Let’s start by acknowledging, as I do every year, that building a team in Winnipeg is not easy. For starters, it’s Winnipeg. It has a passionate soccer community, but it’s small. It has a lot of mosquitoes. It does not scream joga bonito.
The Phil dos Santos era hasn’t fully begun yet, and fair warning I’ve seen almost none of it, so do take this preview with the grain of salt you should take all this blog’s Valour previews. He mostly kept the basic identity and structure Rob Gale had built last year, which was sound enough, and anyway the club was in a playoff hunt. There was a typical new coach bump, but they ultimately missed.
It’s funny to see people so bullish on this Valour group, because it’s basically last year’s Valour group, minus the over-paid, under-performing uber-veterans. I think it’s fair to say Rob Gale’s struggles recruiting international players cost him the Valour job. I still don’t quite know what ownership there expected, and despite all the grief Gale got for signing 34-year-old José Galan in 2019, he stuck around and wore Winnipeg and CanPL on his sleeve for three years. It was the later, sexier signings — made with the help of 21st Club — which didn’t pan out.
I expected a lot more changes this winter. Instead, perhaps understandably, they’ve doubled down on a lot of the loanees who pretty much saved the season last year. At times, they were even carrying Valour to the top of the table.
Jonathan Sirois, Sean Rea, and Rocco Romeo are all back. The latter is permanent, which is useful because I can see CF Montreal wishing they had the other two in the summer. Another Montreal loanee, Matthew Catavolo, replaces Cristal loanee Jared Ulloa, who’s been kept in Peru this time, on loan at Cusco in the second tier. Catavolo’s a Canadian U20, so that may even be an upgrade in attacking midfield. Rodrigo Reyes also returns to Guadalajara.
A lot of that early success was obviously illusory, a product of playing a home tournament, and as is often the way with young players, they struggled through stretches. Still, it’s a solid defensive group will suit how dos Santos is likely to play. Andrew Jean-Baptiste remains one of the best centre-backs in the league if he can stay healthy and, with Galan having moved on (he’s in Gibraltar now; guy’s a true journeyman), is very much the team’s spiritual leader. Jean-Baptiste is coming off another major injury, though, so time will tell.
I expected a lot more arrivals. Most are guys Gale drafted. Yuba Rayane Yesli signed a year after Gale drafted him, and former Carleton draftee Tony Mikhael will be joined by current Carleton not-draftee-after-all Matteo di Brienne.
Phil dos Santos doesn’t actually have any great deal more head coaching experience than Gale, but he was technical director for Ottawa Fury in the years when they were a well-built, well-run team, and he’s always been a right-hand for his brother Marc. The dos Santos brothers have a pretty good network and a knack for getting more results out of a lot less.
Jonathan Esparza fits the bill of a dos Santos signing, a left-back from USL1, and Valour have had some success with that kind of player. Jose Daniel Ascanio is the kind of international signing Valour have had less success with, a younger Colombian with only spot minutes for a yo-yo team in a league that’s plummeted in quality due to the drug war.
I’m a bit surprised they let Keven Aleman walk but equally surprised another CanPL team coughed up the money he was likely to want. They might miss Masta Kacher more, who was sent as a get-well-soon gift to Edmonton, but I’m still waiting for him to rediscover his USL form, which would have to start with his staying healthy.
They only have 20 guys signed, so moves could still be coming, and it’s not a bad group as it stands, either — not so bad Gale deserved to be fired for building it.
Draft Grade: A-
Neither did Phil depart from Gale’s draft strategy — playing it a bit safe, maybe, but generally snagging some prospective talent.
They signed Jacob Carlos, who’s had experience in the Portuguese third flight, and he’s exactly the kind of guy you can find in the university system if you’re willing to take a chance on a guy who got passed over by the higher-level Canadian system.
Raine Lyn was a bit of a miss, in my view, but I have no problem with CanPL clubs taking a flyer on a good mid-tier university player. Here’s what I wrote about the pick on the liveblog:
There’s enough about this group, when you factor in the loanees, and veterans like Daryl Fordyce, to pull this off.
Fordyce is now the team’s sole mid-30s veteran, and while he’s never been exactly good, I’ve been impressed by his sheer versatility; he’s spent a lot of time playing as, functionally, a deep-lying playmaker — think a false nine who just doesn’t ever get forward, because he can’t run anymore. But it works. Fordyce is savvy about where he puts himself and he’s helped Valour advance the ball out of the back to guys up front.
Austin Ricci has finally run out of chances, so the scoring will mostly fall on NCAA product — and 2021 breakout player — Will Akio. He put up 8g/3a last year, and probably needs more if he’s going to be the main man, but he’s got a lot of the tools to succeed in this league: fast, strong, skilled enough to be quick and mostly accurate around the box.
Likewise, Moses Dyer put up nine last year, a career high for him. I’m less sure he can put up more than ten, but he creates as well, and complements Akio nicely.
There’s not a lot of depth, and there’s definitely no over-hyped, over-ripe semi-star on his last tour. I think that will hurt — the best teams in this league have a difference maker in attack, either domestic or international, and Valour don’t.
They have a lot of balance, though. I really like that they’ve committed to the young Canadians, hanging onto guys like Mikhael, Federico Pena, Diego Gutierrez, and even more unheralded veterans like Brett Levis and Andy Baquero. None of those guys will win you a game on their own, but they won’t lose you one, either. That’s the dos Santos philosophy.
They’re also all guys Rob Gale found and developed. I have nothing particularly against Phil, but for once with Valour, it feels like all this group really needs is a little bit of self-belief, someone to push the underdog narrative and find a reason they can win every game.
Maybe Phil can do that. I’m curious what his style will be. Maybe Gale wouldn’t have got the balance right, reaching for some bigger name.
But maybe the rebuild is moving into its pay-off phase. Building a club in Winnipeg is going to take time. Success looks, I think, a lot like success in Ottawa could have looked for the Fury. The Fury did not stick with what the dos Santos brothers were building, and the rest is history.