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PFC hopes to play giant killer again against Whitecaps

Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League meets the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League soccer at Starlight Stadium
Pacific FC’s Georges Mukumbilkwa tackles Vancouver Whitecaps’ Sergio Cordova during their Canadian Championship semifinal at Starlight Stadium in May last year. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Sport is nothing if not about numbers. Those can be intimidating when teams from lower leagues play those from higher leagues in Cup soccer, such as tonight at 7 p.m. at Starlight Stadium when Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League meets the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League soccer in the first leg of their two-game, total goal Canadian Championship semifinal set.

“It’s no secret just in terms of resources,” said PFC head coach James Merriman.

“The value of the Whitecaps squad is $36 million to $37 million. Ours is just under $3 million and it’s a tight salary cap. It’s completely different [financial levels].”

But there’s another set of numbers, these more leveling, that Merriman likes better: “That being said, at the end of the day it’s 11 versus 11.”

That has been borne out this year with Forge FC of the CPL ousting CF Montreal of the MLS and CS Saint-Laurent of League1 Quebec shocking HFX Halifax of the CPL in earlier rounds of the Canadian Championship. The Whitecaps, in fact, also lost 1-0 at B.C. Place to Cavalry FC of the CPL in the second game of their quarter-final set but advanced due to the away-goals tiebreaker after having beaten Cavalry 2-1 in the first game in Calgary.

“That’s tournament football. That’s Cup football. It gives opportunities for teams to show themselves and prove themselves,” said Merriman.

“Players and teams are hungry for that.”

The first game of the other semifinal set is tonight at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton between Forge FC of CPL and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.

“The pressure is usually on one side in these games. In this case, it’s on the MLS sides TFC and the Whitecaps playing Forge and us,” said Merriman.

“We’ve done it before.”

He was referring to PFC’s riveting 4-3 upset of the Whitecaps at Starlight Stadium in the single-game 2021 Canadian Championship quarter-finals as the Tridents got four goals past then Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who on Tuesday night was in Canada colours facing Lionel Messi and defending World Cup champion Argentina in the Copa Americas semifinals.

“We know what it took and what the approach was to that match,” said Merriman.

Tridents captain Josh Heard played in both previous games against the Whitecaps and said of the first result: “It’s the magic of the Cup. It’s real.”

It certainly got real last year when the Whitecaps got even at Starlight Stadium with a dominating 3-0 victory over the Tridents in the single-game 2023 semifinal on their way to eventually hoisting the Voyageurs Cup, this nation’s equivalent of the FA Cup in England and Copa del Rey in Spain.

“We had a difficult game last season, so we take the experience from that too,” said Merriman.

“We have players in the locker room who have been in both those games and we will lean on those players and that experience. We have to stay humble and disciplined and believe that we can get a result over the two legs and advance.”

Tonight’s tilt is sold out, which PFC hopes to use to its home advantage, before heading to the big stage for the second leg Aug. 27 at B.C. Place.

“Starlight is an intimate, tight stadium where 5,000 to 6,000 fans can feel like 10,000, and the energy and noise bleeds onto the pitch,” said Merriman.

“We feed off our crowd.”

The 2024 Canadian champion will lift the Voyageurs Cup and advance to the 2025 CONCACAF Cup tournament against the best club teams in the U.S., Mexico, Central America and Caribbean.

“It’s going to be hard. It’s the semifinals and everyone wants to go to the final,” said Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini, during a press conference this week.

“It’s also a derby game so there’s a lot of feelings every time we go to the Island. We need to be at our best. We need to be focused for the entire game. We know Pacific is going to put a lot of intensity in the game and we need to match that intensity. We can’t afford to go there with a lower level of commitment or intensity because everyone knows what happened against Cavalry in the round before and how we almost got kicked out.”

The Whitecaps are 9-7-5 in wins-losses-draws in MLS and 10-8-5 overall. PFC is 5-4-4 in the CPL and 7-4-5 overall.

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