#hippychivas: Plaudits for Pacific home cooking, but whither the roster?

Issey's boat.
Issey's boat.

As of this writing, Pacific FC have 18 players signed. I’ve waited as long as I could to write this preview, expecting–hoping–they might add some names late. We’re now less than a week out from their first-ever match and the Vancouver Island side can just about make a bench, assuming Shun Takano or Tommy Gardner are actually signed.

This is all part of a philosophy, if not exactly a plan, for Pacific. Like Mexican giants Chivas de Guadalajara, who sign only Mexican-born players, Pacific have pretty well signed only British Columbian talent (with a couple asterisks for guys like Marcel de Jong, who’s from Newmarket but has played in Vancouver for the past two years).

On its own, this goal is kind of laudable. It represents, at the very least, a clear identity for the club. Combined with the right off-field developments, it could bear fruit in the long-term. The Lower Mainland region has always been rich in soccer culture and talent. Pacific could provide the opportunity for young local kids to prove themselves.

Pacific FC secondary logo.
One of the first things Pacific did was create a secondary logo. In year one. They still have fewer than 20 players signed.

Only those off-field developments haven’t happened. There’s been precious little fanfare about ticket sales and now it turns out the stadium–which would be one of the nicest venues in the league if it were downtown–is only half-built. On-field, the roster and already has a massive hole due to the injury to de Jong. The coaching staff is inexperienced, with limited developmental bona fides. The team seems like it employs more people in its social media office than it does in its playing squad.

All of it adds up to a team that doesn’t look like it was quite ready for the league.

They were slow, too, to announce a manager, eventually settling on the only foreign manager in CanPL, Michael Silberbauer, a former Danish international. I expected more foreign managers, to be honest, but I did not expect Pacific to be one of the teams, let alone the only one, looking abroad, given the oft-stated focus on local talent. Silberbauer is young, too–just 37–and this is his first time in charge of a club, having only retired a few years ago. He has one solitary year of assistant experience at FC Luzern in Switzerland, and only joined Pacific in January.

It seems likely that, until that point–and quite possibly after it as well–assistant coach James Merriman has had a guiding hand in Pacific’s roster build. I view them almost as co-coaches. Merriman provides the island tie, but also lacks significant experience, having briefly assisted Alan Koch at Simon Fraser in the NAIA before doing a stint with the Whitecaps U15 team. His main ties are to Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University, and many of Pacific’s signings have played for the 2017 CCAA champions.

There is likely to be a significant gap between CCAA and the CanPL. Even setting aside the tiny roster, this Pacific team feels more cobbled together from what came to hand than built with any particular identity. Silberbauer and Merriman will have to rely extensively on teenagers in key roles, CCAA players in others, and journeyman veterans to do most of the heavy lifting. Inexplicably, after bringing in a raft of trialists, including recent San Jose Earthquakes draftee Mamadi Camara, none were signed.

Pacific FC group shot on the beach in Tofino.
Pacific FC’s training camp on the beach in Tofino.

For the Isle, indeed. There is an island lifestyle, of sorts, that is laudably relaxed. Pacific embody that. This looks like a team built for a semi-pro Canadian start-up, a BC version of League 1 Ontario, not a national league. While I admire the intent behind that–and in time it could even pay off–I worry Pacific have created an expectation among fans and local supporters that this team is nowhere near meeting on the field in year one.

Key Players

Marcus Haber, striker

Many people are considering Marcus Haber this team’s main threat, even predicting golden boot seasons for him in the league. Haber has just once–barely–hit double-digit goal totals in a season, in 2015-16. In England’s League One. He is now 30, coming off a couple utterly barren years that have, sadly, been more often the norm than not.

I have nothing against Haber. Canadian fans owe him some gratitude for national team service during years it was not particularly hip to get called up. He shows up and he works reasonably hard when and where almost no one else would. Indeed, this tends to define his game: he trains well, he’s always willing and able to go, and he can, at least, occupy a defender.

Expecting him to carry the entire offensive load of a team is simply not fair to Haber. It is not what he does. Even with Vancouver, way back in USL, he was prone to long, long dry spells. To quote Ben Massey, who has seen far more of Haber than I have over the years:

Is Haber really an underrated, useful striker who’ll rip up CanPL like a lankier Bradley Wright-Phillips?

He is not. The numbers don’t lie. Every two years Marcus Haber scores enough to look like a professional striker, and the odd years are so bad that you understand why Dale Mitchell used him as a centreback. (https://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2019/02/22/enigma-prospect-four-vets-and-a-legend-canpl-signing-review-1/)

I’m not saying Haber is necessarily a bad signing in CanPL. This is a league for Canadian players who could use some belief, and Pacific could certainly use his experience. I think he’ll even score goals–just not enough to float Pacific on his own. The best way to use him is probably as a poacher–if you can get him service, there’s at least some chance Haber can convert it. He is wholly reliant on that service, though–he won’t give you a lot of pure hold-up play or any danger in channels.

Ben Fisk, winger

Fisk may well be tasked with providing most of the service to Haber, especially given Issey Nakajima-Farran is 34 and was never exactly fast. Fisk is more of a pure winger who can run and cross. which he’s done relatively effectively in NASL and USL before.

He spent last year in Ireland where he was mostly a substitute for Derry City. Prior to that, he was part of the FC Edmonton team hanging around as NASL began to implode. He played a season in Spain, and scored four times, and was quite good as a sub for Charleston back when they were a force to be reckoned with in USL.

Another BC local, Fisk was a highly-rated in Vancouver’s system before becoming something of a journeyman. He’s still only 26 and has produced more or less wherever he’s been, often for not-great teams, which may explain why he’s never caught a shinier eye. He should be good for Pacific–they’re going to need him to be. This feels like his level and he has good fundamentals.

Hendrik Starostzik, central defender

Pacific really need Starostzik to be good. They need him to be the lock-down general at the back, because there is no depth behind him and no real defensive midfielder ahead of him.

The main point working in his favour is that he spent two solid enough years with Stuttgarter Kickers in the German third division. It’s not the top of world football, but it is a professional league in a major European country. He started and played well, even getting a quick look from Dynamo Dresden in the second division before being sent back to the third flight.

That’s probably roughly his level, which correlates well enough with CanPL that he should be a solid enough starter. He’s tall and athletic, a typical German centre-back, and he’ll likely be tasked with moving the ball out of the back a fair bit. It’s his first time playing outside Germany and his family won’t be with him until the summer, so it’s imperative Pacific help him adjust so he can be steady from the start.

Starostzik doesn’t speak much English. Fortunately, Lukas MacNaughton, his centre-back partner, speaks German. If either of those two go out, I’m not sure how the organizational side of the defense will fare. Language is a big part of settling at clubs. It might be fair to give Starostzik a little bit of time, but given Pacific’s lack of depth, it’s not clear they’ll be able to.

Tactics and Positional Depth

That article I linked reveals a terrifying hint about Pacific’s tactical identity, in which Starostzik says, “we are centre-backs who want to play with the ball. We can defend high and this is the style which the trainer wants to play, so I think this is a good duo.”

That may be true for the centre-backs, but the rest of Pacific’s team lacks the speed and ruggedness to press in critical areas, central midfield in particular. Neither Haber nor Issey are players who defend a lot from the front, which is fairly important in a high-line system, because if teams can set up in midfield they can play balls over the top and into space. There are a lot of CanPL teams that are set up to do just that.

It’s particularly odd because Pacific have two of the better attacking fullbacks in the league, in Blake Smith and Kadin Chung. Smith is de Jong’s replacement, on loan from FC Cincinatti1The Alan Koch connection is proving fruitful for CanPL.. You may remember him from occasional Montreal Impact substitute appearances. He’s not going to post de Jong’s highlight reel but he’s younger and reliable as a runner out wide. Chung was Alphonso Davies’ partner with Whitecaps 2 before a failed trip to Europe. He’s the sort of young player who might have a coming out party this year.

If the fullbacks are high, it’s imperative for Pacific to have cover from a defensive midfielder. Unfortunately, they don’t have one. Alessandro Hojabrpour might be able to play there, as could Matthew Baldisimo, though both are very young and might be better suited to other positions.

Alessandro Hojabrpour passing a ball in training.
18-year-old Canadian midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour, fresh off a stint with Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s U19s.

Hojabrpour is an intriguing player–a regular with the Canadian U17 team, and just 18. He didn’t catch on during a stint with Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s U19 team. A lot of Canadian kids try their luck in Europe and find it’s a big adjustment in terms of professionalism. Pacific will be a good place for him to learn, as long as he’s not asked to do too much too soon.

Baldisimo came through the Whitecaps program and, like many promising Whitecaps youngsters, he struggled for minutes with Fresno last year. The rest of his USL experience came as a teenager with a very overmatched Whitecaps 2 side.

Further up the field, Pacific have better depth. Mostly it’s teenagers, but it’s here you can see a little of what Pacific might be trying to do as a developmentally-focused outfit. Jose Hernandez is probably the most intriguing of the bunch–a small but lethal striker who’s just 18 but has scored for fun in every youth division he’s played in. He deserves a chance to prove he can compete with men, and if Marcus Haber doesn’t score, Hernandez could become a bright spot for Pacific.

Terran Campbell and Noah Verhoeven are both former Whitecaps 2 wingers who will provide youthful vigour off the bench, especially if Issey can’t go 90 every game. Both are direct players, though Verhoeven has some skill cutting in as well. I wasn’t wildly impressed by him at USPORTs nationals, but the UBC player is just 19 and has drawn some positive reviews.

Tommy Gardner was good with TSS Rovers in PDL, and very good with UBC, though he sometimes struggles to stay healthy and/or out of card trouble. He’s a supremely tough and gritty player, very much a Canadian prototype, but with the sense and passing range to do a lot more from central midfield. It’s not entirely clear he’s signed yet, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s focusing a bit more on his university studies until at least mid-May.

Victor Blasco will probably start instead in midfield. He grew up in Barcelona’s academy, so there’s that, but he’s mostly been a CCAAer since then, only playing regularly with VIU after a stint with, you guessed it, Whitecaps 2. He put up pretty paltry numbers in USL, and it’s fair to ask how much he can contribute in a similar league. As a depth piece he’s solid, but like so many positions for Pacific, there’s nobody ahead of him on the chart.

Projections: 7th (Spring); 7th (Fall)

This team is not good enough, on the field, to compete in this league.

I admire what I think Pacific are trying to do, which is be the RSL of CanPL, a team that will develop within and source the local talent around it to compete. As an identity, it gives them a lot of solid branding to build around.

It feels like branding’s all there is right now, though, and it remains to be seen how it’ll stand up to the rigour of losing, and likely losing a lot. The best-case for Pacific is that one of the young kids turns out to be a phenom, opening up (welcome) questions of when and where he’d be sold on.

To be effective with that model, Pacific really need a developmental specialist in charge, a guy like Bobby Smyrniotis at Forge. That might be James Merriman. A lot of the local approach looks like his work, since this has been brewing longer than Silberbauer’s been on the ground here. But Merriman has to prove himself as a coach, too. CanPL ain’t CCAA, and at some level, professional soccer is about winning games.

There are, to be clear, good coaches in CCAA and USPORTs who absolutely deserve a chance, which is why I’m glad Pacific are trying this even if it doesn’t look likely to work out this year. Success this year is two to three youngsters who look like they belong as contributors next year.

There’s not much flexibility, so picking a line-up is relatively easy:

In the right situation, and with a couple performances from Haber and/or Issey, I can just about see this 11 keeping in touch with the rest of the league. The best approach here is to try and keep the ball without being too ambitious. Issey’s still a crafty player, and good at cutting in and seeing pockets of space. All three midfielders like to get forward on late runs. There are ways they could be dangerous on set pieces.

The key is avoid getting absolutely hammered on the counter–there’s just too much space in the hole ahead of the centre-backs, and even more if Chung or Smith push all the way forward. The lack of roster depth means far too much is asked of young players like Baldisimo and Hojabrpour, and if anyone (else) gets hurt, there’s nobody.

Marcel de Jong’s injury remains one of the saddest stories of this offseason, as he’d have given Pacific some flexibility and a steadying influence. Hopefully he can be influential from the sidelines, as it’s unlikely he’ll be back this year.

About Dylan Matthias 91 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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