2020 CanPL “Season” Preview: Potato Edition

 

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Let’s be honest, anybody who has any idea exactly how soccer is going to work now or in the immediate future is lying to you. I generally try not to do that unless I can get a laugh out of it.

Seriously, though, the league and its management–owners, staff, and particularly players–deserve credit for getting something off the ground in 2020. One thing we’ve all learned in lockdown is how important it is to have something to do, something to look forward to. There’s an inherent conflict, in the midst of a pandemic, in having professional sports teams take resources away from the public, but I’ve come to think what they give back is worth it. We can’t sit around doing nothing. Nobody in the Canadian Premier League is making millions–it’s very likely the league is losing money by restarting. This is for us.

Which brings us to The Island Games, which I’m calling either the PEI thing (in my own notes) or the Potato Cup (in liveblogs). In what has become true CanPL fashion, I only halfway understand the format and we haven’t had even a sniff of a schedule yet, but the tournament will start on Aug. 13 and conclude some time in September. (It looks like the Voyageur’s Cup competition will be played some time after that, if everything aligns.)

It’s 2020, in the midst of a pandemic. It is what it is.

Think of the 2020 season like a sprint, with 2021 as the “fall season” coming after, the one that really matters and we’ll actually remember (and, hopefully, see in person). In 2019, Wanderers finished fourth in the spring, and last overall. Short seasons are indicative of very little.

This time, teams will have another offseason to take the diagnosis out of 2020 and figure out what to do differently. The soccer world in 2021 is going to look very different. Canada is heading into what could be a 20+ game World Cup qualifying campaign, meaning an already cluttered calendar is going to get even more condensed. Transfer values are likely to plummet, but that may also open up opportunities as the supply/demand equation we’ve been used to for 20 years in world soccer shifts.

A young league like CanPL is actually well-positioned to succeed in the uncertainty ahead. The clubs have a lengthy runway to profitability which means they can adapt to this challenge and play tournaments like this to help build momentum.

That’s what this is going to be. Nobody will remember, in ten years, who won The Potato Cup.

The rosters heading into this thing are already in turmoil due to issues with border restrictions that, obviously, take priority over soccer. Teams are also going to be playing a very dense schedule again, much like in 2019, on artificial turf. There will be injuries. Socially, players are going to be locked in a hotel for two months. Most of the teams haven’t trained eleven-a-side with contact this season.

Even the coaches basically don’t know what’s going to happen, if you read between the lines of their comments. “We would like to put our best foot forward but, realistically, we haven’t been able to play any games and we may be missing players,” Stephen Hart said to CanPL.ca last week. Bobby Smyrniotis, who doesn’t seem to have even seen the format yet, is talking about rotating players even as he sells his back-up goalkeeper. This is all very eleventh-hour. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. is “crossing his fingers” that some of his internationals will show up… and has signed Marcus Haber just in case. We live in desperate times.

Bobby Smyrniotis, prepping.

The long lay-off means some sacrifices, but also some boons: Atletico Ottawa, who by dint of circumstances around the club’s creation were never going to be properly ready to contend in April, have had a few extra months to sign players, and though fans lost the big home opener, it means Ottleti can use this “season” as a test run and do the real opener in 2021.

Ottawa and others are signing young players, most of whom will get a chance to play. Likewise, a player like Dean Northover, who suffered a bad injury last season, got an extra few months to rehab his knee–he signed today for Cavalry.

The Location

Yes, Prince Edward Island is beautiful. Sadly, players won’t be seeing much of it from the hotel in Charlottetown.

Fortunately, the set-up at University of Prince Edward Island is pretty nice as well, and they will be seeing a lot more of that. I spent a very enjoyable weekend freezing solid in the pressbox back in 2011 for the university women’s nationals. In fairness, that was in November.

It’s a bit unclear which pitch CanPL will use since there seems to be some terminology confusion, but it seems like it’ll be the artificial one on which the UPEI Panthers play, and on which the women’s nationals were played, though it’s been re-laid since then. It’s a biggish field, at least compared to CanPL pitches like York Lions Stadium and Spruce Meadows. The dressing-room facilities are decent by CanPL standards but small–an entertaining diversion occurred back in 2011 when one team lined-up for walk-out across the door of the other team. Hopefully Valour try this at least once in 2020.

One Soccer will be streaming the games, though if you don’t already one, it’s asking a whopping $70 for a subscription that only lasts through December, having axed the month-by-month option. If you don’t value your organic body parts too much, you can join the Collective for almost $200 and they’ll stream One Soccer directly into your subconscious mind. Or you can follow my liveblogs right here, for free, if you can tolerate my sense of humour, implants optional.

Barring any last-minute construction, the camera booth at UPEI isn’t much higher than Pacific’s set-up last year, so go in knowing this is going to look like local soccer, which is fine because local soccer is what it is. The CanPL press releases are blomping about “implementing generational world-historical digital fan experiences” or something, presumably under the daring hypothesis that more adjectives might cure Covid-19. I wish them luck in this endeavour, for all our sakes.

Watch it because it’s local soccer, and local soccer matters.

Previews and Predictions

I’ll have quick-ish previews on each team through this week to make use of some of the notes I took back in January, with the caveat that everything looks a bit different now and there are some question marks re: fitness and availability. There will be lots of footnotes, I promise.

As above, predictions are a mug’s game at the best of time. The teams will play seven games in the first round–one against each team–which makes finding tournament precedents a bit difficult. Four teams get through that. Chances are very good it will take well above a point-per-game pace.

If you are going to try and handicap things, look at games against Ottawa. The newest side have been given something of a reprieve, but they’re still running a thin roster of mostly kids. I actually really like this. They’re going to be all kinds of fun, and I wouldn’t sleep on them, either, but any of those four teams that wants to get through should be taking three points from Ottleti. Probably from Valour and maybe Wanderers, too.

Individual previews with as much of a prediction as I’m willing to give–plus lots of other natter–are below and will be linked as I post them through this week.

I’ll be liveblogging the tournament opener on Aug. 13, all the Wanderers games, the final, and really any other game that I feel like right here, so check back for those. (If you have requests, send ’em in.)

 

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2020 Preview: Wandering Edition

 

This is a brand new team. Again.

Blowing it up was the right thing to do. Between cap concerns, professionalism concerns, and just outright performance concerns, 2019’s Wanderers were fun but not actually good enough to be kept together.

As such, 2020 was likely to be a rebuilding year for Halifax, not because some of the talent coming in isn’t potentially quite promising (it was last year, too) but because they still haven’t had a chance to establish consistent culture and identity. That takes not just good personalities but time.

Wanderers are a younger team generally. Peter Schaale, Akeem Garcia, Andre Rampersad, Christian Oxner, Alex De Carolis are the only major holdovers. De Carolis, who’s 27, is the oldest of the lot.

They’re still here because all of those guys set a certain tone last year. But all of them were young(ish) in a room with experienced veterans who weren’t performing and prospects with better résumés elsewhere who couldn’t make the jump professionally. Nobody lived up to the standard, and here we are.

The PEI mini-tournament is, in many ways, ideal for Wanderers, and not just because it’s being played locally. They aren’t likely to win it, but it’s a sprint and a chance to see what they have in all these new signings. Unlike in 2019, where Wanderers finished fourth in the spring but collapsed afterwards, they’ll have a chance to reset and tinker this winter without any great pressure.

“We want them to get a chance to prove themselves, especially as we look ahead to 2021. Yes, we’re going to try our best, but we’ll use it as a prelude to the next season,” Hart told CanPL.ca a week or so ago. He’s since signed prospects Jake Ruby and Luke Green ahead of the PEI tournament after Covid ended their preseason chances early. Given the rapid-fire games, they’ll get their chance.

That’s the right way to plan this. Be competitive, but build for 2021. In a cap league, it can take time to do a ground-up rethink like Wanderers have. It’s rarely a bad idea to pull the plug early, and the pandemic means Wanderers are in the perfect spot to have some fun and see what happens.

Key Additions

Many, but most notably Joao Morelli1Gary at From Aways’ favourite player., 2019 Gold Cup semi-finalist Jems Geffrard, Jason Beaulieu, Aboubacar Sissoko, and Alessandro Riggi.

Alex Marshall, who’s had caps with the Jamaican men’s national team at only 21, is being talked about the way things sometimes are in Halifax. He may not quite be at full fitness for Charlottetown after just getting into the country. Riggi, who’s a younger, Canadian version of Juan Diego Gutierrez, can play off the left however.

Key Departures

Likewise, pretty much everyone. Elliot Simmons joining Cavalry stung a bit, as did Matt Arnone landing in York, though both of those were cap-related and neither is an irreplaceable talent. Wanderers might even have upgraded in those spots.

More difficult to replace may be the veteran panache of players like Luis Perea and Elton John, even if both struggled mightily with injuries. The leadership has to come from the younger guys now.

Key Players

Jems Geffrard (centre-back)

Geffrard should be more familiar to Canadian fans than he is, given he helped put us out of the 2019 Gold Cup. Instead, he’s flown under the radar a bit in favour of former Brazilian U20 centre-back Eriks Santos, who won’t be with Wanderers this year due to border restrictions. Given our path to the 2022 World Cup almost certainly goes through Haiti, we might want to rethink that. At least John Herdman will presumably have seen him this time2His centre-back partner in that game, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, is now with Valour.. Geffrard is big, strong, and organized–and also born in Montreal, so won’t count as an international. Haiti were not the more talented team against Canada–not even close–and Wanderers aren’t as talented as Cavalry, Forge, or York. I doubt Jems Geffrard cares too much for the darlings of Canadian soccer.

Akeem Garcia (forward)

Garcia was probably Wanderers’ best player in 2019 and the club is pretty publicly converting him to a centre-forward, which I’m fine with. His hold-up play is quietly very good and his speed speaks for itself. What I’m a bit less fine with is the club pretty much not adding anyone else at #93They did trial Will Baynham, a Tomasz Skublak kind of player via NCAA, but Covid interrupted that, too.. Garcia was an iron man last year, battling injuries and rough treatment for over 2,000 minutes. He’s terrific at using his body to create space to turn, but that can’t be Wanderers’ only weapon. If he can figure out how to play off of Joao Morelli, though, he has the tools to better the eight goals he scored last year… maybe even in this shortened tournament.

Aboubacar Sissoko

Louis Béland-Goyette is the bigger add and perhaps more critical to allowing Wanderers to control the tempo and create in the final third. Without Sissoko, Wanderers risk being too unbalanced in the other direction. Sissoko was far and away the best defensive midfielder in the university game the past several years, eating space and chewing on a few ankles for dessert. Wanderers did not have that kind of player last year at all, and if Sissoko clicks, he allows Béland-Goyette to distribute and Andre Rampersad to run late into the box, assured that nothing will get behind them without feeling some hurt4Wanderers had only one player sent off last year–it was ‘keeper Jan-Michael Williams for a DOGSO. I referee and still think that number is way too low. Discipline absolutely matters, but Wanderers have to be tougher to play against. On the road, be it in Victoria or on PEI, they need to make other teams regret it when the game is sloped towards Oxner’s goal. None of which is to say Sissoko is a dirty player–he’s not–but both him and Geffrard know how to “get stuck in,” as they say.. If Sissoko can adjust his positioning and decision-making to the pro game–and the reviews coming out of preseason are good–he’s going to make Bobby Smyrniotis regret not signing him last year.

Tactics and Positional Depth

Stephen Hart wanted to play 3-5-2 in 2019 and never could because he couldn’t get his centre-backs all healthy at the same time. They loss of Santos probably means he can’t play a back three this year, either, as Wanderers are a tad thin behind Schaale and Geffrard. Chrisnovic N’sa, who’s still young enough to be called a prospect, could play there, as could genuine prospect and local Suburban FC youth star, Luke Green.

 

That may represent the ideal, but I’ll never quite believe Hart is going to deviate from his long-trusted 4-4-1-1 until I see it. My usual schtick with these previews is to do one “likely” or ideal formation and one weirder experiment.

However they line up, Joao Morelli will play a somewhat freer role —Gary at From Aways did a great interview/analysis of Morelli’s game back in the winter. Garcia will be the focal point for attacks.

Figuring out a way to get a guy like Sissoko or Riggi on the pitch in that 4-4-1-1 is trickier, but there will be games in which the extra defensive midfielder or playmaker might be useful. Hart has used a truer 4-3-3 in the past, more with Canada than T&T. That would allow Sissoko to play as a destroyer behind LBG and Rampersad, which minimizes Béland-Goyette’s field-coverage issues and maximizes Rampersad’s offensive abilities. It’d also help limit where teams like Forge and York can play.

Last year, Garcia was usually a winger on the team sheet but a wide forward in practice, starting wide and driving to the inside channels. A player like Morelli, who’s very versatile, can open that space by dropping deep–this is actually what Luis Perea did most often when Garcia played with him up top. On the left, Marshall, if he’s fit, provides a symmetrical wide forward, or Riggi offers more playmaking and crossing ability.

All of which is subject to injuries, as I’m sure I don’t have to remind Wanderers fans.

Strength

Wanderers gave up only 35 goals last year. Defense is the kind of thing one can build on, and although Arnone is gone, Schaale is back, De Carolis is back, and Geffrard is a CONCACAF-level starter. I have no idea if this team can actually score goals now, but I feel fairly good that, if they have to, Wanderers can bunkerball their way into this tournament.

Weakness

Truth is, absences will happen. Morelli and Marshall have put up decent numbers in other leagues, but Marshall’s not 100% and Morelli is not the kind of player who’s going to play every game in this kind of tournament. Alessandro Riggi is coming off an injury, too. There’s still not a lot of proven goalscoring depth, and when Wanderers did go behind last year, teams were able to limit Garcia’s  threat by sitting deeper.

That said….

Wildcard

No team makes better use of the university pipeline than Wanderers, who not only draft good players but sign ones other teams should have. The draft is not (yet) ideal, and I had a bit of a rant about that during the lockdown, but Wanderers have done the right thing by finding ways to get these players contracts. In signing Jake Ruby last week, Wanderers have now signed every USPORTs draftee.

Omar Kreim, signed as a free agent due to the rule change around graduating players, is an attacking midfielder and has been terrific at tournaments before. Ibrahima Sanoh scored over a hundred goals in the same league (CCAA) as Anthony Novak and will be playing on home turf at UPEI. Cory Bent was the top pick of last year’s draft and is a ready-made replacement for Akeem Garcia should he go down.

None of these guys are especially proven in professional soccer, but they’re great stories and they cost next to nothing. One or more of them could push Wanderers from rebuild to real contender very quickly. (Sanoh, in particular: he’s making a big jump in level, but he’s big and fast and will absolutely score in this league, though probably more as a late-game sub, at least to start.)

Predictions

Back in January, I thought this team was shaping up to be much better in 2021 or even 2022. 2021 is now a lot closer, and we still haven’t kicked a ball.

I always look forward to watching Wanderers because they are almost always fun–Garcia’s speed alone doesn’t get enough love. I don’t think they’re going to win, and I had them sixth when I first drafted this preview back in the spring. I could see them playing tournament ball reasonably well–even if injuries crop up the USPORTs guys will have lots to prove, and make Wanderers one of the deeper teams on the island. That could absolutely matter more than top-end talent.

The roster turnover is probably too much, though. If they can develop some understanding and identity, that’s a win. If they sneak into the second round, that’s a bonus.

 

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2020 Preview: Stewie Edition

Pacific fans will get it, if any of them are reading.

When I did this piece last year, I was not keen on Pacific. More than that, actually–I thought they were downright unprepared.

It was probably my least-accurate prediction. Which, fine, I’ll own that. I also think the naivete I discussed there, and which was evident to a greater or lesser degree in all the new teams, led Pacific to becoming the first team to fire a coach1Interestingly, they remain the only team without a Canadian manager, though Pa-Modou Kah is a lot closer than Silberbauer was, having played and coached in Vancouver. There were problems last year, and questions persisting, which were sometimes hidden by surprising performances from young players, as was the way of CanPL Year One.

I quietly like what Pacific have done heading into Year-Not-Quite-Two. Some of those problems last year were actually in attack, in that Michael Silberbauer’s team could never build serious danger out of possession. They were great if they could get Zach Verhoven or Terran Campbell into space, but that became easy to predict and prevent, which led to Silberbauer playing way more conservatively than fans wanted.

The other reason he had to do that was disastrous defending. It was often laid at the feet of centre-backs Hendrik Starostzik (who was injured most of the year) or Lukas MacNaughton. Staro, plus Canadian youngster Emile Legault, are gone. But the problem was really ahead of them, in defensive midfield, and in their solution to it this offseason, Pacific are re-committing to the laudable and maybe naive values that formed the club’s identity out of the gate.

Key Additions

The big two are Thomas Meilleur-Giguere and Jamar Dixon, a duo of proven centre-backs who, helpfully, played with each other last year in Ottawa. (It’s indicative of the Ottleti paradox that both signed with Pacific before Ottawa’s CanPL club existed; Ottawa fans are likely to feel about my preview much as Pacific fans did last year. Perhaps I’ll be just as wrong.)

Josh Simpson and Rob Friend have also addressed the lack of creativity in attack. While I’m a big believer in Terran Campbell, I am not a big believer in Campbell’s ability to create his own chances. In adding Marco Bustos and Alejandro Diaz, they’ve done a lot to give him better support and service.

Key Departures

Alexander Gonzalez. Almost everyone important except the Panamanian is back. Pacific were dreadful in the spring last year, and as much as the centre-backs got the press, they got ripped apart in transition. If you’re going to play with bombing fullbacks like Kadin Chung, sometimes Zach Verhoven, and even Marcel de Jong, you need a strong defensive midfielder. Pacific let teams control the centre of the pitch and pull their centre-backs out. It’s why Valour were so good against them and Wanderers so abject: teams that could create punished them.

That ended with the arrival of Gonzalez who was definitely the best d-mid on the team and probably Pacific’s best player, period. There is no replacement for him on the roster, meaning it will fall to the two youngsters who started the spring season last year: Matt Baldisimo and Alessandro Hojabrpour, along with struggling USPORTs (re)draftee Tommy Gardner.

Michael Silberbauer was fired, at least in part, for not placing enough trust in the kids. Under new on-field direction2It’s becoming increasingly clear that Simpson and Friend make the signings, which is… interesting., Pacific in 2020 are betting on improvement from within.

Key Players

Thomas Meilleur-Giguere (centre-back)

But let’s be honest, the defense was pretty bad. Pacific could have hidden behind those same developmental mantras and tried another local kid or relied on Canada West star Jan Pirretas Glasmacher. Instead, they went out and showed some ambition, bringing in Meilleur-Giguere and Dixon.

Neither are super-flashy–you tend not to notice them, which is usually seen as a good thing in defenders, for good reason. They do complement each other well: TMG is a bit more of a positionally astute ball player while Dixon’s the quick, physical guy who will put out fires when Baldisimo gets caught. Throw in MacNaughton, who’s probably one of the league’s best #3 CBs, along with Glasmacher and youngster Abdoulaye Samake, and Pacific have definitely patched, sealed, and then recoated last year’s hole with decorative varnish.

Plus, Pa-Modou Kah is a former centre-back and I’d put a good bet he can get the younger ones contributing fairly quickly.

Marco Bustos (wide playmaker)

Pacific are the beneficiaries of whatever is going on in Winnipeg, as Bustos is a solid get and they beat out Forge for his signature. They likely had to (over)pay a bit, and Bustos has his limits, but he is what Pacific didn’t get from Victor Blasco last year–that is, someone who can pull apart a defense and create chances for Campbell, who can bury them.

Silberbauer’s team struggled to create in central areas, though much can be expected of young Noah Verhoeven, who was inconsistently good last year. Bustos, however, mostly operates off the left, dropping deep and inside, which will help the young central mids concentrate on defending.

Alejandro Diaz (forward)

Okay, so no surprises with this list. Pacific have key holdovers as well, but Diaz represents that same ambition in attack after the club cleared out underproducing veterans Ben Fisk (to Ottawa), Marcus Haber (to Cavalry), and Iseey (to the boat).

Diaz is an intriguing get for the league, a 23-year-old who was a regular for Mexican youth national teams and a decent prospect at giants Club America. He’s played in Liga MX, mostly off the bench, and dwindling minutes over time suggest he never quite cut it, but there are lots of decent players don’t quite cut it at America. He should do fine in CanPL, maybe even thrive–he seems like a really affable guy–and mostly importantly he gives Pacific a slightly different option up front, especially if he can play a bit behind Terran Campbell and carve out his own chances. Combined with Campbell’s work-rate, it’s a much more frightening attacking unit.

Tactics

Maybe Pacific can just outscore their problems? There were times last year it seemed like that was the desired approach, even if it frustrated Silberbauer, perhaps with good reason.

Shape-wise, expect some variant of the 4-2-3-1 that will look a lot like 4-4-2 when they have the ball. Terran Campbell does the work up top to pressure and let Diaz find pockets in transition–I can’t find much video on him (it’s a very common name), but what I did suggests range is not a problem for him.

Hojabrpour and Baldisimo are going to be absolutely critical behind the middle three to press and snuff out build-ups before teams pull Dixon and Meilleur-Giguere apart. They were not good enough at this last year, especially before Gonzalez came in.

Given the centre-back depth–that’s new!–it seems fairly likely they’ll play some 3-5-2/3-3-3-1, if only to try and get Pirretas Glasmacher some minutes. His ability to play out of the back (or even as a d-mid?) could be especially helpful.

Practically, though, these two will look very similar. The outside backs are always going to push way up and Baldisimo, a natural centre-back, needs to drop further when that’s the case. That it didn’t happen last year was probably partly a communication issue and partly a growth issue, and there are lots of reasons both might improve with time.

Strengths

When that overlap happens, it lets Bustos come inside and creates channels for Campbell and/or Diaz. One of Verhoeven, Blasco, and Verhoven rounds out the “3” while the other two give Pacific real depth. All of these guys can create and score. It’s a powerful group up front.

Weakness

Defense wins in tournament play, and defensive midfield is not where you want to have questions. Look, I like Baldisimo, but he showed last year he has growing to do, not just physically but in how he reads the game and in his discipline, too.

That spot has been key to understanding Pacific’s problems since inception and, even with Gonzalez, was an issue. It is now a glaring issue, and no team in the league won’t be aware of it. When Pacific turn the ball over, and they will, there is way, way too much space. It would be a big ask for a top defensive mid to cover for that. Without one, they’re set up to make another set of decent defenders look terrible.

Wildcard

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in this tournament, and with rosters in flux and depth likely to be tested, Pacific’s dark-horse might be another thing they’ve done well all along: squad unity. All of these guys, even the big signings, have been in Victoria since the spring, and the club has managed to keep them somewhat more together during lockdown. That time does count.

Predictions

How much it counts for is hard to say. Just after Christmas, when the first signings started to come and Bustos joined, I was very, very keen on Pacific. Think second place. But they snuck Gonzalez’s departure by me3Why are teams in this league so afraid of announcing departures like every other club in the world does? Done with grace, it’s the professional thing. Hidden away, either at the bottom of boilerplate pieces or not announced at all, it actually reflects quite poorly on CanPL as a league. and there’s no replacement. I keep coming back to that.

I’d have put them playoff bubble in April, so fourth. I still feel pretty good about that for PEI. The two teams I’d have put above them have both been hammered by international absences, so anything could happen. That will get them into the second round, which would be due reward for the team’s ambition after a shaky start to professional life.

 

 

2020 Preview: Forging a Caveat Edition

If Forge win this thing, does it count as a back-to-back championship?

(It does, according to the league. You know it’s not quite the same, though, and it never will be.)

Hamilton’s side is still the best team in the league, just like they were at the end of last season, They’ve made very few moves in the winter and look pretty happy about it.

That was pretty much the plan in 2019, too, when Bobby Smyrniotis added one of his key pieces in the summer by signing David Edgar. That opportunity more or less passed due to Covid… but then, he added Mo Babouli hours before leaving for PEI.

Forge are automatically contenders in Charlottetown and were even before Babouli signed. It says a lot about this team that he probably won’t start, at least not in the first match against Cavalry. They were tactically and technically superior in both legs of the final last year, and they’re not resting on their laurels, either.

“When I look at it statistically — the goals, the assists — they’re probably not where they want to be, last year, and where I think they can be. So it’s getting that extra production from them this year, because last year in a lot of areas of the game they were excellent.” – Bobby Smyrniotis, to CanPL.ca back in March

This was, for me, the most interesting quote of the offseason. Forge won the title last year, and immediately post-Borges-sale quotes. he’s calling out Marcel Zajac, David Choiniere, and Elimane Cissé. The message is clear: if you want to be sold, you have to step up and earn it.

When that’s the expectation, it’s not a bad idea to bet on improvement from within.

Key Additions

They resigned almost everyone at the end of 2019, including Tristan Borges, enabling them to get a transfer fee for him. Anthony Novak, who was the focal point in attack when he wasn’t hurt, is also back.

Along with Babouli, they announced the signing of Canadian left-back Max Tissot, who addresses a sneaky problem at left-back for Forge. Tissot long deserved more of a chance in MLS and should be a top player in this league.

Key Departures

They can make these moves because they cut guys with contracts who underperformed–namely Bertrand Owundi and Quillan Roberts. That’s ruthless, but it’s a salary cap league.

I’m a bit more disappointed to see university pick Jace Kotsopolous go. I thought he showed well in limited minutes and he’s four years younger than Novak. It’s worth remembering, though, that some of these guys aren’t paid all that much, and will understandably want to move on if they don’t have a chance to move up a level. That’s more or less what happened with Guiliano Frano, who was useful in a lot of different positions last year but recently left by mutual consent to go into business. It’s a bit of a tough break for club and fans alike, but this is going to happen at this level of football.

Key Players

David Choiniere (attacker)

Of the three guys Smyrniotis called out publicly, I thought Choiniere was the hardest done by it–he played pretty well last year when he got minutes, which wasn’t often. That said, I trust Bobby and it’s totally possible Choiniere didn’t earn those minutes (he was also hurt a lot–maybe too much).

He’s still young and still a bit unproven, but while he’s not quite as physically dynamic as Borges, he offers some of the same intelligence and goal threat, and is perhaps less likely to get sent off in major finals. Borges actually exceeded his underlying numbers last year. Forge aren’t going to get 11 goals out of Choiniere but they probably don’t need to, and he has the skill package to offer a lot more than the four he put up last year (in only a hair over 1,000 minutes).

Paolo Sabak (attacking midfielder)

If Choiniere doesn’t pan out, the Borges spot (usually on the left, sometimes in the middle) is probably Paolo Sabak’s, a young Belgian who’s come up through the Genk system, and got on the pitch with Nijmegen in the Dutch second division. He actually subbed in for Alejandro Pozuelo at one point–subbing on for the captain is always a good look.

This wasn’t a 21st Club signing. It came through a connection with Forge assistant coach Peter Reynders, who coached Sabak at Genk. That speaks to the importance of developing, in this league, an actual network of people who have worked around the world. That is not something a service can provide and it is a massive missing runj in Canadian coach development. We’ve never had the clubs to help build that network, and we do now. The next step is getting more Canadian coaches hired abroad.

Bobby Smyrniotis also got Daniel Krutzen this way and that worked out well. Reynders no doubt helped with the Borges sale to OHL in Belgium, too. Nobody knows if Sabak, who’s just 19, will work out, but I feel more comfortable trusting the talent ID of the Forge braintrust than shadowy centralized tech services, especially when said talent has legit reps with the Belgian U19s.

David Edgar (centre-back)

Nobody much talked about Edgar last year. He’s never exactly been a Canadian soccer headline-maker, but he should have been, because he came into this new league after finishing the European season–a gamble for a player of his stature–and immediately took Forge from an exciting, tactically adept team that had a worrying tendency to concede horribly soft goals to an exciting, tactically adept team that could shut out Cavalry at Spruce Meadows.

Edgar is 33 now, but he still has enough left in his legs to be the organizer without being a liability, and Forge’s backline needed that organization last year. His injury history has to be a concern going forward, especially coming off the lengthy Covid training layoff and heading into a rapid-fire tournament. They need him to stay healthy at least one more year, which might mean rotating him, except Forge are a touch thin at centre-back. Except Krutzen to play much more there than at left-back.

Tactics and Positional Depth

It’ll be the same as last year–a possession 4-2-3-1 with a fair bit of fluidity but discipline in key places, mostly built around Kyle Bekker’s ability to make decisions and defensive reads. I didn’t mention him above, but don’t overlook Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson’s role in making all that work by playing the simplest, most effective game in CanPL.

Elimane Cissé was one of the other players Smyrniotis challenged. He toyed with playing him as the forward part of that midfield last year, basically as a #10. Cissé’s not that good at it–it’s worth remembering he started his career as a centre-back before not quite making it at d-mid last year. Like Kwame Awuah, both are versatile, which you need in this league, but I suspect both are best as useful ways to alter the game off the bench.

Choiniere is really more of a second striker, too. Ideally he gets onto the end of Nanco’s crosses, but Smyrniotis sometimes switched Nanco to the left last year, and could do something similar, which either leaves Choiniere out or–perhaps?–playing off Novak. Adding Babouli, whatever state he’s in, means there’ll be competition and enough depth, though there’d be more if Zajac could figure out the adjustment to professional soccer.

(Just for fun, let’s swap some spots in case of injuries. Forge are good enough I can do that without feeling it’s unfair.)

(That’s really quite scary. No team in CanPL can trot out a whole second XI. Though the defense might be scary for a different reason, and damn would I like it if Monti Mohsen wasn’t third on the LB depth chart–Awuah would more likely play there, and could even start if Tissot’s not up to full fitness.)

These are, in many ways, good questions to have. Squad rotation is going to be important if Forge want to get through 11 games in a month, which is what winning on PEI will mean. They signed Gabriel Balbinotti out of the USPORTs draft, which took a while but he showed what he could do in a tournament setting at nationals last year1I’d actually keep an eye on him, longer-term, as Bekker’s back-up and, perhaps, eventually replacement. Bekker will turn 30 at the tournament and while physicality’s never been a huge part of his game, the miles can start to tell. Balbinotti, who was an Ottawa Fury prospect at one point, might actually end up being the better player once he’s had a chance to learn from Bekker’s experience of having gone from superstar to simple, pragmatic midfielder–a similar journey Balbinotti needs to take. and he’ll get a chance to play, especially now Frano’s gone.

Strengths

I really think Bobby Smyrniotis is the best manager in this league. I might not have said that before he took on CD Olimpia–one of the best sides in Honduras–last year and, despite the loss, basically controlled the game for 180 minutes. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a CONCACAF coach, much less a Canadian one, actually manage that against a Honduran side. Yes, they lost the second leg, but even there they were in the game until late.

Compared to Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Smyrniotis is gruff and there was a moment before the CanPL final when One Soccer showed a snapshot of his dressing room speech that I wondered how, up against Wheeldon Jr.’s high-energy sermon, Bobby gets guys to play for him, because you could hear paint drying. Then he went and won both legs of the final. When the going gets tough, as it inevitably will at some point on PEI, I don’t think there’s a coach more able to change on the fly as Smyrniotis2He also did it last year, several times, early in the spring season when things were not going well for Forge. He threw Anthony Novak up front and started playing transition games. He gave Triston Henry the starting job ahead of Quillan Roberts, and stuck with him after an early-season gaffe, for which Henry rewarded him. He went out and signed Edgar and dropped ex-MLSer Bertrand Owundi. I don’t know if any team changed things as much as Forge did last year.. That was a large part of what won him the inaugural title, and over the course of a tournament, it’s often the team that can adjust that wins.

Weaknesses

There’s always something that nags at me about Forge, though, no matter what they do. I wrote about it last year.

For this tournament, anyway, it’s depth, but honestly, I’m reaching here. I was going to knock them for not signing their USPORTs draftees, especially since last year’s pick Aboubacar Sissoko went on to get a preseason invite in Vancouver and signed in Halifax. That kind of thing can hurt you.

They’ve since signed Balbinotti, so I had to scrap that. Still, pour one out for Alex Zis, who joins Sissoko, Kotsopoulos, and Marko Mandekic as university stars who didn’t really get a sniff. This is a tough team to break into.

Wildcard

Mo Babouli is pretty much a literal wildcard. He came out of nowhere at TFC (actually came out of CCAA and a short spell in the academy), played quite well but what are you gonna do behind Sebastian Giovinco?, then left and went to play in… Aleppo, Syria, at the height of the civil war. Babouli has Syrian heritage so it’s not completely out of left-field, but you still wonder where his head’s at. That can’t have been an easy stint. Since coming back, he’s been playing indoor soccer–the kind with boards–and in the now long unsanctioned Canadian Soccer League. It’s a crazy ride.

If he can deliver on the flashes of potential he showed at TFC and in League 1 Ontario before that, he could still be a top player in this league, even at 27 and having not played a whole lot recently. He is, basically, another reclamation project, not that much unlike Quillan Roberts or Bertrand Owundi, both of whom came out of difficult MLS situations. You’ll also notice, above, that both got cut. Neither made even the slightest impact for Forge last year. They got away with it in 2019, riding Borges, Bekker, and the rest of their pieces to the title, but you can’t afford to do that on the regular with a 23-man roster, and you certainly can’t afford to have that in Charlottetown. Eleven games in just over a month.

Step up or ship out.

Predictions

I had them first in April and see no reason not to make them favourites for PEI. There are reasons why this might not go to plan, but most of those apply to all the teams. Because of where Forge were already and how Smyrniotis builds his team, they’ve not been as badly hit by international absences. Depth is maaaybe an issue, but it’s one I’m pretty sure they can figure out.

2020 Preview: York 9 to 902

Simon Adjei lying face-down on the ground after missing agaisnt Pacific.

I gather we need to get the “nine” jokes in while we still can.

The league’s most hyped team–coincidentally, I’m sure, underperforming in the league’s biggest media market–has had a bit of a problem getting some of those big-name signings into the country due to Covid-19 border restrictions, which is a pity because some of them (not all of them) look promising.

Instead, York head to Prince Edward Island about halfway built, and with many of the same questions facing them now as at the end of 2019. This is a good team on the up and up but they could have been last year and never delivered.

This is either going to be a short tournament that’s useful as a prelude for 2021 or a coming out party. Your choice.

Midfield wins games. If you create chances you will, eventually, score. If you prevent them, you will give up fewer goals. Jim Brennan has a lot of very good midfielders and has added more, but he had a lot last year, too, and York9 were too often open, exciting, and not as good as they should have been at executing in either end of the field.

They played absolutely gorgeous transitions–the best in the league by far–and ended up with just middle-of-the-road scoring and a goalkeeper facing far and away the most shots in the league.

Expected goals said they should have had more, but xG only measures the quality of chance (and even then, it’s an approximation); if you can’t finish, you can’t finish. If York can’t finish, they’re not winning anything on PEI, no matter how improved they are in other parts of the field.

York have absolutely improved this winter, but they haven’t particularly addressed either end of the field. Adrian Ugarizza was one of my favourite adds of the offseason, but has been released to play in Peru because Covid delayed the CanPL season. They signed Matt Arnone, who’s a solid local player but I’m still not convinced they can defend out wide–that’s not a problem at York Lions Stadium but on the pitch at UPEI, which is actually on the larger side, it will be.

The midfield depth is even better than last year’s, but Cavalry and Forge also have that depth and have proven ideas about how to get the ball from back to front without giving up shots. Until York9 can find someone who can reliably score 10-15 goals, they’re not in the top two.

Key Additions

No club made quite so much use of the new centralized scouting system and 21st Club as York, which we’ll get to in a minute. They’ve picked up two good d-mids to work with Joe Di Chiara, though unfortunately 20-year-old Argentine Brian Lopez won’t be in Charlottetown. Chris Mannella, though, is a big get coming out of Ottawa Fury.

Mike Petrasso was lured away from the mess in Winnipeg, which I imagine wasn’t that hard given he’s actually from York. After some ins-and-outs, they managed to sign Ryan Telfer permanently, too, so that’s the winger slots dealt with, even with Emilio Estevez being sold.

Key Departures

Most of last year’s attack is gone, including Rodrigo Gattas and Simon Adjei–remember how many goals those two were going to score? Not Kyle Porter, surprisingly but welcome. Dan Gogarty, disappointingly. Just about every kid York gave a chance last year is gone, too, and while I can’t say any of them showed much, that’s a tad disappointing, too.

Key Players

Gabby Vasconcelos (forward)

Let’s talk about 21st Club.

Vasconcelos is the much-hyped former Corinthians U20 guy with supposedly great underlying numbers you may remember from quotes like “he’s a real coup for the league.”

I do not have access to whatever numbers the guys in London, San Francisco, and Singapore have1Very hot soccer markets, you’ll note. Also very hot tech markets. A caveat about this: it’s difficult to analyze businesses like 21st Club. That’s part and parcel of tech firms, and it’s deliberate. A vast majority of data start-ups offer very little, and star-studded clients do not necessarily equate to meaningful value delivered. What I will give 21st Club is that the founders have actual football experience. I’ve just spent some time looking through what’s available publicly on them, mostly their website, and as a consultancy, they’re obviously geared to big teams where the players being signed will have data available and the analysis can help in determining player valuation and such. I have a tougher time seeing how it helps a lower-level league like CanPL, but time will tell. For now, and until the league decides to issue more than glittery press releases, I’ll judge them on the players signed via that route so far. Sound fair?. I do have access to Transfermarkt, that old reliable standby, which tells me Vasconcelos has put up three goals… in thirty games… in 2017. He has, perhaps understandably, not played a whole lot since. He is now 23 and has been given a chance by a variety of manages in the Brazilian second flight, none of whom gave him more than enough minutes to find out he couldn’t score. You can have the best underlying data in the world, but three in thirty when you’re an attacking player speaks for itself. (He doesn’t have assists, either.)

I also guarantee you that the Brazilian Serie B (or replace with the Jamaican Premier League, or Peruvian Liga II, the other main sources of 21st Club –> CanPL signings) are not doing widespread data collection of the sort that allows you to evaluate players deeply. With these kinds of services, and at this level, most of the meat has to come from players and agents. That’s how CanPL is using it–in lieu of, or in addition to, the limited networks coaches here have.

None of this is inherently bad, nor does it mean Vasconcelos won’t pan out. He can apparently play on the wing or as a false nine, which wouldn’t be so bad if York had another striker, but with Ugarizza gone, they don’t. Brennan has called Vasconcelos “a real goal threat from midfield” and I would really love to have some evidence because the scary part is you could say the same about Rodrigo Gattas, another South American with potential who’d come up through some good systems but never quite caught on anywhere–there are lots to choose from!–and he was mostly a threat to cars parked behind the end stands.

Matt Arnone (centre-back)

Arnone’s signing was likely aided by the housing allowance–he’s from Vaughan and can thus live there and free up salary spend for more midfielders. (He can even play there in a pinch!) Wanderers couldn’t afford both him and Schaale and that’s how it goes. He proved last year that he’s a solid player in this league and York did a smart piece of business here.

We know what we’re getting in Arnone, and he’s still got a lot of potential. He showed last year that he can be a smooth, mobile partner, which will suit Luca Gasparotto. With Roger Thompson, York can also slide into the back three Brennan likes without too much fuss. Arnone’s distribution is badly underrated, too. I still think releasing Dan Gogarty was a mistake, but Arnone’s definitely an upgrade, even if the back-line is now a bit dollar-heavy. Buy defense, develop offense, as the saying goes. Or, in York’s case, pray for offense.

Chris Mannella (defensive midfielder)

Petrasso is the bigger name, but even though Mannella’s a midfielder, I really like what he offers York. Joe Di Chiara is probably the best destroyer in the league but he’s injured a fair bit and doesn’t offer you much going forward, either. Mannella’s responsible, but showed in Ottawa that he can make those transitions happen, and he has a decent history with Manny Aparicio from his TFC academy days.

Mannella should go a long way to erasing some of those counterattacks York gave up last year when Diyaeddine Abzi pushing forward. If he can continue to develop his chance creation, York will absolutely create chances. Somebody, surely, has to finish them?

Tactics and Positional Depth

The glut of midfield options means getting everyone on the pitch will be an adventure, but probably a happy one. Remember that Wataru Murofushi, Kyle Porter, and a pile of promising youngsters are in there, too.

Given what we saw last year, expect Brennan to be progressive but sensible–I actually really liked what I saw from him when York came to Wanderers’ Grounds.

A lot of the forwards York looked at this winter, both the more and less promising, were false nines or smaller, more technical forwards. That suggests a pattern that persists from 2019, when the attack was more about movement and intelligence–six “attacking” players, basically, with lots of license to support and swap. When it worked it was glorious to watch.

(I’ll be curious to see exactly who starts in certain positions where there is depth. Morey Doner is becoming something of a club legend and is a dependable defensive option at right-back. But I suspect Brennan will play the back three a lot, and the attacking promise there is tremendous… if Telfer can play as an out-and-out forward.)

The only concern is whether that’s how York will play when the pressure’s on. Last year, when they got into trouble, those fundamentals started to slip into individual play, often on the outside–something that can occasionally plague both Petrasso’s and Telfer’s games, too. It never seemed like there was much of a plan B, and I’m still not sure what it would be.

When York’s system works, you get something like Forge, but even they have a focal point in Anthony Novak who is big and boring, but effective. Without that kind of player, York revert to crosses and long shots and they can’t outscore the opportunities such a fluid style inevitably presents to other teams on the counter. Arnone is going to be crucial.

Strengths

Midfield, obviously. Mannella – Di Chiara is almost certainly the best central combo in the league, bar maybe Forge with Jonsson – Bekker on a good day.

I actually really like this team in a 4-2-3-1, which they did actually do a fair bit of last year, mostly when Brennan (wisely) wanted to simplify. Guys like Wataru Murofushi and Kyle Porter can come off the bench–in Porter’s case, that’s probably a good role for him at this point.

They’ve done some real nice work getting a good crop of young players again, too–hopefully more of these guys stick. I’m very high on Isaiah Johnston, who had a cup of coffee with Cape Breton last year after training at York9 coming out of the Woodbridge Strikers system. And hey, Johnston played as a kind of false striker at times for Deano Morley last year. Just saying.

Weaknesses

Yeah.

I’m absolutely gutted about Ugarizza and hope they can get him back in 2021 because he was what 21st Club should be used for: a 23-year-old striker with real minutes as a youngster in Peru’s top flight and in the Copa Libertadores. This is the kind of player CanPL can and should look for. We’re not going to get sure things who’ve played in the Copa Lib, but we can offer an adventure in Canada and a steady paycheque. That matters.

Ugarizza’s replacement actually is intriguing in his own way. Alvaro Rivera is being touted as having come up through Real Madrid’s academy, which is true, though a lot of players go through there in Spain. He’s played for a variety of teams in the third and fourth divisions in Spain, which isn’t necessarily a bad look, but asking a 20-year-old to put up 15 goals is a bit much. Still, he’ll get a chance.

There’s very little behind him. Nicholas Hamilton, another 21st Club signing, played in the Jamaican Premier League, possibly for the same club as Wanderers’ Alex Marshall, but I can’t find enough on him to be sure. He doesn’t have Marshall’s national team caps, and while the Red Square Premier League has some good players, it’s too variable to put much expectation on a guy who’s not showing up in media reports.

Wildcard

All that said, in Petrasso and Telfer, York have two game-breaking wingers, both of whom are versatile enough to play have played reasonably effectively anywhere from wing-back to centre-forward in the past. 2020 is going to be a tournament where every game matters, and every moment matters. Both these guys can win games in those moments.

Neither showed it quite often enough last year, but people remember Telfer’s goal for TFC against Orlando. York need him to make that run a lot. Petrasso solves what had been a bit of a sticky spot for York on the right, where Kyle Porter was no longer able to offer much more than defensive responsibility.

I think both these guys are limited by the narrow pitch in York, actually, but that won’t be a problem at UPEI, and the club is working to widen York Lions Stadium in 2021. York actually are making great strides off the field, and signing these two gives them two excellent players to build around going into 2021, when we’ll get a much better idea how the international scouting is working out.

Predictions

For all I’ve written, I still had York third in April and have no problem putting them in the top half to advance out of round one in Charlottetown.

If Brennan can adjust the plan a bit for tournament play, keeping the midfield more compact and releasing the wingers into space, you can see ways this could work. They will be, I am fairly sure, one of the most eye-catching and fascinating teams to watch, in part thanks to their international recruitment.

They have to be able to change things around under pressure, though, or else 2020 is just going to be a hyped-up experiment in how to play without a true #9.

Preview 2020: Charging Back Edition

My recurring theme through these previews has been that this competition is nice to have but not that important in the long-term.

That doesn’t apply to Cavalry. Whatever the 2020 season is, it will be an opportunity to get back at Forge, right from the opener. There was real bitterness at Cavalry when they lost the final. It was the first time you could see through the cracks in that group.

So this absolutely matters. 2020 is a chance to win the microwave plate, damn the circumstances.

They’re not exactly favourites, either, thanks in part to some departures and also to some of the new international signings not making it yet. That will suit them fine.

Cavalry’s bedrock isn’t top-end talent, but communication. No team talks like Cavalry talks because they know each other.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr., communicating.

Communication isn’t just something coaches yell about. It means players know where each teammate is going to be, when and how to make supporting runs, and when they’ve got cover to pressure for a second ball. The cliché in sports is that this is down to desire, and that sure helps, but it’s coached, and developed.

I’ve been watching a lot of 2019 CanPL games during lockdown and Cavalry’s coordination is more and more evident every time. I wrote about it last year after watching them live, which is where it’s easiest to notice, but pull up any of their games on One Soccer and watch the way the midfield engages.

This advantage will slowly diminish with time as other CanPL teams develop the same familiarity and leadership that Cavalry have. But it will still be an advantage in 2020. It shows up the most when they’re tired and playing badly, actually–lacking desire, you might say, which happens to everyone sometimes, especially over the course of congested games–but Cavalry will still get into those spots to snuff out a counter or score a critical goal because they can simplify their job down to the very basics. It becomes instinct, but it’s instinct borne out of understanding.

It is going to be tough to sustain form over the course of a month in PEI–as I mentioned in Forge’s preview, it’ll take eleven games in just over thirty days to win this thing, and Cavalry will be planning for all eleven games. What undermined them last year, however, was the cumulative effect of fatigue over a season. They were at their best in the ten game spring sprint.

Key Additions

Cavalry put a lot of effort into re-signing key players who might have tested deeper waters (namely USL) but for that same familiarity and cohesiveness. Players value what helps them win.

The only major arrivals, however, are Robert Boskovic on loan from TFC and Jair Cordova from the Peruvian wilderness–more on them below. They did make a couple inter-CanPL moves by signing Elliot Simmons, Bruno Zebie, and Jose Hernandez after their preview clubs cut ties.

Key Departures

Dominque Malonga was probably the best player in CanPL in year one but he’s made his career by being a mercenary-for-hire, as players at this level do. He’s in Bulgaria now, and had interest from Inner Mongolia as well. As one does. That leaves a big hole up front–again, more below.

Cavalry also sold Joel Waterman to Montreal Impact, which represents a very nice return on investment for a USPORTs pick–other teams should take note.

Unfortunately, injury has ended Chris Serban’s career and may be close to ending Mauro Eustaquio’s as well. Dean Northover probably benefited the most from the delayed season as he signed last week after rehabbing his injury and training/trialing with Cavalry as a free agent.

Julian Buescher is also gone, and Jose Escalante re-signed with the team but couldn’t make it back into the country–whether that counts as a departure or not is up to you. Either way, they round out a lengthy list.

Key Players

Robert Boskovic (centre-back)

Joel Waterman really was worth $100K. He was great for Cavalry last year. In Boskovic, they might even have an upgrade. He was one of the most MLS-ready players on TFC II last year, and given TFC’s centre-back problems, I imagine he’s got a lot of motivation to show well. Coming to Calgary will really help him adjust to playing for a top team with more pressure and expectations.

He can handle it, too. Boskovic is big, mobile, and reasonably good with his feet. He may or may not start depending on where Jay Wheeldon is at–but Tommy’s brother isn’t young and, in a tournament setting, you need three good centre-backs.

Jair Cordova (forward)

Richard Luca and his hype are no longer coming1He came through La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. He’d also been on the bench in Georgia. And somehow signed by Tigres. Then out of contract. I’m very glad I don’t have to try and write anything coherent about him here, actually, because I’d have no idea where to start.. Cordova is the only other replacement for Dom Malonga, a 21st Club signing from Alianza in Peru’s Liga I.

He hasn’t actually played for Alianza, however. At 23, he has a similar profile to Jordan Brown, with whom he’ll be competing and/or alternating with between left-wing and striker. Brown had one CanPL goal last year, and Cordova hasn’t scored much anywhere on a series of loan adventures since 2015. To an extent, I trust the Wheeldon/Nash talent ID combo, but they really need one of Cordova or Brown to score something approaching Malonga’s eleven goals. Splitting it between them would probably be fine, too.

Jose Hernandez (striker)

I wrote a lot of this before Cavalry signed Marcus Haber. I could rewrite this, but I want to give some more attention to Hernandez because I’m curious to see if he gets time and I’ve really liked what I’ve seen of him in the league so far.

He was with Pacific last year, and only had one goal, but also only played spot minutes. He’s still 20, put up all kinds of numbers in the youth system in Vancouver, and has that instinct and understanding of movement that Cavalry are all about. That they signed him after Pacific cut him suggests they think he has more to show.

Nor am I necessarily negative about Haber. Used as what he is, he can be an effective player. He was never going to put up golden boot numbers in Pacific–that talk was silly–but he did score four times between various injuries. He should and will battle for minutes–but I hope they give some to Hernandez, too, as he’s a lot younger.

And it would free Haber up for more punditry work.

Win-win.

Tactics and Positional Depth

I’ll be interested to see how Jordan Brown fares without Malonga looming over him. He’s the de facto guy now. That one goal was actually Cavalry’s first, and not exactly a gorgeous finish, but he also had that wicked strike against Vancouver in the cup, so there is skill.

He was used a lot as a sub or as a wide forward to run at tired defenders last year. It’s possible he could play up to with Cordova on the left in place of Escalante. Wheeldon Jr. mostly used either a 4-3-3 or a variant with a three-man backline, but the core tactic was lots of channel running around the main striker.

Cavalry don’t really have the offensive pieces for much else, though one wonders if getting off the pitch at Spruce Meadows and onto turf at UPEI might actually help them play a bit in possession. Guys like Sergio Camargo and Elliot Simmons have the tools to do hold a bit more of the ball.

Losing Julian Buescher hurts, not just in possession but in the German’s ability to press and control space. He struggled to break defenses down with the ball in 2019, but I’m not sure who else on the roster is going to make that kind of pass.

Oliver Minatel should get more time to try, though, and they’ve signed Bruno Zebie, so there are pieces if they wanted to try and play through teams a bit more.

Looking at that, though, Cavalry are still at their best when Pasquotti and Mavila are free to wreak havoc out wide. Watch for how fit and capable Dean Northover is after injury, since before he went down he was a big part of mopping up potential counters and Cavalry were never quite the same without him.

Strengths

As mentioned, these guys know each other and, tactics aside, that sometimes means a group can just grit out a few points they probably don’t deserve on the balance of play. Cavalry did that a few times last year and will definitely have to do it in this tournament because there just isn’t as much scoring danger.

However, they still have the league’s best goalkeeper in Marco Carducci and with a back-line featuring some combo of Northover, Dom Zator, Boskovic, Nathan Mavila, and Jay Wheeldon. Going behind against Cavalry is going to be lethal. Score first or else.

Weaknesses

The pressing is key to Cavalry’s identity, and that’s fine, but it sometimes masks–as is often the case with pressing teams–that they can lack ideas about how to actually break teams down.

That became a problem last year, most noticeably in the final but Forge had done it to them twice before, as had Edmonton, and Wanderers had tried and succeeded for 85 minutes.

If the strikers do not deliver what Malonga could, and Sergio Camargo gets hurt again or can’t carry them in possession, get ready for a lot of Nico Pasquotti long throws, a lot of running down cul-de-sacs, and frothing analysis from One Soccer about why Cavalry aren’t winning.

That said, I’m not sure this league is at a stage of growth, certainly after the Covid layoff, where teams can consistently contain that physicality and instinct. It will likely happen someday. A more interesting question might be how that lay-off affects Cavalry physically.

Wildcard

At some point in Charlottetown, Cavalry are going to have to address the fact that Nik Ledgerwood is 35 and just cannot cover the field like he used to. It cost them dearly in the final last year when Borges just tormented him. I would be shocked if Forge did not exploit that again in the opener, assuming Ledgerwood plays.

He might not. He maybe shouldn’t. There are lots of other things he can do, and he’s already a player-coach. Maybe having him come off the bench wouldn’t be the worst idea? If they do, will Cavalry’s press be as coordinated? Because it wasn’t last year when either Eustaquio (who’s gone) or Eli Adekugbe played. Cavalry’s first and only loss of the spring season came against Pacific when they rested Ledgerwood. He’s the general on the field.

Adekugbe has never really lived up to his potential after a bad knee injury. He’s three years into his Foothills-based reclamation project and couldn’t crack the starting line-up much at all last year. He also just turned 24. This season matters for him, too.

Prediction

I had them second in April, more on attrition than actual improvement. Over a longer season I’d be even more tempted to lower that guess, but tournaments are what the Cavalry is made for. Their talent and cohesion, not to mention Wheeldon Jr.’s coaching, gives them a substantial edge. This is still a very good team but other teams know each other that bit more now.

They should be in the second round easily. After that, it may come down to form, luck, and game-breakers, as tournament play often does. Betting against Cavalry in those games is silly.

Preview 2020: Rally Rabbit Edition

It’s still there on the back of the new kit!

FC Edmonton is all about tradition.

Tradition’s important.

Right. Yes. Actual soccer, too.

Thing is, all of this actually is relevant because this is a club that values keeping the core together, and that values loyalty. Jeff Paulus is a navy guy, after all.

Not everything was perfect last year, but Edmonton did end up third overall, which is more than fine, and way better than I predicted1I seem to always end up with really weird FC Edmonton previews. I’m not sure why..

The underlying numbers were a lot less than fine, and the Eddies often felt like a Colin Miller team, which is also traditional, and they’re now even more of a Colin Miller team because Hanson Boakai is back! They’re also going to play extremely boring soccer again this year, relying on a very strong back-line, and likely do so fairly effectively.

Trust Paulus to experiment a bit more, though. It’s easy to forget that FC Edmonton started it’s new life as something quite adorably adventurous before breaking down almost immediately.

You can also trust Paulus, whatever happens on PEI, to play the kids. If anything last year, he maybe biased a little too much towards underperforming vets like James Marcelin and Oumar Diouck, neither of whom delivered, and he took some time to trust Easton Ongaro, too. When he did, Ongaro put up the league’s best goals/90 numbers. Marcus Velado-Tsegaye made an early impact but faded a bit before graduating from high school.

Throw in Prince Amanda, who scored on his debut, and the Eddies look close to being what we hoped they’d be last year: a group of young, energetic Canadians ready to show that Alphonso Davies isn’t the only Edmontonian who’s good at this kicking thing.

Key Additions

It’s not just kids, though. Coming in are three potentially very good midfielders, two of them Canadians of yesteryear you’d probably forgotten existed, to try and create something out of the creative black hole that is Clarke Stadium2That can be the only explanation for the quality of that turf..

Boakai is a reclamation project–he was hyped way, way too early, cratered hard, and is now sort of being hyped again and I really wish we wouldn’t. Give him time and a simple, useful role. I like that Jeff Paulus stands by these guys, and that in turn means he’ll get the best out of Boakai if anyone can, but both Keven Aleman and Erik Zetterberg are the bigger adds, and if they live up to billing, can transform FC Edmonton’s game and leave Boakai free to find his balance.

Key Departures

As much as Paulus stands by his guys, he also gets rid of the guys who aren’t hauling their weight. Fair enough. Gone is Marcelin, along with long-time Eddie Bruno Zebie and local hero Randy Edwini-Bonsu. Ajeej Sarkaria has not been heard from since the fall and presumably got sucked into the black hole. Occupational hazard in an Edmonton midfield.

Ajay Khabra, also part of that midfield, is now in Ottawa after what was called a “cap crunch” but given the other players released was probably more of a “didn’t do enough” crunch. Paulus said lovely things about him, but he also didn’t pick up his contract option.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Key Players

Easton Ongaro (forward)

A lot has been written about Ongaro because of his goals/90 numbers. Those probably aren’t entirely sustainable over the course of a season. (A tournament? Maybe.) 0.79g/90 is world-class level.

I’d still keep an eye on him, though, and Edmonton signed him to a multi-year deal because, if he does sustain those numbers in 2020 and maybe 2021, there will be suitors.

He was also sometimes all the Eddies had going. At their best, when the Eddies went on that mid-summer run, Ongaro was effective a second striker off of Tomi Ameobi, providing hold-up play and vision along with a goal threat. He can play off the right wing, too, making smart runs to the back post that make the Eddies’ many, many crosses much more dangerous. It’s those smarts, not just his size, that make him so attractive.

Keven Aleman (attacking mid)

Edmonton did not have this kind of player last year. Aleman is not the semi-phenom prospect who turned down a TFC contract and bombed out in Spain. He’s since gone on to  a decent-if-not-flashy spell as a decent-but-not-flashy CONCACAF level player at Saprissa along with a couple good years in USL with Sacramento3Back in my preview last year, I thought it would be a very good sign for the league if we started luring players from the likes of Saprissa. Aleman’s Canadian and wasn’t always a starter at the Costa Rican giants, but he’s that level of player, and actually one of the ones I was thinking of when I wrote it..

There’s a welcome ambition to this signing–Aleman is not an ex-Eddies academy grad being repatriated from some sticky misadventure in the European lower leagues. He solves a core creative problem for Edmonton and solves it with a proven résumé. He’s domestic, and he makes Edmonton a better team even if he doesn’t deliver right away on PEI. Aleman will be a centrepiece in this league for a long time.

Erik Zetterberg (central mid)

Zetterberg flew under the radar a bit when he signed, to the extent I didn’t even jot down a note about him and almost missed it myself, though he’s mentioned in the article about Khabra I linked above.

His résumé in Sweden is very similar to another underrated midfielder: Forge’s Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, though it sounds like Zetterberg might be a little more of a two-way guy than Achinioti-Jonsson is.

Edmonton need him to be the guy who can make that first pass, the one to open space and start a move, because that, too, was too often entirely absent in 2019. Almost every attack started from Ramon Soria, often playing left-back and almost always asked to do way too much. Son Yong-chan is not a really great passer but can absolutely do the chasing required to let Zetterberg make plays, and it means Soria can be patched in elsewhere.

As always with a new country and new league, it can take players time to fit in. The PEI tournament is not likely to be especially forgiving with only four teams going through, so Paulus will have to quickly figure out how to make this midfield work together. But the pieces are there.

Tactics and Positional Depth

That balance may be made a bit easier by Raul Tito’s absence, though it comes at the expense of another potential creative piece. On a team like the Eddies, there can be such a thing as too many freewheeling cooks in the kitchen.

It may also mean Boakai has to start a bit more than I think he might have off the left, but he’s another where the weird format and lower pressure on PEI might actually help.

Easton Ongaro can play on the right, or up top with Ameobi, or alone with Velado-Tsegaye on the right. Edmonton have options! In attack!

You’ll notice Son doesn’t start here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Alternatively, Paulus spent some time back in the winter talking about a back three. They’re all the rage these days, but I can’t really see how it benefits Edmonton. In Amer Didic and Mélé Temguia they already have two excellent defenders who can handle both space and the ball. I suppose Soria or Kareem Moses could slide in there and it would maybe hide some of Jeannot Esua’s technical limitations at wing-back, but honestly, it just feels like one of those audacious experiments and I doubt we’ll see quite as many of them this year.

Strengths

Ongaro could easily explode in a tournament like this, especially if Ameobi stays healthy and Edmonton can get more out of the midfield to get him space. If everyone is talking about someone’s performance at this tournament, it’s as likely to be an Eddie, either Ongaro or one of the other kids.

Defensively, too, since Edmonton added TFC’s young left-back Terique Mohamed on loan this week. Another player who probably should have been in Orlando, Mohamed will instead get opportunities on PEI and he’s at a stage in his development where he should take them.

Weakness

Depth. Jeff Paulus keeps essentially passing on the USPORTs draft to pull in marginal guys from the academy. In a situation like PEI, you need those depth pieces to play at least a few minutes. Instead, neither David Chung (the other one) or Jake Bosch were signed4Nor were they expected to, which means Edmonton will have to redraft them, albeit probably not in 2020 so much as in 2021, since neither will have played much since 2019..

Instead, Edmonton are betting on guys who did well last year with the U20 side in the Alberta Major Soccer League. If injuries crop up, especially in midfield, players like Anthony Caceres and Chance Carter are going to have make a big jump fast, because there isn’t much behind most of the starters.

I’m quite keen on how Edmonton use that reserve set-up and am eager to see more CanPL teams set up something similar once Covid is past. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an easy transition, though, as we saw with players like Cavalry’s Victor Loturi in 2019.

Wildcard

Prince Amanda scored on his debut and is just built for win-at-all-costs games that can get a little stretched. He maybe should have played more last year, and he offers a genuine direct threat with his pace that nobody else on the roster can. For all Edmonton were pretty route one last year, they could only ever look for Ameobi’s head. At 31, he’s not offering much threat in behind anymore.

As much as I knock the depth above, in sticking by guys like David Doe and picking up Wanderers cast-off Duran Lee, Edmonton are putting themselves in a position where those players have a reason to work for minutes. If one of them takes the next step, Edmonton could take a big leap as a team, but you can say that every year. That’s the nature of developmental football–good and bad.

Prediction

I had them fifth in April, and kept flipping Edmonton and Wanderers 5th/6th. That was for a full season, though, where teams tend to revert to the underlying numbers. In a tournament, anything can happen, and you don’t bet against a back-line like Edmonton have.

They’ll be in a fight with Pacific and York to make the second round. How comfortably that goes is anyone’s guess, including probably their own.

Preview 2020: Everybody’s Second Team Edition

I think everyone is starting to fall in love with Ottawa a bit. I am starting to fall in love with this team a bit, even though I was originally a bit sour about them back in February when Atletico Ottawa’s1That is probably the only time I’ll use the full name, folks. It’s just so incongruous–the words don’t got together. There’s the Latinate Spanish and the brutally-Anglicized-originally-Algonquin Ottawa. Ottleti, however, has a very nice natural ring. existence was announced so late.

I mean, this is just great. The fans are going to make this team.

It’s very Atletico, actually. Always the second team in Madrid. Never quite as big or glitzy as Los Galacticos. Usually competitive, always a tonne of fun.

Ottleti are CanPL’s first foreign-owned club, a continuation of the trend that’s seen clubs treat themselves as global “brands”. It is not, generally, a good thing, in my view, and indeed the Ottawa branch will serve as a developmental team of sorts for Atletico Madrid, as these clubs generally do.

Some are more functional and locally aware than others, to be sure, and Atletico do tend to operate on that end side of the scale, as it did with its other satellite club in San Luis, where the larger Atletico enterprise likewise rescued a team on the brink of folding. CanPL is also holding firm on the strict player quotas, which means Ottleti can and will extend its development focus to young Canadians. That could benefit both the global engine and the Canadian game. That is how this should work.

Ottleti’s late announcement in February looked rushed and maybe a tad opportunistic, but it also meant fans had continuity from the suddenly-if-not-surprisingly defunct Fury regime. It also meant the club was going to have to build a roster in about six weeks.

Then Covid hit, Ottleti got stuck in preseason in Spain, and 2020 became a weird shortened season. This is extremely good news for an expansion team.

They’re still going to be bad, especially this year and probably in 2021 as well. The club still has only a bare bones roster, but it’s mostly Canadian and very young. We are going to see, in Charlottetown, a 16-year-old get real minutes. A bunch of early-20s guys who likewise haven’t had a shot are going to get a second–or first–chance. A few CanPL guys who didn’t do all that well last year are going to get another hurrah, too, because this is an expansion team.

It will be very bad, likely. But I can’t wait to see it.

Key Additions

Well, all of them. They only have 17 guys signed and that includes a couple of key guys who haven’t been able to get into Canada yet, so it’s more like 15 guys, half of them complete rookies. Why not? This is what 2020 is about.

Of the above categories, Kunle Dada-Luke, Michel Djaozandry, and Malcolm Shaw are the young Canucks who need a chance. Matteo di Brienne and Gianluca Facchineri are teenagers. Ben Fisk and Ajay Khabra are looking for a fresh start in CanPL.

Key Departures

None, yet, though it’s probably safe to assume this team could look quite different in 2021 once it’s had a full winter to get in touch with players, particularly the mid-tier Canadians who make up the middle of most rosters in this league.

It remains to be seen, too, if Tevin Shaw and Oseh Bernardinho ever join the team. Hopefully they can as Shaw, in particular, is a really intriguing Jamaican international.

Key Players

Francisco Acuna (attacking midfielder)

Acuna was a first for CanPL, along with Pacific’s Alejandro Diaz: a player direct from Liga MX. He didn’t come through Atletico San Luis, either, which some people (including me) thought Ottleti might use to source talent. That’s a very good sign for the league.

He’s 32 but he’s hung around the best league in CONCACAF for well over a decade with some really decent clubs, mostly recently Puebla. He’s never played a lot but he’s not some new-club-every-year journeyman, either.

Given his age, it’s likely he’ll be one of a very young team’s leaders and probably also a translator for any Spanish loanees (and maybe the head coach, Mista, too, though he’s learning English). He’s never been a big goalscorer but a player with his experience can bring skill and vision even if he can’t bring speed. Acuna mostly plays off the right but I would not be at all surprised to see him centrally for Ottleti to help link everything else together. A new team needs someone to do that more than most.

Ben Fisk (left winger)

Fisk was one of Pacific’s bigger names in Year One, and like most of those bigger names, didn’t manage to hold his roster spot ahead of the younger players Pacific values. He’s still only 27, so not exactly ancient, but he’s now on an expansion team and it’s fair to say he needs to do a job for them in a way he didn’t last year out west.

What Fisk offers is just a simple transition game followed by a reasonable cross. He can get defenders backing up. Keeping it simple is smart for an expansion team. Fisk is not going to do anything fancy and he’s not going to be move up Atletico’s system, but he will put in a solid performance no matter what and he will mentor and shelter some of the younger guys. He’s a bubbly personality and can do the interviews when Ottleti are under siege as easily as he can be a useful outlet for clearances.

Viti Martinez (central/defensive mid)

Martinez is one of only a couple Spanish imports. He’s not an Atleti system guy, but he’s only 22, has mostly bounced around the Spanish third division as prospects of that age do, and could potentially move up if he can show his potential in Canada.

While he’s here, he’ll probably be the key cog in Ottawa’s central midfield, especially given the absence of Tevin Shaw. Shaw was a #6 and Martinez probably would have partnered with him as the #8, but he might have to play a bit deeper. His yellows/90 rate in Spain is astronomical, so he definitely has the requisite bite. Losing Shaw robs Ottawa of what could actually have been one of the better central combos in the league, but it means 16-year-old local phenom Antoine Coupland gets to play on PEI, so why not?

Tactics and Positioning

Shape-wise, Mista’s roster had been looking something like a 4-2-3-1 before Covid forced a reboot. Ottawa have so few players signed that he’s going to have to experiment a bit in Charlottetown, but that doesn’t matter. This is more about establishing a basic identity and getting some tactical ideas ingrained, all without any real pressure. Seriously, an expansion side couldn’t ask for much better.

All of this is a total guess, though limited somewhat by the complete lack of any depth. There are two forwards on the roster, both of whom have basically zip in professional experience. The club has been loosely linked to former Forge striker Jace Kotsopoulos, however, as well as League 1 Ontario star Maksym Kowal. Both would fill a need.

With Bernardinho gone, Fisk will have to play on the left, which means Acuna probably has to play off the right for now because there’s no one else. He won’t be able to play every minute of every game on PEI, though, so we’ll see some experimentation.

We’ll also see, I suspect, a lot of minutes for the youngsters. Doing a whole second lineup is tough because Ottawa only have a few guys on the bench right now, but here’s what it looks like if you swap in as many teenagers as possible.

Here’s hoping they do this. Just go all out with the kids. See what happens.

As a competitive vehicle, it’s pretty ugly. There’s just no second option at either fullback or right wing. Centre-back is a glaring weak spot no matter who plays–Facchineri’s an 18-year-old with one MLS game for Vancouver, Djaozandry’s an Impact academy grad, Brandon John, who at 26 is the veteran of the group, has been wandering the lower levels of American soccer for most of his career.

Strengths

Youth. There’s no guarantee, but one of these kids could show that he’s been missed by everyone else. That’s the purpose of CanPL and it absolutely needs to be part of the purpose of Atletico in CanPL.

As with Pacific last year, the lack of depth and developmental focus is in part a byproduct of the (even more) rushed launch. Pacific also did a lot better than I thought they would last year, mostly because guys like Noah Vehoeven, Zach Verhoven, and Terran Campbell, who’d all been struggling in USL, turned out to be pretty decent players who just needed actual minutes.

Weaknesses

Aside from the youth and the lack of depth, I wonder a bit about Mista as a coach. He’s essentially a rookie, too, not so different than Michael Silberbauer, another former European international who’d only had a short spell as an assistant.

His only experience in North American soccer is his disastrous spell with Toronto FC, though he did actually score in the CONCACAF Champions League, so there’s that.

Still, Canadian soccer is a very unique challenge, even more so than MLS, and I’d have loved to see a club with developmental focus pick up a young local coach–there are good options even in Ottawa. I’m negative on these global branding clubs generally, but they can bring opportunities for coaches to get in on a system at the ground level, which is how Jesse Marsch ended up managing a Bundesliga side. That kind of coach development is desperately needed in Canada.

Wildcard

I’m not really sure there is one. The whole 2020 season is a wildcard. Whatever it means for the rest of the league, for Ottleti, it’s a complete experiment. Anything that happens will inherently be a surprise. That’s the fun of it.

Predictions

Somewhere at the bottom–it doesn’t really matter. The only real standings-related question with this team is how many teams will take full points off them. It’ll probably take 10 – 12 points to secure passage to the second round. Ottawa are not getting close to that, but if they can steal a draw from a team like Pacific, Halifax, or Edmonton they could actually play a big role in who moves on.

(Unfortunately, given goal differential is likely to matter a lot, other teams will also have an incentive to run up the score when they can.)

That’s not the point, though. PEI is about the fun. Canadian teenagers will get real minutes, the fans will have something to cheer and chat about, and the club can have it’s real start in 2021 with a proper home opener and a lot of the uglier start-up work already completed.


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Preview 2020: Valorous in Defeat Edition

Valour FC is a team that’s gotten worse from 2019 and the 2019 version was not that good to begin with.

To illustrate with a statistic: Valour scored 30 league goals in 2019. 28 of them have departed. (The other two are Dylan Carreiro’s, a deep-lying central mid.)

You could call this a rebuild. Certainly, it has the fire-sale aspect, but the team hasn’t gotten any younger–quite the opposite, actually. Fire evacuation might be a better phrase given some of the quotes coming out of the departees.

Louis Béland-Goyette, now in Halifax:

“I think that was the best decision for me and for my career. I’m always looking to go a step above in any way to get better and my goal is always to move forward. I think I’ve done that with the move, and it’ll always be to move forward and to get better, to take the step above in my career. That’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it.

“I have absolutely no regrets.”

to CanPL.ca Aug. 6, 2020

Okay, clichés. Players say this stuff. Marcos Bustos was a bit more candid:

“It was nothing against Valour; I enjoyed my time there… I didn’t feel like being in Winnipeg was going to push me to my limit. I needed to be in a place that was going to push me to try and ultimately win something in the (CPL) and then get out of the league.”

to One Soccer on Mar. 25, 2020

There’s a lot of ouch in there. When he said it, some people on Twitter jumped at Bustos for wanting to leave CanPL, but he’s 23, and moving players on is what this league is for. Players want to play where they’ll improve, and they know which coaches will make them better. That’s why they play.

Both Béland-Goyette and Bustos carefully, diplomatically, as players are smart to do, didn’t feel they could move forward at Valour. Bustos is explicitly saying he wasn’t pushed to win.

Also leaving was 18-year-old breakout star Tyler Attardo, who was likewise open about his desire to move to Europe. Valour sold him to a third division side in Chile, where Attardo has connections. It seems unlikely he’s more exposed to scouts on Chile’s semi-pro circuit than in the league where he scored six times and which just saw it’s top young player move to Belgium.

These guys have deserved rep in this league. Less-effective but still competent centre-backs Jordan Murrell and Skylar Thomas were both released but have found jobs–and in Thomas’ case, at least, playing time–with good USL sides. Adam Mitter, who literally bled for Valour FC in 2019, was also released without fanfare.

This isn’t all on Rob Gale, but some of it is. You don’t have that kind of stream for the exit when the main act is compelling. Gale has been put in a tough spot, in a nascent league, having not coached professionals before, without the contacts of some of the other coaches.

So far the early returns have been rocky at best.

Key Additions

A large number of the new arrivals have ties to old CSA youth teams, as does Gale. That’s been the trend in Valour’s recruitment from the start.

The trouble is, those guys are already identified and, in most cases, weren’t good enough. Many of Valour’s recruits will ring a bell for Voyageurs who long prayed they’d emerge to rescue the national team: guys like Fraser Aird, Stefan Cebara, Shaan Hundal, and Brett Levis. All can do a job, and likely will, but we know what they are.

The internationals are basically the same: most have played mostly semi-pro ball, mostly in Scandi regional leagues. Moses Dyer scored a bit in New Zealand, but so did Stephen Hoyle. Andrew Jean-Baptiste played for Haiti at the Gold Cup–that’s good!–but also couldn’t get off the bench in the Swedish third flight. Solomon Kojo Antwi, out of the delightfully-named Glow Lamp Academy in Ghana, was scouted a few times but has never played a professional game1The Valour release says he’s played with the Ghana U20 squad, but I can’t find any record of him playing with them in the 2019 CAF U20s, their last major tournament. It’s possible he’s played some friendlies–CAF rosters can be very hard to find–but if so, that doesn’t necessarily mean much, and the entire Ghana FA, never mind the U20 system, has been in a degree of turmoil of late (the entire technical staff was fired in January)..

Guys with similar paths–Zachary Sukunda, Oumar Diouck, Elimane Cissé–haven’t fit quite as well in CanPL as might have been thought. That may speak well of the league’s level, and it’s always a gamble with any add, but while other teams are bringing in players from Liga MX and the Dutch second division, Valour are bringing in guys from the margins of the professional game.

Key Departures

Pretty much everyone, as mentioned above. Nico Galvis, who showed flashes last year, is gone. So too is Ali Musse, which may be injury-related but he did offer a threat for Valour. Michele Paolucci was cut three months after he first signed. You can understand a lot of these departures and sometimes cleaning house is necessary, but it’s not clear what the plan is going forward or what the exact problem was.

There’s no core retained as there was in Halifax, where, yeah, the team was bad but you could see in some of the young pieces a spine to build around, and 2020’s recruits lowered the team’s average age by almost five years. Instead, Valour’s reload feels like it’s a team desperately fighting a relegation battle. Rob Gale is very like coaching for his job.

Key Players

Arnold Bouka Moutou (left-back)

Bouka Moutou was one of the strangest signings of the offseason2Up until this week, anyway, when Valour outdid themselves by signing an unnamed forward who won’t be able to play for the team in 2020, as well as a further unnamed forward to replace the previous unnamed forward. Very meta., a former Ligue 1 defender. He’s also 31 and hasn’t appeared in more than ten games since 2016. That suggests injury problems, but if there are any, I can’t find them, even in French. He’s played mostly for Angers and Dijon, and the latter was relegated in 2019. Bouka Moutou’s probably more of a solid Ligue 2 guy, but that’s still pretty good for CanPL, and stands out against the other additions.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste is, shall we say, not the most technical player but if he can be the legs while Bouka Moutou organizes, that might be an interesting combo. Bouka Moutou was an attacking left-back in France, but given his age, I could also see him playing centrally in Gale’s back three, much as Martin Arguinarena did last year. If he can stay healthy (Arguinarena didn’t) and handle defending in the box (Arguinarena couldn’t), there’ll be defensive improvement on a back-line that desperately needed it.

Raphael Ohin (defensive midfield / centre-back)

Ohin was quietly one of the league’s better young players, though at 25 I’m not sure how long he can be called young. He came straight out of the local game in Manitoba to play 20 games for Valour–it’s a great story, really–often as one of their better defenders. Ohin has his limits, especially technically, but if Rob Gale wants to get more physical, Ohin can bring that. He’s a monster to play against, with a penchant for hard tackles along with excellent recovery speed and strength to hold off strikers.

He played a fair bit at centre-back last year, either through necessity or because Gale wanted his pace on the outside of the back three. He’ll probably be in midfield more this year given they’ve added depth at the back, and his engine is suited to that kind of role, especially with a good passer in Jose Galan beside him.

Shaan Hundal

I want to give some love to Hundal, who I’ve always been a fan of from his TFC II days. He’s more subtle than flashy, and he’s had a hell of a time with injuries, form, and fighting for minutes, but give him service and he can put the ball in the back of the net. He’s a true poacher: rather than relying on brawn, Hundal is smart and quick enough to find space before it disappears and he only needs one touch to convert. He might be the most likely player on Valour to break out with 10+ goals.

He was stuck at TFC behind not just the star strikers on the big team but also younger, flashier prospects like Jayden Nelson. He got loaned to Ottawa and got hurt, only playing five minutes. It’s been a long layoff since 2018, and he’ll have to fight for minutes at Valour, too, as is only fair, but he’s still only 21. Figuring out just how to get him service–it needs to look very different than service to Daryl Fordyce–is going to be a real test for this group.

Tactics and Positioning

I confess I don’t understand how this roster is built. Valour have three natural central midfielders on the team–one of whom, Galan, is 34–ahead of a stretch of seven games in two and a half weeks.

They also have a pile of wingers, more than any team really needs. The only way it makes any sense is in a 3-4-3, which is what they mostly played last year and which, in my view, was a not-insignificant source of their problems. Much like Pacific, Valour were prone to giving up way too much space in transition, especially in the middle. Teams could play through them, too, because they just couldn’t close down space between lines. Defenders like Arguinarena or Murrell have to step out, but that often proved to be too little, too late.

Both Levis and Aird have experience playing as wing-backs in Vancouver, but both are defensively responsible players, which should help avoid the 2019 pattern where the wing-backs would consistently get caught too far up the pitch on turnovers.

That might create issues getting numbers into attack, though, something it seems like Gale is at least aware of, though he’s vague on how to fix it. I suspect Ohin will be critical–if he can settle into a starting role as a defensive mid, he has the legs to help  snuff out transitions before Galan has to scamper too much. He has to improve both his positional and his tackling discipline, however, or else he risks not being present, one way or another.

Bouka Moutou could also feature higher on the left if he’s still up for that kind of running, but Valour have to find a way to be more compact, especially against the top teams, which might mean a much more defensive shape… and hoping one of the young attackers can provide something single-handedly. The best bet would be Masta Kacher, a Canadian you’ve never heard of who was a regular with Real Monarchs in USL before an injury.

When things got too stretched last year, Valour swapped to more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, and were actually better in those, even though they lacked the natural fullbacks. Raphael Garcia does return and was one of the more promising young players in 2019–I’d like to see him get some more minutes in the weird format 2020’s given us.

Strengths

One thing that happens when you load up on veterans is you get a slightly more stable culture on the team. You see it with relegation-fodder teams in Europe. There are guys, like Bouka Moutou, who make careers out of helping teams avoid the drop, and they come in, they do a job, and they do it professionally.

I think Gale struggled with that in year one, with a lot of players who, though they’d played for him before, had played for him at U18 or U20 level, where the relationship is different. They were first-time pros, and it showed.

That won’t be the case with Aird3Well, Aird did get released by his previous club in Scotland’s League 2 for making, golly-gosh, a rude gesture in the stands at an Old Firm game. More concerning for Valour might be that a Scottish second division side was letting his contract run out to begin with., Fordyce, Cebara, Levis and Jean-Baptiste. I won’t hide from thinking that none of those guys are good enough to be starters in CanPL, but they will absolutely keep Valour in games.

The bigger question, however, is where you go from there. Teams fighting relegation often prioritize those kind of players over playing prospects–it’s one of the reasons pro/rel is a terrible idea for Canadian soccer. Valour aren’t going to be relegated, and 2020 is barely a real season. There has to be a plan for 2021. Fortunately, all of those guys save Fordyce and Bouka Moutou could stick around long-term as something of a core… if Gale can find a more top-end talent to go with.

Weaknesses

About the best you can say of the players up front is that there’ll be competition for spots, and, hopefully, motivation. FC Edmonton fans will remember Daryl Fordyce fondly, but he’s 33 and has two goals in the past three years, and nor was he ever exactly prolific in Edmonton. Moses Dyer can play on the wing or in midfield, and he can offer goals from there, but his numbers in New Zealand don’t suggest he’s any better than Hoyle.

Stef Cebara is a 29-year-old Canadian journeyman from the early days of TFC’s academy. He took a year off in 2019–don’t worry Stef, so did Valour. Austin Ricci didn’t play much last year, either, though not through choice, as Jimmy Brennan only gave him 200 minutes at York9. He has to earn those minutes, though, by showing something.

There are just a lot of guys on this team coming from Unattached FC, that long stalwart of the Canadian national team system.

Rob Gale is talking about scoring by committee, but that rather dodges that there’s no one on this roster who looks likely to come anywhere near ten goals.

Wildcard

At some point, a club develops a reputation. It’s too early for any CanPL club to have one yet, but first impressions can happen quickly.

Valour have now twice released a veteran player two months after signing him–first Stephen Hoyle, then Michele Paolucci. They benched, then loaned, then cut Dylan Sacramento, who was a year off being the League 1 Ontario golden boot winner. None of these moves were terribly surprising, but players–particularly veterans–talk, and when they talk amongst each other, they are less diplomatic than they are when talking to the press.

It doesn’t make it easier to find the kind of players Valour needs.

Prediction

In April, I had Valour seventh, but the thing is, Ottawa didn’t have any players at that point.

As I wrote in the other preview, Ottawa are going to be bad. They’ll probably finish below Valour in Charlottetown. But you can see a shape forming and you can see they have half a plan, even if they only have half a team. They will play young Canadian kids like Antoine Coupland and Kunle Dada-Luke and they’ve recruited internationals with legit experience to guide them. It will probably be ugly, but it will serve a purpose.

Rob Gale is mostly going to be playing CSA has-beens like Cebara, Levis, and Aird–the kind of guys who’ve forged careers keeping a team inches above water. None of them are at an age where they’re going to get a lot better, and they may keep out kids like Garcia and Gutierrez who could improve.

At some point, Valour have to find some identity, and Rob Gale is running out of time to do it. A good performance in Charlottetown involves not losing 8 – 0 to Cavalry, but I wouldn’t bet that way when the tournament is on the line and gal differential matters.

 

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
About Dylan Matthias 160 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

1 Comment

  1. I’m thrilled to see this returning. The preview last season was one of my favourite articles of the year and the in depth analysis was fascinating.

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