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Pacific FC, Forge FC play to draw in key CPL battle

League introduces trophy for regular-season title
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Pacific FC midfielder Gianni dos Santos tries to avoid the tackle of Forge FC defender Ashtone Morgan during CPL action at Starlight Stadium on Sunday. TRISHA LEES, PACIFIC FC

Mark Noonan, the newly-installed commissioner of the Canadian Premier League, announced during his weekend Victoria visit that there will be an annual trophy and monetary award for the winner of the regular season.

Noonan looked on Sunday at Starlight Stadium, along with 3,351 spectators, as the race for the yet-to-be named trophy continued.

Pacific FC remained relevant, for at least another week, in its desperate stalking of a playoff berth with a 1-1 draw against Forge FC. The match-up featured the only two teams to have lifted the North Star Shield as CPL playoff champions. The 2019 and 2020 champion Forge FC and defending 2021 champion PFC are in a scramble for the four 2022 playoff berths with five points separating the top five clubs.

“Every two weeks this season seems to show different swings [in the table],” said Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis.

Former PFC player Alessandro Hojabrpour, whose dramatic header against Forge FC gave the Tridents victory last year in the CPL championship game, gave the Hammers the lead Sunday with a header in just the fourth minute.

“I would have given up him scoring this goal for not scoring that one last year,” quipped Smyrniotis.

It was an emotional moment for Hojabrpour.

“Maybe because coming back to my old stadium, there were more memories [at play]. It was fun to see the fans again,” said the 2021 CPL top U-21 player, who jumped to Forge FC last off-season.

When asked about the juxtaposition of his game-winning header goal for the championship against Forge FC last season and now his header goal against his former PFC teammates, Hojabrpour responded: “It’s kind of weird.”

A well-deserved own goal, created by a nervy cross by Kunle Dada-Luke and hockey-style crashing-the-crease pressure by forward Jordan Brown, levelled the game 1-1 at 17 minutes.

Then PFC goalkeeper Callum Irving stole a potential Hammers goal from another former Tridents player, Terran Campbell, in the first half when Irving somehow stopped on the goal line what appeared to be a sure Campbell score. That saved the Tridents the embarrassment of possibly losing on goals by two former players.

Forge FC looked to have won it again at 69 minutes but the ball rattled off the crossbar as Kwasi Poku got behind the PFC defence on the left side. In some regards, PFC was fortunate to have obtained even the single point.

“Games are dwindling down and points are being left on the board,” said Irving.

“Teams are travelling across the country to play here, and we have great fans and great advantage at home, and it’s unacceptable that points are being left on the board. We have to tighten things up with four games left.”

PFC got only two points out of its three-game homestand and now it is the Tridents’ turn to fly across the country to face the HFX Wanderers on Saturday in Halifax.

“We need a killer instinct and winning mentality,” said PFC head coach James Merriman.

“There is no time left. We need it now. We need to refocus and need to keep pushing. I know this group is motivated. Morale and spirit are not down. It’s more frustration. It’s right there for us and we need to take it.”

The game Sunday was missing three marquee players. PFC midfield-engine Manny Aparicio was sitting out the controversial fourth and final game of a red-card suspension. Amer Didic, a towering presence in central defence for PFC, was out due to the yellow-card accumulation rule in which a fourth yellow card during the season is an automatic one-game suspension. Forge FC captain and 18-time Canada-capped Kyle Bekker sat out the first of a three-game suspension for a red card.

“We need to keep [top] players on the field,” said Merriman, of the controversies surrounding the suspensions.

The Tridents are a different team with wily Canada-capped former Toronto FC MLS-prospect Aparicio and six-foot-four Canada-capped former Sporting Kansas City MLS prospect Didic in the lineup.

CPL commissioner Noonan confirmed to the Times Colonist: “VAR will be a topic of discussion in the off-season … we need to have that discussion.”

CORNER KICKS: It was the second consecutive week in which former players have come back to haunt PFC as Ollie Bassett, now of Atletico Ottawa, converted a penalty kick in last week’s 1-1 draw at Starlight Stadium. The former Northern Ireland U-19 international, however, did his former club a huge favour Sunday with a remarkable corner kick that curled directly into the net to salvage a late 1-1 draw in Winnipeg against Valour FC that greatly aided PFC in the table. PFC and Valour FC are tied for the fourth and final playoff position although Valour holds the tiebreaker while the Tridents have a game in hand.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com