VANCOUVER ISLAND – Zach Verhoven remembers the text message that started it all.
Back before the 45-yard goal that beat an out-of-position Nathan Ingham and sealed Pacific’s road victory against York9 FC; before the pair of assists in back-to-back outings against HFX Wanderers FC and Valour FC, the 21-year-old Verhoven appeared to be on the back end of his footballing career – another year or two of university, perhaps, before his competitive soccer chapter came to a close.
Cut from the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program at 15, the Surrey, British Columbia native had harboured doubts about his footballing future – returning to local soccer and later enrolling at the University of British Columbia.
“I can still remember the car ride home when I got released,” Verhoven told CanPL.ca. “I remember wanting to quit, because at my age, that’s all I really knew.”
A preternaturally gifted, if undersized winger – Verhoven is listed at five-foot-eight, 135 pounds – it seemed his career highlights might end with the UBC Thunderbirds and his hometown Vancouver TSS FC Rovers.
Until the Canadian Premier League arrived, and fate intervened. It came in the form of a coach from Verhoven’s days in youth soccer.
James Merriman was the assistant coach at Simon Fraser University when the 21-year-old winger was still in his teens. A former coach of Verhoven’s from the BC provincial team, Merriman kept tabs on the quick-footed winger as he progressed through the CIS and USL League Two.
“He was my favourite coach,” Verhoven recalls of his first impressions of Merriman. “I remember at such a young age, I looked up to him.”
Newly-appointed as Pacific FC’s assistant coach in 2018, the 34-year-old Merriman found himself with the task of building a database of local talent. Five years removed from the summer the two spent together, the Nanaimo-raised coach found himself thinking about the undersized player with silky footwork.
“He reached out to me, and he was just like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the CPL …'” Verhoven recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s all I’ve been thinking about, honestly.'”
The league had been announced midway through the winger’s second year of university and provided a spark of inspiration to keep pursuing the sport.
“He has moments,” Merriman told CanPL.ca. “Some games where, 1-v-1, he’s beating his man all day long … Watching him at UBC, you could see those same things coming alive … I spoke to Michael (Silberbauer) and said, ‘Let’s take a chance and bring Zach in.'”
In November 2018, Pacific FC made Verhoven the ninth overall pick in the CPL’s inaugural U SPORTS draft. His season with PFC since then has been nothing short of remarkable.
Seventeen games and two Canadian Championship matches into the CPL season, the 21-year-old Verhoven ranks third on Pacific in assists per 90 minutes (0.23) and fourth in chances created per 90 minutes (1.02). An afterthought to begin the season – he was benched for five of Pacific’s first ten league matches – Verhoven has proven indispensable since: a crafty winger who can also slot in at full-back or in the midfield.
“It’s funny, because I’ve literally played my whole life as a winger, and even at UBC, sometimes guys would joke about playing me fullback, and they would laugh,'” Verhoven told CanPL.ca. “And then I come to a professional environment, and there’s some injuries in the back line, and Michael and James had faith in me to put me there.”
Watching Verhoven with the ball at his feet is a bit like a David Blaine special: you know the trick is coming, and yet it fools you all the same.
“He’s deceptively very quick, and one-on-one, he’s very tidy. He can go by players and create something out of nothing,” Pacific striker Marcus Haber said of his teammate. “The thing with Zach that’s improved so much about his game is his tactical awareness, his positioning. And his work ethic is amazing … His last few performances, I think he’s been one of our best players.”
The numbers agree. Absent a relatively quiet 90 minutes against Cavalry FC in the Fall opener, Verhoven has amassed a run of performances ranking among Pacific’s best since July 1.
In the Spring finale, a 3-1 Canada Day drubbing of the league-best Cavs, the University of British Columbia product led his side in touches (91), interceptions (2), and chances created (3). At home to Forge FC on July 13, Verhoven went six for six in tackles attempted and won, then followed that performance with assists in back-to-back outings against the Wanderers and Valour.
“Zach’s a threat in behind. He’s good on the ball and on the wing. He can get crosses into the box,” said Pacific forward Terran Campbell, who first played with Verhoven as part of the Whitecaps Residency program.
Already, Campbell has benefited from his teammate’s playmaking abilities; it was thanks to Verhoven’s efforts that Campbell recorded his brace against the Wanderers and staked his claim on the Canadian Premier League’s Golden Boot.
Plenty has been made of Pacific’s youth contingent, but the spotlight has rarely fallen on Verhoven. His long-range goal against York9 might change that very soon.
Saturday’s win over the Nine Stripes was a milestone for Verhoven. Not only was it the 21-year-old’s birthday, it also marked his fourth straight start – a span in which Verhoven has played every single minute.
“I just want to keep going,” says the newly-confident winger. “I always want more.”
“He’s been given an opportunity, and he’s taken it, really,” added Merriman. “He’s earned it. And I still think there’s a lot more in there.”