‘That’s the minimum that’s expected’: Simmons looking for individual and collective growth in Vancouver FC’s second season

There were a lot of firsts for Vancouver FC in 2023 as they played their inaugural season in the Canadian Premier League: their first signings, first game, first goal, first win, and more. All eight CPL clubs have experienced similar milestones since the league kicked off in 2019, each forming their own cultures and histories as each week and year passes by.

With a new season in 2024 comes the potential for another milestone in Vancouver — a first trip to the CPL playoffs. One of the club’s key players, midfielder Elliot Simmons, believes that despite a slow start to their debut campaign, a strong end to the 2023 season will serve them well as they look to take a step forward in year two.

With a year under their belt, and a lot of their core returning for another year, there is a lot of potential for success on the Lower Mainland.

“The way we ended the season was, as a group, how we felt we could have maybe have done throughout that summer, where we didn’t have the best run,” Simmons said to “In training, you could see it was all clicking and everything, but it was just maybe a bit of luck — sometimes we needed a bit, we just weren’t getting that on a game day.

“I think toward the end of that season we put a really good run of games where we were competitive, and we did win a couple games on the bounce. I think that first year was that building stage, where now coming into this year we’re looking to be competitive and be in that playoff spot. Regardless of who’s been added and whatnot, I think as a club, that’s the minimum that’s expected.”

Who’s been added are some experienced CPL players, adding some veteran leadership and quality to a Vancouver side that features several of the league’s best young players. Among the new additions are several local stars. They added Ben Fisk from Cavalry FC, David Norman returns to the league from Irish club St. Patrick’s Athletic, and Paris Gee heads home from a stint across the country at York United.

Republic of Ireland youth national team midfielder Grady McDonnell became the youngest player to ever sign a professional contract in the Canadian Premier League this off-season as well, with the 15-year-old going pro after spending time in the Vancouver Whitecaps youth setup.

“I think we’ve added some real quality and experience, and I think as well, for me personally, it’s nice to see some familiar faces — obviously playing with Davey (David Norman) and Fisky (Ben Fisk) as well at [Cavalry],” Simmons said of his club’s off-season thus far. “Having a good returning core of players, I think it’ll be a lot easier to gel straight away.

“Now we’ve got a system, and everyone kind of knows now going back into next year what the goals are, and how each other plays to a certain degree, where last year was literally starting from fresh. I think we’ve made some great signings, and I’m really excited to meet up with them all and get going again.”

Elliot Simmons celebrates a goal with Vancouver FC teammates Gabriel Bitar and Rocco Romeo. (Photo: Vancouver FC/ Beau Chevalier)

Opportunities to build clubs from the ground up don’t come around very often, and few people have experiences in that department quite like Simmons. The 26-year-old — born in Luton, England and raised for a few years in eastern Ontario before moving back across the Atlantic — was also part of the inaugural Halifax Wanderers squad in 2019, before playing for Cavalry between 2020 and 2022, and then moving onto the expansion club in Vancouver.

Being able to really shape a club at the beginning of its history is something that Simmons was attracted to in 2019, and again found himself interested in such an opportunity when he became a free agent ahead of Vancouver’s inaugural season last year. He was the club’s second-ever signing after goalkeeper and captain Callum Irving, and like Irving became a leader on and off the pitch in 2023.

“I think maybe that’s why I jumped at Vancouver, because I think it’s exciting to make history,” Simmons said. “I guess being a player where you can come in and maybe add those experiences from being with Halifax in that 2019 season, you come in kind of knowing how things will go — the ups and downs of it.

“I think it’s really special, and even looking back on the last year, coming into this year, how much it’s changed. Not just on the football side, just as a club in general with stuff being built up and new people being added. I think it’s exciting for everyone involved and I can’t wait to do another year.”

Simmons was a near-constant in Vancouver’s midfield last season, playing in 25 of their 28 league matches and starting 24 of those — missing three games in June with a minor injury. He played the fourth-most minutes on the team in 2023, playing 1,832 across those 25 league appearances, and adding 90 in an early-season Canadian Championship match at York Lions Stadium as well.

Primarily playing deep in the VFC midfield, he added one assist on the year — on a goal scored by Gaby Bitar in a 2-1 victory over Halifax near the end of the season — but in 2024 he’s looking to increase his offensive production, which will in turn help the team.

“For this season, I think, for me [a goal is] maybe being more attack-minded, add that stuff to my game,” Simmons said. “I feel like that’s probably what’s lacked over the last couple of years is adding some numbers to my name, and I think it’s the place to do it now. I think if we can have more possession, which we should do next year, and be more competitive in games, I think there’s no reason why not to add that personally.”

Elliot Simmons in action for Vancouver FC. (Photo: Vancouver FC/ Beau Chevalier)

The confidence coming into the new season comes from an off-season training stint Simmons did this winter in England. After a loan move to a club in England couldn’t be completed because it was outside the transfer windows, he found what he described as “a blessing in disguise” — opportunities to train with two clubs near the top end of the National League table in England’s fifth tier.

Due to the CPL’s long off-season, Simmons was able to spend three months in England, staying fit and training in professional settings. Included in that training stint was a friendly against an EFL League One club. Spending the winter in England also allowed him to spend some time with friends and family.

Simmons said opportunities to stay in England on a permanent basis presented themselves, but that the timing wasn’t quite right. He is ambitious and believes he’s ready to test himself at a higher level, but is waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

“They’re coming up to the end of their season in two months,” he said of the clubs in England. “It would have been probably a short experience, and then you’re in that preseason mode again, which I didn’t feel was the right time to go into it. I think for me it was an important benchmark to go back over to England, just because I’ve been abroad for so long, so I think it was really good to go over and test myself against that U.K. level, and I really enjoyed it.”

That time appears to be approaching, and Simmons wants to take another step forward as a player in 2024 to make it happen. Some of his former teammates in the CPL — including Victor Loturi, Mohamed Farsi, Dominick Zator, and Aribim Pepple — have moved on to greener pastures, and he is using that as motivation. With over 100 professional appearances in Canada between his stops in Halifax, Calgary, and now Vancouver, he has seen the league develop and provide an even greater platform for Canadian players just like him.

“I think that’s why the off-season training over in England was a good eye opener, knowing that there is interest for me to go back over there,” he said. “I think it’s something that I guess every player in this league is working toward, a step forward into a bigger league or a better experience.

“But at the same time, it’s put in perspective how the CPL has grown and how good of a level it has become in five, six years is pretty incredible to see. I think it’s all just timing, really making sure you move at the right time, and you’re not coming back to the CPL a year later after getting that move. I think for me, personally, it’s just focusing on having a good year, and you never know at the end of the year.”

Elliot Simmons is honoured for becoming a CPL centurion. (Photo: Vancouver FC/ Beau Chevalier)

Simmons is hoping to add the experience gained throughout the off-season to that of his professional career thus far to lead by example in a team currently featuring six Canadian-raised players age 21 or under — Tyler Crawford, Anthony White, James Cameron, TJ Tahid, Grady McDonnell, and Mouhamadou Kane.

Vancouver received a lot of praise in 2023 for giving significant minutes to these young players, and as they all get another year of experience under their belts, could take a massive leap forward in 2024. Cameron and Tahid both spent time in Europe this winter training with top clubs, and McDonnell is a regular in the Republic of Ireland youth national teams.

Although one of the more experienced players on the team with 125 professional appearances to his name already, Simmons is working everyday to improve bit by bit and better those around him as VFC gear up for their second season.

“I think the [young players] last year did extremely well, and they’ve gone over on some some European experiences as well,” said Simmons. “I think for them it’s a good benchmark to see where they are, and maybe getting another season under your belt in first team football might be a great move for them — getting another year mature and developing a bit more. They’re in a great environment with a coach that [has] given great training and tactics and everything, so I think [Vancouver is] a great place for everyone to learn.

“Even for myself, in my age, I’m learning new stuff, and always trying to add stuff to my game. I’m really excited for the season coming up.”