How Vancouver FC’s Roster Build Is Taking Shape
Both the Vancouver FC preseason camp and club roster are taking shape, with Ghotbi relying on his national team experience to quickly assemble his team from scratch.
In just over two months time, Vancouver FC will board a ferry to the island to make its CPL debut against neighboring side Pacific FC, where a fiery rivalry is expected to unfold.
Right now head coach Afshin Ghotbi is still assembling the squad he’ll be marching out with, marking a new experience for a veteran head coach who once came 90 minutes away from a Men’s World Cup Final with Guus Hiddink.
Suffice to say, he’s seen and done a lot, but building a team from scratch is a first. While much has already been accomplished, there’s plenty left to do in order for Vancouver FC to be battle-ready in two months’ time.
While Ghotbi’s club has publicly announced ten players, more have already committed pen to paper, with several more in the midst of negotiations and trials. The club only gets one chance to make a good first impression, so he’s got to get it right.
“That’s one of the reasons we we’ve gone through such a long period of trying to select the right players, and the amount of energy and diligence placed in in trying to select the right players,” says the gaffer.
Ghotbi hopes to build the team in a way that makes them defensively structured so as to not give so many chances away, but have them be capable of striking at the right moments to maximize their points, particularly on the road. While a salary cap league makes it difficult, he wants a deep roster, emphasizing the importance of rotation for tough away match streaks.
“Sometimes I feel when the team plays on the road, there’s less pressure on them, and then we can play a little bit looser and go after it,” adds Ghotbi, who will see his side open with four straight away matches in April.
On The ‘Pre-Preseason’
Before preseason can truly begin, one needs a largely fleshed-out squad – and in that process lies plenty of trials, camps, and exhibition matches before preseason even begins.
The club has already had a local combine that attracted some 160 players over a three-day block, with a few of the local faces impressing Ghotbi – and that’s no small feat in itself. A smaller section of them suited up against Trinity Western University, allowing Ghotbi to see them in a competitive environment.
“It really inspired and excited me about the future of Canadian football and how much talent we have in the local market. Out of that group, we tried to narrow it down to a pool of players that we invited to more of a closed training session, and in those training sessions we started seeing them in a team environment. And basically out of that, three players got signed.”
There was also an OPSM sponsored combine that saw almost one hundred players trial, with about ten of them earning the a call back amidst some second-chancers from the first combine. At the same time, players with professional experience whom Ghotbi wanted to see play before committing to them are also arriving over the next few days, giving him plenty of wiggle room to flesh out his squad…all before preseason truly begins.
“We will train with a group of 33 field players and four goalkeepers, so it’s quite exciting for me because it’s new for me. It’s the first time I’ve had to try to create a team from ground zero, and to see it take shape,” adds Ghotbi.
Oh, And On Actual Preseason Too
Once Ghotbi’s roster has been largely finalized, a fairly long preseason camp involving seven exhibition matches and one intra-squad match will take place.
While the club arrived a bit late for its preseason planning stage as compared to other North American sides, they’ve managed to arrange fixtures against MLS Next Pro, CPL, and university teams. Three or four of those matches are still to be finalized, with Ghotbi hoping the team can lock in an opportunity to play against MLS opposition, too.
On Trusting The Rookies
There are already a few first-time professionals in the Vancouver FC books, with three of the ten announced players signing their first pro deals in the last month or two.
Interestingly, two of them will play primarily at the left-back position, suggesting that Ghotbi has leveraged a good level of trust between Kahlil John-Wentworth and Tyler Crawford, who arrive from semi-professional and university football respectively.
“I think it’s a leap of faith, but also you have to go with your gut and your experience,” says Ghotbi. “When you see a talented player, how he’s performing at one level, and then seeing the potential and anticipating how they will do in the atmosphere and the culture of the club even to create in the market.”
Ghotbi also notes that it’s difficult to find left-footed players, so ‘when you see a couple of good ones, you sign them’.
While both arrive having been deployed on the left flank up to now, Ghotbi also notes that he believes there’s versatility to them, too: he’s earmarked one who might be able to play on the right, and notes that they also have the versatility to play further up the pitch, too.
“I think it was a good decision, it was a calculated one that we took based on what we think is a very marketable kind of player for various European teams or even Major League Soccer, and I do believe they’re going to do well in the Canadian Premier League. They’re very talented, they have skill and pace, and they have great personalities – we interviewed them, we talked to them, and I think they’re going to do well.”
It’s no secret that Vancouver FC has staff within its arsenal who have connections from all over the globe: Ghotbi has coached in various countries for almost forty years now, Rob Friend enjoyed a well-travelled career, and Oliver Gage brought an extensive network of contacts with him. Yet, the club hasn’t announced an international signing yet – at least, publicly.
“The challenge of attracting international players is that if you find players of a high profile and in the prime of their careers, it is very difficult to attract them because the financial packages here are below what most markets are offering,” he says bluntly, before offering his solutions.
“What we’ve tried to do is access a niche that gets us to players that, for example, are youth internationals that are playing academy football at the highest level, but they can’t break into first team football at the highest level. We’ve identified some really good players in various markets and we were able to sign some good international talent.”
The announcements for those already-recruited internationals are still pending their full registration process. Another niche area hinted by Ghotbi is foreign talent who, due to circumstances in their country or a personal situation, may find a gap in their career, and would be more willing to take a chance on the CPL.
We’d heard suggestion that the club may have even had talks with Gregory Van Der Wiel, so it sounds like the side is certainly thinking outside the box to secure high-level internationals.
Ghotbi will get a good look at more international athletes over the next few weeks, though it remains to be seen how many of the club’s allotted seven international roster spots will ultimately be filled.
On Go Time
Vancouver FC will debut to a real trial by fire with four straight away matches before playing at home, and that’s a hard task before considering that the roster has to be built from scratch and put out a competitive product on the pitch.
Of course, that’s where Ghotbi’s experience as a national team coach can pay dividends.
“You develop the skills set to be able to prepare to very quickly because a lot of times your national team players are coming from different clubs, they’re playing in different countries, you are going and watching them over a long period of time, and then you bring them three days before a game. Within 72 hours, you have to produce a great performance, with players playing different styles, different tactics, different structures. I’m hoping that I can draw on that experience to be able to get as much advantage for my team as possible.”
Who better to rapidly assemble a team and usher them into a new era than the man who has coached with US, South Korea, and Iran? It’s no secret that Ghotbi has quite an extensive dossier for a CPL coach – but the receipts are still to come. Before we know it, April will be here and it’ll be go time for Vancouver FC.
Ghotbi’s got high expectations for when that time arrives.
Header Image Photo Credit: Vancouver FC