‘We wanted more experience’: Pacific FC’s James Merriman on the club’s off-season thus far
Canadian Premier League

The 2023 season wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Pacific FC.

Through the first three months of the campaign, they were the league’s team to beat — and few could. The Tridents lost just once in their first 12 matches of the season, topping the CPL table for 11 matchweeks and reaching the Canadian Championship semifinals in the process.

Then a stormy summer, with just two wins in 10 matches between June 30 and Aug. 27, saw their season blown off course. After a 3-2 loss to provincial rivals Vancouver FC on Aug. 19 — one where they allowed two goals in the final 15 minutes — they dropped out of the top spot for good.

Three straight losses to end the season saw Pacific tumble even further, into a fourth-place finish. That forced them to embark on a cross-country odyssey to kick off the 2023 playoffs, rather impressively defeating York United 1-0 at home on Vancouver Island, before travelling to the East Coast three days later to beat Halifax by that same score. By the time they arrived in Calgary for the semifinal, however, their good fortunes ran out as they lost 2-1 to Cavalry FC.

After a season that started with so much promise, they were left empty-handed, and with a number of questions as to what exactly had gone wrong along the way.

“I think we learned a lot last season,” said Pacific FC coach James Merriman in an interview with “Obviously, we started the way we wanted, and we were very, very strong for the first half and then we had the dip in the second half of the season and some inconsistencies.”

As Merriman and his staff reflected on the campaign as a whole, and particularly where it went wrong, one lesson stood out and has shaped the club’s approach this off-season.

“Last year we just allowed ourselves to change too much,” said Merriman. “Through that adversity, it’s if you stay true to your identity or not. I think we just got away a little bit, so that was the biggest learning for myself. We’re going to play our way and we’re going to stay true to that for as long as the season is, we’re not going to change regardless of how things go. Small tweaks, but never change.”

Pacific FC celebrate their match-winning goal against York United in the 2023 CPL playoff (Photo: Pacific FC)

For Merriman, who has been with the club since day one, the Pacific identity is clear. The club prides itself on playing an attacking brand of football, with quality on the ball and an aggressive and energetic defensive style that presses opponents relentlessly.

While developing young Canadian players remains an important part of that identity, so is winning. When adversity, in the form of injuries, suspension, results or even tough moments in games, started to mount he felt that the team’s youth and inexperience played a part in that aforementioned inconsistency. Only Halifax Wanderers had a younger average age among their starting XIs than Pacific’s 23.9 last season.

“We wanted to bring in some more experience to the squad and maybe some bigger character and personalities,” said Merriman. “That’s what we’ve really tried to focus on in this off-season, as opposed to most off-seasons here at Pacific where we have really focused on signing young players. We want to balance the squad a little bit this season with character, with personality and experience.”

The club’s signings so far this off-season reflect that vision. Sean Melvin, a 29-year-old Victoria-born goalkeeper, joins Pacific from Atlético Ottawa and will bring with him quality and experience after the Tridents deployed the youngest goalkeeping tandem in the league last season. Merriman has already been incredibly impressed with the professionalism and character he has seen from the goalkeeper in training and expects him to create a healthy competition with last year’s starter, 20-year-old Emil Gazdov.

Aly Ndom, meanwhile, a 27-year-old with experience in Ligue1, comes in to bring quality at the back. While he has previous experience as a holding midfielder, Merriman and Pacific will be looking to use him as a replacement for the departing Amer Didić at left centre-back. Ndom played on the left side of a back three in his most recent season with IFK Mariehamn.

Another key area of change has been up front, where Pacific said goodbye to strikers Easton Ongaro and Djenairo Daniels this off-season after the pair struggled to find consistent production in 2023, scoring just five and three goals respectively.

Pacific were still among the league’s top offensive clubs, finishing second in goals scored only to regular season winners Cavalry. But despite elite-level chance creation, and leading the league in touches in the opposition box (730) their finishing still left something to be desired. They underperformed their expected goals (45.7) by 3.7.

“We never really had one or two players step up and hit that 10-15 goals mark, which was what we were looking for in terms of a striker,” said Merriman. “This is what we’re hoping, that we don’t need to change so much in terms of the way we play. We feel that we’re bringing in some pieces and they are going to be, hopefully, more clinical in the final act and in the final third. They’re a little bit older as well.” 

Pacific announced the signing of 26-year-old Dario Zanatta recently, with the Victoria-born attacker joining the club after eight seasons in Scotland. They are also expected to announce further attacking reinforcement in the coming month.

While these new additions could all prove crucial for Pacific in 2024, just as, if not more important, is the core group they have been able to maintain. The club triggered the options on four key players, defenders Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Kunle Dada-Luke, local midfielder Sean Young and attacker Ayman Sellouf.

“Yes, we want to add to our locker room, but we don’t want to change the whole locker room; we want to keep our core and also for our fans,” said Merriman. “Our fans really appreciate Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, coming into his fifth season. Kunle Dada-Luke is a fan favourite, we know this. Sean Young is a homegrown player essentially, and then Ayman Sellouf who was arguably the most dynamic player in the league last year.”

Merriman with Manny Aparicio (Photo: Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC)

The past few months did see the club lose some important pieces of that core from the past few seasons, however. Midfielder Manny Aparicio, who was nominated for the league’s Player of the Year award the past two seasons, and key central defender Didić, both departed the club as free agents. Saying goodbye to star players has unfortunately been a bit of a trend for the Tridents in recent years, with Marco Bustos, Kadin Chung, Terran Campbell, Alessandro Hojabrpour and Lukas MacNaughton all leaving the club over the past three years.

“These guys still have ambition, they still need to be able to explore and see if they can make a move,” said Merriman. “We want our players to do that as well. It can be difficult for the fans for sure, it can be difficult for us, because we know these players have big quality.”

He knows the club needs to remain dynamic in such moments, being ready to quickly replace any outgoing talent with the next young player ready to step into the line-up or a signing like Ndom or Zanatta.

It is with this motivated new mix of players that Pacific officially began their preseason over the past few weeks, kicking off at the Pacific Institute for Sport Education.

Their ground, Starlight Stadium, was in use, hosting the home legs for both Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps and CPL regular season winners Cavalry FC during the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup. Cavalry and the Whitecaps eliminated Pacific from the CPL playoffs and Canadian Championship respectively, so seeing them get to live out their continental dreams on the Starlight pitch has only given Pacific further motivation as they begin their 2024 preparations.

“That is the number one goal going into the season this year, that will be the focus to make sure that we achieve: getting back into [Concacaf], giving ourselves a chance to host these types of games,” said Merriman. “You see 11,000 plus at Forge, which is amazing, and you get to see Cavalry playing against Orlando, a top team in the MLS last season so I mean these are the games the players want to be in.”

The journey to get there may not officially start until Saturday, April 13, when they host the Halifax Wanderers at Starlight Stadium on the opening day of the 2024 CPL season. But the lessons learned in 2023 are already being put into action to chart a new course for 2024.