‘A huge statement’: Vancouver FC’s ‘game-changer’ Sandoval poised to be club’s first international star

In a year replete with firsts for Canadian Premier League expansion side Vancouver FC, the club seems to have ticked off another one on Wednesday.

By signing Mexican attacker Gael Sandoval, VFC have landed their first international star. His ledger of more than 100 games in a league the quality of Liga MX — and being right in the prime of his career now, aged 27 — make him undoubtedly one of the biggest signings by a CPL club to date.

“It’s a huge statement for the club,” Friend told “We tried to find a statement player — a bit of a, let’s call it game-changer player.”

He added: “Having a little bit of international flair is important, so I think we’ve landed on a really exciting player that I’d like to think is probably one of the biggest profiles that has come to this league.”

One could argue that a player of Sandoval’s profile is a first for the entire CPL. He’s played 119 times in the strongest league in North America, and he won the Concacaf Champions League with Chivas in 2018. Sandoval is the only player in CPL history to have appeared at the FIFA Club World Cup — also in 2018, when he scored a goal in Dubai against Tunisian side Esperance.

That latter experience, according to Sandoval himself, is a career highlight so far — Chivas came within a goal of a semifinal meeting with Real Madrid, falling 3-2 to Asian champions Kashima Antlers from Japan.

Sandoval’s choice to make Vancouver the next big project of his career is, therefore, a leap of faith for a player like him. At Chivas, he was playing for a club with a 116-year history in his hometown of Guadalajara. Now, he’s in a completely new country, set to play in a brand new team’s inaugural season.

“Chivas is obviously the most famous [club] in Mexico,” Sandoval said. “The change is so different, but for me this is a good option to work at that — to work in a new club, with new players, a new coach, in a new city. For me it’s an opportunity in my career, experiencing playing in any part of the world, different people, different levels.”

Sandoval explained that this isn’t quite his first venture outside of Mexico. Last year, he made a bold move across the Pacific Ocean to play on loan for New Zealand club Wellington Phoenix, in the Australian A-League.

Unfortunately, Sandoval never had the experience he’d been expecting out there. Due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the Kiwi club spent the majority of its six-month season based out of Sydney, Australia, playing most of their home matches either behind closed doors or in front of sparse crowds. He still delivered some flair in 20 games down under — Sandoval scored six goals and added five assists — but a different challenge still seemed the best option for him after returning to Mexico in late 2022.

So, he turned his gaze northward. Sandoval knew very little about Canada before speaking to Vancouver FC; his only real brush with Canadian soccer was the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final against Toronto FC. He was on the bench for both legs of that tie (though he didn’t make it on the pitch — he’d played in three of Chivas’ prior contests in that CCL run).

Gael Sandoval. (Photo: Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC)

Sandoval still hadn’t really heard of a Canadian Premier League. He turned to a friend in fellow Mexican — and now-former Pacific FC striker — Alejandro Díaz for advice.

“He told me little things about the league and life in Canada, and explained to me how it is living here,” Sandoval said. “For me, I think it’s different every step that I make — it’s a different team, a different city, even if it’s Canadian.”

The two players had actually shared a pitch at least once before. In 2016, both Sandoval and Díaz (playing for Santos Laguna and Club Necaxa, respectively) were substituted into a Liga MX match at the same time. Necaxa won 2-1. Plus, as Mexican national team prospects born within six months of each other, they would have crossed paths plenty of times as teenagers.

According to Rob Friend, though, Díaz’s arrival in the CPL as a 24-year-old — and his subsequent 26-goal showing for Pacific, and eventual sale to Norwegian club Sogndal — was actually key in convincing Sandoval to commit to Vancouver.

“I think [Díaz] is a great example of adding awareness outside this country,” Friend said. “The reason we got Gael was because of Díaz. He followed him; Díaz was a big name in Mexico, people know him. So it created interest from other players, thinking ‘Okay, maybe this league is an option to go to, maybe it’s a stepping stone, maybe it’s a platform that otherwise didn’t exist.’

“Díaz was a great example of creating that awareness. Now the Norwegian league is looking at us because Díaz is over there, and again bringing a guy like Gael in hopefully increases that awareness for the club and the league.”

Although Vancouver — like many CPL clubs — has centred its initial roster construction around young, Canadian talent, Friend made it clear that a player of Sandoval’s quality, having played at such levels as he has, can only serve to help the local, developing players.

“The reality is we have a really young roster, a lot of young Canadians,” Friend added. “Sprinkling in players that have experience, that come from abroad is important. That develops the game here amongst our local domestic players.”

From Sandoval’s first few weeks of training with VFC, his first impression has been that Canada is much colder than anywhere he’s played before (even if the Lower Mainland is, on average, the warmest part of the country in winter). Beyond that initial shock, though, he’s enjoyed working under coach Afshin Ghotbi.

As the highest-profile player in the squad so far, Sandoval’s experience is naturally something the rest of his teammates are looking to for guidance. He explained that he’s looking forward to testing himself as something of a leader in his squad.

Of course, he’s aware that someone of his profile showing up in camp alongside first-time professionals can, in some ways, be intimidating. So, Sandoval has been careful not to force his way of seeing the game upon teammates — instead, making it known that he’s happy to help.

“Some guys are starting at the level, or in a first division, so it’s a good experience for me,” Sandoval said. “I try to help the guys, work a lot in the same way. Guys who have less experience, [if] they want to get help from me, I help the guys. It’s not easy, looking at a guy that has more experience — sometimes it’s not the best because they think in another way. So I try to help the young guys, but just the guys who want to have help from the older guys.”

Once this Vancouver team starts playing games, though — beginning April 15 against Pacific FC — Sandoval is ready to shine.

A player like him, who should be one of the CPL’s most talented players on the ball and a top-level winger, may well be the x-factor superstar that helps make VFC competitive in its first season. Expectations for him are, naturally, high.

Sandoval himself, though, says he isn’t necessarily trying to be the centre of attention.

“I will show the people what I can do, but not because I’m trying to be the star of the league,” he said. “If a team works together for a long time, they win tournaments. I played in Mexico at that level, it’s different yes, but now I’m here and I’ll try to do my best, try to be a good team like a family.

“I’ll show you everything we can do for a good team.”

Gael Sandoval. (Photo: Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC)