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Goalie Irving stymies former PFC teammates to steal game for VFC

Vancouver goalie stopped six PFC shots that looked to be sure goals.
Pacific FC’s Georges Mikumbilwa goes up for a ball against Vancouver FC’s James Cameron during their CPL game at Starlight Stadium in Victoria on Saturday. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Too bad Callum Irving isn’t headed to the Canadian Premier League playoffs, because he provided the kind of goalkeeping for eliminated Vancouver FC that often proves the difference in the post-season.

Irving, who won a championship with Pacific FC in 2021, stole a 2-1 victory for VFC over his former club Saturday in a lively match-up before 4,404 fans at Starlight Stadium. He stopped six PFC shots that looked to be sure goals.

“I love playing in front of lots of people in the stands I care about and former teammates I love and respect. That’s the spirit of these derbies,” said Irving, who was PFC captain last season.

The derby also included expletive PFC fan chants aimed at former Tridents star Alejandro Diaz, now with VFC, and chants of: “You’re still at the bottom …” aimed at the giddy VFC supporters who made the trip across the strait. “Second from bottom,” corrected the equally taunting VFC fans, who were happy enough on the day.

“Our fans paid money to come here and showed they still support us,” said Irving.

While Vancouver FC is not going to the playoffs, it appears that qualified Pacific FC is only crawling in as the Tridents head to their final regular-season game next week in Calgary against Cavalry FC following two losses.

VFC, saving its best for too late, won its third consecutive game and fourth in its last five. VFC is an expansion franchise and the inaugural CPL B.C. derby concluded 2-2 as the Eagles won the last two games after the Tridents won the first two.

“This was a show of how far we’ve come,” said Irving.

“We are playing with the freedom of not having the pressure other teams are facing and that has a little bit to do with it.”

VFC head coach Afshin Ghotbi has coached in eight countries, including as head coach of Iran, and been on the coaching staff at three World Cups with the U.S. in 1998 and South Korea in 2002 and 2006. He said building a team from scratch this year has been “one of the most difficult projects of my career” and that his team just ran out of time: “We never stopped believing in each other. It was difficult at times. But this [torrid end to the season] is leading to a strong DNA for the future.”

PFC attacked early but two key saves from Irving gave the visitors confidence and a lift. They never looked back as Lebanon-capped Gabriel Bitar broke through to score at 28 minutes and Vasco Fry at 35 minutes. The Tridents pulled to within one at 56 minutes with six-foot-six forward Easton Ongaro redirecting with his head a free kick past Irving. But Irving then took away what appeared to be at least four tying goals in the second half.

“Their goalkeeper made some big saves,” said Ongaro, who is in his first season with PFC, and is the second-leading career scorer in CPL history behind former PFC striker Terran Campbell and one goal ahead of third-place Diaz.

Irving has said he left the Tridents after three seasons because he wanted to be back in his native Lower Mainland.

“Callum was a big part of our building blocks,” said PFC head coach James Merriman.

“It’s not easy to see him in Vancouver.”

But Merriman said his club should have still found a way Saturday: “We lose our way because the goalkeeper makes some big saves? We put pressure in the second half but our first half was unacceptable.”

PFC was missing the spark usually provided by wily midfield engine Manny Aparacio and the full-field force of Kunle Dada-Luke, both nursing knocks and held out as precautions with the playoffs looming in two weeks.

CORNER KICKS: Both teams warmed up in orange jerseys and there was a ceremony before the game in honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day.

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