By Mike Rice.
The Canadian Premier League (CPL) is entering its fifth season in 2023. It is incredible to think the country qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and has been growing in quality for a number of years without the benefit of a national league.
Three sides in the country compete in Major League Soccer, Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and CF Montréal, but this has meant options are somewhat limited for young Canadian footballers.
With the introduction of the CPL, more young Canadian footballers were given the opportunity to develop in a competitive environment.
Since its inaugural season in 2019, Forge FC have been won three Playoff Championships while Pacific FC have one. James Merriman became the head coach of Pacific FC after the departure of Pa-Madou Kah who left to take over North Texas SC in MLS Next Pro.
He was the assistant coach from the day the club was founded and has been the full-time head coach since January 2022.
Having been forced to retire from playing early due to injury, Merriman has gone on to coach at university level as well as with the Vancouver Whitecaps academy but was drawn to the project with Pacific FC and the CPL when he got the opportunity.
“I enjoyed working with local players, helping them reach their potential,” Merriman says. “After six years with the Whitecaps, I got the chance to come back to the Island where I’m from and heard about the plan from the owner and took the chance.
“It was an opportunity to help grow something from a blank canvas, our own professional league. It’s something I wish I had when I was a player.”
Pacific is one of the Canadian sides that have gone on to CONCACAF tournaments where the teams are not just representing themselves, but the league as a whole.
As it develops and progresses, each team that goes on to represent the CPL in CONCACAF competitions know they are working to achieve their own goals but also to show the league is continuing to improve and compete with other leagues around the continent.
“You feel like you’re representing the CPL, and you can see how Forge had success as well,” adds Merriman. “We wanted to do well for us as well as the league.
“The initial trip was so difficult with our schedule, the distances were so long, and at one point we were on the road for around two weeks without returning to Victoria.
“It was a challenge logistically but an amazing experience which gave the club confidence in competing at new levels.”
Pacific managed to reach the second round after drawing 0-0 in Jamaica against Waterhouse they won comprehensively at home 6-0 to set up a trip to Costa Rica to face CS Herediano, 29-time champions of their domestic league and 2018 CONCACAF League winners.
With players in their squad like local central midfielder Sean Young, who was 17 when the league was formed, Pacific had players who may not have even had access to a professional club before this.
Young stepped up into the first team from a non-professional academy on Vancouver Island and went on the face players like Yeltsin Tejeda who has 76 caps for his country and World Cup experience.
Merriman says of that game: “It was difficult to lose in the second round to Herediano who had five to seven current national team players in the squad, as well as a number who had been in the Costa Rican national team with World Cup experience, but it was an incredible experience for us as a club.”
Some big departures have since begun to happen in the CPL. The young league knows players are keen to use it as a stepping stone for bigger competitions and that is already starting to show.
Merriman has seen two of his players depart for Scandinavian leagues recently. In the summer of 2022, top scorer Alejandro Diaz left for Norweigan First Division side Sogndal while, recently, Canadian midfielder Marco Bustos departed for Swedish Allsvenskan club Värnamo.
“I think it shows how we are progressing,” says Merriman. “To be going into our fifth season we are already seeing players move to Europe and that’s one of the reasons why the league was created. If there was a schedule for this, I’d say we were meeting it, or even ahead of it.
“With the recent success with the national team, in qualifying and at the World Cup, we are seeing Canadian players make bigger moves. Everything helps the momentum and awareness of the CPL.
“We are a club that wants to be recognised for developing and moving players on to bigger leagues and when Alejandro (Diaz) had that chance it’s something we supported and celebrated as a club.”
In just four seasons Pacific FC has developed players to a point where they are now playing for European sides or regularly in MLS.
The move Alejandro Diaz made opened up new opportunities for the league to bring players from abroad to develop and sell on.
Diaz came from Mexican giants CF América after failing to break into the first team. His move now sees players from abroad noticing the CPL as a league in which they can develop and will be seen by European clubs and MLS in starting roles.
Merriman adds: “Maybe they need a new environment, a different culture, a new club to find their form and impress to make a move.
“Or they see the growth of MLS and want to be in the North American game where that step to MLS may be a bit closer than where they currently are.”
Canada will co-host the World Cup in 2026 with the United States and Mexico and the excitement around the tournament needed to be capitalised upon by the league.
Seeing players progress from the CPL to the national team, such as Joel Waterman and Lukas McNaughton playing regularly at Toronto FC, makes a big difference to how the league continues to grow.
“Those players making those steps is so important for us,” continues Merriman. “It shows where we are at and it proves players can make that happen in one or two or three seasons.
“For Joel Waterman to come through the CPL Draft, play CPL and move on to MLS and then the national team in a World Cup is an amazing example.
“Lukas McNaughton from Pacific FC to Toronto, then got to the first list of players for the World Cup but didn’t make the final roster.
“For the league, and young players, they see it is working, and if they are motivated they can come in and reach their goals with CPL and Pacific FC.
Successes, therefore, can be found in this new league, and the way it is growing suggests more and more players will see it as a viable destination to enhance their careers.
The league itself will adapt and grow, looking to include more teams on top of the current eight it has. With four seasons in the bag, and plenty of experiences, good and bad, the clubs have seen the growth in stature and professionalism coming from an idea to a reality.
Merriman spoke of how a lot had to be done off the pitch and the way the club operates adapted and is in a great place to continue to grow and be a top side in the CPL for years to come: “The staff have developed and gone through the ups and downs of a start-up, the logistics of getting around the country, helping the fans understand the level and the direction of the league.
“To go from where we started to here, the growth has been amazing to see as we get more media on the league as well which really helps its continual growth.
“It’s been a success in its four seasons, and I think this will be the biggest season yet.”
Year five sees Vancouver FC join the league after FC Edmonton, unfortunately, had to disband. It keeps the league at eight teams and adds a new rivalry which will surely be encouraging for the fans.
There is hope that the CPL can identify four new sides in the coming season to increase their numbers and are finding the best places to grow the league across the country.
In the meantime, Pacific FC and James Merriman have a new season to work towards bringing home another trophy and getting their place in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL).
After the CCL decided to expand for the 2024 season, the regular season winner and the playoff winner will be able to take part in the top-level club competition in CONCACAF — something Pacific FC have their eyes on going into 2023.
The league continues to grow, and the quality is developing and excelling each season bringing more fans and eyes on the league each week.