This off-season, Callum Irving crossed the Strait of Georgia to join expansion side Vancouver FC. Club captain Jamar Dixon retired, and has now taken a role in the club’s front office. Jordan Haynes left for Valour FC, while Gianni dos Santos joined Atlético Ottawa.
That means that just 16 months after Pacific FC lifted the 2021 North Star Shield at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, only three players who started that match remain with the club — Manny Aparicio, Josh Heard and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère. The head coach of that team, Pa-Modou Kah, left that off-season, while star attacker Marco Bustos, who missed the final through injury, recently departed to play in Sweden.
In summary, a lot has changed at Pacific FC over the past few seasons. But what hasn’t is the club’s desire to be among the league’s elite. This off-season, they again demonstrated their commitment to that, bringing in several marquee signings. Perhaps their biggest was announced on Monday: 28-year-old MLS veteran Kekuta Manneh.
He headlines a new wave of Pacific FC signings, joining a club that may look very different in 2023 in terms of personnel, but is looking to maintain the winning culture the club has established.
“The most important thing throughout all of the change and the transition is that we don’t lose our identity and the way that we want to play, and the type of players that we want to attract and bring into our team, that want to represent Pacific, and be a part of the project that we’re still building,” Pacific FC head coach James Merriman told CanPL.ca this week. “We’re only going into our fifth season. I think we’ve proven to be a very competitive team in the last few years in the league and we want to keep our standards.”
Aside from Manneh, Pacific also brought in striker Easton Ongaro, who is tied for second all-time in CPL goals scored; USL Championship striker Adonijah Reid; Dutch fullback Bradley Vliet from Cavalry and Canadian youth international Steffen Yeates among other additions.
“We had a big off-season with a lot of players, experienced players, players who had been here for a long time moving on, some to other levels, some to other teams,” said Merriman. “We’ve got a good, young, dynamic team and we felt like we needed one more experienced player on the field, but also in our locker room.”
Pacific enter the season with 13 players on their roster who are 23 years of age or younger.
That is where Manneh comes in. The 28-year-old left winger spent five seasons with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and 10 total in Major League Soccer playing 171 regular season matches and scoring 31 goals. He has also played in Liga MX and the Swiss Super League.
His time with the Whitecaps meant he was a teammate of several former and current Pacific FC and CPL players, including Marcel de Jong, Pa-Modou Kah, Marco Carducci, Brett Levis and Marco Bustos. When the Canadian Premier League started in 2019, he kept an eye on how his former teammates progressed, especially on the Island. When talking to them, he said their experiences within the league were largely incredibly positive.
“I’ve played with a lot of people who have played for this club,” Manneh told CanPL.ca. “I’ve been in touch with them and watching their games over the years. The excitement of the fans and the direction [Pacific] is going is something I wanted to be a part of. It all was really, really exciting to me so that all factored into the decision to come here.”
He says the biggest draw, however, was Merriman, whom he has known for several years. The pair kept in touch after Manneh left the province in 2017, and discussed the possibility of him returning over the years. In 2023, with the club going through a transition and needing a new injection of star power and leadership, the timing was finally right.
Manneh is a player who has become accustomed to new projects, having joined the Whitecaps in their third-ever season, while playing in the inaugural years for both Austin FC and FC Cincinnati (under former FC Edmonton coach Alan Koch). Playing for a new-look Pacific FC side in their fifth season in a fledgling league will be right in his wheelhouse.
“It’s a league that is growing, and improving every year from what I have seen,” said Manneh. “I just want to be a part of that, it’s a different experience for everyone and I’m looking forward to getting my own experience, seeing what the league is all about.”
Aside from his experience, he also fills a significant position of need for the Tridents. With wide attackers Bustos and dos Santos departing this club this offseason, Pacific was in desperate need of some quality on the flanks. With that position crossed off the shopping list, Merriman says he is thrilled with the club’s business over the past few months.
“I think we’ve been able to achieve everything that we wanted in the off-season and now it’s just really important to try to become a team as quickly as we can with all the new pieces,” said Merriman. “We’ve got some exciting young dynamic players and we’ve been able to bring in some experienced players.”
In Manneh, Pacific believe they have found the final major piece of their 2023 puzzle. For his part, Merriman is already encouraged by how it is all fitting together.
“Kekuta is a perfect signing for us right now to add to our squad that has had a good preseason, that has become a team quickly even despite all the changes and the transition,” said Merriman. “I think we’re going to keep the same identity on the field, how we want to play and how we want to represent the club and that is the most important thing for us at Pacific.”