Opportunity in the Cityscape: Vancouver FC 2023

If you squint, you can just about see Surrey.

When I was in Vancouver for grad school in 2013, I went out to a hackathon at UBC. There wasn’t a lot to do in the afternoon and though I was, like most grad students, pretty mono-focused on school, I caught wind that Canada West semi-finals were on down at Thunderbird Stadium.

Went down to watch Calgary lose on penalties to UBC.

That was one of only two soccer games I went to in Vancouver, unfortunately, the other being a Whitecaps – TFC Voyageur’s Cup game with a couple friends.1One of whom supported Tigres and the other Rayados, which was fun. I walked past Empire “stadium” a couple times and wished, then as now as before, they hadn’t knocked it down.

The Whitecaps have had — and squandered — a stranglehold on soccer in the Lower Mainland — even the rest of Canada, thanks to MLS’ bizarre regional catchment rules, which make the Whitecaps responsible for player recruitment in Nova Scotia. The squandering has been achieved through the headline scandals but also a failure to develop local talent, a failure to create much of a match-day experience, failure to liaise with supporters. It’s deserved.

Pacific’s arrival across the water in 2019 should have been a wake-up call. At the very least, there was new ambition. I thought it wouldn’t amount to much, that Pacific’s front office was a bit too insular. I think the Whitecaps thought so, too, and Pacific put them out of the cup in 2021 and won CanPL.

The end result is a second team, as indeed the Canadian Premier League had always intended… well, somewhere in the Greater Vancouver Area. Originally it was Coquitlam, but there’s no stadium.2Seriously, why knock down Empire? I mean, I know why. I get it. But ugh, the law of unintended consequences that always seem to be foreseen but never avoided or addressed…. Now it’s Langley, with a new events centre containing a rink and turf, as is the way of things in semi-suburban Canada these days. The turf has quickly been pre-emptively retrofit into a pop-up stadium that’s quite similar to Wanderers’ Grounds, except it’s not downtown.

Empire Stadium in Vancouver before it was knocked down.
Would this not have been the perfect CanPL venue?

And this is the key thing that will make or break Vancouver FC, not so much it’s performance on the pitch, though we will get to that and I’m quite optimistic about it, actually. I have learned from doubting Pacific.

I’m optimistic about the off-field, too, but I went to Surrey once while I was in school. I needed a bus pass, is the thing. This is the kind of reason people have for going to Surrey. That, and gang activity. Me, it was a bus pass. I swear.

It took an hour, on the skytrain. I like the skytrain and mostly just enjoyed the trip out from False Creek. But this wasn’t even peak rush hour or a Canucks game night, so I caught the first Expo train without too much trouble, and settled in.

Google Maps travel time from BC Place to Langley Events Centre shows one hour thirty minutes by skytrain.
Guess where all the cool, happening spots are? Settle in, guys. Settle in.

I’ve seen some debate about this online, so just a bit of extra context here: I know there are a lot of people live in Surrey and Langley — the major difference being Langley is a lot more suburban. But the problem is people don’t go to soccer games where they live. They go to soccer games where they want to spend the evening. Ask York. Ask Wanderers. Do you want to spend your evening in eastern Surrey, or downtown? Because I know where I’d have gone. And it puts the club in a very tricky spot. Do you market to families, play weekend afternoons, and go up against the twin behemoths of Timbits soccer and ballet practice? Or make it a hopping evening event for those summer nights? It’s not necessarily possible to do both, and the choice starts with the stadium.

The one thing the Whitecaps still have going for them is that BC PLace remains in a great spot to drag a couple curious friends, as I did, out to see Canadian soccer.3The V-Cup game was the one Jermaine Defoe came on at half-time and basically just won it for TFC, who were otherwise their usual boring selves under Ryan Nelson. You could feel Defoe’s pessimism fro the stands. It was great. BC Place remains an awful place to watch the actual game, but you’re in Yaletown. A short, pleasant walk from Gastown and the waterfront. Chinatown in the other direction.

Vancouver is just a great city. It’s got its problems — I know, I wanted to stick around, too, and couldn’t afford it either — but be it sports, arts, outdoors, life, everything, it’s just very easy to do things. It’s energetic and generally youthful outside Point Grey.4I also reffed in Vancouver a bit, which was a lot of fun. Did a U15 game between Point Grey and East Van in the pouring rain that probably remains the most difficult and intense match I’ve ever been seen. I’m reasonably sure 100 angry mothers were cursing me out in Mandarin all through the second half, but fortunately my grasp on the language is very rough….

Soccer in Vancouver should succeed. It already does — the Lower Mainland is one of the hotbeds in Canada, a true tapestry of talent, and it should be even more of one if only all its various leagues, always competing with each other, could have something to look up to and feel, y’know, good about.

That’s the opportunity for Vancouver FC.

So far, I really like what they’re doing with it. The Langley location remains a concern, and the club launch was the kind of marketing splat that CanPL produces with regularity (the logo… my god, the logo), but ever since then, they’ve signed local players, assembled a cool, multicultural team without trying too hard, got a savvy old head coach (not Ancelotti, though), and set-up a good up-close home venue.

It is everything I like about Vancouver.

They did it all without an expansion draft, too. I wondered if, now we’re out of the pandemic, the league might try something like that. The new commissioner is even an old MLS honcho.

But it didn’t, and VanFC might be a good argument that a league doesn’t need one.

That’s because this team has managed to acquire a lot of established CanPL talent just by having 20-odd contract slots open and a lot of young players hungry for a second chance. Or any chance, in some cases. Without anyone on the cap, Vancouver was able to offer that little bit more money than anyone else, too.

In the end, it’s a solid if unspectacular roster with a few little pockets of potential upside.

If they’d done it right, it’s not a bad strategy, similar-ish to the one employed by Nashville in MLS, which has largely worked out. The trick, here, is not to give out any long contracts — some of these guys aren’t going to hack it — but that’s less of an issue in CanPL where most contracts are one-year plus a couple club options.

In goal, they’ve stolen Callum Irving from the island and so have a much better goalkeeping situation than their immediate local rivals. Jeremy Zielinski has kind of an interesting background in that he played college ball in Hawai’i, but that’s a Div 2 school and he came in via the open trials. He’s your back-up, and his main job is to wear this absolutely amazing ‘keeper shirt.

Jeremy Zielinski for University of Hawai'i
I will not entertain any argument against it.

Rocco Romeo is the key man in defense. I like that he’s going to get to lead the line, too — in Winnipeg he was always playing Andrew Jean-Baptiste and I think Romeo, who’s still only 22, needs that leadership role to round into the kind of player who could have an outside shot at the Canadian men’s national team. Because that’s his ceiling.

Partnering him, I assume, will be Nigerian Ibrahim Bakare, who’s 20 with a similar résumé to Nathan Mavila, having bounced around the English development system. It’s a very young pairing, very much an expansion team’s partnership, but a promising one.

If it doesn’t work, you have a bunch of college kids to cycle through. These guys are mostly here to see if they can make a case to stick around. Anthony White is a dependable centre-back for UofT and I’m happy to see Van sign their top USPORTs picks, but those picks were both a bit odd and I don’t know if he has as much upside as someone like Guillaume Pianelli. Eugene “Pele” Martinez has a talent for marketing but is otherwise another open triallist from NCAA Div 2. Keep expectations low and hope Romeo avoids any tragedies.

Fullback got a major boost with the arrival of Kadin Chung, who bounced back to the league after not catching on at TFC — see above re: the benefits of VanFC’s salary cap space. It’s a set-back for Chung, but we know he’s an excellent CanPL right-back, and he can play on the left, too.

If VanFC could clone him, they might be able to sell him on this summer twice.

Left-back is a concern if only because we haven’t invented that cloning technology and AI is maybe not quite there yet, but I know a couple start-ups who’d love to help with the problem.

I imagine Marcus Simmons is part of the solution team. Tyler Crawford is the young promising hotshot5I am kicking myself for not doing a start-ups riff for this preview and apologize to VanFC fans for the relative lack of comedy. There’s always next year. who came up through the Columbis academy, which has been a solid return on investment of late and Crawford has also played a year with a good NCAA program in Michigan. Kahlil John-Wentworth played for Vaughan in 2021 then a strong Simcoe team in 2022. I feel reasonably good about at least one of these guys contributing. Two might be a longer bet, though.

In midfield as in defense, there’s one bigger name. Elliot Simmons is finally going to get real starting minutes. I think he’s capable of controlling a midfield — what I wonder is whether he’s developed the positional discipline to do it consistently, because that was his problem in Halifax back in 2019 and I didn’t see enough of his somewhat erratic minutes in Calgary to see if he’d really improved. He’s 25 now, and while I still like him in this league, he’s heading towards lifer status and those guys need to be starters.

As you’d expect, it’s a bit young, a bit piecemeal. The lack of depth in the centre makes me think we’re going to see a lot of 3-4-3 from Afshin Ghotbi. Both Mael Henry and Cristian Mares are pretty intriguing prospects, but both are attacking players so I suspect we’ll only see one at a time. Mares is a very talented youth player on loan from Puebla in Liga MX and Mael Henry is another player out of Montreal’s academy. Both are solid gets for any team in this league, and the fact Ghotbi is an established coach with good development bona fides will have helped. It’ll be their first time playing against men, but they’ve accomplished everything they an at the youth level.

Nima Moazeni-Zadeh is the third open trailist signed, which is a lot, but don’t let that fool you — he’s a star player in the CCAA for a very good Capilano team and plays in the summer with FC Tigers in the competitive Pacific Coast Soccer League. There’s no CCAA draft but there are absolutely still players, a lot of them, that CanPL clubs miss in the crumpled amateur fabric across this country. At 25, he’s no prospect, but I’d expect him to do a job for VanFC when called upon.

And then we have lots and lots of forwards. I expect most will be playing out wide, but maybe we’ll see the 4-2-4 at times, given how this roster is constructed. That’d be cool.

There are big names here, too. The biggest is Gael Sandoval, a massively experienced Mexican veteran with a similar résumé to Javier Acuna, coming in after putting up very good numbers for Wellington Phoenix in the A-League.6I feel obliged to note, by way of disclaimer, that Wellingon are my all-time favourite start in Football Manager so I may not be entirely unbiased here. I have a semi-active save in FM21 with Sandoval playing, actually, though I prefer the FM11 version of the Phoenix, which I’ve been nurturing over a decade. Like Acuna, Sandoval’s not a massive goalscorer but given the level he should dominate in this league, and at the very least carve out chances for others.

The most impressive thing about Acuna was how willing he was to work with his much less skilled teammates hastily assembled for Atletico Ottawa’s inaugural season. If Sandoval can get his head into the same space, he’ll be another phenomenal example of the kind of players this league can get when it stops trying to reinvent the wheel with fancypants U23 sell-ons. This guy will sell tickets in Vancouver, not least because there’s a decent Mexican ex-pat community. And he will make the league better, too.

Canadian soccer is finally, rightly getting a reputation in CONCACAF for quality. Sandoval’s a journeyman, not a Liga MX superstar, but there’s absolutely no reason we can’t aspire to have these kinds of players  in our league. Crucially, the Canadian dollar is worth a lot more than the peso, and say what you will about the league’s finances, but our cheques don’t bounce. That matters in world football. I’m not saying we should sign boatloads of Mexicans in need of a contract at the expense of young Canadian development, but we have mechanisms to deal with that and there will be real benefits to VanFC’s young Canucks in playing with a guy who knows his way around the game, much as their was for the young players in Ottawa with Acuna, even just for a season. Sandoval may well move on next winter as veteran players do, but he’ll be worth it anyway.

In case I haven’t effused enough, Vancouver finally went and got Shaan Hundal, too! Finally. I say, because he’s been bouncing around the league for going on four years. He played a bit with a very bad Valour team on PEI in the pandemic, then landed on Inter Miami’s B team and just started pouring in goals because, thanks to Miami’s innovative approach to roster management, he had guys like Julian Carranza, Blaise Matuidi, and, uh, David Beckham’s other son feeding him the ball.

The thing with Hundal is he’s a very good goal poacher, but he’s only a goal poacher. On PEI, Valour were constitutionally incapable of service of any kind, but now you have Snadoval and a bunch of pacy wingers pinging passes into the box, Hundal’s gonna score. Possibly a lot.

I think CanPL is a slightly higher level than MLS NextThing. Hundal’s one of those Brampton soccer products; given the glut of attacking options, the national team is probably a stretch, but Hundal can absolutely use this league as a stepping stone.

Most of the wingers are fliers, but I feel like that’s always the best way to recruit wingers, at least in a league like this. You’re not going to get the guys who can genuinely contribute goal actions. What you get are the guys who are too small, or too silly, or do too many stepovers to catch on anywhere else.

The two internationals are the most intriguing, though both Nathan Gyimah and Kwak Min-jae have gaps in their LinkedIn profiles. Gyimah is a former Ghanaian U20, which is certainly something, and he’s played for Sunderland U23s, so you know he’s got quality. Kwak is the obligatory Asian Signing, though he is more accurately a NISA signing from the very bizarre white elephant of US lower-level soccer. He made the NISA best eleven, but that could be best eleven of just about anything — home repair, independent filmmaking, motorcycle salesmanship. Kwak has scored where he’s played, though, and while level is very hard to pin down in NISA, a few former players have done okay in CanPL.

If not, there’s Gabriel Bitar, who may still be riding the momentum of one decent performance against UBC in the one university semi-final CanPL coaches actually watched in-person. He’s not really a winger, but he’s not really anything else at the CanPL level, either. He had five goals for Edmonton mostly just by dint of inevitability, but this has to be his last chance.

Mamadou Kané wasn’t very good at York and struggled with injuries too, but he’s still very young with a fair bit of upside so it makes sense to give him another shot. Nathaniel St. Louis is kind of a NCAA journeyman — he didn’t stick at Syracuse and ended up on the Euro trial circuit as so many Canadians do. Ameer Kinani is a TMU player with all three of small, silly, and stepovers in spades — I think CanPL is above his current level, but he’s young enough that could change if he can show well enough in what minutes he’ll get.

Most of these guys are depth, and you need depth up front. A couple, particularly Kinani and Kwak, could double as very attacking wingbacks. Flexibility and depth are big things in this league.

As with other previews, when I do these it’s really more about the depth. This is the sensible way for VanFC to line-up, I think — it’s pragmatic, and despite my waxing poetic about it above, I don’t think they have the defensive coverage to go to a back three from the start, at least not without adding another centre-back option.

But I think this will get very fluid, and shift around a lot, thanks mainly to Sandoval, who can play anywhere across a front four, as can Bitar, Kané, Kwak Min-jae, and Gyimah. So don’t think in terms of position + back-up. think in terms of combinations and exploiting weaknesses.


Drawing Altitude, a League 1 BC side, is a bit concerning. They also played TSS Rovers, Fusion FC, and FC Tigers and didn’t post scores… but remember what I said above about the Lower Mainland talent pool and overlooked amateur players? Thompson Rivers just won USPORTs with a bunch of local BC players.

Still, I think there’s a decent chance this squad could take a little time to click. They also played Timbers 2 and Valour twice, getting results from two of those three games, which isn’t bad. Lots of pre-season means the players will have had more opportunity to understand each other.

I don’t know if they’re entirely ready for the immediate rivalry with Pacific set to commence on opening weekend in Victoria7The stadium in Langley’s not ready — sound familiar?, but I wonder if that rivalry will exist more in Pacific’s eyes than Vancouver’s? Islanders resent Vancouver. Vancouverites don’t really think that much about the island except maybe as a kid sister. I actually suspect the rivalry will form with Cavalry, and eventually with the Ontario teams. That’s where the resentment is.

There’s a photo almost exactly like this of Pacific before their first season, which felt apt.

Projection: 6th

There are gaps in the roster, but there are gaps in any CanPL roster, especially the ones outside the playoff picture.

I think VanFC will come quite close, actually, but I have questions about the capability of some of the depth, travel will be a factor, and though Gael Sandoval is very good, even Acuna couldn’t save an otherwise awful Ottawa side.

Vancouver aren’t that bad, but they are young, and young teams tend to hit rugged patches of the sort that cost critical points down the stretch.

But I think they’ll be competitive and probably fun, which is what they need to be in Vancouver. The venue looks nifty when you get to it, and there is a community around Langley that’s a bit distinct if the club can capture it.

The opportunity is there.

About Dylan Matthias 244 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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