"It's been difficult": Despite quest to replace Wero Díaz, Pacific still look to reverse playoff slump
TORONTO - With just five games to go, the defending Canadian Premier League champions currently have their backs on the ropes, sitting on the brink of disaster.
On the outside looking in right now in terms of the race for a playoff spot, finding themselves just outside the top four, could Pacific FC really indeed be about to miss out on a chance to defend their 2021 ‘North Star Shield’?
It’s too early to say, as while they’re out of the race now, they’re also currently tied for fourth, and are just five points off first, but given that they’re winless in four, and quickly slipping down the table, there’s no doubt that they’re trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time.
Because of that, it’s led to some worry among Pacific fans that there will be no repeat of the magical 2021 run that saw them become the first team not named Forge to become CPL champions, instead left to watch the playoffs from home this season.
As noted by Pacific’s head coach James Merriman this week, the team is quite frustrated with this recent run of results, too, making it imperative that they find a way to turn this ship around - quickly.
“I think the group is frustrated with opportunities that we've let pass by in the last four games,” Merriman admitted to OneSoccer this week.
The good news, however? Despite this recent run, his team hasn’t let themselves get too down over it, letting their morale slip away.
Instead, they’ve just put their heads down and have gotten to work, as they try and get out of this slump, quickly.
“Yeah, I think there's been a higher intensity at training right now,” Merriman said. “There's a want and a willingness to put in that hard work that's required to get back to the basics and find some of the things that are ingrained in us, like that grittiness that we have within our group, so that we can really start to work hard and create results for us, as they’re not just gonna come easy.”
Knowing that they’ve let some good opportunities to gain ground in the race slip away in recent games, including in losses to York, Halifax and Valour, they’re just focused on getting things back on track again in the playoff race, which with five games left in the season, is something they can very well still do now.
“I wouldn't say that the spirit is low or that the group is low, other than we know that we've let some opportunities pass us by,” he continued. “So now, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we really need every match to be a playoff match, which it's always been for us, but now truly is as we have just five games left in the regular season.”
But while this latest run is frustrating on its own, it’s arguably one that is self-inflicted, too, only making it more painful for Pacific. Not only are they winless in their last four (3L-1D), but have scored just two goals across those games, as well, which for a team that has consistently been one of the best offensive units in the league, has been a big surprise to see.
That’s the consequence of selling leading scorer and current CPL Golden Boot leader, Alejandro Díaz, to Norweigan second division club Sogndal for a hefty fee back in August, a move that has seen them go from a free-flowing offensive unit, to a team that has just not looked the same ever since.
Undoubtedly, that has to be frustrating for Merriman, who lost a crucial cog of his team at a key time, disrupting his team’s chemistry a fair amount.
Yet, while it’s something that he admits has been tough to adjust to, that’s also just the nature of the game at Pacific, and in the CPL as a whole, really - this is a league that wants to showcase and move on talent, and while that might have short-term impacts on teams, it’s all part of the long-term vision, one that clubs like Pacific have heavily invested themselves into.
“It's difficult, but it's also who we are, it’s who we've always wanted to be,” Merriman said of the Díaz transfer. “From day one, when I joined Pacific, we wanted to compete, we wanted to be a winning team, but we also wanted to develop players, and we wanted to be a club known for developing players and moving players on.”
“So when I look at this season, we had Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung move to Toronto FC in MLS, and then Díaz to Scandinavia to Europe, those are three players that the club is going to celebrate on the back of winning a championship, but then it's also then hey, okay, now we need to build again so now we're looking at Djenairo Daniels, Gianni Dos Santos and Sean Young and some of these younger players that are developing to help us stay where we were.”
“I think that just comes with who we are as a club and who we want to be, you know, it's part of it. It's not easy to lose that quality, but at the same time, we have to celebrate it because we're doing what we said we wanted to do.”
You combine all of that with the recent suspension of midfielder, Manny Aparicio, who is finally set to return to the squad this weekend after serving a three-game ban for a red card last month, and that definitely didn’t help, either.
Given that the club has picked up nearly triple the points this year when Aparicio starts and plays 70+ minutes versus when he doesn’t (Pacific has 25 points in the 10 games he’s played over 70 minutes, compared to 10 points in the 13 games he’s missed due to injury and suspension), losing him right around when Díaz left didn’t help, either, only adding to Pacific’s recent misery.
“Yeah, it's a big lift for our team, it’s a big boost,” Merriman said of Aparicio’s return. “We know that, we see it every day in training, we feel his presence is missed in our games, and he's missed a lot of football this year between his injury and then the two suspensions, which if you look at how he was playing at the beginning of the season, I thought he was playing his best football ever, the way that he was defending, the way that he was helping the attack with assists, goals.”
“I think it's difficult for any team in our league when you lose that type of player for that much of the season, so it definitely has hurt us, and we very much look forward to having him back for the last five games of the regular season.”
He continued: “Losing Manny (to suspension), and taking away Díaz, then still trying to bring alive that chemistry that we had, it’s not as easy as just that.”
ICYMI 🎥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 16, 2022
Now-departed @PacificFCCPL striker Alejandro "Wero" Diaz propelled the #CanPL champs to a comprehensive 6-0 win in the opening round of the 2022 Concacaf League#CanPL | #ForTheIsle | #SCL22
MATCH HIGHLIGHTS ▶️https://t.co/ihpBtlOsmJ pic.twitter.com/LC1ViMQTxU
But even though Aparicio is set to return now, which will be a massive boost for Pacific, they still have to figure out how they’re going to replace the 13 league goals (and three CONCACAF League goals) that Díaz brought to the table as a #9 this season.
Given that the next best three scorers on the team are Josh Heard with seven, and then both Gianni Dos Santos and Amer Đidić with four, Pacific will need someone to step up and fill that gap left behind.
Especially at the #9, where the next best options, Djenairo Daniels (two goals) and Jordan Brown (zero goals) are yet to really step up, having them find some goals would be huge, especially if Pacific can get an increase of goals from some other sources, too.
“Yeah, I think Jordan Brown is gonna continue to find his feet, Daniels is continuing to develop, and wants to be that striker,” Merriman said of his team’s striker situation. “But if I were to challenge players, and to really ask more of them, it would have to be of Marco Bustos, Josh Heard and Gianni Dos Santos, I mean, those three are the attacking players that we're going to need to lean on to create goals.”
“So we're going to need them to really impose themselves and impact these next five games, not only in their performance, but in goals and assists and creating goals, too.”
Yet, despite all of the frustration Pacific might have built up after this recent run, not all is doom and gloom for them at the moment.
For all of their struggles at putting the ball in the opposing net, they’ve certainly not had any trouble in keeping it out of their own, conceding just eight goals in their last 11 games (all competitions), keeping five clean sheets and conceding more than one goal just once over that span.
Ahead of this stretch run, where tight games are likely going to be the norm, that’s key, as that will give them more than enough opportunity to win some of these games.
Plus, having put in a lot of work to buy into this defensive foundation, it can give hope that they can do the same offensively now, too, meaning that this improvement could potentially provide a trickle-down effect on the team.
“I think it's the buy-in of the collective 11 players defending, everyone is defending when we don't have the ball,” Merriman said. “At times before, there were gaps, sometimes our defenders were staying as defenders and our attackers were staying as attackers, and that’s not who we are, we all defend, and we all attack, and that took time to get that across, but now, credit to the defence and credit to the whole team for the way that they've taken on the defensive responsibilities.”
Along with the mentality boost that their recent run in the CONCACAF League provided, that’s another plus, because while they exited in the Round of 16 on penalties to Herediano, they picked up some memorable results, such as a 6-0 home win over Jamaica’s Waterhouse, and a 1-0 road win down a man to Costa Rican giants, Herediano, showing what they’re capable of at their best.
“We gained a ton of confidence and a ton of experience as a club (in CONCACAF League),” Merriman said. “You go into a competition like that, you don't really know don't know who you're up against. You don't know the opposition, you don't know the characteristics and you don't know how the game's gonna go.”
“So over those four games, we grew a lot, we learned a lot, but then we came back to the CPL and we haven't had that same fire, and that’s what we need in these five games, we need to see and feel that fire.”
Because of all that, now, all that’s left is for Pacific to put it all together now here. With just five games remaining - two at home, three on the road - it’s all laid out pretty simply for them here: get back to winning ways, especially in their three remaining games against top four teams, and they should be a playoff team.
Despite their recent form, they still control their destiny, giving them a chance to redeem themselves from what has been a tough end to summer.
Therefore, while those frustrations will be tough to ditch, they know that deep down, they have that championship pedigree guiding them on, something they’ll now look to tap into as they try to overcome this recent adversity, using it as fuel to try and repeat as champions once again.
“You could see it and feel it in every match - teams are up for those games (against us),” Merriman said. “It doesn’t matter who we were playing. And that’s something new for some of our players, especially some of the new players that came into our team, as that's the standard now, that’s the expectation.”
“So in their first year with our club, that’s a learning process to come in with that expectation and that standard to stay at the top. I think that's been a learning process for us, for our group, (it helps that) we still have that core group that was in that championship, and now we’ve gotten the CONCACAF experiences, so we've got players that have grown and learned through that.”
“But now, we just have to put it together, and put everything into the last stretch, and make sure that we don't leave anything on the table at the end of the season, so there are no regrets, no second thoughts, so we’re going to put everything in these last five matches, so we can try to achieve what we said we wanted to do at the beginning of the year.”