2020 Preview: York 9 to 902

Simon Adjei lying face-down on the ground after missing agaisnt Pacific.
Pictured: York9 strikers in 2019.

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.

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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