'This is where you want to be': As Pacific thrive, James Merriman proves CPL model for coaching development
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that, going into season five of the Canadian Premier League, players across this country are being given a critical platform to develop their skills, compete at a high level, and kick-start successful careers in professional soccer – at both the club and international level.
But while those playing on the pitch naturally make the most headlines, the coaches on the bench have also been given an incredible opportunity – one that didn't exist at all just five short years ago.
Rewind back to 2018: There were just three Major League Soccer teams in Canada – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal – which meant that were were really just three head coaching positions in professional soccer in the country. Sure, you could run an academy-based League1 Ontario program like Bobby Smyrniotis ran at Sigma FC, but the levels of competition? They're not quite comparable.
Nor is the scope of perception and visibility.
Compounding the matter? Of those three MLS opportunites, only twice have Canadians even been given permanent head coaching roles: Marc dos Santos at Vancouver Whitecaps, and Mauro Biello at CF Montréal, while Toronto has given interim roles to Nick Dasovic and, most recently, Terry Dunfield.
It's safe to say that being a coach in Canada has had an extremely limited career path before the CPL.
Now, though? More and more Canadians who are passionate about coaching can see that dream become a realistic possibility.
There have been seven Canadian head coaches in the CPL since its birth, with five currently active in the league today. Others, like Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Stephen Hart, have been long-time stewards of the sport in this country, standing as Canadian as any of their peers. The hyper-local focus of coaching has been unprecedented in this country.
But we're going to turn our focus out west.
James Merriman was working hard at the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy when the launch of the Canadian Premier League was announced.
At the time, the young assistant and son of Vancouver Island University head coach Bill Merriman, was plying away at the only professional organization in the province, but was still miles from a look at the first-team job. He brought with him some university-level coaching experience at Vancouver Island University and Simon Fraser University, after a short playing career at the college level.
"When I transitioned to coach, I wasn't sure exactly what direction I was going to go," Merriman told OneSoccer. "I played NCAA, and I knew there were good opportunities to coach NCAA in the United States, so I thought that was going to be the route because there weren't as many opportunities at that time.
"I started at the ‘Caps, enjoyed the youth development process, and learnt a lot as a coach. I got to see the senior team a lot. I was on field observing and helping... and then you start to see that this is maybe where you want to be."
But the allure of more came beckoning. At the time, the Canadian Premier League was making waves, an upstart project built for Canadians, by Canadians. Naturally, he was tempted back to Vancouver Island to continue his development as an assistant coach to Michael Silberbauer. The fit was obvious, for both parties.
Simply put: The opportunity to progress in senior men's soccer in a newly-formed league was too hard to turn down.
"When Josh Simpson told me about the Canadian Premier League and the vision for it, it was a really easy decision," Merriman offered.
Still... it was a risk. This was a brand-new league, and would come with a whole host of growing pains unlike the relative comfort of the Whitecaps academy system. And when Michael Silberbauer left and Pa-Modou Kah came in at Pacific, and when Pa-Modou Kah then departed and left the head coaching role open, there was always that fear: Is this it, then?
Luckily, it was not. That risk has certainly paid off, with Pacific FC and James Merriman agreeing a new three-year contract extension, which could be extended to five, as his Tridents sit pretty atop the CPL table at the time of this writing.
Now in his second full season as permanent head coach, Merriman's development has been incredible to watch.
"I have had good mentors," he explained. "Each player and coach you work with you learn and take things from, (like Robert Earnshaw and Pa Modou-Ka) if you interact, listen, and learn, and be open, you can take in so, so much."
Prior to joining Pacific, Merriman had travelled around Europe observing training sessions at elite clubs, while also having these experienced mentors to help drive him forward. His extra-curricular experiences have helped, but he, like most coaches in the CPL, studied for his coaching licenses with Canada Soccer, from grassroots through to his A-Licence.
Canada Soccer is playing a big part in making these courses available as well as effective in developing better coaches going forward.
Aspiring coaches have a variety of coaching courses available to them which provide the platform for their development, from grassroots children's coaching all the way up to the new Pro-Diploma on offer to coaches at the highest level to hone their skills. The new Pro-Diploma will be piloted in the 2023-24 season and for those like James Merriman who are coaching CPL sides, they are able to gain further education and development with the possibilities of progressing in their careers.
What is clear is that prior to the formation of the CPL, most Canadian coaches would have focused their careers on youth development, management of League1 Canada teams in the semi-professional environment, or even looking into NCAA opportunities in the United States. Now, we see Canadian coaches leading their sides in Concacaf tournaments against teams all over the continent, gaining further valuable lessons for clubs, coaches, and players.
As much as the league is giving a platform for players to go onto bigger and better things, it can do the same for the head coaches. Those coaches Merriman assisted at Pacific have gone on to new roles, with Pa-Modou Ka now a coach with Charlotte FC in MLS and Michael Silberbauer now managing FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie in the Netherlands.
The CPL has given coaches a chance to reach their potential, to have prosperous careers, as well as the opportunity to showcase their talents with aspirations of further challenges.
For Canada Soccer, these success stories for coaches are vital in ensuring the long term and continuous development of coaches.
With a continued development of coaches, brings the continued development of players, and new generations looking to continue the progress of Canadian teams in world soccer.