2020 Preview: Wandering Edition

Akeem Garcia holding up wayward long passes in 2019. (Photo: Trevor MacMillan via HFX Wanderers)

 

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.

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.

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