As a first-year head coach in the Canadian Premier League, Pacific FC’s James Merriman and his staff took a lot of lessons from the 2022 season. The biggest, however, was that in a league where each team plays one another four times, it is critical to be able to win matches in as many different ways as possible.
With that in mind, Merriman and co. set out to build a Pacific team this off-season that was deep and dynamic in both personnel and the different ways they could break down opponents.
“That’s the biggest thing that we tried to approach and get across in preseason to the group is that we want to be a team that can defend really well and be dangerous in transition, but also a team that wants to play and wants to build up back to front, a team that recognizes when to keep possession,” Merriman told CanPL.ca. “It’s still early, but you’re starting to see some signs of that identity.”
Those signs are pretty clear so far in 2023. No team has scored more goals than Pacific’s 11, while the underlying numbers suggest they are also creating quality chances at an elite rate, with a league-leading 11.11 expected goals.
The depth has been on display as well, with a league-leading seven different Pacific players scoring in CPL action. Four players have also scored multiple goals so far this season, while Adonijah Reid opened his account in the Canadian Championship to make it eight different goalscorers in all competitions.
Ahead of an even bigger Voyageurs’ Cup matchup on Wednesday, when the Tridents host the Vancouver Whitecaps (7 p.m. PT /10 p.m. ET, OneSoccer) here is an in-depth look at what has made their attack so lethal in 2023:
Ability to build from the back
Pacific FC as a club has gone through a lot of turnover since they lifted the North Star Shield in 2021. Only three players remain on the roster from those who started in that 1-0 win over Forge FC.
With that in mind, it has been impressive how quickly a Pacific team with a lot of new players this season has been able to develop chemistry in the attacking third. With clever one-touch passing, movement and composure on the ball, the Tridents have an ability to quickly move the ball from the defensive third and into the opposition box. The above clip shows a few different sequences of Pacific doing just that against York United.
Earlier in the season, Pacific were consistently getting the ball into good positions on the pitch, but were unable to covert that into goals with just two through their first three matches. What changed of late?
“Unselfishness,” Merriman said, later adding, “We have tried to simplify the decision with just unselfish pass, make the unselfish pass, give the best pass. It’s something that we talk about every day.”
As a club, they have the most expected assists in CPL this season, with 8.06 so far in 2023. Ayman Sellouf leads the league in expected assists with 1.81, while Sean Young sits fourth with 1.51 on 11 chances created. They are also tied for first in most penalty area entries in the CPL, with 191, showing just how effective these attacking sequences have been.
Pressure regains and a high work rate from attacking players
Just as important as the threat Pacific poses off the ball, is how active their attacking players are in pressing defenders and creating offensive situations by winning the ball high up the field.
The Tridents sit second in the league in possession won in the final third, having done so 34 times so far this season. Merriman acknowledges that the system takes a lot of work, but has been impressed with the buy-in from so many of his forwards.
“I think that’s the most difficult part for players adapting into our theme, into our system,” said Merriman. “Because a lot of the attacking players have come with their individual qualities, but then they have to learn the expectation without the ball and the work rate that we have without the ball. That takes a bit of time, it takes a bit of believing in the way we want to do it as well.”
Djenairo Daniels and Young have won back possession a team-leading five times each in the final third. High-energy midfielder Manny Aparicio, meanwhile, has always been the standard setter for the club in terms of how they press (with the above clip against Ottawa showing why). The rest of the team now really has no choice but to follow in his pressing footsteps.
“When you have so much depth, it becomes you have to do it to be in the team, to get those minutes that you want, you have to do that part, because others are,” said Merriman. “Which is really healthy, it is what we want.”
The work rate and defensive commitment of the club’s attacking players have also helped Pacific in allowing a league-low five goals against through six matches so far this season. They are the only club in the CPL to not allow more than a single goal against in a match in 2023.
Individual moments of brilliance
While it is how Pacific attacks as a unit that truly makes them stand out, every good attacking team still needs players capable of individual moments of brilliance.
Be it clever dribbles, or long-ranging strikes, several Pacific players can create magic with the ball. The most notable example of this is Sellouf’s brilliant solo goal against Ottawa, but many other Pacific players can claim to have highlight-reel-worthy goals, dribbles and flicks this season.
Pacific have a league-leading 93 dribbles completed in 2023. Sellouf is second in the league in that regard with 24, while players like Young, Aparicio, and fullbacks Kunle Dada-Luke and Georges Mukumbilwa are all capable of consistently beating players off the dribble.
“It is important for me, and for us that we give those players the freedom, especially in the final third just to play their way, to showcase their qualities and not put them in a box, or try to make them play a certain way,” said Merriman. “We have a clear structure in our system, in our build-up, but when it comes to the final third I think that’s when you have to allow players to be creative and express themselves.”
Playing their home matches on a relatively small Starlight Stadium pitch, this ability to beat players in tight spaces that multiple Pacific players possess will be critical to unlocking opponents.
Set piece domination
Prior to this season, there is one attacking phase of the game in which Merriman believes the club has significantly lacked quality: dead ball situations.
“This is my fifth season at the club and I don’t think we have been great on set pieces,” he said. “I don’t know if we have given it as much focus as it needs and it deserves. It is such an important part of the match, part of the game. I think we have the pieces that maybe we didn’t have before, but we also have a big focus and we are trying to improve.”
The improvement has been clear in 2023, with Pacific already scoring three goals (shown in the clip above), and creating several more chances from non-penalty set pieces so far this season in all competitions. A big part of that comes from the number of threats The Tridents can place in the box, primarily central defender Amer Didić, but also Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Daniels and Easton Ongaro. They possess the height and physical tools to be dominant in these situations, but also the movement and commitment necessary to break free from defenders.
Just as important, however, is the number of different Pacific players who can deliver quality crosses. The clip above shows deliveries from Young, Sellouf, Reid and fullback Bradley Vliet. Even with how good they have been on set pieces this season, Merriman believes that this is still an area where the club can grow significantly, on both sides of the ball.
Depth of talent, and more to come?
Speaking of further growth opportunity, while as aforementioned Pacific have been excellent so far this season in attack the exciting part is that there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Key off-season signing Ongaro still only has a single CPL goal this season, despite 1.68 expected goals (tied for fifth most in the league) and will surely find his scoring boots soon. Offseason signings Kekuta Manneh, David Brazao and Reid, meanwhile, are only just starting to consistently make their way into the team, but all have shown flashes of the different qualities they can bring to the Trident’s attack.
The group will get their biggest test yet on Wednesday against the Whitecaps, who have been one of the better defensive sides in Major League Soccer so far this season. Having been with the club since the very beginning, Merriman knows just how important of an opportunity this is, seeing the impact that the 4-3 victory over the Caps during the 2021 preliminary round of the Canadian Championship had on the club.
“It was a game that changed the direction of how we were as a club and where we were in the Canadian Premier League, in the country,” said Merriman. “It was always a goal for us to be a top, top team. That kind of shifted us and then we won a championship which shifts the standards and the expectations of what it is to represent Pacific and play for Pacific.”
Those standards will continue to be raised if the club can overcome the Whitecaps again and reach their first Canadian Championship final — one that would be played at Starlight Stadium. Beating the Caps will likely mean another outstanding performance from Pacific’s lethal attacking unit.