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.
Today, we carry on the series out west with Pacific FC.
To read the 5×5 year in review for every other CPL club, click here.
Pacific FC had a roller coaster of a 2023 season, shooting up to the top of the table in the first half of the year before a frustrating late-summer slide took the regular season title out of their hands. With the standings so tight in the playoff race, Pacific tumbled all the way to fourth on the last day of the season, putting them in the midweek playoff game.
They triumphed impressively in that 4th vs. 5th game over York United though, and then travelled all the way across Canada to play at Halifax Wanderers FC a couple days later in the quarter-final — which they won. Pacific’s season ended in a semifinal defeat at ATCO Field to Cavalry, but they left the year with a less sour taste than they ended the regular season with.
It was a year of ups and downs, of goals and an occasional lack thereof, as James Merriman’s Tridents once again remained a major part of some of the CPL’s biggest storylines.
Story of 2023
2023 CPL regular season record (W-D-L): 11-7-10
Finish: 4th (lost in SFs to Cavalry FC)
Goals scored: 42
Goals against: 35
Goal difference: +7
Top scorer: Ayman Sellouf (7)
Canadian Championship: Lost to Vancouver Whitecaps in semifinals
9 goal contributions
Far and away Pacific’s most effective attacking player, Ayman Sellouf finished the season with seven goals and eight assists for 15 goal contributions (tied for the most in the league). The wild part, though, is that nine of those goal contributions were in matches where Sellouf came off the bench. He had an ability like no other this year to completely change a game by entering midway through the second half.
Pacific have traditionally been excellent when playing at Starlight Stadium in the Canadian Premier League, but toward the end of this season they struggled at home. They won just one of their last seven home games, which contributed to their slide down the table. In fact, 19 points at home is the lowest total in Pacific’s history from any 28-game season.
26 away goals
The Tridents’ 26 goals away from home in the regular season is a CPL record for a 28-game campaign. They put up a club-record 21 points on the road, many of them very early in the season, which helped keep them above the playoff line consistently. Once they got to the playoffs, that away form served them well, helping push them past Halifax in front of a raucous Wanderers Grounds, and keeping things close with Cavalry in the ensuing semifinal.
When Pacific scored this year, they scored in bunches. They had five games in 2023 where they scored three or more goals, and four games where they scored at least four — which is more than any other side in the league. Most memorably, they beat Atlético Ottawa and York United by 4-1 scorelines in back-to-back games, and then put six goals past Vancouver FC a few weeks later in a 6-3 derby win.
4 out of 16
The biggest story of Pacific’s season, though, was the drop between their first and second halves of the year. They lost just one of their first 12 games and sat pretty comfortably at the top of the table throughout July, but they would go on to win just four of their last 16 matches, slide to fourth place, and have an intensely difficult road through the playoffs — where they perhaps still exceeded expectations by winning two rounds and missing out on the final by just a goal.
5 Key Players in 2023
As mentioned earlier, the Dutchman was an electrifying player in 2023 when he was in top form. James Merriman played a careful balancing act all year with Sellouf, opting often to use him as a not-so-secret weapon off the bench when his team needed a lift, which provided explosive attacking firepower late in games. His highlight of the year was Pacific’s first trip to the Lower Mainland to play Vancouver FC, when Sellouf entered for the final 31 minutes and delivered a goal and an assist, turning a close derby match into what looked more like a blowout by the end.
Easily the most consistent player in Pacific’s squad the last three years, Aparicio made them tick in midfield in 2023. He had four goals and five assists, while also finishing fourth in the league in recoveries as he worked harder than just about anybody in the CPL to win the ball and advance it to dangerous areas, as has always been his specialty. He was nominated for Player of the Year once again this season, and finished seventh in Players’ Player of the Year voting.
This was a breakout season for the 22-year-old Vancouver Island native, who was so good early in the year that he was named CPL Player of the Month in May. He only missed two games this year which were for a suspension; Young was exactly the kind of box-to-box midfielder Pacific needed to link the backline to Aparicio and other attackers further up.
One of the CPL’s great immovable objects in the box, Didić was once again rock-solid for Pacific. He led the league in aerial duels won by a wide margin (he had 92, with his teammate Thomas Meilleur-Giguère finishing second with 70). Pacific only won one regular season game this year without both Didić and Meilleur-Giguère starting in defence.
Dada-Luke remains one of the most effective two-way fullbacks in the CPL, finishing near the top of the league in duels won (3rd) and interceptions (4th), and leading the entire CPL in tackles won with 53. He was effective on the attacking side of the ball too, with more successful dribbles than any other fullback in the league (and sixth in total among all players).
5 Great Moments
April 15 — Winning the first Salish Sea Derby
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated match of the CPL’s opening weekend was Pacific FC’s home opener, where expansion side Vancouver FC would travel across the water to play their first ever match. Although the newcomers VFC played impressively for a side contesting its first competitive match, Pacific ensured B.C. remained purple for the time being, as Manny Aparicio scored an 81st-minute winner and went on to shush the travelling support from the Mainland.
June 2 — Sellouf’s late heroics produce derby drama
If this year’s first glimpse of the rivalry between Pacific and Vancouver FC is a sign of what’s to come in the future, this derby will be must-watch on every occasion. Pacific’s first trip to Langley saw them score just three minutes in, only for VFC to equalize four minutes later. The Eagles wiped away yet another PFC lead just before halftime, as well. In the 59th minute, though Ayman Sellouf entered the game for Pacific and completely took over. It took him just six minutes to score, then another two minutes to find Easton Ongaro for an assist. Sellouf would then win a penalty in the 80th minute for Aparicio to make it 5-2, as the Tridents went on to win 6-3 in their first away derby against Vancouver.
In mid-September, Pacific found themselves frustrated. When they arrived at York Lions Stadium for their second visit of the year, they had won just one of their last six, scoring six goals in that stretch and scoring first just twice. They scored early and often against York United, though, as Meilleur-Giguère and Young put them up by two in the first 20 minutes. Aparicio and David Brazão would make it four as York scored a last-minute consolation goal in a game where they never seemed on the same level as the visiting Tridents.
Oct. 11 — Reid comes through in the clutch
Spirits were not necessarily high in Pacific’s camp as they entered the 4th vs. 5th playoff game. They hadn’t expected to be in the midweek fixture, but results the prior weekend (their loss to Cavalry and Halifax’s win at Valour) meant the Tridents slid to fourth place. So, they were forced to host York United at Starlight Stadium on short rest, and for parts of the game they did not look the most confident side. However, they managed to hold off York for 90 minutes, and in the first minute of added time, Kekuta Manneh sent a great cross into the box that Adonijah Reid got his head on, as a pair of substitutes combined for a late winner to bring Starlight Stadium to life and push Pacific through to the next round.
Pacific’s reward for that win over York was a cross-country odyssey from Vancouver Island to Halifax to play again just 62 hours later. The Tridents made it to the east coast, where they had to play in front of a sold-out Wanderers Ground hosting its first CPL playoff game. To the surprise of many, though, Pacific did not look as exhausted as perhaps even they felt. James Merriman cleverly switched their tactical setup to a 4-4-2, helping them get a few more bodies forward, and it worked like a charm. They had plenty of life in the first half, and Manneh was able to create an ugly own goal to put the visitors in front. From there, even as their legs clearly began to give out, Pacific held firm and somehow managed to pull off one of the most gutsy playoff wins in CPL history.
“We need to improve, we need to learn, we need to grow. We were top two in this league for 24 of 28 weeks. It’s fine margins; we took the long route in the playoffs but we showed our spirit to deal with some adversity in the first two matches. … It’s been difficult for us this season, but I think overall we can take a lot of positives. Of course we need to look at the things we need to do better in the second half of the season when we start to drop. We need to look at that and why, but this is part of the process. Now in the off-season we’re not going to waste time.” – Head coach James Merriman after Pacific’s season ended
“In matches like this under this adversity, you find out who you are — who you are as a team, who you are as a club. We stood up. We stood up, so I can’t speak enough about the boys, about the players and I’m proud of them for the way they took it on, and the entire group the way they dealt with the travel, the quick turnaround to come into a hostile environment and get the job done exactly how we drew up the match plan is impressive all around.” — Head coach James Merriman after the playoff win in Halifax
“This team has a lot of young guys, I think except Vancouver FC we were the youngest team. A lot of quality; we have injuries, we have suspensions, we bring other players in and they do great. I think now it all comes to bringing experience and a couple pieces that maybe we can bring to the team to maybe get more experienced and after that, in terms of quality the team is always going to be great. … We’re not going to be in the final this year but next year it’s for sure going to be our objective again to win the league and win the final in playoffs because we want to be in Concacaf. It’s not going to be next year, so let’s hope for 2025.” —Thomas Meilleur-Giguère after the season
“I’d rather have it this way to be honest. I’m not speaking for James or anything, but I know this way it’s more of a satisfying feeling. Especially when you win those games that people have written you off; we were off to a great start at the beginning of the season and teams were scared to play us and things happen, maybe teams are like, ‘Pacific’s not as intimidating and scary,’ but what goes around comes around. … The new season, it’s Pacific coming back, and coming back to the basics which is defending, which is what we usually are good at and have been good at. We’ll find a way to score a goal, even if it’s an own goal, but that just comes through everything else. It’s not just luck, there’s always something for it. We’re all excited here to play. It’s been a long couple of weeks; I’m sick of seeing Josh Heard every day in my room but yeah, we’re excited.” — Amer Didić on taking the hard route through the playoffs
“I think everybody is hoping that (this rivalry) will continue to build. It started with them having a good showing of away fans, and I think Manny (Aparicio) in that moment scored his goal and ran to their fans, it wasn’t designed to be like that, but it was just one of those things that happen in those moments, and it’s now the start of this rivalry for us to build on. We’re looking forward to seeing their grounds, we haven’t been there yet, so that’ll be a first for us, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the atmosphere is like, how the environment is, and how their fans (sound)..” — James Merriman on the derby rivalry with Vancouver FC
5 Questions for 2024
How much change is coming?
Pacific have not yet revealed much as far as their roster construction heading into 2024, their only announcement so far being four players (Kieran Baskett, David Brazão, Abdul Binate and Jalen Watson) who have departed the club. There’s sure to be more clarity in the coming weeks, but it’ll be interesting to see just how much this squad changes. Of course, the core has been steady for several years now, but after a frustrating season in the last few months it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise to see a bigger shake-up, especially in attack.
Can Ongaro find his scoring boots?
Easton Ongaro arrived at Pacific last winter with 25 Canadian Premier League goals under his belt for FC Edmonton, which put him second on the league’s all-time scoring list. However, he never seemed to quite find the scoring rhythm Pacific would’ve hoped for this year, finishing with five goals. He could be a crucial piece of the 2024 team, but he desperately needs his confidence back if he’s to be the lynchpin of the Tridents’ attacking setup.
Do Pacific bring in an experienced goalkeeper?
One of the major storylines surrounding Pacific this year was their young goalkeeping tandem of Emil Gazdov and Kieran Baskett. The two shared the net for much of the season, with Gazdov getting the first five games before losing the starting job for the next nine. He won it back from Baskett, though, and started the last 12 regular season matches plus all three in the playoffs. Now, with Baskett leaving the club, the question for Pacific is whether they want to bring in a more experienced goalkeeper to help Gazdov, who truly stepped up and played some of his best football in the playoffs but could perhaps use a helping hand.
How do they improve on set-pieces?
Entering the season, Pacific seemed primed to be one of the most dangerous sides in the league on set-pieces, with two towering centre-backs in Didić and Meilleur-Giguère, plus 6-6 Ongaro, not to mention talented delivery specialists like Aparicio and Sellouf. However, that didn’t turn out to be the case this year, and the dead ball was an area where James Merriman wanted more. Interestingly, Sellouf finished second in the league with 21 chances created from set-pieces and 19 successful corners into the box, but his success rate was lower than others near the top of the league, having just had a lot more opportunities. Pacific also had the second-most shots from direct free kicks this year, but didn’t score a single goal from one.
How do they reclaim home field advantage?
Pacific did not finish this year with good home form, finishing with just 19 points at Starlight Stadium despite going unbeaten with 15 of those points in their first seven home matches. They’ve traditionally been a club that plays at home a lot early in the year (thanks to their turf pitch and the warmer climate on Van Isle), which has helped them leap out in front of the pack at times, but they need to remain consistent on home turf to challenge for the top of the table. The pitch in Langford is known across the CPL for being slightly smaller than anywhere else, which other teams sometimes take advantage by playing a low block and looking for shorter counter attacks. Pacific need to find a way to mitigate that, and capitalize better on playing on familiar ground.