Pacific FC SEASON PREVIEW: Tridents loading up for title run despite key offseason departures
There might be a new team grabbing all the attention over in BC, but make no mistake - don’t sleep on the old kids on the block, Pacific FC.
Of course, it can be hard to sleep on a team that won the 2021 North Star Shield, making them the only CPL team not named Forge FC to lift that crown to date, but with a new team in the province, it feels like Pacific has quietly flown under the radar for most of this winter.
Which, to be fair, probably suits them, as that’s allowed them to quietly have one of the best offseasons in the league, making them strong favourites to add another North Star Shield to the trophy cabinet this fall.
After a heartbreaking 2022 season, where they fell just short of returning to their second-straight CPL Final in heartbreaking fashion during the semi-finals, they have not messed around in retooling their team ahead of 2023. Despite having their best regular season yet last year, they’ve addressed the few key areas that held them back from the final crown, while doing a good job of replacing some key names that have departed.
Because of that, it feels like Pacific is a team to watch over on the west coast. Fuelled by the heartbreak of their playoff exit, as well as some bad penalty luck in their debut foray into continental competition and in the Canadian Championship, they’re hungry for revenge, something that the rest of the league will have to be wary of as they get set for 2023.
Projected Starting XI:
3 key questions:
1) Are there enough minutes to go around in the front four?
Can you sometimes have too much of a good thing?
When looking at Pacific’s attack, it’s a fair question to wonder, as they have not messed around in beefing up their frontline following several key departures.
As a result, they allocated 50% of their 10 signings to attacking players, with new faces Easton Ongaro, Ayman Sellouf, David Brazão, Adonijah Reid and Kekuta Manneh all arriving on the west coast.
Joining an attack that already features new captain Josh Heard, Manny Aparicio and Djenairo Daniels, who all featured heavily in 2022, that’s quite the depth of options that Pacific can slot into their front four, which is among the best in the league.
Yet, while you can never have too much depth, that could be a poison pill for Pacific.
With most of those names being new arrivals, it could shake things up depending on who ends up where in the hierarchy, as there’s a strong chance that at least a player or two ends up lower down the depth chart than anticipated.
Take Kekuta Manneh, as an example. The experienced veteran with over 120 MLS games to his name, he’s competing with Heard on the wing, the club’s newly named captain who is fresh off a season where he had eight goals and six assists in all competitions, as well as Sellouf, who is an exciting prospect who came through the FC Utrecht competition.
And that’s without mentioning other options, Reid and Brazão, who both look like they could have decent claims to start, with Reid’s 14 career USL goals standing out, in particular. `
As a result, while Manneh could end up as a starter, there’s also a chance he falls down the lineup, which could be less than ideal given the calibre of player he is.
Because of that, keep an eye on how the minutes get allocated in the front four. If they get the balance right, they could be like Forge, who are able to rotate through the likes of David Choinière, Tristan Borges, Woobens Pacius, Terran Campbell and Jordan Hamilton without much worry, but if not, it could end up being a lot of unhappy cooks in a busy kitchen.
For what it’s worth, though, head coach James Merriman has proven to be rather adept at rotation, doing a good job of rolling through his squad last year, so based on that, the former does seem far likelier than the latter at this moment, which is positive.
2) Will inexperience in goal prove to be an obstacle?
Yet, while Pacific did a strong job of replacing key departures all over the field, including some sneaky upgrades in midfield and at full back, there’s one big area that looms for them - in goal.
Having lost veteran Callum Irving to rivals Vancouver FC, that could be a big blow, as Irving has played all but nine games for Pacific since his arrival in 2020, becoming an irreplaceable part of the team’s backline.
There’s a reason why Pacific has been one of the best defensive teams in the league over the last few years, as while they can say the presence of defenders such as Lukas MacNaughton, Amer Đidić, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère has certainly helped with that, Irving’s presence was arguably the most important factor of all.
That was clear both statistically, as Irving saved three goals above expected across his time with the club, but also from a leadership standpoint, as he played a big role in ensuring his defensive unit was organized and cohesive.
Because of that, it leaves big shoes to fill for his replacement, which will either be 19-year-old Emil Gazdov, or 21-year-old Kieran Baskett.
They’re both very promising goalkeepers, with Gazdov having been at the club since 2020, bar a loan stint with 2. Bundesliga side Nürnberg, while Baskett is a new arrival who brings over 20 games of experience at this level with the HFX Wanderers.
Yet, while their talent isn’t in doubt, it’s going to be a big ask to expect one of them to fill the void that Irving will leave in terms of leadership and experience at the back, which will be the biggest thing to monitor.
At a position where players typically peak later, entrusting that responsibility to young goalkeepers is a risky play, albeit one with tremendous upside. And that’ll be an upside that Pacific will bank on, especially when it comes to someone like Gazdov, who did not look out of place in two appearances last year.
Plus, for what it’s worth, with a very experienced backline, one familiar with each other and the league, that should also ease the transition, which should at least make things easier for the youngsters.
At the same time, it’s something to watch, especially given the signings that Pacific made elsewhere, as the last thing that they’ll want is a team of their calibre potentially being slowed down by their inexperience in goal.
3) Can Manny Aparicio stay on the field?
Of course, while departures such as Irving, Bustos, Jamar Dixon and Alejandro Díaz will hurt Pacific, given the roles that they played over the last few years, the good news is that they were able to regain arguably the most important piece of their core from that time - Manny Aparicio.
Having had his option triggered for this season, Aparicio returns to the Island for a third season, where he’s looking to build off his best campaign as a CPLer yet.
He might not have had the goals of Díaz, the assists of Bustos, the clean sheets of Irving, or the vocal leadership of Dixon, but make no mistake, Aparicio was the straw that stirred Pacific’s drink last year.
To understand how so, consider this - due to injury and suspension, Aparicio was only able to feature in 17 regular season games out of a possible 28 for Pacific. Despite that, Pacific picked up 36 of their 46 points in the games he played, as they floundered without him, grabbing just 10 points in the 11 games where he was unavailable.
Basically, they were the class of the league when he played, and were among the league's worst teams when he didn’t, just signifying his impact.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to translate that magic over to the playoffs, but safe to say, Pacific will be banking on him picking up where he left off in 2022.
There’s a reason why despite picking up just two goals and three assists as an attacking midfielder, he garnered Player’s Player of the Year and Player of the Year nominations even though he missed 11 games, as his impact to Pacific was hard to measure in numbers.
An attacking midfielder really only by designation, as he often covered all of the blades of grass available to him, his combination of work rate, creativity and passing will be huge for Pacific, especially as they try to integrate their new attackers into the team.
No matter what happens, one thing is for sure this year with Pacific, and that’s that Aparicio will be starting in his usual role beneath whoever ends up slotting in up front, helping put the pieces together in attack for Pacific.
Player to Watch: Easton Ongaro
Last year, it felt like Pacific were destined to make a strong push for their second-straight North Star Shield. Despite the departure of head coach Pa Modou Kah, they were rolling to start the year, with Alejandro Díaz leading the way with an impressive 13 goals in his first 18 games.
But then, in a shock move, they then sold Díaz to Norway, which would end up derailing their season, as they lost a huge part of their attack. Because of that, they scored just 10 goals in their last 14 games following his departure, after scoring 34 in their first 20 games with him.
As a result, their big goal this offseason was to find a new #9, and turns out, they had the perfect option pretty much in their backyard - Easton Ongaro.
Available despite a decent stint with Whitecaps II, where he had three goals in seven MLS Next Pro games, and made his MLS debut, Pacific wasted no time in swooping in for his services.
And by doing so, they now have an early Golden Boot favourite in their midst. Given that Ongaro scored 25 goals across three seasons for an Edmonton team that wasn’t exactly known as an offensive juggernaut, it is scary to imagine what he could do in a Pacific team loaded with attacking talent.
Able to score with his feet and his head, doing well to take advantage of his unique 6’7” frame, Ongaro should slot in seamlessly into this front four, which will help Pacific put the Díaz departure in the past.
These kits though 🔥 pic.twitter.com/IYoZL8KyMc— Pacific FC (@Pacificfccpl) April 5, 2023
Armed with arguably the best colourway in the league, Pacific continues to keep it stylish over on Vancouver Island, with another spectacular offering in the kit department.
As usual, their main kit is purple, building off their identity, with this year’s version featuring a cool pattern, one that reveals a bear in their chest.
Then, they decided to have fun with their alternate, playing around with their secondary colour, teal, in a lighter shirt, one that shines nicely with the gold that they paired with.
Combine that with the fact that they’re also bringing back their popular Indigenous-designed third kit that went viral last year, there’s no messing around here for Pacific, who are ensuring that not only will they play entertaining soccer, but will look good while doing so.
Pacific will do well if… their defence remains consistent. Having made some big upgrades up front, a lot of attention is on the forwards, but make no mistake, Pacific’s success will likely hinge on their defence. Especially with their younger goalkeepers, they’ll need their backline to keep things steady, which should also buy time for their new forwards to gel. The good news? Their projected back four of Kunle Dada-Luke, Amer Đidić, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Bradley Vliet is about as good as it comes in the CPL, and will look to prove that to start the year.
Pacific will struggle if… their attack fails to find their legs. As seen last year, when Pacific’s attack sputtered following Díaz’s departure, that had a huge impact on the rest of the team. Because of that, they’ll need to get back to the free-flowing ways that they showed at the end of 2021 and 2022. They shouldn’t have a problem doing that given the attacking talent that they now have at their disposal, but given that Pacific have always looked their best when they’re a free-flowing, cohesive attacking unit, they’ll hope that they get back to those ways as quickly as possible.