Easton Ongaro Chats All Things Pacific, Including Beating Vancouver
The busy offseason period of transfers and signings appears to be slowing down as team rosters are taking shape. Focus now goes into getting the players ready, and new signings are linking up with new teammates and learning their new roles within their new systems.
Over in Langford, Pacific FC are up and running through preseason camp, with a season start date set and the Canadian Championships draw having taken place. Former Eddies talisman Easton Ongaro is one of the standout signings for the side and is settling in well to his new surroundings for the 2023 season.
“I came early, been here since the end of January. Everything’s been really good, I’m enjoying myself. The club and training have been good. All positive things. It’s a good environment, I’m familiar with the ground and the area, a club that does things right and has the right ideas, which was a big reason of why I wanted to come here. To be a part of it is exciting.”
Players are getting to know each other, and head coach James Merriman now has his players on the ground with his coaching staff. It’s been a long wait for coaches and players and now the work begins to build chemistry and understanding of the system ahead of the league’s fifth season.
“We have a really good group of guys a lot who have played in the league and been successful which I think is important. We are familiar with each other as we have played against each other a few times in the league. We have some internationals come in who have had some great experiences at quality levels and James [Merriman] has brought in a real good group of guys that are going to be successful together.”
Ongaro was clearly a necessary signing for Pacific FC after losing Alejandro Diaz last season and seeing their goals dry up. Diaz left at the mid-point of the year and still ended up the league’s top scorer, so there are huge boots to fill for the tall Canadian striker.
“I love scoring goals, it’s what I try to do and what I’m paid to do. After Alejandro Diaz left there was a bit of a hole in the team, someone to burry the chances away that were created, and that’s the role I will fill. The teams looking good, and I don’t think there will be any problem creating opportunities, and the more goals I score the better the team does.“
It is important not to think of Ongaro as a like-for-like replacement, but a strong striker with a dangerous skill set who can contribute to the side with big ambitions. While playing for FC Edmonton, Ongaro managed 25 goals in 55 games – and that was for a side which struggled so much, his ability to still register a very impressive goal tally shows the qualities he is bringing to Pacific FC. FC Edmonton is no more, however, but Ongaro knows he owes them a lot for his own personal career which could not have been without them.
“It started great, the way it was set up and how the city responded but after a while it felt like a sinking ship, that it wasn’t meant to be. Soccer has always struggled in Edmonton, and this didn’t seem any different. At the same time, I am so grateful to the club and the city for the opportunity they gave me. If it wasn’t for the CPL and FC Edmonton I don’t know where I’d be right now. It was a fantastic opportunity and experience that gave me everything I have now.”
For Ongaro, having that decision to make after FC Edmonton could not carry on, a lot of thought had to go into which next step for his development would be the right one.
“Before signing here, I put a lot of thought into my next move and I had a lot of conversations with different people and coaches. Pacific was the one team I really saw myself fit in. The way they play, the way they want to create chances, and the way James wants me to play as a striker. You can see things coming together, we are going to create chances and score goals as we have the players to do that.”
Gaffer James Merriman and the club have left no doubt in their desires to be a top team in the CPL. They develop players well who have earnt big moves to MLS or abroad, while continuing to compete with the other top sides in the country.
“After they won a couple of years ago they got the taste and you come in every day to work towards winning a championship.”
Brining in the likes of Easton Ongaro shows the desire of the club to not only develop players but to win. For young Canadian players, Pacific has become a great destination, having given the most minutes to Canadian nationals in CPL last season.
Ongaro has come back to the CPL after some time with Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in MLS Next Pro, a league in which teammate Paul Amedume got some valuable loan experience last season as well. Both are young leagues, and last year MLS Next Pro was in its inaugural season, where young players are finding more and more opportunities to develop and make professional careers.
“CPL has a really good idea of giving Canadian the chance to start their careers and make it professional as well as for older Canadians to have a place to continue their career and having a place to play. It makes it a league that is a bit more balanced, whereas Next Pro is more for the younger academy guys. Those who may not want to go the University route and want to get into the professional game, and it creates a young, immature league. Not that it isn’t good, but younger and less experience is more of an opportunity league compared to what I see the CPL doing of creating a more professional league.”
It shows how well this league is growing with the professionalism and opportunities players have received to go abroad as well as into MLS. In just four years players have moved to European leagues, been part on the Canadian Men’s National Team at the World Cup in the case of Joel Waterman, while more players from abroad are seeing it as a destination to develop and play.
Domestically, every young player you speak to will wax lyrical about having the opportunity to play professionally, which they wouldn’t necessarily have had an opportunity to do a few short years ago.
“If it wasn’t for the CPL I wouldn’t be a professional footballer. Especially coming out of university, if you didn’t get into MLS you didn’t have a chance. This has given so many players an opportunity and its really important and reassuring to see it going into its fifth year that there are people behind it that want it to succeed and want it to grow and you’re seeing it happen. Each year it gets better, players getting opportunities and move, and a lot of belief goes to young Canadians that may not have been there before.”
From starting in CPL, Ongaro has been able to experience football in Romania and in Denmark, opportunities which he may not have received if it hadn’t been for the CPL. He has been reflective of his times aboard and how they have helped him in developing as a player as well as a person.
“Being in different countries and different environments with different players and different levels, you learn a lot. You pick up new techniques and skill sets, and continue to grow as a player but on top of that, which I think is the biggest thing, it’s a learning experience that tests you as a human, forces you to become stronger mentally, and adjust and handle different situations. I spent half a season in Romania where it was very difficult circumstances for a number of reasons, and I learnt to deal with it and work towards the next opportunity.”
These experiences can be incredibly helpful for players developments if they go into them with the right mindset as well as good support, especially through tough times. They test a person’s mental strength and if they can use their experiences as a development tool, they can be valuable players in the locker room as well as on the field.
“I remember when I was in my first year in CPL, I didn’t really know anything other than playing in Canada at my hometown side and as players come in who have played abroad you can pick up a lot of things for players who have had different experiences. I hope I can do that for the younger players here can see the experiences I’ve had and speak to me about them, and I can fill that role as a leader.”
First up in the CPL for Pacific FC is a brand-new rivalry with Vancouver FC. They welcome the expansion side to the Starlight Stadium and around the island fans are excited for the match and eagerly anticipating the opening game. For the club, preparations are focused on themselves and ensuring they are game ready when April 15 comes around.
“It’s still early days and we have our friendlies and still in the building phase. Having a rivalry will be great for the league, it’s exciting to play a rival, a new side in their first game, and hopefully we can punish them right from the start.”
With Vancouver FC being an expansion side, there is little to go on for Pacific in their preparations. There’s no tape to look back over or previous matches to learn from, which can make preparations hard for the game. There will be a lot of work from the coaches and analytics staff to look into each player as well Afshin Ghotbi’s preferred styles of play over his career as a head coach.
“There’s a bit of the unknown about it, but usually the scouting team and player analysis in the club can put together an idea of what to expect based on preseason games or player personnel they have, and paint enough of a picture to have some understanding of what to expect. A new team, new coach, where do you start? That first game we have to focus on us and look to play our game and be better than them.”
The Canadian Championship draw has also been made and teams know what their routes to the final could be. Pacific FC start out against the side that drafted Easton Ongaro, Cavalry FC, but chose not to sign him. This, for Ongaro, adds a little extra motivation, alongside the rivalry Cavalry had with FC Edmonton in past season.
“Coming from Edmonton I was never on the winning side in my three years in the league so it would be really nice to get my first win over Cavalry.”
Should they get the better of Cavalry, a match up with TSS Rovers or Valour FC would be next. The Whitecaps are a likely semi-final opponent for whichever of these four sides makes it. With Toronto FC and CF Montreal on the other side of the bracket, it gives these CPL sides a real chance of making it to the final.
“The goal is to compete to win it. It’s obviously very hard for CPL sides where one player on an MLS team can be making as much as a whole CPL side, so it’s not easy, but we have to go into every game with confidence and try to win each tie we have. We have seen in the past Pacific beat the Whitecaps, so anything’s possible – the gap isn’t as big as some people want to think it is.”
As Ongaro and Pacific FC continue their preparations for competing this season on all fronts, I asked him what a successful season would look like for him personally as well as for the team?
“They all go hand in hand, I want to put the ball in the net and if I do that, we can win games and compete for championships. It’s all the same idea, scoring, assisting and helping the team to get wins and achieve a title by the end of the season.”