Vancouver FC SEASON PREVIEW: Can the new kids conduct dark side CPL takeover in expansion year?
It’s never easy to be the new kid on the block.
Yet, that’s the challenge that awaits Vancouver FC, as they get set to officially take the field as the Canadian Premier League’s newest club in the 2023 season.
After being awarded a team last spring, they’ve been hard at work since on building their branding, a stadium and, most importantly, a team that they believe can compete with the rest of the CPL.
Now, they’ll look to prove that they’ve done enough work to avoid the pain that one typically would expect from an expansion side, allowing them to play big games this season.
It won’t be easy, but with an experienced head coach in Afshin Ghotbi, and a roster filled with some faces familiar around the CPL, they’ve at least got the pieces to make some noise, which should make for a fun summer over on the west coast.
Projected Starting XI:
3 KEY QUESTIONS:
1) Will an experienced defence provide a boost?
Everyone knows the old adage - defence wins championships.
Ahead of this season, Vancouver seems to have gotten that memo, as well, making sure to build an experienced defensive unit from day one. Led by former CPL champions Callum Irving and Kadin Chung, as well as fellow former CPLers Rocco Romeo and Marcus Simmons, they’ve got a strong defensive group, one supported by an intriguing mix of younger players looking to push the core group.
Because of that, they’ll hope that they can be a strong defensive unit from day one. They’ll know that up front, things might take time to gel, but if they can be a team that is compact, organized and hard-working, that’ll give them a chance to win games right from opening day.
Sometimes, the biggest crime of an expansion team can be to try to make too much happen, too quickly, but by having a solid defensive base, Vancouver will look to try and avoid that.
2) Can Gael Sandoval be a key difference-maker from day one?
It was a strong sign of intent.
Vancouver sent shockwaves around the CPL when they signed 27-year-old Mexican forward Gael Sandoval, and for good reason, as the attacking midfielder arrives to the league in the prime of his career, and with a list of accomplishments under his belt that includes a CONCACAF Champions League trophy.
Plus, with over 200 games of pro experience under his belt, including over 100 games in Liga MX, where he has seven goals and 14 assists in his career, he will also be relied upon as a key leader for a younger Vancouver attacking group.
Rust will be something to watch out for from him, as he hasn’t played since last May, when he wrapped up a stint in the A-League with the Wellington Phoenix, but as he showed there, with six goals and five assists in 19 games, production should flow once he gets his feet back under him.
Because of that, he’ll look to help bring together some of the pieces that Vancouver has in the attack. With some intriguing names like Shaan Hundal, Nicky Gyimah, Min-Jae Kwak and Ameer Kinani, Sandoval will be crucial to ensure that those names are able to gel in their new team’s attack.
And given that past former Liga MX players have typically done well in the league, such as Aléjandro Diaz and Francisco Acuña, that’s just another reason why this could end up being the signing of the season if all goes to plan.
3) Can coaching be an advantage?
As mentioned earlier, stability is crucial for expansion sides. Therefore, it’s crucial to make the right hire for the head coaching position.
And from what it looks like, Vancouver seems to have gotten that spot on with Afshin Ghotbi, the 59-year-old Iranian-American who arrives on the west coast with all sorts of experience under his belt. From being an assistant on a World Cup semi-finalist in 2002 with South Korea, to coaching giants Persepolis, the Iranian National Team, Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and the Cangzhou Mighty Lions, Ghotbi has seen his fair share of things over his day as a coach.
That makes him a perfect fit for this young group, as he’s expected to bring some much-needed structure tactically from day one, which will be huge.
Expected to play a fluid 4-3-3 with aggressive wide play, overlapping full backs and midfield dominance, he’ll look to have this group organized, preaching that he wants his group to work hard from day one.
Which, if his team buys into that, could give Vancouver a big edge. Ghotbi is a name that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an MLS bench, so the fact that they were able to get him is a huge coup, one that could give them an edge on a lot of their CPL counterparts.
As a result, Ghotbi could end up being as crucial of a signing as any other they made. In a league where there is a lot of parity, good coaching can give teams an edge (just ask Forge and Cavalry), something that Vancouver will hope they can get from Ghotbi.
Player to Watch: Callum Irving
The club’s first-ever signing, the 30-year-old Vancouverite will be relied upon heavily this year, especially as the oldest player on a very young team. One of the best goalkeepers in the CPL over the last few years with Pacific, it’ll be crucial that he keeps up that form with their rivals, as strong goalkeeping will buy his new teammates time to gel and get used to playing in the league.
And for what it’s worth, that’s something that shouldn’t bother Irving, as he was a key veteran on a young Pacific side for three seasons, helping them win the CPL title in 2021. Now, he’ll look to bring a similar mindset across the Strait of Georgia to his new club, making him a key player to watch as they kick off their first-ever season.
It’s here! Our 2023 home and away kit— Vancouver Football Club (@vanfootballclub) March 26, 2023
Available now, link in bio.
📍Village Antiques Mall, Fort Langley #VancouverFC #CanPL pic.twitter.com/Jtqxn03BLs
Vancouver has long called themselves the “dark side”, and they proved that with their kits, as they went for a black and gray home kit, and a black and red away kit.
The home kit is sharp, with the town names being embedded in proving to be a nice touch, while the away kit is among the best in the league, with its sharp stripes providing an instantly timeless look.
Vancouver will do well if… the players buy into Ghotbi’s system. With a strong defensive spine, and some creative players in attack, there is definitely some talent to cause teams problems on any given day, but given Ghotbi’s experience, if the players can buy into his system, that could prove to be a big edge, allowing them to be much more competitive than one would expect from day one.
Vancouver will struggle if… their inexperience shows. Despite having Irving and Sandoval, this is a very young team, one that is also short on professional experience. That could make for a lot of growing pains, which other teams will have no problem taking advantage of. There’s no doubt that this team will be very good one day, but it’s important to note that day might not come right away to start the 2023 season.