Though Pa-Modou Kah is departing Pacific FC, he won’t be leaving it in unfamiliar hands.
James Merriman, newly announced as the next head coach of the Vancouver Island club, has been around the CPL about as long as anybody (since August 2018, to be precise). He’s been an assistant coach in each of Pacific’s seasons, making him one of the key constants in the three-year buildup that culminated in December’s championship.
Indeed, when he takes to the touchline in 2022, it won’t even be the first time he’s done so at Pacific. Merriman took the helm temporarily in 2019 as interim coach for the final game of the season after Michael Silberbauer’s firing — a 2-0 Pacific win — and he was in charge again for a match in July 2021, as the Tridents beat Atlético Ottawa 4-2 despite Kah missing out due to suspension.
Merriman will be the first Canadian-born coach to lead Pacific, and as a native of Vancouver Island himself, few people are as passionate about the club as he is.
“I was here since day one of the project, so I feel very much a part of it, just carrying the club forward from where we are and where we need to be,” Merriman told CanPL.ca’s Kristian Jack this week. “Last year is a season we can build off, so we’re looking to take the success of last year and build the club, and continue the direction that we all want to go.”
According to him, the news that he’ll be taking over as head coach at Starlight Stadium came down pretty quickly — but, of course, he was quick to accept.
“You’ve got to be ready if the opportunity comes, and it’s something that I absolutely want and couldn’t let pass so I’m very much looking forward to it,” he said. “That’s how things work sometimes in football, right?”
Part of what has drawn Merriman to coaching on Vancouver Island is his determination to improve the state of the game at every level in his home community.
“I grew up on the Island in a small little community, Cedar, and I loved football,” he recounted. “My dad played in local amateur and was a good player in the men’s league on the Island so I naturally fell into it, and both my younger brothers as well…. That was where my passion came and that was where my love came, when I started to get more exposure to players over in Vancouver and across the country.”
Growing up, Merriman was enamoured with the 1986 Canadian men’s team that went to the World Cup — four of which (George Pakos, Ian Bridge, Mike Sweeney, and Jamie Lowery) hailed from Vancouver Island.
Though he was a decent player himself, Merriman struggled to find opportunities to advance in the game; trials in Scotland and England came to nothing, and though he played NCAA Division I football for the University of Denver, his playing career didn’t go much further than that. He ultimately took a coaching gig alongside his father at the University of Vancouver Island, and from there the transition began.
“It’s why I want to be a part of the Canadian Premier League, is to provide opportunities for players who are going through that,” Merriman explained. “There was a gap at that time, and I think that’s what the Canadian Premier League is for and that’s why I’m excited to be a part of it since the beginning.
“That’s my motivation, that’s my passion: Helping young players toward their full potential. That was part of this project, wanting to bring in young Canadians, give them an opportunity, give them a platform to develop, help them move on, help them try to get to the next level — whatever that might be, whether it’s an MLS opportunity, or to travel overseas, but that is who we want to be as Pacific.”
Being one of the first to come aboard this Pacific project, under Rob Friend and fellow Vancouver Islander Josh Simpson, Merriman has been integral to the club’s identity since the very beginning, and his influence will only grow from here.
That said, Merriman himself was quick to reassure Pacific fans that there won’t be drastic, sweeping changes in Kah’s wake; the departing coach left an indelible mark on the club and delivered a championship, having left a very strong foundation in place for Merriman to continue developing.
On the pitch, the Tridents won’t likely stray too much from what worked for them in their successful 2021 campaign, even if there’s some turnover in the squad.
“Me and Pa align very well in terms of how we want to play,” Merriman said. “There will be small changes; I want to be on the ball, I want to have control of the ball, we want to defend with that intensity that I think you saw this year, high up the pitch and winning the ball back as quickly as we can. There’ll be little differences, and I’m looking forward to that part and working with the players and trying to get my message across, and understand the pieces that we have coming in.
“There will be small changes, but I think you see the brand that’s become Pacific Football Club, and we want to continue to build on that.”
Now, Merriman embarks on a challenge that no Pacific coach has yet encountered: defending a title. Having triumphed in 2021, the target will be on their backs in 2022 as the other seven CPL outfits try to knock off the champions.
Knowing that, however, Merriman is confident that this is only the beginning of the club’s success on Van Isle.
“We’re going to make sure that we have the right pieces to build off of what we’ve just done,” he said.
And as for playing with a target on their backs?
“That comes with the territory. The players will be prepared; we’ll be prepared, and they’ll know that, but they’re hungry and they’re very much looking forward to building.”