VANCOUVER ISLAND – Pacific FC could see a long-awaited return to its lineup as the club seeks its second win of the Fall season.
As Pacific visits FC Edmonton on Saturday (4:00pm MT, 3:00pm PT, on OneSoccer), Canadian international Marcus Haber prepares to return to the pitch for the first time since June 20, when the 6-foot-3 striker left the match against Valour FC with a torn ligament in his knee.
“I feel strong; I feel fit,” said Haber, who resumed training with PFC earlier this week. For an oft-injured roster that has at times managed just four players on the bench, the return will be a welcome one; prior to his injury, the Vancouver-born Haber had been heralded as an aerial threat unlike many others in the Canadian Premier League.
It has not been the season Haber – nor Pacific – likely envisioned. Health has been a factor in that, as has performance. Touted as one of Pacific’s most dangerous scoring threats when the season began, critics will argue that PFC has yet to find its offensive rhythm with the towering Haber as a target man.
That is not to say the captain and former Falkirk FC striker has not had his moments. Despite missing nine matches, Haber has still managed two goals in eight appearances, and his size alone has a gravitational pull on defenders. But even the 30-year-old Haber admits the season has come with challenges.
“It’s been a bit up and down for me, personally. To start the season, I thought I was playing really well, but the goals just weren’t coming,” Haber told CanPL.ca. “Hit the post a few times, and then I finally got going, scored a few goals, and then obviously, the injury kind of took the wind out of my sails.”
After Haber’s injury, Pacific’s offense turned into the Terran Campbell and Victor Blasco show: an offensive explosion that has seen the two combine for twelve goals in PFC’s last eight matches.
Haber’s return leads to questions: what happens to the Starting XI? Does a healthy Haber hinder the free-flowing nature that Pacific has found as of late, or will his return lift the club to another offensive tier they haven’t seen?
“Those are going to be hard conversations that we’re actually really looking forward to having,” assistant coach James Merriman told CanPL.ca. “Because we just haven’t been able to be in that position yet this season, unfortunately, since the very beginning.”
Here are three options to consider:
Head coach Michael Silberbauer might consider a 4-4-2 with Haber and Campbell as his two strikers. Of Pacific’s 22 goals through all competitions, five have come with the two strikers on the pitch together (though Haber and Campbell themselves combined for just two of those goals).
Blasco and Ben Fisk could occupy opposite wings, but that presents its own challenge: Only two remaining midfield spots to fill between Alexander Gonzalez, Matthew Baldisimo, Noah Verhoeven, Zach Verhoven, and Alessandro Hojabrpour.
Gonzalez – Pacific’s second-most used passing option, after centre-back Hendrik Starostzik (at 84.23 touches per 90 minutes, the Panamanian averages over 21 more touches than his teammates) – figures to take one of those spots. If Verhoven and Hojabrpour are the most obvious reserve options – Verhoven as a mid-match substitute for Fisk or Blasco, most likely – does Silberbauer go with the offensively-gifted Verhoeven or the steadying presence of Baldisimo for the remaining spot?
The Danish bench boss could opt for a 4-3-3 attacking formation, as he did in Pacific’s June 20 road win against Valour FC. The final match Haber played before he injured his knee, it was among PFC’s most complete performances of the season. With Haber up top, and Campbell and Blasco on either wing, the West Coast club beat Valour 2-1 and held a 5-2 edge in shots on target. (Both Blasco and Campbell scored, the first of three matches in which the pair have potted a goal apiece.)
But here, too, there are drawbacks: Fisk, Pacific’s most consistent creator of scoring chances (1.64 per 90 minutes, more than double the team average) was relegated to a substitute role against Valour, with Silberbauer opting for a midfield of Verhoeven, Gonzalez, and Hojabrpour. Given the 26-year-old Fisk’s recent run in form (two goals and an assist through the opening five matches of the Fall season), it is difficult to envision a scenario in which he returns to the bench. One might consider inserting Fisk for Hojabrpour, but does that leave Pacific – already shaky on the defensive end – too exposed?
If Silberbauer is bold, the 38-year-old coach might consider platooning his two strikers: have Campbell start, then bring Haber on at halftime, or vice versa. On one level, it seems absurd to relegate one’s captain to a supporting role, but it seems equally foolish to send Campbell – tied for the Canadian Premier League’s Golden Boot, with seven goals – to the bench.
At least initially, this tactic makes some sense. With Haber on the mend from injury, it will take time for the 30-year-old to find his match fitness. A platoon system affords that – and would also give Haber time to recover with a lower demand on minutes played.
“It’ll be healthy competition,” said Merriman, of however the starting XI takes shape on Saturday and in the matches to come. “And we have the ability to rotate with the amount of games that we have. So it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
As for the captain, though, any talk of formations or a starting XI is secondary.
“That’s the coach’s job to figure that out. But I think it’s good that you have multiple players in the same position who can contribute at a high level. So whether (Silberbauer) wants to put Terran and I on the pitch at the same time, in different roles or different formations, that’s totally up to the coach,” Haber told CanPL.ca. “But I’m confident. I want Terran to do as well as he can; I want Victor to do as well as he can.”
“Regardless of how we set up,” Haber added, “I think we’ve got enough to really be effective in any formation.”