Welcome to CPL5x5. As we say farewell to 2023, we’ll be looking back one more time at the Canadian Premier League’s milestone fifth season, and how each of the eight clubs fared this year.
In this series, we’ll break down the full story of each team’s year within five sections: Five stats, five key players, five big moments, five quotes, and five questions for 2024.
One club will be covered each day, in reverse order of the 2023 regular season standings. Up next is the league’s latest expansion club, Vancouver FC.
To read the 5×5 year in review for every other CPL club, click here.
The newest club to the Canadian Premier League, Vancouver FC’s 2023 season was a difficult one to grade. Instant fan support and a clear identity formed being the positives, a seventh place finish with no real playoff aspirations as the clear negative.
For an inaugural season, however, a playoff contending team is a lot to ask for and the Vancouver faithful knew so. To have created such an interesting DNA early on could be seen as enough to outweigh the bad, but with a forgettable record and goal difference, there’s clear work to be done heading into the 2024 season for the new and youthful side.
STORY OF 2023
2023 CPL regular season record (W-D-L): 8-5-15
Goals scored: 28
Goals against: 50
Goal difference: -22
Top scorer: Gabriel Bitar, Shaan Hundal (6)
Canadian Championship: Lost to York United 1-0 in the preliminary round
Vancouver FC didn’t just lead the CPL in U-21 minutes at the end of the 2023 season, they did so by over 800 minutes. The team’s highest representation in the category came from James Cameron and Anthony White, both with 1,500 minutes apiece, Tyler Crawford following closely behind with 1,318 of his own. What makes those numbers even more impressive is realizing that of those three players, the oldest is White who just turned 20 in August.
50 goals against
Where the predominantly youth-filled squad faltered was on defence. The first-year club led the CPL in goals against this season with 50, York United the only other side to allow more than 40 goals. Callum Irving did lead the league in saves, but the goals against is a far more glaring stat to improve on for next year.
For such a young side, the Eagles were able to stay fairly disciplined under the tutelage of Head Coach Afshin Ghotbi. Only one more yellow than Valour FC’s 58, Vancouver’s ability to avoid the ref’s pocket leaves something to be said about the maturity of the youthful group.
25 goals from open play
The only team to not score from either a set piece or free kick all season, their ability to score from open play shined through, but at what cost? As impressive as it is to have 89% of your goals come from open play, it leaves something to be desired. Dead ball situations are such an important aspect of the game, and if Vancouver could’ve found a way to take advantage of some, they may not have found themselves with the second-lowest amount of goals for.
16 goals (split among three players: Hundal, Bitar, and Cantave)
Sticking to the offensive side of their game, out of their 28 goals all season, 16 of them came from three players: Shaan Hundal, Gabriel Bitar, and Mikael Cantave. Aside from Hundal (6), Bitar (6), and late arrival Cantave (4), only two players had more than one goal all season for the Eagles. While this could be boiled down to their lack of goals from set pieces, they were tied for the least multi-goal scorers at the end of the season.
5 Key Players in 2023
In their inaugural season, Callum Irving was granted the honour of leading his hometown team from the back. At 30 years old, the Vancouver-born goalkeeper was the second-oldest player on the team, and only one of two that are older than 28. Irving took the captain’s armband on and held it all season, making a league-leading 88 saves along the way.
While Bitar and Shaan Hundal shared the title of most goals for Vancouver FC, Bitar separated himself in overall goal contributions. Playing a key role in ten of Vancouver’s 28 goals, the Ottawa native added four assists to his already impressive goal tally, producing some clutch moments along the way.
We’ve mentioned one of the oldest members of the club already, now it’s time for one of the youngest. At just 18 years old, James Cameron didn’t take long to make an impact for the Eagles. Making 17 appearances on the season, 15 of which were in a starting role, Cameron accumulated 1,504 U-21 minutes, the fourth-most by any under-21 player in the league. Throughout those minutes, the youngster won a team-leading 129 duels, winning an additional 43 tackles.
At just 23 years old, Rocco Romeo was given the unique challenge of leading the Vancouver backline in front of Irving. The third-year CPL defender played the most minutes for the Eagles, 2,189 across his 25 appearances. Romeo led his side in blocks (20), interceptions (28), clearances (114), and aerial duels won (47).
If one thing can be for certain, it did not take Ibrahim Bakare long to win over the Vancouver FC faithful. Joining from Cheshunt in England, the change in atmosphere should have been more difficult than it was for Bakare. The defender played in 25 matches for the Eagles this season, and showed his ability to play all across the backline, spending most of his time in the middle or down the right side.
5 Great Moments
August 19, 2023 — Vancouver FC 3-2 Pacific FC
In a season where individual moments outweighed overall matches, August 19 presented a gift to casual viewers and Vancouver FC fans alike. A game that saw Vancouver take an early 1-0 lead before having two put past them in an eight minute span, Gabriel Bitar played the role of hero. After tying the game just three minutes after falling behind through his quick thinking, Bitar took his next chance in the 87th minute, sneaking an inside-the-foot finish past Emil Gazdov to give his side the win against their B.C rivals.
Bakare’s passion after home opener
As mentioned earlier, Ibrahim Bakare became a fan favourite through not only his on the field presence, but also his inspiring passion off of it. The best example of this came in Vancouver FC’s first ever home opener against Cavalry FC. Going down a man early, Bakare was shifted inside from his initial right-back role to play centrally. After holding the eventual regular season champions to a 1-1 draw, emotion exploded out of the Englishman, resulting in a post-game interview that was nothing short of brilliant.
“We can’t afford when things go wrong to curl up and let us go down.”
The saying goes “you never forget your first.” For Vancouver FC and the Fraser Valley Fanatics, that can be said for the club’s first ever goal on April 22, 2023 against York United. After Mo Babouli gave away the ball in the York backline to a pressing Shaan Hundal, the striker made no mistake as he wrote a piece of CPL history, giving his club their first ever goal en route to their first ever victory as they went on to win 2-1.
Tahid becomes youngest goalscorer in league history
In another piece of history made by the first year side, it was only fitting that their young starlet TJ Tahid became the CPL’s youngest ever scorer in their June 2 match against Pacific FC. While it ended as a forgettable result for Vancouver, it was a day to remember for Tahid, entering the CPL record books at just 16 years and 34 days old.
Fraser Valley Fanatics welcome their club with Palpatine tifo
For a bit of a fun one, how can we not talk about the club’s tifo game? Already building a mantra of ‘the dark side’ before the season had begun, the players were welcomed in their home opener with a tifo that was nothing short of intimidating; a massive Emperor Palpatine. As the players emerged from the tunnel onto the pitch, you can even see Vancouver captain Callum Irving turn around to his teammates as if to say, ‘You guys are seeing this too, right?’
Clear message from the @FV_Fanatics ahead of the first ever Vancouver FC home game:
— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) May 7, 2023
“We’ve got a young team, so we’ve all got to step up and take responsibility and behave like a man, cause there’s so many people doubting so we can’t afford to just say we’re a young team … we can’t afford to do that.” — Ibrahim Bakare after Vancouver’s home opener against Cavalry FC
“I always told my teams before that I’d love to play with Gabi [Bitar], so the connection was there, we’re both from Ottawa, maybe it was meant to be.” – Mid-season acquistion Mikael Cantave discussing his immediate connection with teammate Gabriel Bitar
“In the last ten games, the performances improved, the results improved … we can build on this. We have a foundation to build on, there’s a DNA, an identity.” – Afshin Ghotbi after the final game of the season
“It’s always nice to score, this one meant a little more. It’s history, being the first goalscorer [in Vancouver FC history] … for me to do it back home in Toronto with a club like Vancouver, it feels really good.” — Shaan Hundal on scoring Vancouver FC’s first ever goal
“I’m really proud for our fans because through a lot of difficult times, they’ve stuck with this team, they’ve supported this team, so to see them so happy after this match just means a lot to me… this derby is special … and I think this victory will just add more history and texture to this derby, which will create more interesting stories for the upcoming derbies, and Canadian football needs these sorts of derbies and stories.” — Afshin Ghotbi after Vancouver’s 3-2 victory over Pacific FC on Aug. 19
5 Questions for 2024
With all of Vancouver’s U-21 players from last season still eligible, will we see the total minutes increase further?
If you haven’t caught on by now, the common theme of Vancouver FC’s 2023 season is youth. Dominating the U-21 minutes leaderboard, and not with a lack of quality, the club has the chance to up their number of minutes next season. James Cameron, Tyler Crawford, Anthony White, and TJ Tahid are all still applicable for this upcoming year, while the likes of Lennon Thompson and perhaps other newcomers will be looking to break through. Can we expect an even higher total than 2023?
How early, if ever, will we get a look at the new draftees?
If you weren’t convinced that a primary focus of Vancouver FC is their local development, the 2024 CPL U-SPORTS Draft should have been enough to persuade you.
After selecting Anthony White and Ameer Kinani in last year’s draft, Vancouver was quick to incorporate them into their plans. Drafting Vancouver-born Luke Norman 2nd overall and Coquitlam’s Thomas Powell 13 picks later in this year’s draft, it’s still too early to say where the two will fit in this upcoming season.
However, especially in the case of 19-year-old Norman, just how quickly could we see the draftees collecting minutes?
Inaugural seasons are always hard, what does season two hold?
When looking at inaugural seasons for teams in sports, it’s a rarity to see a Cinderella story such as the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. For Vancouver FC, there were unfortunately no glass slippers to be found, as they finished seventh place in their first year.
But for such a young team, staying out of the bottom position come the end of the season could be seen as a victory in itself.
With a season under their belt now, for both the players and club, what improvements can be expected in 2024?
Where does the club’s focus lie? Playoffs? Development?
While Vancouver FC’s primary focuses may seem obvious, it’s no hidden philosophy that the goal of any club is to win.
That goal was unattainable for a multitude of reasons in 2023, but with their clear talent on the pitch, both young and experienced, when does their overall focus shift to a potential playoff push? If they start well, do they bring in experience to help get them across the line or do they put their faith in the process?
Who will lead the front line for Vancouver?
With Shaan Hundal on his way to Winnipeg to join Valour, and the future of club number nine Alejandro Diaz still unknown past June 2024, Vancouver’s biggest unknown is who can be expected to lead the forward line this upcoming season. Diaz is coming off of a forgettable season, scoring only twice in fourteen appearances; will Ghotbi rely on a turnaround from the once CPL top scorer or will a new name emerge?