‘Something I don’t take for granted’: Inaugural signing Callum Irving thrilled for Vancouver FC homecoming

With the announcement of Callum Irving as Vancouver FC’s first-ever player on Wednesday, fans of the expansion Canadian Premier League side at last have a face to rally around.

The 29-year-old goalkeeper, always a fan favourite wherever he’s been in his career but especially the past three years at Pacific FC, will swap Langford for Langley and come home for this next stage of his footballing journey. The Vancouver-born veteran was close to friends and family the past few seasons in Langford, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to represent his hometown.

“I’m born and raised in Vancouver and when you see a club with the name Vancouver FC, I think you see yourself with that a little bit,” Irving told this week. “For me, it wasn’t an easy decision since I’ve had such a good time over the last three years and made such good friends and close relationships on the Island. But when the conversations were had and everything was laid out on the table, I’m excited about the decision I’ve made about moving forward with Vancouver.”

Over three seasons with Pacific, Irving played 69 games between the sticks across all competitions, registering 22 clean sheets. He captained the side on several occasions, and he was pivotal to Pacific’s 2021 CPL championship run.

Pacific will, therefore, always have a special place in Irving’s heart — certainly, that first trip to Starlight Stadium with Vancouver FC this season will be an emotional one — but when he found himself out of contract after the 2022 season and began to weigh his options, he found himself enamoured with the project presented by VFC’s CEO Rob Friend and head coach Afshin Ghotbi.

For Irving, not only does he get to play with Vancouver on his chest — he’ll forever be the first to do so for this new CPL club. Having grown up in the neigbourhood of Marpole, Irving spent several years in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ MLS academy, but ultimately he had to depart his hometown to find a place in the professional game.

He played NCAA soccer in Kentucky, broke into the pro ranks with USL side Rio Grande Valley, and eventually found his footing back in Canada with the Ottawa Fury, before joining Pacific in 2020. At last, though, the journey comes full circle, and Irving will be the first face of a club that can provide a pathway for young local players in their own community.

“It’s something that I don’t take for granted,” he said. “It’s a huge honour for me personally, for them to want to first of all just bring me toward a team like this — I’ve been playing professionally for a number of years now and thankfully the Canadian Premier League is here to give guys a chance to be able to play in their home markets.

“When [Friend and Ghotbi] called me and they spoke to me and let me know how they felt about me as a player and a person, the role within the club and everything, it was exciting.”

The excitement is mutual, of course. Ghotbi, who revealed that he and the rest of the Vancouver staff have been looking at hundreds of players in the past month as they assemble their roster for 2023, found that there was no more worthy candidate to be the club’s first signing than Irving.

What stood out to Ghotbi, in particular, was Irving’s character. The coach explained that he expects to lean on his goalkeeper significantly as a leader at the club, both on and off the field.

Callum Irving after a match in 2022. (Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC)
Callum Irving after a match in 2022. (Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC)

“Part of the mission of this club is to develop the local talents of the British Columbia area, Vancouver area, and Callum is one of the local players that has had a wonderful career,” Ghotbi said. “I got to know him when I was watching the Pacific games starting last year, and the more games I watched the more I liked him. He brings a certain calmness in the team and a certain consistency that you’re looking for in that position.

“I also think that he has the quality in a very subtle way to lead the team… I think what also hit home for me when I did a video chat with him and I talked to him in person, I got to really like his personality and his demeanour and his disposition; I think not only will he help us on the field, but he’ll help us on the field. I’m going to really rely on him to be one of the pillars of this squad.”

The fact that Irving is the first goalkeeper to be a CPL club’s inaugural signing is also no coincidence.

Although Ghotbi is quick to stress that he’s, at heart, an attack-minded coach, his priority in putting together VFC’s first roster is to establish a foundation at the back. For him, having a solid defensive base — which begins, of course, with Irving — allows the rest of the side to play better at the other end of the pitch.

“From the beginning, when I started speaking with Rob Friend, I explained that we need to build this team from the goalkeeper up,” Ghotbi said. “If you give me a top goalkeeper, two top central defenders, we will always be there for the playoffs.

“When a team is playing in front of a goalkeeper they can trust, and central defenders that can handle the different situations in a game, then the team plays with much more freedom and creativity.”

Few ‘keepers have been more consistent at the CPL level the past three years than Irving, whose shot-stopping and distribution skills are both among the league’s best. He was named to the Gatorade Team of the Week four times in 2022 — tied for most in the league with Marco Carducci — and he capped it off with a well-earned Golden Glove nomination.

Still, Vancouver FC will need a little more than just Irving if they’re to be competitive in their first CPL season. According to Ghotbi, however, fans of the expansion side will not have long to wait before learning more of the names that will represent the side in 2023.

With several pillars in mind for what a Vancouver player should be — talent, of course, combined with an ambitious mentality and a hunger to represent the community — Ghotbi, Friend and co. have been hard at work poring over film. By now, the club has begun to narrow down its search, and several players have either already agreed to sign or are close to joining the project in Langley.

“This is just the beginning of many wonderful, talented players that share the DNA of Vancouver and share the DNA of our club,” Ghotbi said.

“We want to build a club that will be the future of Canadian football, that plays very exciting, entertaining, and winning football not only for Vancouver but also Canadian football.”