CPL champion Pacific FC keeps rolling under coach James Merriman

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Defending CPL champion Pacific FC has not missed a beat this season, despite the departure of head coach Pa-Modou Kah and several key players after last year's successful title run.

James Merriman, elevated from assistant to head coach, has Pacific atop the Canadian Premier League standings at 5-1-1 ahead of its date with visiting York United (2-2-2) on Friday night.

"There was a lot of transition in the off-season. It can be tough and a lot of challenges," said Merriman.

"The way that the group, the core group, the returning group have dealt with it, the way that the staff that has returned have moved forward with the same culture and same principles, I think that has allowed us to keep the momentum and the consistency in our performance and get off to such a good start," he added.

In other CPL action this week, it's Forge FC at HFX Wanderers on Friday, Valour FC at Cavalry FC on Saturday and Atletico Ottawa at FC Edmonton on Sunday.

Lukas MacNaughton, who along with fellow defender Kadin Chung has made the jump from Pacific to Toronto FC this season, has fond memories of his three seasons on the West Coast.

He says Pacific, which plays its games at Starlight Stadium in Langford some 20 minutes from Victoria, has forged strong ties to Vancouver Island in a short time. That identity was helped by Pacific's 4-3 upset win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last August in the Canadian Championship preliminary round.

"I think that game really amplified the identity of the Island and the importance that people from the Island played in the club," MacNaughton said.

"The Island is definitely an identity that the club took on and embraced it," he added.

Pacific won three straight to open the 2022 season before tying FC Edmonton 0-0 and losing 2-0 to Cavalry FC. It has won its last two, downing Atletico Ottawa 1-0 and, most recently, Edmonton 2-1.

Pacific's Alejandro Diaz leads the league with five goals. The 26-year-old Mexican has two with his left foot, two with his right and one with his head. Midfield playmaker Marco Bustos leads with four assists while captain Jamar Dixon adds a veteran presence and midfielder Manny Aparacio helps spark the offence.

The club is good in goal with incumbent Callum Irving. The arrival of Amer Didic in February helped fill the void in defence left by MacNaughton's departure.

The return from injury of Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Matthew Baldisimo and Bustos has also helped the team.

Pacific finished third in the 2021 regular-season at 13-9-6, five points behind Calgary's Cavalry and Hamilton's Forge. But it beat Cavalry 2-1 after extra time in the semifinal before dethroning two-time champion Forge 1-0.

MacNaughton says he picked Pacific at the beginning of the current CPL season to repeat as champion, citing the culture and work ethic. "That remains," he said.

"A good team with a good locker room and really good ideas in the way they that want to play and the way the club is run," he added. "I don't see it changing any time soon."

It helps that the club ownership and front office includes former Canadian internationals Rob Friend and Josh Simpson.

"They know what it to play at the highest level and they know what it is to run a club," MacNaughton said.

The 36-year-old Merriman has been on the Pacific coaching staff since the club’s inception.

"If you're talk about somebody that's the identity of the club, it's probably him. because he was there before anybody," said MacNaughton. "He knows the Island from the little kids to basically everybody that's played there … So he knows everything."

Mark Village, the team's original goalkeeper, is now Pacific's goalkeeping coach.

Merriman recruited MacNaughton through Stuart Neely, a former Toronto FC academy head who was also part of the coaching structure at the University of Toronto where MacNaughton played.

Neely is now Pacific's technical director of football.

A native of Nanaimo, B.C., Merriman grew up around the game. His father Bill Merriman, now retired, was a longtime coach of the Vancouver Island University men’s soccer program with James serving as assistant coach there from 2009 to 2011.

Merriman played collegiate soccer at the University of Denver before stints with the Colorado Rapids reserves, Victoria Highlanders FC and Colorado Lightning of the Professional Arena Soccer League. When injuries halted his playing career his father got him involved in coaching.

James Merriman served as a Vancouver Whitecaps residency coach from 2012 to 2018 and was an assistant coach at Simon Fraser University's men's program from 2012 to 2014.

"He's a great guy with a great heart and loves football," said MacNaughton.

Merriman took over in January after Kah left the club to become coach of North Texas SC, FC Dallas's MLS Next Pro side.

"He really helped build the DNA of the club,” Friend, Pacific's CEO, said of Merriman at the time.

“James is a true modern football coach," Friend added. "He’s a modern thinker, he understands the depths of the game, he understands the players, and is passionate about developing young Canadian players which is obviously very important for this organization."

MacNaughton says Pacific has become a destination CPL team on and off the field, with the beauty of Vancouver Island a main attraction.

"I loved it. In the summer it's amazing," he said. "The training ground is five minute from the beach. You're always on the water. There's always mountains. The view, the good weather."

Merriman is also appreciative of his surroundings, saying the "little bit slower" pace of the Island allows players to focus on the task at hand.

Still, Pacific lost some big pieces as well as Kah in the wake of its championship with striker Terran Campbell and midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour joining Forge in January.

Campbell scored 23 goals in 66 CPL games over his three seasons with Pacific and was a nominee for Player of the Year last season. Hojabrpour, named the league's top under-21 player last season, scored the decisive goal in the 2021 CPL final.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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