VANCOUVER ISLAND – Early March in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound, the Pacific Ocean is cold enough to knock the body unconscious in as little as an hour. Cold-water shock sets in under 15 degrees Celsius. Most spring days in the spruce-shadowed surf town of Tofino, the sea is a balmy nine degrees.
No matter for Pacific FC’s new coach Pa-Modou Kah, nor the players under his charge.
“I call it the baptism,” the 39-year-old Kah told CanPL.ca of his club’s pre-season ocean dip ritual.
For the second year, Pacific FC opened its training camp at the westernmost edge of the Pacific Rim Highway. Tofino – a storm-blasted, mist-shrouded hippie haven of 1,900 – has a way of luring visitors back. Many come to escape the rigours of life and decide to simply stay. For others, the sword ferns and giant red cedars give chance to pause and reflect.
“We spoke about who we want to be this year and how we’re going to play,” Kah said of Pacific’s four-day camp in Tofino. “I think last year was a great experience for us being an expansion team.”
“Sometimes you need to face adversity to move forward,” the Gambian-Norweigian footballer added. The first-year jitters are gone. “This year, we know who we are.”
Who is this club, anyway? That point remains open for debate.
For some, with the additions of midfielder Marco Bustos, forward Alejandro Diaz, and goalkeeper Callum Irving, Pacific is the next Canadian Premier League contender. For others, the West Coast club is still unproven: built largely upon youth and lacking the ability to perform consistently. The same Pacific that routed Cavalry FC 3-1 on Canada Day managed a two-game win streak just once in 28 matches.
Part of the task for Kah, in his first position as head coach, will be striking a different tone with the players on his team. There are relationships to build. Trust to earn. Goals to set.
“For us, it’s more about coming together, understanding each other as people,” said Kah, who joined Pacific after working as assistant coach at FC Cincinnati. “I told [the players], ‘challenge us as a coaching staff, because we’re going to challenge you guys as well.’”
The egalitarian approach for Kah extends to the training pitch as well. When the club went in the ocean, he went in too; when they ran in the rain, he ran along with them.
“There’s no individual that is bigger than the group,” he explained to CanPL.ca. “I cannot ask my players to do something I’m not willing to do myself.”
The approach, Kah hopes, will earn the trust of his players when the more difficult decisions loom: questions like who starts between second-year forward and rookie of the year candidate Terran Campbell and Club America alum Alejandro Diaz (one or both?), or how to find space on the pitch for the versatile – if occasionally volatile, in performance quality – Noah Verhoeven and Zach Verhoven.
“As a coach, you want to have those choices to make. And knowing that we have these [options] we can put in at any time, that just makes us stronger,” Kah stated. “It makes my job harder … but the competition is good. You need competition.”
Kah, who ended his playing career with the Vancouver Whitecaps, will benefit from his familiarity with at least a small contingent of the team.
“I had the pleasure to work with [goalkeeper coach Mark Village] when I was at the Whitecaps. Same with James Merriman. Marcel de Jong, Marco Bustos… all these players, we’d had connections [with] before,” Kah said.
The challenge now becomes preparing for a home opener barely a month away. A date with FC Edmonton looms on April 11th — and along with it, a chance for Kah and the club to write a new narrative for Pacific.
“As a club and as players, you cannot look far ahead,” Kah said. “They know there’s outside pressure, but I’d say the pressure we put on ourselves is more important.”