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Whitecaps, Pacific FC meet in Canadian Championship semifinal

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VANCOUVER — Pacific FC has been here before.

Heading into the Canadian Championship semifinal, the Canadian Premier League club is the underdog, set to take on Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps in a two-game series starting in Langford, B.C., on Wednesday.

The tournament's other semifinal will see MLS side Toronto FC face CPL's Forge FC.

It's no secret that Pacific's resources are a fraction of what the Whitecaps have on hand, but the results still come from what happens on the field, said head coach James Merriman.

“This is tournament football, it’s cup football," he said. "At the end of the day, it’s 11 (versus) 11. And our approach, our attitude, our humility, our discipline give us an opportunity, give us a chance to get a result. We focus on what we can control and that’s ourselves.”

This year marks the third time Pacific and the 'Caps have faced off in the annual tournament. The CPL side stunned Vancouver 4-3 in preliminary-round action in their first matchup back in 2021.

“We came in absolutely fearless," Merriman said. "We came in on the front foot. We had such big energy that I think we overwhelmed them in a sense. Maybe they underestimated or didn’t expect that and that’s what ended up pushing us to get a result.”

Vancouver went on to take a 3-0 victory in the semifinals last year, but the 2021 result is one the club hasn't forgotten, said assistant coach Michael D'Agostino.

“They're a good team. We've learned the lesson the hard way that you can't take a CPL team and think that it’s not going to be difficult game," he said. "We’ve played Pacific in the past and they've beaten us in the past. We need to make sure that we come with our A game (on Wednesday).”

Pacific earned a spot in the semifinals with a 2-1 aggregate win over fellow CPL team Atletico Ottawa and have gone on to climb to fourth spot in the league with a 5-4-4 record this season.

Wednesday's game comes amid a hectic part in the schedule. Pacific was in the nation's capital last weekend, where they took a 1-0 win over Atletico. On Sunday, they'll be in Hamilton, taking on Forge FC.

"It's been a heavy schedule for our season with the additional games, the Canadian Championship games," Merriman said. "We know it's a big country, it's a lot of travel."

The Whitecaps sit sixth in the MLS Western Conference with a 9-7-5 record after battling CF Montreal to a 1-1 draw on Saturday. This weekend, they'll head east once again to take on St. Louis City in Missouri.

Vancouver comes into the Canadian Championship having hoisted the Voyageurs Cup in both 2022 and 2023, but this year's campaign hasn't been smooth. The 'Caps faced CPL side Cavalry FC in the quarterfinals and advanced on away goals after Cavalry took a 1-0 victory in the second leg to tie the aggregate score at 2-2.

“We went into the Cavalry series with all the intentions of playing our A game. But at the end of the day, we underestimated them a little bit. They’re a good team, well coached, well organized and difficult to play against," D'Agostino said.

"I think we have learned. I think these guys have gone into this series with maybe just slightly more attention to detail. And hopefully we can get the win and go to the final.”

Pacific has learned that being the underdog doesn't mean much in the Canadian Championship.

The margins in soccer are always small and in cup tournaments, they grow increasingly narrow, said captain Josh Heard.

“In world football, you always hear about the 'magic of the cup' type of thing. And it’s real. And we’re seeing it here," he said. "We’re seeing the results that have happened here in the CanChamp. And hopefully there’ll be more in the future. Anything can happen in football sometimes.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2024.