BIG READ: After Pacific FC success, Rob Friend is looking to hit ground running once again with Vancouver CPL side
(Cover photo credit to: Northern Tribune/John Jacques).
10 months since they were officially announced as the Canadian Premier League’s ninth side, things are now starting to heat up at the Vancouver-based expansion club.
Set to join the league for the 2023 season, the SixFive Sports and Entertainment-owned club has been hard at work behind the scenes to prepare their name, visual identity and stadium, allowing them to kick off as planned next spring.
As a result, news surrounding what all of those things might look like is set to drop very soon, as the club continues to build interest ahead of their maiden CPL voyage, where they’re going to look to hit the ground running as an expansion side.
Having had a chance to undergo a positive experience with their first SixFive venture, Pacific FC, over on Vancouver Island, they’ll be eager to take that a step further with this Vancouver-based side, of which the concept has been in the works since before the league existed.
One key SixFive figure in all of this? SixFive partner, Rob Friend, formerly the CEO of Pacific FC, who has since transitioned over to the Vancouver club, where he’s launched himself into his new role as Club President head first.
Chatting to OneSoccer last week, he provided an update on how things are going with the venture, promising people that while it’s been quiet at the club for now, other than an announcement of the team’s stadium location, things are flowing beneath the surface.
“It’s been a lot of hard work behind the scenes,” Friend told OneSoccer. “With our experience in this initial startup phase, and in understanding the Vancouver market, we're very sensitive to ensuring that we come up with the right brands, the right messaging, the right purpose behind the brand, and how the club will represent the community.”
“So there's a lot of building out right now at the moment to make sure we get this right. It’s obviously been quiet publicly, but I can assure everyone that there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”
Ensuring an “exciting” brand a priority:
The biggest of the things that Friend’s team is working on right now? The team’s branding, which ultimately will become a key pillar of the team, highlighting what the club stands for.
Before they even came up with a name, logo or colours, ensuring their brand was strong was a must, making it a priority of theirs. To be a proper club, you must have a clear vision, from what you see your team being on the field, to how it carries itself off of it, or else you can find yourself being pulled apart in certain areas.
Much like with Pacific FC, whose mandate of being a community-driven club with a strong local ethos has made it a pillar of Vancouver Island's sporting scene, the Vancouver CPL side is looking to provide a similar brand for its side, which is why they’ve been a little slower than expected in coming out with details on the club’s name, kit, colours and other important team-related stuff so far (for what it's worth, the club's Instagram account, @wearevancouver2023, has been heavy on red and black in their posts, providing a potential glimpse of what that might look like).
“Yeah, it's definitely taken us a little longer to come out publicly with the club details,” Friend admitted. “But I think we have a really exciting framework, we have an exciting brand that we're working on, and an exciting purpose behind the brand. It’s really going to represent the community.”
“Then, on the field as well, we’re building out a strategy, seeing what that looks like in terms of our player recruitment, our style of play, and we're starting to have conversations on that the head coaching position, but I think it's more about getting the organization right first, and what that looks like."
“So yeah, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and we hope to be able to launch in the middle to the end of September, and then it’ll be a whole rollout of announcements with the front office, players, coaches and some of the technical side from there.”
#CanPL ➡️ Vancouver— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) November 10, 2021
The Canadian Premier League is pleased to announce that @SixfiveSports have been awarded an expansion club in Vancouver, British Columbia. The CPL's ninth club is set to join the league for the 2023 season.
That doesn’t mean that they aren’t working on the visual side of their branding alongside that, of course, with that being a key priority, but as clubs around North America have seen as of late, it’s better to take your time than to rush into a decision. Just ask York 9.
“Yeah, without overthinking the visual identity, the colours, the logo, and all that, what's most important, and why it's taking so long from our end is, is what's behind the brand?” Friend continued. “What does the club look like? How are making an impact on the community? We really want this to be a community-driven club, really making a difference on and off the field.”
“So yeah, the visual identity is important. I think that's sort of the initial ‘wow’ factor that we put out there, but after that, it’s about what this club represents. So to us, we're putting more emphasis on the substance behind the brand, yes, we want something that people want to want to wear, that people are excited to look at, something that's exciting and modern, but also respects the tradition of the game as well.”
“So we're excited with what we've come up with, we've had a great marketing team behind it.”
Navigating concerns surrounding the ‘Vancouver’ name:
Speaking of the brand, however, one thing that has stood out to people from it since day one has been the name - Vancouver, which while not officially confirmed, is all but guaranteed to be included in the club’s official name once revealed.
Of course, with the team being located in the Greater Vancouver area, it’s not a stretch to call the team Vancouver, by any means, but with the team officially located in Langley, it has led many to ponder if the Vancouver name is the right way to go if they're to position themselves in that market.
And Friend is certainly aware of those concerns.
Having thought through them long and hard, however, ultimately, with the idea of wanting to reach everyone in Greater Vancouver, the Vancouver name was one he felt was the best identifier for the club to use in this case.
“I think that's important to ask questions,” Friend said. “Obviously, we're not going to be able to reach everybody. But I think we’re getting some very interesting insights around the name and what people are ultimately looking for in a football club that assures that people will support this club not just in the Langley, Surrey and Abbotsford region, but from all over Greater Vancouver, because this is bigger than just one location.”
“And we really want this to be a concept, to represent all of Greater Vancouver, and represent it with pride, so that's sort of the organic campaign that we started.”
Plus, geographically, it’s not as if this was a team in Chilliwack trying to be passed off as a Vancouver side - this is a team in the Greater Vancouver area, one that is only around 30 minutes away from Vancouver by car, if that.
When considering the benefits that the Vancouver name can bring in terms of involving fans all around the Greater Vancouver and Lower Mainland, as well as the benefits the name could provide internationally, it made it a no-brainer for them to stick with it, hence the decision to go with it.
“I think it's a bit subjective,” Friend continued. “If we tried to listen to everybody, there are a lot of subjective ideas around the name. People think of the Fraser Valley, well, actually, if you look at the map, Langley is technically not in the Fraser Valley, it's in Greater Vancouver.”
“Do we want to be inclusive of everybody within a 10 or 20-kilometre radius of a stadium? Absolutely. So I think it's been a little bit more general than a specific location, I think that's important, so people will understand that respect that once our message comes out, what this club is going to represent. It’s not just the Langley community, not just the Surrey Community, or Abbotsford or Fraser Valley communities, it’ll be into Coquitlam, into Burnaby, into the entire Greater Vancouver region, I think this will be such an exciting club that everybody's going to want to support it.”
“So I think we have to be a little less specific and a little more general around our name. And then outside of that, you know, not just in our community, but outside of Vancouver, outside of BC, outside of Canada, even, we need to make sure it's a name that's recognizable, as well. So that's kind of my thought process around that, it’s been mixed feedback, I'd say, certainly, but I think once we're out and our message is clear, I think most people will get behind it.”
Ensuring a “great football atmosphere” the goal with new stadium:
Yet, no matter where one might stand on the Langley versus Vancouver debate, one thing is clear - the stadium is going to be Langley, as the city’s Willoughby Community Park was revealed as the team’s home earlier this year.
And there, this Vancouver side has the potential to build a special venue, one that can be among one of the best in the CPL.
There, they’ve been dreaming big, having been in talks with the City of Langley for over a year now to ensure that they have a clear blueprint of what a stadium looks like, giving them a proper venue right from year one as a club.
Expected to be somewhere in the 4000-6000 seat range, a good size given the average attendance of the league, as well as the noise that having a packed venue like that can provide (versus a large CFL-style stadium), Friend is very excited for how the stadium is shaping up so far.
With plans to make it a loud, intimate and community-driven venue, one built with the supporters experience in mind, Friend and his team have left no stone unturned in terms of looks, shape and sound, leading to what he’ll hope will be a venue considered among the league’s best right from day one.
“Yeah, that's another exciting thing that we've been working on for over the past year,” he explained. “We’ve been working with the township of Langley and getting the overall design of the stadium, the flow of the stadium, how it’s gonna affect the atmosphere, all perfect.”
“I mean, what's so exciting about this is that this is arguably the first soccer-specific stadium that is built specifically for the CPL, that's a big statement, right? We're four years in, and we have an amazing partner in the township of Langley who are willing to commit to building a stadium for the club.”
“And I think it's gonna be very exciting, we talk about intimacy, and creating a great football atmosphere, so we've been very specific about diving into the details of the stadium design, so we're excited to launch that. The plan would be to launch the stadium and the brand together and create a lot of excitement around that.”
Identifying and developing local talent remains a key mandate:
Then, once that’s all complete, the final, and most important step, will be to bring in players and coaching staff.
It’s great to have a good brand, and a beautiful stadium, of course, but that all means nothing if you don't have a good product on the field , which is why Vancouver is looking to bring in a solid crop of players right from the initial launch.
With a strong local market of players to tap into, as there is no shortage of Lower-Mainland players currently in the CPL, MLS or abroad, they want to also ensure that they’re bringing in players that fans can identify with.
Much as they did with Pacific, where local players Josh Heard and Sean Young have become pillars of the club, they want to produce something similar with this Vancouver-based club, really providing a platform for local, homegrown talent to play a key role.
“I think first and foremost, whether it's Pacific, or whether it's any club in the CPL, we have a mandate to assure that we’re providing opportunities for local players,” Friend stated. “Absolutely. And there's always been a strong player pool talent pool out of Lower Mainland out of BC, Pacific has done a great job of tapping into that. Certainly, there's a lot of talent just in the Lower Mainland itself. So I think we have a responsibility to do our best to speak to local clubs, to scout the local players, and to give the opportunities to local kids.”
“That's what the CPL is about,” he continued. “And we're proud of that, we're BC owners, Josh and I, so we're very proud of our province, and we want to represent it with our players. So that’s certainly going to be a mandate that the club is going to have going forward, so we’ve been busy trying to identify those players.”
Especially with the recent emergence of League 1 BC, which is already proving to be a viable pipeline for players to come out of (the HFX Wanderers recently signed TSS Rovers full back, Gabriel Escobar, out of the circuit), that will only further expand that pool, too.
“League 1 BC is going to be huge for our regional teams with Pacific and this Vancouver team,” Friend added. “I've seen what happened with League 1 Ontario, it’s been massive for the CPL and for our national team, the stats of League 1 Ontario players going on not only to the CPL, but into the national team and into MLS, and Europe is huge.”
“So hopefully League 1 BC can become an established league like that, it’s been a strong start, there are some strong clubs, some strong brands, and it's been great for the player development aspect.”
“And that's only going to increase the content of players that we can scout in order to provide an opportunity for. So I'm very confident (in L1BC), obviously, it's been year one, and it’s part of our responsibility to support that pathway.”
Therefore, the club should have no problems finding local players to fill their initial roster with, which along with some international signings, will be expected to provide a good base for their team to start with.
From there, once that foundation is set, everything will be expected to fall into place in the years to come, much as it was able to with Pacific, where they’ve quickly become known as one of the more efficient talent developers in the country, using their 'play the kids' mantra to launch themselves to some great heights as a club already.
Leaving Pacific FC in good hands:
And speaking of Pacific, while Friend won’t be around to run the day-to-day operations of the club anymore, it’s still a project he’s profoundly invested in.
At the end of the day, it’s all under the SixFive umbrella, and while his focus will be on making the Vancouver team as good as possible, he’ll still have a soft spot in his heart for what he’s helped build over on the Island.
Because of that, when asked to reflect on what Pacific had become over the course of the four years in the CPL, he was proud to talk about what the team had done, saying that it’s a project that has and will continue to bring immense pride to he and the rest of his team.
“I think after four years, we can be very proud of what we built as an organization, on and off the field,” Friend proudly stated. “I think we set a football strategy of providing opportunities for young Canadians, for young players, really, to eventually move them on. You've seen that with a handful of our players from our championship season, and recently with Alejandro Diaz's sale, that’s been an on-field mandate.”
“And off the field, we've certainly turned Vancouver Island into a football hub, filling up the stadium in the last few CONCACAF League games, for example, having the Island represent Canada in CONCACAF League was exciting, there's definitely a sense of pride on Vancouver Island around Pacific with everyone wearing the purple. So I think the organization's in a great place to let us sort of step back and hand it over to the right staff, and over to the community, and let the club continue to drive what we’ve set in place, as it's in a fantastic place.”
“We're very ambitious, we're gonna continue to push here, but again, we have to respect our mandate of providing opportunities for players, so that when clubs call us for our players, it's our responsibility to do what's best for them, that’s always going to be a responsibility of ours, and then it's up to us to find the next player that we can develop a mandate for the club, creating that balance to chase championships.”
“I can’t ask for more, having represented the CPL in CONCACAF in year four, in year three we were CPL champions, and are pushing again this year, but we’re ambitious, and we're going to continue to push and challenge our club to do even bigger and greater things.”
Because of that, it was important that SixFive ensured that Pacific wasn’t forgotten in the wake of the arrival of this new Vancouver team, as the last thing that they wanted to do was let the hard work of the last four years go to waste.
Therefore, they wanted to make sure that they made the appropriate hirings to fill in for the departure of Friend, even if fellow SixFive partner, Josh Simpson, was sticking around with Pacific.
And there, they made a big splash, bringing in former CPL president, Paul Beirne, to become the club’s managing director. A former Toronto FC executive, who also spent time with Brighton & Hove Albion as an executive, he is known as a builder, having done a lot of the work that pushed the CPL, TFC and Brighton to where they are today.
With Pacific, he’ll now look to do the same, helping push the club forward to the next step of its evolution, using its success in the CPL and continentally to allow them to take that next step.
So as Friend turns his attention to his Vancouver side full-time, he can now rest easy knowing that Pacific is in safe hands under Beirne’s tutelage, leading them as they undergo that next evolution.
“Certainly with myself stepping away full-time, we needed someone else there to help me with that club, and Paul's been a positive addition,” Friend said. “He was really a great fit in terms of not only the business acumen he brings, that business sports experience he has with brands, but he's very purpose-driven, and that’s the next step, the next evolution, seeing how impactful we are in the community and Paul is very passionate about that.”
“He brings 25-plus years of experience in sports, and has worked with some great clubs, but also understands the culture and respects the culture of the sport in this country. Plus, he’s ambitious to drive this car forward, and that certainly allows me to really focus on the Vancouver project, knowing we handed over to the right team moving forward.”