Three Candidates for Pacific FC Depth

By Benjamin Massey

May 10th, 2019 · No comments

Stewie the Starfish’s stalwart seamen have become impotent.

From first place in the Canadian Premier League they have dropped to a lowly sixth after a mid-week 3-0 battering by Forge FC. Vainly do we say that first place was after the second game in league history, or that our two losses were another midweeker to better-rested Valour and a game well-earned by the Hamiltonians but not the worst 3-0 ever1. Pacific has not looked great by eye or numbers and this weekend’s tilt, away to FC Edmonton, will pit us against tenacious defending and lots of athleticism to weary a tired team.

We knew Pacific’s defensive depth would be a problem but maybe not so early. Former League1 Ontario man Lukas MacNaughton had two games full of quality and violence. But he was suspended for the Valour match, while Hendrik Starostzik has missed two and counting with a foot problem. In their place Ryan McCurdy was abominable and Émile Legault, a neat little player, is too short and inexperienced to play centre back professionally right now. Given Starostzik and MacNaughton Pacific likely beats Valour, and while Forge was another thing altogether being able to spell fullbacks Blake Smith and Kadin Chung with Legault would have done a power of good.

Pacific have recently added Saudi youth trainee Ahmed Alghamdi and former TSS FC Rover Zach Verhoven to their roster. Even so they stand at 20 players signed, counting the seriously injured Marcel de Jong. They had very few reserves to draw upon, have drawn upon them early, and didn’t even get wins out of it: add depth, please, and the sooner the better.

But there’s no merit in complaining about a lack of signings if you can’t suggest any, and while Sergio Ramos would be a quality addition my source at Pacific says they’re unlikely to agree terms.

Here are three ideas for Pacific FC. All are meant to be realistic. They are professionally out of contract but have played recently at a high level (no stirring Luca Bellisomo comebacks). They are not so accomplished as players that they’d automatically demand large wages, and possess some tenuous connection to British Columbia soccer. We are looking for useful players here to fill out the back of the roster, not superstars. They might make a disproportionate difference.

Alberta Soccer

Noah Cunningham

Born: December 10, 1997, St. Albert, AB
Height: 6’2″
Weight: 195lbs
Last Club: University of Alberta (Canada West)
Tenuous BC Connection: member of the 2018 Victoria Highlanders (USL PDL)

There were serious rumours that Edmonton would sign Cunningham, who in fitting with some of Jeff Paulus’s goals is an old Edmonton Academy boy and played at the University of Alberta. In the event the Eddies managed to land Amer Didic to finish off the defensive core, then lanky local striker Easton Ongaro became available from Cavalry as Paulus’s last pre-season signing. Fair enough, everyone would take Didic over Cunningham and I’d have a hard time turning down Ongaro. But Cunningham is therefore available, and the Ongaro precedent suggests he’s a free agent.

Cunningham is not a household name. He appeared in one of Rob Gale’s U-18 national team camps in 2014, alongside Marcus Godinho, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Shamit Shome, and David Choinière. But you’re not expecting household names in this part of the roster; you’re hoping for underrated young players and Cunningham is all that. His university career at Alberta has covered him in laurels, while his USL PDL career has been mixed but positive. Neither athletic nor flamboyant, you won’t confuse him for Franz Beckenbauer, but he has size and smarts. He seems like a good guy to have around, and just because he wasn’t Jeff Paulus’s type of player doesn’t mean he couldn’t fit in at Pacific. He also provides versatility, having played a fair bit of central midfield in his time.

If Cunningham signed it would mean the 2018 Victoria Highlanders, a poor defensive team, had put two defenders in the inaugural CanPL plus goalkeeper Nolan Wirth. This does rather offend reason, especially since Cunningham’s partner Peter Schaale doesn’t look overwhelmed at HFX. In Cunningham’s defense he played only 725 minutes across 10 matches last year (Schaale had 1009 in 12) and with Calgary Foothills in 2017 he was a key player on a fine team. Victoria’s struggles were down to lacking a consistent lineup and having to gun for goals as much as anything. He was by no means the problem, his other PDL campaign was good, and surely his USports excellence earns him the benefit of the doubt.

By all accounts Cunningham is a serious student, working on his education degree: he aspires to teach high school and has at least a year left. But that just means he should get used to summers off. Van Isle could do a lot worse than giving Cunningham a developmental deal.

MexSport/Canada Soccer

Jackson Farmer

Born: May 3, 1995, Edmonton, AB
Height: 6’2″
Weight: 181lbs
Last Club: Calgary Foothills U-23 (USL PDL)
Tenuous BC Connection: Whitecaps Residency and Reserves from 2011 to 2016

Jackson Farmer just turned 24 years old. Time flies when you’re not having fun. He got a full senior international cap in his teens (against Mauritania on September 8, 2013) and peaked right there. Captaining the Whitecaps U-18s and dominating the centre back spot next to Alex Comsia, Farmer graduated to play regularly for the Whitecaps reserves under Alan Koch and trained with the first team, but never received an MLS contract. He was one of several young Whitecaps to be neglected in an ill-fated affiliation with the USL Charleston Battery, making only a handful of appearances. Farmer got in for Canada’s U-20 and U-23 teams at every opportunity, and played at home in the Pan-American Games, but those teams never went far.

The Calgary Foothills had Farmer for their 2018 championship season, and in dropping down to USL PDL he became a bench player, getting eight matches for 299 minutes plus two stoppage-time appearances in the playoffs. He lost minutes to Jordan Haynes, Nik Ledgerwood, Dean Northover, and Chris Serban, slotting in at centre back or fullback as opportunity allowed. There was never much talk that Cavalry would bring him to the Canadian Premier League, and while FC Edmonton had him in pre-season, where he played another Al Classico on the opposite end, he didn’t stick. Koch, Mike Anhaeuser, Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., Jeff Paulus, and a few Whitecaps bosses all gave Farmer a good long look and said no thanks.

There are some good coaches on that list. We can’t kid ourselves: Farmer is going the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean he’s done. Pacific, who are desperate for a decent, affordable, versatile domestic defender acquainted with CanPL-level competition, might be the perfect landing spot. Moreover, context flatters him. The 2018 Foothills must have been one of the best teams in USL PDL history: their defense allowed 7 goals in 14 regular season games and two in four playoff games. And yet, by goals against per minute, Farmer was better than average on his excellent team: Calgary conceded only one goal (to TSS FC Rovers’ Daniel Sagno) while he was on the field. When he played for Calgary against an FC Edmonton XI in the 2018 Al Classico friendly at Clarke Stadium he was a star of the day. A natural centre back, Farmer has played quite a bit of right back lately and has even suited up at DM. Versatility is good for a depth player.

FC Edmonton loaded up on attractive ball-playing defenders with high athleticism, and their big blonde guy, Amer Didic, is much bigger and almost as blonde as Farmer. The Whitecaps and their reserve teams were notorious dumpster fires, and it was no shame for Farmer that he couldn’t be a regular USL defender when he was 18. He’s played so many quality games against his peers over so many seasons, it’s hard—impossible—to believe that Farmer just turned bad. If I was Pacific and had the option I would let him and Cunningham duke it out. I might sign both, short-term, if I could.

St. FX Athletics

Ryan Ashlee

Born: 1993, Victoria, BC
Height: 6’4″
Last Club: Bays United (VISL)
Tenuous BC Connection: Born and raised in Victoria, now plays amateur soccer there.

Alas, despite their Tenuous BC Connections, both Farmer and Cunningham are Alberta boys who may not want to move to Victoria on the cheap. So we should find a local option.

Ryan Ashlee is your classic centre back. Tall, lanky, likes nothing better than getting his forehead on a soccer ball and sending it far, far away. Though born and raised in Victoria Ashlee gave the other coast a try for college, spending four years at St. FX and making all sorts of Atlantic all-star teams. But he came home for the summer, playing PDL (and PCSL) with the Victoria Highlanders and growing into the level, winning the Juan de Fuca Plate in 2014 and supporters’ player of the year in 2015. After leaving school he played first-division amateur with Coquitlam until in 2018 Ashlee starred with the awkwardly-named Surrey BC Tigers Hurricanes, a name we’ve all had to get used to as they won the national amateur championship.

Moving back to Victoria for the 2018–19 winter campaign, Ashlee joined the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s Bays United and was most unsurprisingly named rookie of the year. He also came up in the most valuable player conversation, a rare thing for a centre back in a metro league, and was most valuable player of the league All-Star game against the Fraser Valley. Bays United had an average defensive record, relying on a killer attack but still only finishing mid-table; the fact that Ashlee was so highly-touted all the same is major praise.

You see the theme. Never given a chance at a truly elite level, but everywhere Ryan Ashlee has gone he has succeeded. Without a doubt, if the Canadian Premier League had started in 2014, somebody would have brought him in. Instead he arrived too early. Yet he hasn’t gone away. The VMSL and VISL, where Ashlee stands out, is good soccer. We’ve seen what some unheralded League1 Ontario players, like MacNaughton, can do given full-time training and elite teammates, and Ashlee is certainly in that class.

And while one hates to build his first team this way, considered as a gesture, signing Ashlee could not be bettered. The VISL has been an enthusiastic promoter of Pacific FC since their announcement, a friendship which the team reciprocates, but turning Island amateur players into professionals is the real holy grail. McCurdy and goalkeeper Nolan Wirth, who both played with the Highlanders and Vic West last year, made a good start. Ashlee would keep the pipeline flowing. He would also, somehow, be the first Victoria native in team history2. From a tactical perspective, his aerial game would be valuable both defensively and on the attack, given Pacific’s overreliance on the high cross and the set piece. He’s taller than any other defender on the team, and while not a natural ball-player in the same way as Cunningham or Farmer the best-case scenario has him as the no-nonsense bastion for Starostzik to free-wheel around.

The problem is that it probably is too late: Ashlee has his degree and a real job, he’s a grown man with responsibilities now. Probably there’s no realistic offer Pacific FC could make to have him put in two weeks’ notice. But I’d like them to try. At least pick up the phone and ask the question. Ashlee’s generation has mostly either made it or moved on already, but sometimes life does have a second act.

  1. The gambler’s fallacy is real, but Pacific was owed some bad luck, Forge was owed a couple cracking goals, and that’s what happened: sometimes it’s easy to forget.
  2. Wirth is from Comox, also on Vancouver Island but far from Victoria, and the rest of the large British Columbia contingent is from assorted Lower Mainland communities. McCurdy is from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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