The Canadian Premier League is more tightly packed than the car deck of a B.C. Ferry on a long weekend. Pacific FC is four points behind first-place Cavalry FC of Calgary but also just three points ahead of tumbling out of the Canadian Premier League playoffs.
“Every game is must win,” said PFC head coach James Merriman.
“But we can only control what we can control. We focus on ourselves.”
It’s the kind of race every sports league dreams of having down the stretch. PFC has six games remaining and is tied with Forge FC of Hamilton for second place, but only three points ahead of three teams tied for fourth place. One of these teams will be left out in the cold as five teams make the post-season in the Page playoff system. Valour FC of Winnipeg and Vancouver FC are the only teams without a shot of the post-season.
Among the teams tied for fourth, three points behind the Tridents, are the HFX Wanderers of Halifax, who make the trek to the West Coast tonight at 7 at Starlight Stadium in a match-up featuring the third-longest distance travelled in the world between pro teams in a domestic Premiership soccer league. That trek could play a factor.
“HFX played Monday [2-1 home loss in Halifax to surging York United] and they have to travel here to play us [tonight],” said Merriman.
The season series between the opposite-coast rivals is tied 1-1-1. PFC leads the all-time series 7-5-5.
“We’ve just had a setback and we have to bounce back quickly from it,” Wanderers head coach Patrice Gheisar told CPL.com.
“All that matters is [today]. Everyone has to go through this in this league. Obviously, our travel is most challenging because we’re farthest, but with that comes an opportunity because hopefully our opponents will underestimate us.”
No chance of that, countered PFC bench-boss Merriman: “We need to be ready and I have full confidence the group will be.”
Merriman might have added Island-based PFC’s season travel across the nation is equally as sapping as HFX’s.
Merriman talked about a glaring Tridents’ shortcoming on the season – the failure to put teams away despite often dominating possession time and scoring chances.
“At times this season we’ve had opportunities to kill games, and when we’re being dominant in attack, we need to be more ruthless and clinical and enjoy that part of the game and take that second or third goal that can often kill a game,” said Merriman.
“We haven’t done that and it’s still something we’re working on.”
A subject of conversation among pundits around the league is whether Merriman needs to give slithery PFC striker Ayman Sellouf, who usually comes in as a second-half sub, more minutes. The Dutch import is team leader and top five in CPL scoring with six goals and league co-leader in assists with seven along with 18-time Canada-capped Forge FC captain Kyle Bekker.
Merriman said Sellouf became easier to stop as a starter earlier this season when teams had time to figure him out.
“But in the second half around the 65th minute or so, the game starts to open up as players can be fatigued, and [Sellouf] comes on and he is not a player you ever want to be defending when there’s more space in the game,” said Merriman.
“Ayman comes in when the game is a little bit more stretched out, and you have seen the impact he has had.”
Returning to the PFC lineup from one-game suspensions, due to card situations, are top-flight defenders Amer Didic and Georges Mukumbilwa plus striker Djenairo Daniels. Merriman also returns to the bench after a one-game suspension.
HFX captain Andre Rampersad is away on international assignment with Trinidad and Tobago in the CONCACAF Nations League and will be missing from the Wanderers lineup tonight.
Tonight is Fan Appreciation Night and marks the second-to-last regular-season home game for PFC.