC hosted Halifax in a fitting coastal clash between cross-continental rivals. With Pacific reeling after being eliminated from CPL final contention this past weekend, they came back to Victoria hoping that some home-cooking could reinvigorate their tired souls, as they recovered from back-to-back heavy road defeats against top opposition. Against a last-place Halifax side, with their league-worst offence and terrible away record, it appeared they had the perfect buffet on the plate in front of them to feast their way towards 3 points.
It certainly started out that way, with Pacific riding a Victor Blasco worldie en route to leaving the first half with a 1-0 lead, much to the joy of their supporters, the Lake Side Buoys. That joy would be temporary, however, as Pacific would come to rue their missed chances later in the game, with Halifax grabbing an 80th-minute equalizer to ensure that both teams shared the spoils. It was an entertaining affair between both teams, as they showed that despite their respective eliminations from playoffs these past few weeks, they just still want to keep competing heading into the end of this first-ever CPL campaign.
After a slow start, the game kicked into high gear at the 22nd minute. Zach Verhoven, who looked lively all half, made a great run down the right side of the pitch. He received the ball in stride, took a few touches, and drove in a great low cross across the box, one that found Victor Blasco in an excellent position. The Spaniard caught it well first time, seeking that near post, with his strike only staying out due to the strong hands of Wanderers goalkeeper Christian Oxner.
Verhoven continued to run rampant, seemingly invigorated by the sloppy conditions on the evening. He caught the Halifax backline well up the pitch and made a great run down that right side, blowing past a couple of defenders after receiving the ball in stride for a breakaway. He looked likely to score, taking a few touches before laying a delicious chip over Oxner, but his inventive effort would skid painfully right beside the far post.
It was all part of a continuation of the strong run of games as of late for Pacific’s second-ever CPL draft pick, who has emerged as a standout winger on this squad. With his tricky footwork, blistering speed and crafty decision-making, Verhoven has made leaving defenders confused in a wake of dust a familiar sight at Westhills this season.
The Verhoven and Blasco connection would continue to emit positive radiation for Pacific, and it eventually resulted in a radiant opening goal for them in the 30th minute. Verhoven would get clipped while on the ball about 30 yards from goal, winning a free-kick, which Blasco confidently stood up to take. Given the distance, and considering that the position was a bit off centre, it seemed likely that Blasco would shape up to cross, with Pacific pushing a few of their big men forward in anticipation of that action. Blasco didn’t get the memo, however, as he decided to strike towards goal.
And what a strike it was. A curled and dipping effort, it rose over the wall like a salmon leaping up a creekbed in spawning season, nestling in the back of the net, evading Oxner with a combination of power and precision that proved to be too much to handle for the Canadian keeper. After coming close on a few occasions on the weekend against Forge, it was the exact kind of goal Blasco has shown to be able to score in his career, and it is surely one he’ll put in his highlight reel when he looks back on the campaign.
With the pain of the goal in mind, Halifax found a few chances of their own soon after, as they kept their noses up as they chased an equalizer. They came close in the 41st minute, as Mohammed Kourouma tried to jam a wide free-kick into the near post, which forced a strong save from Wirth. Andre Bona followed up nicely, beating Pacific’s defenders to the rebound, but his second effort shot would bounce off the side-netting. Unperturbed by the near-chance, they came close again before the half, as Kourouna took another great free-kick, this time from a more central position, with the curled strike only lacking power as it nestled into Wirth’s safe hands to keep Pacific’s lead intact heading into the half.
It was a positive sequence of play from Pacific, who looked strong heading into the half. They were moving the ball around well, they looked confident in possession and overall just looked like the team that Michael Silberbauer has tried to mould for much of the season. As has been the case many times this year, they were struggling to get things going in the final third, unable to do much with the spell-binding spells of possession they had, but it was overall positive signs from the Tridents.
Despite the flurry of chances in the 20 minutes leading into half time, things started slowly once again after the break. Pacific got some bad news early in the half, as Victor Blasco picked up an ankle injury that forced him to leave the game early, which was disappointing considering his strong performance to date. Despite a move to the middle from out wide, Blasco had probably been the best player on the field for Pacific through the first 55, looking confident and assured with the ball. After a good outing against Forge, it was good to see him pick off where he left off against Halifax, so it would be really unfortunate for him if the injury is found out to be serious.
Soon after, Alessandro Hojabrpour appeared to score in the 61st to get Pacific going again, which sent the supporters section into a joyous roar until it was realized that the linesmen had stuck up the flag to deny the goal. It was a nice bit of combination play from Pacific, who finished off a tidy move with a nice cross to Hojabrpour, it was just cancelled out as the midfielder was a tad bit eager on his run.
Pacific continued to press, as they chased that pivotal second goal of the game, a goal that would likely have put Halifax’s chances to bed. First Hendrik Starostzik came close on a header in the 65th minute, before Ben Fisk nearly turned in a nice Noah Verhoeven cross a few moments later. Fisk would nearly score off a spectacular blunder right after that, as Oxner came flying out of his goal to try and stop the streaking winger on a counter-attack, who in turn did well to dodge the rash challenge of the goalkeeper 10 feet outside the box. Facing an empty net, Fisk elected to shoot from well outside the box, and it was a great shot, but it just clattered off the outside of the post, keeping Halifax alive in the game.
And Halifax would capitalize on that stroke of luck, finding their goal in the 80th minute, feeding off the energy of a big Oxner stop on a half-breakaway from Matthew Baldisimo a few minutes earlier. As was typical of Wanderers on the night, they would find their chance via a set-piece, putting together a nice sequence of play off of a corner. A dangerous ball was whipped in from the right of Wirth, and it found a clump of Halifax’s big men in the middle, with second-half substitute Tomasz Skubiak appearing to rise highest to meet the ball. He smartly flicked on the chance, finding striker Akeem Garcia, who was left all alone to tap in his team-leading 7th of the CPL season.
It would not end there for Halifax, who seemed to have all the wind in their sails after that goal. Pacific, who had slowed down considerably before the equalizer was tallied, looked very much second-best side on the pitch, after having dominated for a good chunk of the game. Halifax even came close to a winner right at the 92nd minute of 93, as Skubiak found some space close to Pacific’s goal, and he sent a ferocious strike towards goal. Luckily for Pacific, Wirth stood strong in his goal, as the shot was only kept out via a desperate face save from the keeper, as he did his part in keeping Pacific from dropping all three points.
It meant that both teams would have to share the spoils on the evening, which was probably deserved over the course of the game. Pacific started out strong, looking very much like the team that had made some noise through the late summer and early fall, but Halifax stuck with it, getting back into the game as they kept their heads high. After a trying fall season for the Wanderers, who have often blown leads to draw or lose games, a comeback win on the road will certainly feel like something worth celebrating as they prepare for the long journey back.
For Pacific, it will be back to the drawing board as they head into the final 3 games of the season. As they have for much of the year, they looked good in flashes, so they’ll just need to keep working on tightening their overall game ahead of next year. They have spellbounding spells of possession, where they’ll fizz the ball around nicely, they just now need to find a way to turn it into more consistent shots, goals and victories. Defensively, they have also been solid, but finding a way to avoid the individual mistakes that has plagued them is also a must, which much like in the other areas of the pitch, it all comes back to that key concept: finding consistency.
Man of the Match: Victor Blasco:
A strong effort from Pacific’s number 23. Moved into the middle of the pitch for this one, he had a few good dribbles on the ball, opened up space for others and looked threatening in possession. After a strong game against Forge, it was nice to see him rewarded with a beautiful goal, one that would have likely won him goal of the week had the award existed in the CPL. Fans will be holding their breath on his injury diagnosis, as it would be a shame to see him miss the next 3 games after his recent strong spell of form.
Honourable Mentions: Zach Verhoven, Nolan Wirth, Alessandro Hojabrpour
Pacific get the week off before they travel to meet the exact same opponent, the Wanderers, this time in Halifax. It will be a gruelling journey, but they’ll meet an equally as fatigued Halifax, who have to play in Calgary Saturday before making the journey home ahead of next week. It will be interesting to see how this return fixture plays out, with the Wanderers Grounds regarded as one of the toughest venues to play at in the CPL, marking next week as a fun one to keep an eye on in a busy late-season CPL calendar.
Up Next: Pacific FC vs Halifax Wanderers, Wednesday, October 9th, 2019, 15:00 PST (Wanderers Grounds, Halifax)