Surfing the Hype Wave: Pacific 2021 Preview

Pacific attacks!

Pacific have the best attack in the league. No expense has been spared in creating this grand system to rule the stars of Canadian soccer. It is a terrifying sight to behold.

I wouldn’t want to be coaching a defense against their front four, firing on all cylinders. They are fast, fluid, and fun. But we have come into highly secret intelligence that, if you can get behind their midfield, you can exploit their weak point. A single attacker could bring the whole thing down.

Ironically, as Pacific have built that attack, they’ve also quietly moved on from the previous big Narrative, that Pacific were going all-in on playing the kids.

You could sort of see it coming on PEI last summer. Noah Verhoeven couldn’t get consistent minutes. Neither could Zach Verhoven, at least not at right wing, his preferred spot. It’s not total–Pacific still have a fairly young roster, and I’ll tell you lots below about how important 20-year-old Highlanders product Sean Young is to making it all work–but it’s a bizarre and fairly abrupt departure from the original mantra of playing local players. Michael Silberbauer should sue for wrongful dismissal.

Remember “For the Isle”? A good reminder that mottos matter a lot less than winning.

Now, Pacific under Pa-Modou Kah were definitely a better team in 2020, but they were also unbalanced, undone by difficulty finishing off some lovely moves and by a glaring tendency to get ripped apart through the middle on counter-attacks. Sound a bit like Silberbauer’s team? Sound a bit like York? Speaking of which, Pacific’s biggest offseason move was bringing in York’s Manny Aparicio, another transition phase maestro you need to carry a bit defensively. There is still no true defensive midfielder. They are still precipitously thin at centre-back.

Silberbauer may or may not have been a total misery, but his Pacific played so defensively because he had to, and he massively overachieved given what that roster looked like in 2019. Kah has built a very fun, very attacking group and has not overachieved in the slightest–but Pacific 2020 gave up a ridiculous six penalties in seven games, limped into the second round via a last-minute goal and, once there, scored one goal against the top teams in CanPL before getting eliminated.1Yeah, they put five past Wanderers in a game that didn’t matter against Halifax’s B-team. They were already eliminated by that point.

That’s not going to cut it, not with expectations the way they are. Pacific have discovered some serious ambition, led by the charismatic Kah, and the league’s been hyping them up again much like it did York[insert branding here] before the Potato Cup. What I can tell you is that Pacific will be fun to watch and almost impossible to defend against. I am more or less sure they’ll be among the top teams, but in the biggest games, I am absolutely certain that the defense they’ve kept together from year one is not going to get the job done.

Key Arrivals

Aparicio is really the only big one, and Pacific largely kept their group from 2020 together, which I can’t really argue with.

Figuring out where to play Aparicio is going to be fun, though. Kah slid between a few different variants of a 4-2-3-1 in 2020, and indeed there were times he really needed a string-pulling #10 to unlock spaces in the final third. Aparicio can do that.

But Pacific also signed the rather intriguing former Northern Irish U19 Ollie Bassett, who wears #10, but in that home countries trademark way that, say, Wayne Rooney wore it: that is, a creator but also a finisher the box, usually more as a second striker off a big target man. Kah used this set-up a fair bit in 2020, too, often with Verhoeven as the fox-in-the-box.

I tend to think that kind of #10 is also Alejandro Diaz’s best role. And you’ve got Terran Campbell who still actually leads Pacific in scoring even if he had a forgettable 2020 and was mostly dropped by Kah, at least when it came to starting games.

On top of all of this talent, Pacific also added Cape Verdean Gianni do Santos who plays… on the right, primarily! You start to see what I mean about forcing out the local kids? Campbell, one of the biggest local names coming out of Whitecaps 2, is now third on the depth chart at what I think is his best position.

But man, is that attack ever stacked.

Key Departures

Let’s talk about left-back.

Pacific didn’t actually have that many departures, and most of the ones they did have were injury enforced. First, Marcel de Jong–who had actually been gearing up for another last year–got hurt early in pre-season, and called time on a tremendous career. Then Pacific signed Duran Lee only to lose him shortly after to a season-ending Achilles injury.

Lee was already a bit of a gamble at left-back, as he’s on his third club in three years, though I do think he still has some of the potential he showed in flashes at Wanderers’ Grounds in 2019. Hopefully he can make it back–he’s still young and didn’t get much of a shot in Edmonton last year.

I tend to think Pacific are going to miss Zach Verhoven, too, not least because he did some spot duty for them at both fullback spots and now Pacific’s back-up left-back is a 19-year-old Chris Lee with very, very little experience of any kind beyond youth ball.

Given both Verhoeven and Verhoven remain in CanPL, we’ll get an idea in very short order whether or not Pacific made a mistake sailing on from two good, young, local players.

Key Players
Marco Bustos, one-footed right-winger

The more experienced defenders in this league are beginning to work out Marco Bustos’ one, great weakness: he has absolutely no right foot. Like, not even for standing on–it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall down in a stiff easterly breeze. Actually, come to think of it, some veteran defenders in this league might tell you he falls down at a slight gust in any direction (though only blowing towards the opponent’s net, funny that).

That this doesn’t really get mentioned is, again, a by-product of the league’s incessant desire to hype the positive and ignore the downside, which is too bad because some of the greatest stories in a league like CanPL, for me, lie in watching young players get better and learn their own strengths and weaknesses.

I think Bustos actually took a step in that direction last year, too. He’s still not a complete player and probably never will be. Perhaps he doesn’t need to be. He’s certainly a threat against any team off that right side, and I think if Pacific can offer him better options when he cuts in–I’m looking particularly at runs in the box here–Bustos’ natural tendency to, shall we say, self-belief can be rounded out.

He’s always going to draw a defender, maybe two. Merely having a lot of attacking bodies does not a functional attack make. Pacific and Pa-Modou Kah have to find a way to make sure that Bustos’ runs open up options more frequently, either through better off-the-ball movement or by having Bustos release the ball a touch or two earlier.

If I was him, I’d have spent the winter watching tape of Javier Acuna.

Terran Campbell, running forward

Campbell is one of the players who can make those runs for Bustos to find. And Pacific need him to: there’s actually no true #9 on this roster.

Even Campbell himself is kind of a converted right-winger. One of the challenges of his career thus far is no one can quite work out whether he’s an attacking winger or the kind of striker who harries defenses with very direct running–think Tesho Akindele here, for another Canadian example.2Sometimes these players get called “defensive forwards”, which always seems to me like damnation by faint praise.

He scored 11 goals for Pacific in 2019, only missing the league’s golden boot by a couple, and he didn’t always take penalties. He did most of that as a centre forward, so even if I kind of think he might be best as a direct wide attacker, in the system Pacific want to play under Kah, I think you need him as a high-energy #9 who can push the backline back and open the pockets Bustos and Aparicio want to turn into designer living rooms.

But Kah pretty clearly preferred Diaz in 2020, who’s a bit more of a hybrid, and will check back into those same pockets on occasion. He can occupy a defender to be sure, but he’s not high-energy enough to create havoc and space. I’ve spent the lead-up to the 2021 season rewatching the first round of the PEI tournament, and the picture that sticks in my mind for Pacific is Bustos cutting in against a packed box and losing the ball (often to a devastating counter the other way).

If Campbell can’t change that in 2021, I’m not sure Pacific have a player who can. And if Pacific can’t change that, they’re not going to unlock the better defenses in CanPL.

Sean Young, holding midfield

We’ll get into exactly how Kah will deploy Manny Aparicio in a moment, but however he does, Young is going to be key, much as he was in 2020.

Young is very young, only 20, and as a former Victoria Highlander, represents one of the last truly local players on Pacific. He didn’t start the 2020 tournament, but by the end of it, he was pretty much a regular beside Jamar Dixon, and for good reason.

He’s not flashy, and I thought about putting Dixon here, but Dixon often played more like a #8 for Pacific, and struggled in 2-v-1s when Pacific lost the ball upfield. Once Young came in, usually as the defensive half of a double-pivot with Dixon, things stabilized a lot.

If Aparicio starts in midfield–which I think he very well could given it’s a.) his best position, and b.) Pacific’s other attacking options–then whichever midfielder starts alongside him has to be able to read space in 2-v-1s extremely well. I actually think that might be Young as opposed to Dixon–there are other things Dixon absolutely gives you in terms of field coverage and attacking support, but as we’re about to see, what Pacific really need is that player who holds back, doesn’t make a mistake, and can recycle the ball mistake-free.

Tactics & Positional Depth

This is a still from Pacific’s first-round game against Forge, just after Pacific lost the ball in the attack.

Gabriel Balbinotti is just tucked behind Dixon there, and neither centre-back steps to stop him.

Bobby Smyrniotis, always savvy, abandoned his team’s typically slower build-out against Pacific and by-passed their re-press by having his defenders dink the ball over it into this part of midfield. Once that happened, because Pacific reliably send both of their extremely attacking fullbacks forward, they were left with just the centre-backs and Dixon until at least one of the fullbacks could recover.

This move ended with Gabriel Balbinotti missing a sitter off a 4-v-3 rush. Pacific had been attacking with seven guys before Diaz turned the ball over on a sloppy pass into the box.

Part of the reason it’s so dangerous is that while Lukas MacNaughton and Thomas Meilleur-Giguere have strengths as a centre-back combo, defending in space is not one of them. Dixon commits the foul here because neither of them is ever going to be able to step to Cissé and shuttle this attack into a less dangerous spot. It’s risk a yellow here or risk a penalty/red later in the move.

Here’s another still from Pacific’s game against Ottawa.

You could set up for hours in that space.

This one’s partly down to Acuna, who drifts into that pocket behind the fullback and then uses it to spin Dixon and create a 3-on-3 that eventually leads to Fisk missing a glorious chance.

Malcolm Shaw is not Messi, but he’s got hours here while Ben Fisk makes the supporting run, because nobody else is even close to getting back to help. Fisk somehow misses this chance, but Pacific went on to lose the game.

Pacific have never had any depth whatsoever at centre-back and it has cost them each and every season. Sometimes each and every game. Behind MacNaughton and TMG, there is only Abdou Samake, who only played three times on PEI, looked well out of his depth each time, and gave away a penalty to fit in with tradition.

On a top team, I think MacNaughton is one of the best #3 centre-backs in the league, but he struggles to lead the line. Meilleur-Giguere is coming off a MCL injury sustained before the Olympic qualifiers in March and you watch him defending York’s Alvaro Rivero here (on York’s only open play goal in 2020) and, yeah, Pacific’s defensive problems are not going away. You can probably make this combo work, but not with a team that attacks with as many players as Pacific do.

Goalkeeper was a battle throughout 2020, too. Neither Nolan Wirth nor Callum Irving staked a strong claim over the other–both had moments of madness and glory. Both are back, which is probably fine, but at some point one of them needs to give Pacific fans a sense of certainty back there.

I really like Jordan Haynes–he’s another USPORTs star with a great story, and he’ll always do a job for you and do it at 100% effort–but he’s not a top-half left-back in CanPL, especially when asked to defend in 2-v-1s. The one silver lining here is that he’s a more defensive option, and if Pacific can develop cohesion between him and Meilleur-Giguere, they might be able to shift some of the attacking balance to the right and make sure Haynes is back to help out on those counters. He didn’t play enough in 2020 to build a system around his strengths, but he’s likely to have to play 20+ games in 2021.

Pacific picked up Kunle Dada-Luke from Ottawa, who’s still a good prospect even if he didn’t play in 2020. It’s probably wise to regard him as a fullback, albeit a very attacking one, and with Kadin Chung, Pacific are two deep with very attacking right-backs who will happily go to the by-line when Bustos cuts in.

This is how I do it. The issue here is the same issues persist, but Pacific will be absolutely lethal on free-kicks.

It’s hard to know exactly how Kah will line up in 2021. There are subtle differences between the looks he used in 20203And no, I’m not talking about his sartorial looks, which are altogether much more convincing than Pacific’s tactical balance. I was a particular fan of the violently purple Pacific FC snood used as a mask. that will be more apparent when Aparicio plays because while Aparicio isn’t necessarily awful defensively, it’s not his strength and with Bustos and Diaz also out there, you have a lot of guys who aren’t doing much after the counter-press.

The thing with Aparicio is that he’s not quite cutting enough in his passing or movement to be a true #10, and he’s not defensively sound enough without the ball to be a #8. I have a suspicion this is partly why he’s no longer in York, because while Jim Brennan’s team were always terrific in transition, Aparicio often struggled to find runs in the box.

Between him and Bustos, the final pass should be less of a problem, but I have a hard time looking at Ollie Bassett and thinking he won’t play a fair bit, which does push Aparicio deeper and pushes Pacific into something closer to a 4-2-2-2.

I really think the approach here is to attack with 6+ guys and try and win games 5-3. If the league wants to hype that, fine by me.

There are ways you can make this work, for sure. For one, Bassett’s an interesting signing, albeit possibly in the same way a Valour signing is “interesting” before getting summarily released in June. Like many Valour signings, Bassett has played primarily in New Zealand, but he actually put up better numbers there than Moses Dyer. I feel like we have enough evidence now that the New Zealand league, which is partially amateur, is slightly below CanPL. My knock with these signings is you can find interesting forwards who can run at a man playing amateur ball all across Canada. Bassett needs to add a degree of cutting movement off the ball or he won’t start in this group.

Pacific are also oddly thin at left-wing, where there’s really only Victor Blasco, something of an old reliable stand-by now that we’re into season three. He doesn’t finish well enough to score more than a handful of goals, nor is his running really inventive enough to carve out chances he doesn’t have to grasp at. I can’t help but think that he’d be tremendous weapon to bring off the bench late in games, where his tremendous work-rate and general defensive responsibility would help balance Pacific’s champagne-glass attack.

You could see dos Santos or even Campbell playing on the left, too. There really are a lot of ways Kah could shake this line-up around, and over the course of the full 28-game season that’s probably a good option to have, since teams will begin to figure each other out.

Projection: 4th

The thing about a 28-game season, though (aside from “thank goodness”) is there are going to be injuries. Especially when teams are playing every three days.

It’s Pacific’s depth where I just can’t find answers, at least compared to the deeper teams in the league. I don’t want to say they’ve been lucky with injuries–not given what de Jong and Duran Lee have gone through–but they haven’t lost players en masse, either, the way, say, Cavalry did in 2020 or Wanderers did in 2019.

If that happens, the attack can sustain it, I think. That’s what’s so exciting about this Pacific team. The defense cannot.

Remember that Pacific were out in the first round on PEI but for a goal five minutes from time. Had they missed the second round, nobody’s talking about them as favourites this year. They found a way.

I mean, is this not the ever-elusive “sporty, yet stylish”?

If nothing else, I think that is what Pa-Modou Kah brought to his team that Michael Silberbauer did not, whatever else might be true about approaches, tactics, and choice of dresswear.

Pacific absolutely have the attacking firepower to compete right there with the top of the league. I really do think Kah will find a way to get the various pieces in this attack to work. They will score goals aplenty. That might be enough to push them a good long way, maybe higher than fourth, maybe even to a playoff final, far enough the defense doesn’t matter.

But if they can’t defend in space, it’ll be a frustrating season. I’m not sure exactly how much that will cost them–in 2019 it was points, in 2020 it was penalties, and I’m not sure which I’d pick–but it will cost them, and that will be the difference between Pacific in the final and Pacific riding the hype wave into fourth and not quite living up to it.

If they bomb the way York did last year, I suspect Manny Aparicio will be looking for another club along with most of the core Pacific has built.

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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