Pacific fans will get it, if any of them are reading.
When I did this piece last year, I was not keen on Pacific. More than that, actually–I thought they were downright unprepared.
It was probably my least-accurate prediction. Which, fine, I’ll own that. I also think the naivete I discussed there, and which was evident to a greater or lesser degree in all the new teams, led Pacific to becoming the first team to fire a coach1Interestingly, they remain the only team without a Canadian manager, though Pa-Modou Kah is a lot closer than Silberbauer was, having played and coached in Vancouver. There were problems last year, and questions persisting, which were sometimes hidden by surprising performances from young players, as was the way of CanPL Year One.
I quietly like what Pacific have done heading into Year-Not-Quite-Two. Some of those problems last year were actually in attack, in that Michael Silberbauer’s team could never build serious danger out of possession. They were great if they could get Zach Verhoven or Terran Campbell into space, but that became easy to predict and prevent, which led to Silberbauer playing way more conservatively than fans wanted.
The other reason he had to do that was disastrous defending. It was often laid at the feet of centre-backs Hendrik Starostzik (who was injured most of the year) or Lukas MacNaughton. Staro, plus Canadian youngster Emile Legault, are gone. But the problem was really ahead of them, in defensive midfield, and in their solution to it this offseason, Pacific are re-committing to the laudable and maybe naive values that formed the club’s identity out of the gate.
The big two are Thomas Meilleur-Giguere and Jamar Dixon, a duo of proven centre-backs who, helpfully, played with each other last year in Ottawa. (It’s indicative of the Ottleti paradox that both signed with Pacific before Ottawa’s CanPL club existed; Ottawa fans are likely to feel about my preview much as Pacific fans did last year. Perhaps I’ll be just as wrong.)
Josh Simpson and Rob Friend have also addressed the lack of creativity in attack. While I’m a big believer in Terran Campbell, I am not a big believer in Campbell’s ability to create his own chances. In adding Marco Bustos and Alejandro Diaz, they’ve done a lot to give him better support and service.
Alexander Gonzalez. Almost everyone important except the Panamanian is back. Pacific were dreadful in the spring last year, and as much as the centre-backs got the press, they got ripped apart in transition. If you’re going to play with bombing fullbacks like Kadin Chung, sometimes Zach Verhoven, and even Marcel de Jong, you need a strong defensive midfielder. Pacific let teams control the centre of the pitch and pull their centre-backs out. It’s why Valour were so good against them and Wanderers so abject: teams that could create punished them.
That ended with the arrival of Gonzalez who was definitely the best d-mid on the team and probably Pacific’s best player, period. There is no replacement for him on the roster, meaning it will fall to the two youngsters who started the spring season last year: Matt Baldisimo and Alessandro Hojabrpour, along with struggling USPORTs (re)draftee Tommy Gardner.
Michael Silberbauer was fired, at least in part, for not placing enough trust in the kids. Under new on-field direction2It’s becoming increasingly clear that Simpson and Friend make the signings, which is… interesting., Pacific in 2020 are betting on improvement from within.
Thomas Meilleur-Giguere (centre-back)
But let’s be honest, the defense was pretty bad. Pacific could have hidden behind those same developmental mantras and tried another local kid or relied on Canada West star Jan Pirretas Glasmacher. Instead, they went out and showed some ambition, bringing in Meilleur-Giguere and Dixon.
Neither are super-flashy–you tend not to notice them, which is usually seen as a good thing in defenders, for good reason. They do complement each other well: TMG is a bit more of a positionally astute ball player while Dixon’s the quick, physical guy who will put out fires when Baldisimo gets caught. Throw in MacNaughton, who’s probably one of the league’s best #3 CBs, along with Glasmacher and youngster Abdoulaye Samake, and Pacific have definitely patched, sealed, and then recoated last year’s hole with decorative varnish.
Plus, Pa-Modou Kah is a former centre-back and I’d put a good bet he can get the younger ones contributing fairly quickly.
Marco Bustos (wide playmaker)
Pacific are the beneficiaries of whatever is going on in Winnipeg, as Bustos is a solid get and they beat out Forge for his signature. They likely had to (over)pay a bit, and Bustos has his limits, but he is what Pacific didn’t get from Victor Blasco last year–that is, someone who can pull apart a defense and create chances for Campbell, who can bury them.
Silberbauer’s team struggled to create in central areas, though much can be expected of young Noah Verhoeven, who was inconsistently good last year. Bustos, however, mostly operates off the left, dropping deep and inside, which will help the young central mids concentrate on defending.
Alejandro Diaz (forward)
Okay, so no surprises with this list. Pacific have key holdovers as well, but Diaz represents that same ambition in attack after the club cleared out underproducing veterans Ben Fisk (to Ottawa), Marcus Haber (to Cavalry), and Iseey (to the boat).
Diaz is an intriguing get for the league, a 23-year-old who was a regular for Mexican youth national teams and a decent prospect at giants Club America. He’s played in Liga MX, mostly off the bench, and dwindling minutes over time suggest he never quite cut it, but there are lots of decent players don’t quite cut it at America. He should do fine in CanPL, maybe even thrive–he seems like a really affable guy–and mostly importantly he gives Pacific a slightly different option up front, especially if he can play a bit behind Terran Campbell and carve out his own chances. Combined with Campbell’s work-rate, it’s a much more frightening attacking unit.
Maybe Pacific can just outscore their problems? There were times last year it seemed like that was the desired approach, even if it frustrated Silberbauer, perhaps with good reason.
Shape-wise, expect some variant of the 4-2-3-1 that will look a lot like 4-4-2 when they have the ball. Terran Campbell does the work up top to pressure and let Diaz find pockets in transition–I can’t find much video on him (it’s a very common name), but what I did suggests range is not a problem for him.
Hojabrpour and Baldisimo are going to be absolutely critical behind the middle three to press and snuff out build-ups before teams pull Dixon and Meilleur-Giguere apart. They were not good enough at this last year, especially before Gonzalez came in.
Given the centre-back depth–that’s new!–it seems fairly likely they’ll play some 3-5-2/3-3-3-1, if only to try and get Pirretas Glasmacher some minutes. His ability to play out of the back (or even as a d-mid?) could be especially helpful.
Practically, though, these two will look very similar. The outside backs are always going to push way up and Baldisimo, a natural centre-back, needs to drop further when that’s the case. That it didn’t happen last year was probably partly a communication issue and partly a growth issue, and there are lots of reasons both might improve with time.
When that overlap happens, it lets Bustos come inside and creates channels for Campbell and/or Diaz. One of Verhoeven, Blasco, and Verhoven rounds out the “3” while the other two give Pacific real depth. All of these guys can create and score. It’s a powerful group up front.
Defense wins in tournament play, and defensive midfield is not where you want to have questions. Look, I like Baldisimo, but he showed last year he has growing to do, not just physically but in how he reads the game and in his discipline, too.
That spot has been key to understanding Pacific’s problems since inception and, even with Gonzalez, was an issue. It is now a glaring issue, and no team in the league won’t be aware of it. When Pacific turn the ball over, and they will, there is way, way too much space. It would be a big ask for a top defensive mid to cover for that. Without one, they’re set up to make another set of decent defenders look terrible.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen in this tournament, and with rosters in flux and depth likely to be tested, Pacific’s dark-horse might be another thing they’ve done well all along: squad unity. All of these guys, even the big signings, have been in Victoria since the spring, and the club has managed to keep them somewhat more together during lockdown. That time does count.
How much it counts for is hard to say. Just after Christmas, when the first signings started to come and Bustos joined, I was very, very keen on Pacific. Think second place. But they snuck Gonzalez’s departure by me3Why are teams in this league so afraid of announcing departures like every other club in the world does? Done with grace, it’s the professional thing. Hidden away, either at the bottom of boilerplate pieces or not announced at all, it actually reflects quite poorly on CanPL as a league. and there’s no replacement. I keep coming back to that.
I’d have put them playoff bubble in April, so fourth. I still feel pretty good about that for PEI. The two teams I’d have put above them have both been hammered by international absences, so anything could happen. That will get them into the second round, which would be due reward for the team’s ambition after a shaky start to professional life.