VANCOUVER, BC – It could have been a magical night. A midsummer’s night dream of football featuring the stars of Toronto FC, gracing the pitch at North Toronto’s York Lions Stadium, with a trophy on the line between TFC and York United.
Alas, the dream matchup will have to wait, as the Nine Stripes saw their 2022 Canadian Championship dreams dashed at the feet of the Vancouver Whitecaps with a 2-1 loss at BC Place.
The 2022 Voyageurs Cup Final is set. The Whitecaps will welcome Toronto FC in July at BC Place, returning to the domestic cup final for the first time since 2018. Meanwhile, York looks to the Canadian Premier League, and towards next year’s Canadian Championship.
“We can take away the fact that we can play in these big games, every time it’s a cup game, we’ve kept it close,” said York’s Isiah Johnston, who scored the lone goal for the Ontario side on Wednesday. “If we take this mentality of fighting grit into the league, I’m sure we can do well.”
In the first half of the penultimate round, York United kept things close. Banked in two solid rows of four in a 4-4-2, the Martin Nash-coached side was near impenetrable defensively and showed little to nothing in attack. After all, this was a side that had got to the semi-finals after two penalty shootout wins over Atletico Ottawa and Pacific FC.
“I think we did well in the first half to survive,” Johnston added. “But I think we have a lot more to give and a lot more to show in this game… We knew that defensively we were good in the first half, so we just had to come out and prove we could play.”
At one point in the first half, the Whitecaps attacking chances outweighed York’s 10-0, although they had nothing to show for it. The home side led on the xG 1.0-0.5 at halftime, still — nothing.
Vancouver, led by a bullish and confident head coach in Vanni Sartini, finally found their breakthrough in the 53rd minute when Ryan Raposo’s shot deflected off the crossbar to Brian White, who scored the first of his two goals on the day. His second, and eventual winning goal, came in the 73rd.
With two quick goals, York was forced to attack and called upon a moment of mastery from Johnston, who cut into the lead in the 85th minute, making experienced MLS defenders such as Jake Nerwinski, lose control of their play.
In many ways, Johnston’s goal, albeit inconsequential, helps launch York United into a new era.
Since their inception, York has turned to the tactical intricacies and strengths of fullback Diyaeddine Abzi. On Wednesday, Abzi played his final match for the club and will depart for Pao FC of the French second division — all at the same time that Johnston’s rise continues.
“He’s been on the pitch beside me every day I’ve been here, so it’s going to be really weird without him,” Johnston said of Abzi.
“There’s not a lot of players in this league that can give us what he gives offensively or defensively. So I think as a team, we have to lock in a bit more and figure out how to replace and correct the void he’s leaving.”
Johnston, 20, has shown to be a versatile player with York, thriving in a central position, but also making his presence known when deployed out wide. More importantly, he, alongside York leading goalscorer Osaze de Rosario, is on the verge of becoming the public face of the club.
Abzi’s daunting glare and spiked hair donns the advertisements on Toronto Transit, and banners around York Lions Stadium. Meanwhile, the two youngsters of Johnston and De Rosario, look poised to take those hues.
In the immediacy, however, York United have to find a way to translate their Wednesday performance into the league. The club has failed to score in their last five CPL matches, and a strong start has quickly evaporated as tight losses and stingy draws have seen them plummet down the standings.
“We’re created, we’ve done all the rights things, we did that today,” head coach Martin Nash said post-match. “For whatever reason, we’re not able to get the ball to the back of the net, so we just have to find ways to do that.”
If the goals begin to flow, York can rely on their solid defensive structure as they enter the post-Abzi era, and turn their focus to making the CPL playoffs, and making a run towards the North Star Shield.
“Every play matters to us, especially now,” Johnston said. “We’re going to continue to fight because the league is all we have to worry about now, so it’s important for us to start scoring and climbing the table.”