Alessandro Hojabrpour surprised himself in 2019.
In his first year as a professional, he racked up 1,894 minutes for Pacific FC, carving out his niche in the young squad’s midfield after returning to his home province from an academy stint in Bulgaria.
“I thought I’d be more of a rotational player in the team,” the 20-year-old native of Burnaby told CanPL.ca. “Turns out my role became a little more significant. I think I made bigger jumps in my career than I would’ve probably expected; the coaches — our ex-coach Michael (Silberbauer), James (Merriman), the whole staff — put immense, immense trust in me after I was starting to play well.
“Really if you look at where I was, in the beginning of the year to the end, you wouldn’t even believe that it was the same player.”
In spite of his personal success in year one of the CPL, though, Hojabrpour conceded that things were not perfect on Vancouver Island. The club’s management stunned the CPL community at the end of last season, firing coach Michael Silberbauer on the eve of their final match.
Pacific landed fifth in the overall CPL table last season, sitting right in the middle of the pack for both goals for and against. They had their moments — a resounding victory over Cavalry FC in the Spring finale, for instance, and their win against Valour FC to close the Fall — but they never reached the level they might’ve expected.
“It’s a bit of a shakeup, you know?” said Hojabrpour of the coaching change. “Last year, I don’t think we reached the potential, or got to a place we really wanted to be, and I think the owners making a statement that it wasn’t good enough kind of changed the philosophy.”
RELATED READING: CPL 2020 roster tracker: How each team is shaping up
During the off-season, Pacific appointed Pa-Modou Kah as Silberbauer’s replacement. The Norwegian coach has brought a different vibe to the team, as well as a level of familiarity with the handful of players he either coached or played with during his time in the Vancouver Whitecaps system.
“This is a results sport,” Hojabrpour continued. “At the end of the year, they don’t look at how many great team moves you put together without goals, they look at how many points you had and where you’re placed on the table. I think Pa has brought that winning mentality to a lot of the players that could’ve maybe not have been there last year.”
According to Hojabrpour, Kah’s influence has been strong in his few months with the club, despite being unable to train for a while due to the COVID-19 shutdown. The midfielder counts his side among the lucky ones, since they managed to complete their pre-season trip to Tofino, B.C., which was instrumental for team bonding and laying out their broad plan for 2020.
Hojabrpour is just the latest Pacific FC player to suggest that Kah has made an immediate impact on the squad.
“Before a coach, (Kah) tries to be your friend,” Hojabrpour said. “He’s really a person who wants to get to know the person before the player. He’s a coach that you want to play for.”
He added: “Adjusting to him is maybe a lot easier than other coaches, he just makes you want to play for him. … No one’s ever above the group and no one’s at the bottom; everyone’s on the same level, which is obviously what you want. You don’t want players feeling left out.”
Hojabrpour, like many CPLers, watched during the off-season as players such as Tristan Borges, Joel Waterman, and Emilio Estevez moved on to bigger clubs after a year of success in Canada. The example they set is certainly motivating, especially for a player like himself who took a risk in returning home from abroad.
With plenty of young, ambitious players in the Pacific locker room, it’s certainly something that comes up among the Islanders.
“A lot of us have goals to get to a higher level,” Hojabrpour said. “I don’t know if it’s Europe, there’s always the Europe path, but there’s also the MLS path, or some of us are maybe looking to stay in the league and get into the national team, you know?
“It’s a young group (at Pacific), but it’s also turning into a group that, we’re young but we’re not young young anymore, you know? We’re getting to that age in a player’s development where you need to start making some progress in your career to really get to a high level.”
Indeed, the next step in Pacific FC’s policy of trusting the kids would certainly be to have those promising rookie performances from 2019 start translating into victories in 2020.
Hojabrpour, along with many of his teammates, seems confident that Pa-Modou Kah can help get them there.