On the eastern shore of Lake Wörthersee in Klagenfurt, where the Austrian foothills lead to the Karawanks, Pacific FC’s Lukas MacNaughton found his perfect off-season training ground.
“You feel like you have a third lung,” said MacNaughton, whose grandparents live nearby.
On any given run through the nearby hills, the elevation could reach 3,000 feet.
One could do much worse in finding a place to reflect on things after the inaugural Canadian Premier League season – and with a combined 31 points through his club’s spring and fall campaigns, MacNaughton had plenty of reflecting to do. (Cavalry FC, the league runner-up, managed 38 points in the fall season alone; Forge FC, the league champions, finished the fall with 37.)
“We all understood there was a lot of work to be done personally,” MacNaughton told CanPL.ca.
Finding a Pacific player satisfied with last season’s results is like searching for flat ground in southern Austria.
At the end of last October, then-interim (now associate) head coach James Merriman sat down with each of his players. They discussed strengths, weaknesses, off-season goals – everything to prepare for 2020. For MacNaughton, the lone returning centre-back from last year’s Pacific roster, one thing loomed above the rest: the need to be tougher defensively and be “just ready to fight for everything.”
For all the feel-good story of Pacific’s young talent – and remarkable it is – one telling stat remains: no CPL club had fewer clean sheets than Pacific (five). The Islanders allowed more goals (46) than any club not named Valour FC.
It’s an issue the Belgian-Canadian centre-back acknowledges readily, recalling a frank discussion with teammates last season.
“We said, ‘look, this is unacceptable.’ First of all, we can’t be allowing that many goals, but the reason we’re allowing so many goals is from small errors – and most of them, actually, were from set pieces,” MacNaughton explained.
One player hoping to make the difference is newcomer Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, a Montreal Impact product.
“It won’t happen this year,” the Repentigny, Quebec native said of Pacific’s goals-against record from 2019.
The 22-year-old centre-back comes to Vancouver Island with high expectations, as he was part of an Ottawa Fury team that set a USL record 15 clean sheets in 2018. As a younger player, he captained Canada’s national team from U-16 to U-20 levels.
“I want those expectations. I hope they’re going to put pressure on me,” Meilleur-Giguère told CanPL.ca. “I told [club CEO Rob Friend], ‘You can play me wherever.’”
To listen to Meilleur-Giguère is to encounter confidence in no short supply. He wants to win the league, and perhaps, along the way, catch John Herdman’s eye.
MacNaughton, for one, welcomes the enthusiasm his new centre-back partner brings.
“That’s something we definitely need on our team,” he said. “I think at times last year, we were a little bit flat … we were missing that fire.”
“That’s what I want to bring to the team: that defensive mentality,” added Meilleur-Giguère. “Even the attacking players that are supposed to score ten goals a season, they have to play defence, too.”
There is also, of course, the return of Marcel de Jong to consider. A healthy season for the 33-year-old surely boosts Pacific’s back line.
There is still a ways to climb for Pacific to reach the league’s top tier. But in Klagenfurt, where the hills are everywhere, one finds plenty of time to practice.