2022 CanPL Preview: Pacific FC

Pa-Modou Kah, shaping minds. (Photo via North Texas FC.)

 

Texas barbeque is never going to be quite the same in Victoria.

If you’re still grieving Pa-Modou Kah’s departure, know that we here at The Merchant Sailor take full responsibility.

I’m actually of a mind that Dallas got the wrong guy. Not because they shouldn’t have hired Kah, but because they should have hired him for the first team, not MLS NotQuite. It’s nothing against Nico Estevez, but Kah is a really, really good coach.

He’s a gravitational personality, the kind that can lead a team on sheer charisma and style. Leadership is over-used in sports, but Kah has it, and he has it in a way that particularly resonates with young players. Given Dallas’ strength in their academy, it should be a no-brainer (and maybe it will be if Estevez doesn’t get it done).

The other thing about Pa-Modou Kah, and guys like him, is that he’s primarily concerned with Pa-Modou Kah. Ego and talent often feed each other. I don’t mean this as a knock. Guy’s gotta make his way in his coaching career. But if it helps, there was no way he was going to stick around Victoria long-term.

In a way, there’s an upside for Pacific, too, in that it means James Merriman finally gets his chance.1They also get some broader recognition, which is nice, and I’m sure Kah will keep an eye on Pacific for anyone who might help Dallas. They’re not really a big-spending team by MLS standards these days, and it won’t be long before more MLS sides start looking at CanPL. I thought Pacific should have just bit it and gone with Merriman in 2019 — he was green, but hell, so was Michael Silberbauer, and Pacific were (and are) supposed to be about giving young Canadians a chance.

I always got the impression Merriman steered that 2019 team spiritually and emotionally, and maybe even did a fair bit of the actual coaching. Plus it would be weird not to give him at least some of the credit for Kah’s success over the past two years. It’s about time he get what he deserves.

Familiarity means it’s unlikely Merriman makes any massive changes in approach. Why would he? He will have an opportunity to put his own stamp on the side, however, because Pacific have lost a huge number of players, a lot of them first-teamers, and a lot of them to the same intra-league moves they used to build in the first place. That might sting as much as Kah’s departure.

Kadin Chung was the best fullback in the league. Despite his form with Toronto, Lukas MacNaughton was not the best centre-back in the league (a measure of how much talent is there to be mined in CanPL, especially in defense), but he was pretty good. Alessandro Hojabrpour is going to be the best player in the league in a couple of years. Add in Terran Campbell and basically the whole spine of the team is gone — and Pacific got very little compensation for any of them.2They got a token sum from TFC for MacNaughton, who was on a club option. Club options are essentially unenforceable, however, and when push comes to shove, clubs know it. TFC will have paid a little bit mostly as a PR move to let Pacific say they got something — this is part of doing business in world football and nobody should think less of either side for it. At some point, CanPL clubs will need to wean themselves off of option years and onto guaranteed contracts, at least for top players, so they retain more control of the sale price. But we may be a few years away from that as financial reality, and ultimately, clubs rightly don’t want to stand in the way of a player moving up a level, as this helps attract more young players.

That’s okay. I doubt Pacific are worried about the losses, even. They’ve rightly been very open about wanting to develop young, local players and move them up to higher levels. They’ve replaced most of the losses with similar moves within the league — no team has benefited quite so much as Pacific from FC Edmonton’s situation — and a few loans from Vancouver.

It’s also a fair bet that there’ll be improvement from within. It took Sean Young a little bit of time to win Kah’s trust, but I think he did just in time for Kah to leave, and with Jamar Dixon alongside him in central midfield, I think he can be a very solid starter in this league.

Matt Baldisimo and Abdou Samake have a little further to go, but both have upside and will have another chance to win (and keep) the starting job. Samake played over 2,000 minutes last year as essentially a rookie filling in for Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, but Pacific have Amer Didic, who’s been one of the best centre-backs in the league, to replace MacNaughton. Samake, who’s 25 and not that young, will have to battle.

It’s a similar story at left-back, long a problem position for Pacific. Jordan Haynes has settled into being a good-enough CanPLer, but by bringing ex-Cavalry man Nathan Mavila back, Pacific have given him some competition. Plus I like to see teams willing to give Mavila another look even after he left the league for an opportunity in his native England.

Josh Heard is back, as is Matteo Polisi. Gianni dos Santos probably edged out Oli Bassett for a roster spot, which is too bad because both are fun players. Heard, in particular, has become a key vertical piece for Pacific, particularly in the playoffs and cup games.

It is all a little thinner, and as a result, Pacific are going to need the big-money guys — Manny Aparicio and Marco Bustos — to haul a little more now. The nature of paying those guys a little more to bring them from York and Valour, respectively, means losing starlets like Campbell and Hojabrpour. While Aparicio and Bustos are both excellent players and a big part of what Pacific are about, I also don’t think Pacific win last year without Hohabrpour and Campbell. Campbell alone means replacing ten goals, which is not easy.

Alejandro Diaz is now the guy up front. He remains one of the league’s more effective enigmas — he had 12g/4a in all competitions last year. I wonder a tiny bit if he was the beneficiary of Kah’s gregarious tactics, but Diaz remains a very smart, technically sound poacher. If Merriman can engineer the side to get him the ball, he’ll score, and set up a couple as well.

Under Kah, Pacific generated a lot of their chances with wing play, particularly by having Chung overlap on the right. Kunle Dada-Luke, signed in 2021 after Ottawa released him, has a lot of the same upside and is a year younger than Chung. I think right-back is his job to lose, and with another 2,000 minutes I could see him (back) in MLS, too, actually.

It’s a bit of an experiment, but Pacific have depth and contingency plans, one of which is Georges Mukumbilwa, on loan from the Whitecaps. He’s also 22, and really, really needs a chance (and needs to take it, too). I tend to doubt Marc dos Santos’ ultra-defensive system afforded Mukumbilwa many opportunities in Vancouver, but for one reason or another, he hasn’t been able to stake any kind of claim to MLS minutes. He has bags of talent, and will fit Pacific’s high-octane system perfectly, but he’d better deliver this year.

The other experiment is Kamron Habibullah, though just about everyone agrees this kid is going to be a phenomenal talent. This is exactly what CanPL is for. Sure, he’s on loan, and any long-term benefit is going to be Vancouver’s, but he’s only 18, and having him compete for first-team minutes somewhere is terrific for Habibullah, Vancouver, and the national team, and Pacific get a playmaker who can break a game open in the second half. He probably won’t start every game, but if Pacific are good again this year — and they probably will be — he’ll be a key rotational piece in another playoff run.

Draft Grade: A-

Pacific got scooped for the second straight year, as York snagged Christian Rossi out from under their noses at Trinity Western after FC Edmonton stole Tommy Gardner from then in 2021.

Luca Ricci was a very good pick, though, a like-for-like with Rossi, but more experienced and probably more likely to contribute to a championship contender this year, though he is as yet unsigned.

Their second round pick, Rees Goertzen, was a local guy from UVic, the first time Pacific have drafted from them. He was always a longshot to make the team, but I like to see CanPL clubs using second-round picks on local longshots so they get a genuine look in camp.

Signing neither is a bit of a deduction, but Pacific are likely to be a contender and minutes are going to be hard to come by. The main purpose of the draft is to get university players an opportunity in camp. Pacific made smart, high-upside selections, and did just that.

Projection: 2nd, but with every chance to win in the playoffs

I am very, very tempted to put them top but I think Forge are just too good, and talent tends to out over the course of a long season, even if Pacific will have the full benefit of their considerable home-field advantage this year. That shouldn’t be discounted. (And, come 2023, they should have a local rival.)

Mostly, I think the departures and the changeover in head coach and personnel — even if there is a great deal of continuity there, of course — might cost them those critical few points in the earlier part of the year. It’s worth noting that Pacific were one of the only teams able to have a pre-season in 2021, and they went 4-2-2 in the Winnipeg bubble, second only to the hosts. Then they lost six of eight to end the year.

Fitness is maybe a tiny bit of a concern here, especially since the travel for away games will cancel out a lot of the home-field benefit. There are enough new players — and enough depth — to cover for all but the worst eventualities, so I’m not too worried about it, but yeah. Finishing high is going to be important to get the final (and potentially the first leg of the semis) at home. At Starlight Stadium, I’d give Pacific an edge over almost anyone.

The only other worry I have is #9. Diaz is as durable as he is unconventional. But if he gets hurt or just goes cold, Pacific have a bunch of teenagers and a 5’7″ Cape Verdean who scored one goal last year. Pacific can probably afford to miss Campbell’s goals, actually — they had a whopping 47 last year — but I don’t know if they can lose Campbell’s ability to break games open, especially on the counter.

Everyone is going to have to give just that little bit more. That’s hard, but players will do it for the right coach.

We’ll see if James Merriman has that same pull.

About Dylan Matthias 216 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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