Pacific FC won a championship—then lost half its roster
What happens now for the Langford team?
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What happens now for the Langford team?
There's a saying within professional sports: “Success is often the first step toward disaster.”
Longtime NBA head coach and executive Pat Riley, a six-time champion, coined the phrase “the disease of more” to describe the difficulties that teams face in trying to repeat as champions. Players want more minutes. Bigger salaries. More recognition. Winning doesn’t quite carry the same lustre.
That “disease” is often meant pejoratively, but it’s an understandable thing. Once you’ve achieved one goal, you may want to focus on more goals beyond just repeating the same victory. Different people’s new goals may not be the same, though, and that’s where once-cohesive teams can end up falling short—or splitting apart. Examples abound: Ronaldo rejoins Manchester United. Shaquille O’Neal leaves the Lakers for Miami. Kevin Durant ditches the Warriors for the Nets.
Days from opening their 2022 campaign as defending Canadian Premier League champions, Langford-based Pacific FC faces a similar challenge. Gone is reigning Coach of the Year Pa-Modou Kah (departed for North Texas SC, the reserve team of Dallas FC). Gone are U-21 Player of the Year Alessandro Hojabrpour and all-time franchise leading goal-scorer Terran Campbell, who both left for rival club Forge FC. Gone, too, are defensive stalwarts Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung—both founding members of the club—who made the leap up to Major League Soccer by joining Toronto FC.
Even the team owners have decided it’s time for a new challenge: they haven’t left, but they’ve purchased another CPL franchise in Vancouver.
It's not, suffice it to say, an enviable position for the local fourth-year franchise.
“I know it was a lot of transition this off-season, from the outside looking in,” new PFC head coach James Merriman told Capital Daily.
Born and raised in Nanaimo, the 36-year-old steps into the lead role after spending the previous three seasons as assistant coach. He downplays the significance of the high-profile departures.
“Internally, we still have great people in our staff that are continuing. And we have a great group of core players returning.”
The biggest shock of Pacific FC’s off-season might well have been the one that put Merriman in this position: Kah’s departure. Wildly popular on Vancouver Island, and admired across the CPL, it was expected the Gambian-born coach would leave PFC for a bigger league eventually. He even came close to landing the FC Dallas head coaching role in November, according to ESPN reporter Jeff Carlisle. But few foresaw it happening immediately after winning his club’s first title.
“I got my chance here, and I am attached to [Pacific]. For me to leave, everything [would need] to be perfect,” he told Transfermarkt in December.
Kah was still under contract with Pacific until 2023, and mere days before his departure, he was talking about his club’s preparations for 2022.
“We have the foundation and pieces already in place and now healthy [for a repeat title run],” he told the Times Colonist on Jan. 9. Twelve days later, he was announced as the new North Texas SC coach.
The ripple effects of Kah’s exit are numerous. As the primary face of the club, the 41-year-old former Whitecaps and Norway defender was responsible for recruiting international talent—and was often the first person to sell a prospective free agent on the club’s vision and direction.
It is not coincidental that Pacific FC’s loan arrangement with Toronto FC—in which PFC was supposed to receive defender Luke Singh on a season-long loan, in exchange for TFC acquiring defender Lukas MacNaughton—fell through after news of Kah’s departure.
“My understanding is that Luke had talked to Pa [Kah] quite a lot in the negotiation process, and then when Pa left and Luke voiced some doubts about whether this was a good fit for him, Pacific FC—even though this deal was done and signed—decided to walk away, because the club’s philosophy has always been that if you’re not 100% committed, then you’re not going to be there,” league insider and Transfermarkt area manager Manuel Veth told Capital Daily.
If Kah’s leaving was the biggest organizational shakeup, the departures of star striker Terran Campbell and midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour to rival club Forge FC represented the foreshock. Both British Columbia-born talents and club mainstays since the Island franchise’s inaugural season in 2019, the two had grown with PFC from its “Trust the Kids” era into title contenders and champions.
Both players had built their legacies within the club. They are first and second, respectively, in all-time appearances for the Tridents (at 69 and 62 games played). Campbell’s 25 goals across all competitions is a franchise record—and second all-time in the Canadian Premier League. Hojabrpour scored the biggest goal in franchise history, securing Pacific’s 2021 title.
Within Pacific’s front office, emotions were raw in the immediate aftermath of Hojabrpour’s and Campbell’s departures.
Some movement seemed inevitable following the win.
“We have a target on our backs now and other clubs want our players. I’m disappointed in the decisions those players made and I question that decision,” Pacific FC CEO Rob Friend told the Times Colonist.
But it wasn’t just the players’ decisions to leave, it was where they were headed that stirred emotions in Victoria: both went to the Hamilton, Ont. club they’d just beaten in the final—the same team that, for much of Pacific’s history, has acted like a personal Kryptonite.
If you were to draw up a comic book villain for Pacific FC supporters, it would be Forge.
“I have nothing but bile in my gut when I think about Forge as a club,” says longtime PFC supporter Blake McStravick.
Two-time CPL champions, Forge FC had an undefeated record against Pacific through three seasons prior to the 2021 Final, winning eight matches and drawing once. Forge was the daunting opponent that Pacific just could not overcome—until it could, in the most important match of the young team’s history. Pacific may now have finally graduated from upstart to true rival, but that rivalry may be a bitter one: Pacific stole Forge’s three-peat, then Forge stole Pacific’s stars.
In an interview with Capital Daily, Hojabrpour said Forge FC had expressed interest as early as his first year with Pacific in 2019. After a championship-winning season in Langford, the 22-year-old felt it was the right time to move on to a new chapter with Forge: two-time champs who dominated the CPL until Hojabrpour’s own fateful goal ended their reign.
“You always have an interest in the teams that are performing the best; who you feel like, on the field, are the best teams to play against,” Hojabrpour told Capital Daily. “I played for Pacific, which was great in my career, but I just thought at this point, it was a good time for me to move on.”
Hojabrpour and Campbell had discussed the move together, he told Capital Daily—and with his contract up, he had also been approached by clubs in other leagues.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready to make the jump, whether it was MLS or abroad,” Hojabrpour said.
“I feel there's parts of my game, both tactically and technically, that playing under [Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis], I can improve … So I feel that this move can set me up for my future.”
He also revealed Pacific had tried to bring him back, with money comparable to Forge’s offer, but he declined. “I just thought that I wanted something new,” Hojabrpour said, adding that he understood Friend’s public disappointment at his departure. “This is just what I think as a player is best for me, and I hope he can relate with that and his playing career,” he said.
He also praised the fans and organization—and, in particular, Kah, who he said changed the way he thinks and plays the game:
“I was just another kid in the league. And under [Kah] is where I really became a man and became a professional footballer.”
Three goals are scrawled on a piece of paper in Marco Bustos’ nightstand drawer: win a championship, become the best player in the Canadian Premier League, and win the league MVP award.
Until a MCL tear derailed Bustos’ season midway through the 2021 campaign, the 25-year-old Pacific FC forward seemed destined to achieve all three; within the first 10 games of the season, he’d already amassed five goals and five assists—more than any other player in the league.
“It was tough to sit out some big games,” says Bustos. He not only missed out on his club’s Canadian Championship tourney victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps—his former team—but missed the entirety of the CPL playoffs after rehabbing for two months only to reaggravate his injury against Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship semifinals.
“[But] being out allowed me to observe [the game] from a different angle. It allowed me to keep pushing, keep working hard in a different way,” he told Capital Daily.
A collective sport though soccer may be, much of Pacific FC’s title-defending hopes will rest on Bustos’ health in 2022. The team is now without Campbell, the league MVP runner-up in 2021, and without star fullback Chung, a key component of Pacific’s fluid attack for the past three years. After leading the club through 2020 and the early half of 2021, Bustos will be called upon to shoulder an even greater attacking load than in seasons past.
Bustos’s surrounding cast is also the youngest he’s ever had at Pacific FC, with four players on the club’s roster aged 19 and under (Portuguese import Umaro Baldé, 18; ‘keeper Emil Gazdov, 18; Whitecaps prospect Kamron Habibullah, 18; and CF Montréal academy product Abdul Binate, 19).
“I think the guys we’ve picked up have stepped right in,” says Bustos.
“We’ve said right away from the beginning to the new players that you’re not just coming here to be part of a soccer team; you’re coming here to be part of a winning mentality group, and to go win a championship. That’s the standard.”
Habibullah likely comes with the most promise—and the highest expectations. Veth calls him “one of the biggest talents we have in this country, period,” and says he’ll have a point to prove after playing just 34 minutes with the Whitecaps. Habibullah joined the MLS-level ‘Caps at just 17, after an impressive three-goal U-17 World Cup representing team Canada.
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“He’s really been a positive influence on the dressing room already. He knows that this is a really good chance for him, and Pacific have a track record now of taking players, developing them, and moving them on,” Veth adds.
That process will be what Pacific will ultimately need in order to establish itself as a championship franchise, not just a championship team. In three seasons, rival Forge has proven itself as a perennial contender—despite changes up and down its roster. Pacific dealt Forge a setback and Forge struck back at the next opportunity. To stand alongside Forge—or above it—Langford’s team will need to develop its own formula for producing great teams year after year.
The time has come for the franchise to establish its own long-term identity off the field this year, too. Pacific’s owners are taking a step back from day-to-day operations and launching a rival club in Greater Vancouver for 2023.
At the centre of it all for Pacific’s title-defending aspirations is a coach who is himself newly stepping up. In his first year at Pacific’s helm, Merriman inherits a club with ample talent—including new centre-back Amer Đidić, who has twice represented Canada at the senior level—but also weighty expectations. And while the Island-raised Merriman shares much in common with Kah from a tactical perspective, the two come with markedly different personalities; if Kah is sheer, unbridled energy (think Jagger or James Brown with a microphone) Merriman is even-keeled, calm as a lazy afternoon at Gonzales Beach.
Which isn’t to say Merriman lacks competitive fire or confidence. More than anyone else at Pacific, he’s watched and guided his players from aspiring pros—even dating back to their youth academy years—into seasoned veterans.
“This is where we wanted to be,” says Merriman, referring to the challenge that lies ahead for his club.
“Being in this position … it does come with a target. So we need to take that as motivation to keep building, and to stay here, and to take what we've done well and add to some areas that we think we can improve. Keep moving forward.”
Pacific FC will open their regular season on Sunday, April 10, against Forge FC—the first of three consecutive home matches at Starlight Stadium, as the club hosts Winnipeg-based Valour FC on April 17 and Halifax’s Wanderers FC on April 23.
Thanks to winning the 2021 CPL Final, the Tridents will also partake in the 2022 CONCACAF League, facing opponents from Central America and the Caribbean. Their opening-round opponent has yet to be announced.