Pacific were never actually that bad in 2019.
That’s a surprise, because they were supposed to be. I was not the only blogger to mostly write them off, especially after they started the season with a minimal roster of mostly Whitecaps cast-offs, barely any viable centre-backs, and essentially a rookie coach.
They managed fifth place in the spring and fourth in the fall, which is tangible improvement. There were some lows, sure, but for me, no team did more over the course of the season to change the narrative. They topped it off by firing the coach and sending a pretty clear indication that things are about to be blown up.
What it meant
What this boils down to is philosophy. I’ll admit that I poked a bit of fun at Pacific for being “#hippychivas”–this club wants to play almost exclusively British Columbian talent, and definitely young talent.
Michael Silberbauer apparently disagreed.
Was told that @Pacificfccpl fired Michael Silberbauer over “philosophical differences in the playing of young players.”
Pacific wants to kids to play, even at the cost of points. The coach wanted to win over the cost of playing time for green players. #CanPL
— Duane Rollins (@24thminute) October 19, 2019
This is a huge risk, but a welcome one. To be clear–I maybe wasn’t clear enough when I wrote my season preview–I’m glad Pacific is doing this.
Part of the reason Pacific was so successful is because the Vancouver Whitecaps, for all its much-vaunted Residency, hasn’t been developing players well. Among other off-field problems, it cheaped out of its USL program, and Carl Robinson barely gave playing time to young Canadians. That hurt guys like Terran Campbell, Victor Blasco, and Matt Baldisimo. It is not a coincidence that all those guys stepped up big when Pacific put some confidence in them.
That fills a hole in BC soccer, because there has been a real leak in the left-coast talent pipeline of late. It also gives Pacific an identity.
My projection: Spring 7th / Fall 7th
I was sceptical–and remain so, a bit–about the overall level of this squad. The thing about young players is they rarely produce in a nice, linear, consistent way. If Pacific want to make this philosophy work, they need a steady well-spring of talent that can keep pushing because some guys will not keep their form going.
It’s here I start to worry, because while Silberbauer was an imperfect coach–he was not the easiest guy to like and his football was not aesthetically pleasing–I think he got this team to overachieve. As the season went on and things got a bit wonky, he started to drill some typically Scandinavian discipline into the youth. He managed to convert Baldisimo and Alessandro Hojabrpour to d-mids. By the end of the year, he even got the perpetually changing back-line mostly working.
Given some of the veteran talent he was saddled with–I highly doubt Silberbauer did much in the way of signing players–it’s actually kind of remarkable. Marcus Haber barely scored (which is not surprising), Ben Fisk hit a massive rut to start the year (though he got out of it), Issey basically ran out of gas (also not surprising).
And they still finished fifth overall, and only a couple points out of third.
Key game: July 1st, 3 – 1 v. Cavalry
After winning on opening day against Wanderers, Pacific went winless for the rest of May and June. I actually thought Silberbauer might get fired in there because he looked completely lost in Canadian soccer.
Now, Cavalry rotated the squad for this one, but not that much. And they were very focused on “every game matters”. Pacific didn’t exactly dominate Cavalry, but they did an expert smash-em-up. Pacific did to Cavalry what Cavalry usually do to other teams: set-piece goals, physical play, drawing them into needless foul trouble (Cavalry finished with nine men). Ahmed Al-Ghambi scored his first professional goal. They held Cavalry, then Victor Blasco scored the winner against the run of play and Issey smashed home his one and only goal–from a free kick–to seal it.
They lost the re-match a week later 3 – 2 to start the fall season, but after those two games it never seemed like Pacific weren’t up to speed. They still gave up too many goals, and that cost them any real shot at contention, but they scored, too. By the end of the year, they even looked passable defensively. There was some balance.
So they fired the coach.
They’ve also yet to formally release any of the veterans Silberbauer was apparently guilty of favouring. He certainly didn’t sign Marcus Haber or Issey, both of whom struggled mightily despite, I’d guess, significant price tags.
Hendrik Starostzik, the import from the German third division, also struggled, albeit more with injuries than on-field form. Lukas MacNaughton was probably the team’s best centre-back, and he was… a relative veteran coming out of League 1 Ontario. For the Isle?
The larger challenge is probably what happens when the ex-Whitecaps spring goes dry, because this Pacific team was actually made up several separate generations of Whitecaps cast-offs. Victor Blasco and Baldisimo were WFC2 alumni, Terran Campbell and Kadin Chung were relative seniors who were sort of drifting for a couple years. Hojabrpour and Jose Hernandez were fresh-faced Residency alums. I never want to underestimate the Whitecaps’ ability to cut young talent, but fielding a whole team on academy cuts isn’t going to work. Pacific need to find a source of talent and while Silberbauer, an ex-Danish international who’s played his entire career in top flights, wasn’t likely to bring a lot of people to CanPL, Pacific could use that kind of network.
The first hurdle this offseason is a coach, obviously. It seems very likely it’ll be James Merriman, the ex-VIU player/coach who more or less co-coached Pacific. He will certainly help with local identification, but beyond that?
When Silberbauer was fired, the strong suggestion from Rob Friend was that the locker-room had quit on him. Baldisimo actually said as much. Merriman was in that room, too, remember.
Since announcing some early departures, Pacific have been fairly quiet. Mark Village lost his job to Comox boy Nolan Wirth, probably deservedly–Village is gone. So are Hernandez and Emile Legault, two teenagers who… struggled a bit for minutes under Silberbauer, but mostly deservedly.
You wonder what else is coming, because the only other teams that’s been so quiet is Wanderers, and there aren’t that many Wanderers players left. My guess is more change is coming.
Starostzik is gone, as is CCAAer Ryan McCurdy. Neither really looked like steady options at the back, so it’ll be MacNaughton and somebody next year–Pacific are back to having one CB on the roster. It’ll probably be Jan Pirretas Glasmacher, a USPORTs draftee a lot of people in Canada West are high on (I’m a bit sceptical, but it’s possible1Pirretas won a national bronze medal a couple of years back–nothing to sneeze at–but Thompson Rivers haven’t been back since. He gets compared to Peter Schaale a lot, but while Schaale had a better team around him, Cape Breton were also much more consistent both in conference play and at nationals than TRU. To an extent, part of being a star player in USPORTs involves getting your team to nationals.).
A lot will fall on how many of the vets re-sign. If Haber is back, I’d have pretty major questions about the direction from Pacific’s front office. He didn’t manage 1000 minutes and had three goals–plus a couple own goals, and it’s unlikely he came in from Scotland on the cheap.
(Update Dec. 10, 2019: Pacific re-signed Campbell, along with some of the other young talent, in the time between my finishing this post and actually publishing it. Yet again, the lesson is that I should obviously not do proofreading.)
You have to think Terran Campbell will have MLS interest, though, which would leave Pacific without much up front. Campbell has to be the single most important task for Josh Simpson and James Merriman. If the commitment is to young players, Pacific need to find a way to get Campbell under term and then sell him later.
Ditto Gonzalez. His arrival coincided with that uptick in form. He’s the kind of international CanPL clubs should have an eye on: young-ish and coming from a precarious league. We can, in fact, compete decently on salary with some of the Central American leagues, and there is talent there, as we learn every World Cup qualifying cycle.
Because the thing is, for all the young players and community angle is smart branding, I’m sceptical it’ll fill the stands at Westhills. That was a problem this year. It really is a gorgeous stadium and next year it’ll have proper camera angles2The hydro pole is being removed.–Pacific need to make sure people aren’t just watching on One Soccer.
Fans will come out, to an extent, for local talent. That’s part of the appeal of CanPL. But local talent has existed in Victoria for a while, thanks to the USL-2 Highlanders. Aside from the Lakeside Bouys, not many turned out to watch local players. That’s always been a problem in Canadian soccer. Go support your local teams.
CanPL has proven a great vehicle for promotion and marketing. I know hard-core supporters cringe at that kind of thing, but it matters. And if the event is fun, people will come back. They will bring friends.
Losing is not fun. Michael Silberbauer, whatever his faults, managed to avoid losing. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty.
But Pacific FC’s biggest challenge in years two and three is going to be keeping up with a growing league while also laying the seeds for a youth-first philosophy that can grow Island, BC, and ultimately, Canadian soccer.