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Whitecaps top Pacific FC in cup game overshadowed by injury

Vancouver advances to Canadian Championship final
Pacific FC’s Georges Mukumbilkwa tackles Vancouver Whitecaps striker Sergio Cordova during their Canadian Championship semifinal match at Starlight Stadium. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST)

Lightning did not strike twice at Starlight Stadium.

A record Pacific FC capacity crowd of 5,221 was not enough to will the Island Canadian Premier League team to victory this time against the cross-strait Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. The game was overshadowed by an injury that sent Whitecaps forward Ali Ahmed to hospital.

The defending champion Whitecaps defeated the Tridents 3-0 and advanced to host the 2023 Canadian Championship final for the Voyageurs Cup. It will be played June 7 at B.C. Place against MLS-side CF Montréal, which defeated Forge FC of the CPL 2-0 in the other semifinal played at Stade Saputo. The Canadian champion will earn a berth in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League.

It was a rematch of the famous ferry derby in 2021 when PFC recorded the 4-3 upset over the Whitecaps in quarter-final stage of the Voyageurs Cup.

The game was stopped for 17 minutes in the first half to deal with a serious-looking head injury to Ahmed. He was shielded by a blanket when wheeled off.

“It was a very scary moment. Ali is in hospital,” Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said following the game.

“He was aware and talking. The game is not important today. The team was shocked and not thinking about the game. Hopefully, he will be OK. It’s a complex sport and things happen in the game.”

Whitecaps player Julian ­Gressel echoed those thoughts: “It was difficult and makes you realize how secondary the game is and how quickly it can be taken away. It rattled us a little bit. Thankfully, Ali was awake and breathing and asking where he was.”

In terms of the outcome, the game shifted in a heartbeat Wednesday when Ayman Sellouf of PFC was stopped point blank by Whitecaps goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka and then Vancouver immediately flashed down the field to score through Gressel at 14 minutes. Ahmed, before going down, made it 2-0 less than three minutes later.

Play resumed after the Ahmed injury with PFC ­offering up a lively attack that kept Takaoka engaged for the remainder of the half in the ­Whitecaps crease, but the finishing remained just inches away for PFC, despite outshooting the ’Caps 10-7 in the opening half. Vancouver led 3-2 in shots on target, and importantly, made the most of them.

Before the game, PFC head coach James Merriman said his charges needed to be wary about how quickly an MLS side can strike. Indeed, that turned out to be the case.

“The ’Caps were decisive and clinical in attack and we were naïve in those moments,” said PFC head coach James Merriman.

“It is a good Whitecaps team with a good match plan and we played into that.”

Merriman said he wished Ahmed, who was selected to the Canada long list for the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League final, a speedy recovery.

Yet the Tridents, facing a monumental hill to climb when trailing by two goals, didn’t back down from an MLS club whose team roster salary this season of $12.7-million US is more than 12 times greater than that of a CPL club. Whitecaps midfielder Ryan Gauld alone, at $2.4-million US per season, makes more than double the entire Pacific FC team.

Manny Aparacio and Sellouf both just missed the far corners to open the second half as the Tridents kept pressing and the Whitecaps were content to sit back a bit. Takaoka then made a fine diving save off Aparacio at 66 minutes. PFC forward Kekuta Manneh was unlucky later not to be awarded a penalty kick when he was pushed down in the box. Simon Becher concluded scoring at 78 minutes with an against-the-grain goal that went through PFC goalkeeper Emil Gazdov’s gloves, a recurring problem on the season.

The Tridents had the run of play. But the Whitecaps had the run of the scoreboard, and that’s all that counts.

“The Whitecaps were quite ruthless in their moments. That’s a lesson learned by us,” said Merriman.

The Tridents, 3-1-2 in wins-losses-draws in the CPL and 2-1 in the Canadian Championship, meet the HFX Wanderers of ­Halifax in a league game ­Saturday night at Starlight ­Stadium.

Vancouver is 4-4-5 in MLS. The Whitecaps are 2-0 in the Canadian Championship after gaining their long-awaited revenge against PFC on ­Wednesday night and dispatching York United of the CPL 4-1 in the quarter-finals following a first-round bye.