When Vancouver FC was announced as the Canadian Premier League’s second expansion team (after Atletico Ottawa in 2020), not many people beyond those in BC’s lower mainland would have thought much of the team’s addition beyond rounding the number of teams back up to eight (FC Edmonton dissolved earlier this year). However, in just a few short months, Vancouver FC has turned heads both with their player and staff recruitment. With rumours of a former Whitecaps superstar potentially landing in Langley this time as well, Vancouver FC might be the team that really shakes up this league.
All great teams begin with a solid foundation, especially when you are building from the ground up. You need to have a club philosophy, with principles and pillars that represent who you want to be both on and off the pitch. And in the case of soccer, that is often represented by the head coach. That is why Vancouver FC made its first statement of intent to raising the stakes by appointing Iranian head coach Afshin Ghotbi.
Ghotbi not only brings a wealth of experience through a coaching career that has spanned over 40 years, but also high-quality experience through the teams he has managed. He has been to three World Cups as an assistant coach, first in the 1998 edition as Steve Sampson’s assistant for the United States, and then at the 2002 and 2006 editions with South Korea. In the 2002 competition, he helped Guus Hiddink bring South Korea all the way to a semi-final, before finishing fourth overall.
He has coached teams from all across the world, from Japan, to Iran, to even the United States. He has worked with players such as Freddie Ljungberg, Landon Donovan, and Park Ji-Sung. Ever the idealist, he is a coach that wants to facilitate a team whose sum is greater than its parts, and unifies all backgrounds and identities into a cohesive mosaic that represents the power of football. And of course, he wants to play entertaining soccer for all the fans to enjoy.
Ghotbi is definitely the highest-profile coach the CPL has ever seen, and may ever see for some time. Not many can say they helped bring a team to a World Cup semi-final, or be the head coach of a team in a continental cup like the Asian Cup. To bring that kind of CV to a developing domestic league not only does wonders for the team, but to the league itself. It’s the first step that showcases how much the league has grown, and what kind of experience and talent it can attract. That is why all eyes will be on Afshin Ghotbi this season; to see what a coach of his caliber can finally bring to this league.
Of course, every coach needs players to manage. And while many names that have been added to the Vancouver FC team can be regarded as “low-profile”, the team has already made some true statement signings.
The first ever-signing was a North Star Shield winner in Callum Irving, who was an integral part of Pacific FC’s 2021 title-winning season in goal. That in itself was a sign that Vancouver were not building a team just to play, but rather one to truly compete. Since then, they have had various different types of signings.
They have invested in some exciting youth from MLS in 24-year-old right-back Kadin Chung, and 18-year-old centre-midfielder Mael Henry; quality players who might have fallen down the cracks otherwise. They have also signed experienced CPL players by the likes of Rocco Romeo, Elliot Simmons, Marcus Simmons, Gabriel Bitar, and Mouhamadou Kane; players who know the league and can help the team integrate more smoothly. They’ve even signed domestic and international college talents like Kahlil John-Wentworth and Nathaniel St. Louis, to try to grow them in a professional setting.
However, what has really elevated Vancouver FC to the next level has been their first star signing.
On March 1st, seven weeks before their debut CPL game, the club signed 27-year-old Mexican attacker Gael Sandoval. Sandoval is a player who has starred in Liga MX, arguably CONCACAF’s most competitive league, since 2016. In fact, in his first real breakthrough season of 2016/17, he was the leagues top assister, and was deemed Rookie of the Year. With 17 goals and 29 assists in over 200 games as a professional, he arguably comes in as the CPL’s highest-profile signing since Kyle Bekker for Forge FC. Notably, however, he comes in two years younger than when Bekker came into the CPL. That means that he still has plenty in the tank to be able to set the league alight, and bring Vancouver FC straight into the fold for that championship fight.
But more than that, his signing once again shows the evolution of the CPL to be able to bring in such a high-caliber talent. Sandoval is a player who has won the CONCACAF Champions League, a competition that the CPL has only just started to dip its toes into. He represents a level of achievement that all clubs want to strive for. Having a player like that in your league only opens up the doors for more ambition, both at the club level in terms of the heights of competitions that they can reach, and at the recruitment level, in terms of being able to sign talents of his caliber in the near future.
It is then no wonder that there are rumours floating by that a certain ex-Whitecap star is interested in joining the project in Langley. If such an acquisition is had, then it will really put Vancouver FC as early favourites to pry that coveted North Star Shield from current champions Forge FC.
With the addition of Vancouver FC, British Columbia now is only the second province to have more than one team, with Ontario boasting three (Forge FC, York Utd, Atletico Ottawa). With plans to also add a team to Kelowna down the line, and possibly as early as next year, this addition puts British Columbia as a firm rival to Ontario as the central hub of Canadian Soccer. Add this to the growing League1 BC, and soon many people will be turning their heads West instead of East to develop and enjoy Canadian soccer.
And while Vancouver FC’s home is in Langley is technically not yet built (it’s getting there), what we have seen so far has shown another step forward for both the team and the league. It is estimated to have over 6,650 seats, making it the biggest non-CFL shared stadium in the league (beating HFX Wanderers’ Wanderers Grounds by 50). For a team and region that wants to firmly stamp its status as a soccer hub, having that many seats all to yourself is an incredible statement.
And if you look back into Canadian history, many of the Canadian talents of old came from British Columbia, with the likes of George Pakos, Craig Forrest, and Domenic Mobilio. Having more professional, semi-professional, and developmental teams in the province not only allows British Columbia to produce more talents, but it makes sure that that talent stays in Canada as opposed to going out. That means more quality domestic players stay in domestic leagues like CPL, which, in the end, is what the CPL is all about.
Overall, Vancouver FC’s addition to the league is not only another step towards building a proper and all-encompassing domestic league, but it also raises the status of such a league with the quality of players and staff that it has added. Add to it becoming another destination for young Canadian talent to be able to play in, and you start to understand why such a team can be crucial for the future of a budding league like the Canadian Premier League. Hopefully the performances on the pitch will reflect all that it is bringing to the city of Langley, the league, and Canadian soccer as well.