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Pacific FC, HFX Wanderers set for coast-to-coast battle to open CPL season

Season opener kicks off Saturday at 4 p.m. at Starlight Stadium
Head coach James Merriman watches over his troops during practice Friday on the eve of Pacific FC’s season opener against HFX Wanderers today. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Reon Moore and Andre ­Rampersad were teammates last month on Trinidad and Tobago in its loss to Canada in the ­CONCACAF play-in game to see which national side would meet defending World Cup champion Argentina in the opening game of Copa America this summer.

Today, from opposite sides of the country as rivals in club play, Moore will represent Pacific FC and Rampersad the HFX Wanderers of Halifax in their Canadian Premier League opener at 4 p.m. at Starlight Stadium. (Ryan ­Telfer of HFX was also called up by Trinidad and Tobago against Canada but missed the game due to injury).

That is among the storylines that makes this opener so intriguing. As is the PFC debut of homegrown Dario Zanatta, the Gorge FC and Lower Island Metro product who became a rare Canadian to play at the Premiership, Championship or League 1 levels in Britain. The former Canada U-20 winger, also named to the provisional roster for 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifying before the pandemic, played for eight seasons in Scotland including with Hearts, Queen’s Park, Raith Rovers and Ayr United.

“[Head coach] James Merriman and [PFC director of soccer] Jamar Dixon have an uncanny ability to find talent out there in the world,” said PFC managing-director Paul Beirne.

“We are going to be a hard team to scout.”

It will be an attack-oriented team with forwards Moore and Zanatta added to returning Trident strikers captain Josh Heard and the slyly-elusive Ayman Sellouf, the latter the 22-year-old Dutch import with experience in the Eredivise systems of NEC and FC Utrecht, who had seven goals and eight assists for the Tridents last season.

Another returning striker is ­former Canada U-20 player Adonijah Reid, a 2017 ­second-round MLS draft pick of FC Dallas, who had five goals and four assists last season for the Tridents.

“Bringing in players like Reon Moore and Dario Zanatta gives our returning forward group an added dimension, and Reon and Dario bring an elite mentality,” said Heard.

It plays to coach Merriman’s philosophy: “We are going to be a technical, attacking team that plays on the front foot. We are going to be possession based. We want the ball.”

But the service up-field to the forwards must now be provided without departed former mid-field engine Manny Aparicio. That role will now likely be taken by the rising homegrown Victoria product Sean Young, whose steady improvement has been evident since he signed with the Tridents as a teen. A key addition to the midfield is French-import Aly Ndom, 27, a veteran pro who has played for Stade Reims and Auxerre.

Although they lose lanky Amer Didic, the Tridents are otherwise returning an almost-intact back line that includes returnees Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Paul Amedume, Kunle Dada-Luke and Georges Mukumbilwa. It is a mobile unit with Dada-Luke a fan favourite with his non-stop motor that takes him from box to box, although he can’t dress for the opener today due to a suspension carried over from last season.

Meilleur-Giguère also emerged as an offensive threat last season with four goals.

“The sneaky, move up has always been a part of my game and I expect more of it in certain situations,” said Meilleur-Giguère.

Known to most fans just by his initials, TMG, Meilleur-Giguère is entering his fifth season with the Tridents. The 26-year-old from Repentigny, Que., was an MLS prospect for CF Montreal and had 12 appearances for Canada in U-20, including in the 2017 CONCACAF championship, and was also selected to the Canada U-23 team for the CONCACAF regional qualifying tournament for the 2000 Tokyo Olympics.

“It’s our same group at the back, with a lot of returnees, and we know each other well and have great communication,” said Meilleur-Giguère.

The opener today between PFC and HFX is a reprise of last year’s CPL playoff quarter-final, won 1-0 by the Tridents before a howling capacity crowd in Halifax off short rest and long travel for PFC following a play-in playoff win just days before over York United. It was perhaps the most gutty performance in Tridents franchise history, against an HFX team that always seems it is on the verge of a breakthrough, but has yet to.

“There’s that coast-to-coast element to this rivalry and these are games we always get up for,” said PFC captain Heard.

Meilleur-Giguère echoed those thoughts: “It’s the coast-to-coast rivalry, and a long trip for them, so it’s important we get off to a good start at home. We know we are going to have to do this trip later.”

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