2022 CanPL Preview: Halifax Wanderers

Akeem Garcia celebrates after scoring the first-ever goal at Wanderers' Grounds.
Expect more of Akeem Garcia at Wanderers' Grounds for the foreseeable. (Photo by Trevor MacMillan via HFX Wanderers FC)

 

I’m doing this in the order of games played, okay?

Besides, every time I pick Wanderers to do well, they go and finish sixth. I’ve twice gambled on a roster I quite like on paper. The one time I didn’t, in 2020, they made the final.

So what’s the point of a preview based largely on paper? (As a reminder: I wasn’t able to watch as much of CanPL as I’d have liked last year, though I did try to catch at least a bit of Wanderers when they were on.)

Let’s get the climax out of the way early: I’m going to put Wanderers about where everyone else has put them, which is to say, pretty low, with a chance to sink or swim a bit higher.

We know what they can do when it works. If they sink, it’s going to be all the way. The club has, broadly, bet on the same core Stephen Hart and new Director of More Football Than He Was Already Directing Matt Fegan built ahead of the 2020 tournament.

As I said, I like this team a lot on paper. Wanderers have, in my view, the best #10 in the league in Joao Morelli. Betting on the best #10 to carry a team, as Morelli did last year, is not a bad idea. The question is how far he can take them alone.

The defense anchored by Peter Schaale, remains largely unchanged. I’ll miss Morey Doner’s surging transitions, but I think Wanderers over-relied on them at times, and both Jake Ruby and Mateo Restrepo have grown into decent CanPL options, so Doner was expendable and now gets a USL payday to boot. Wanderers remained in the top half in goals against last year — defense is not the problem; scoring is.

The club has been vocal about trying to fix that, but improvement will have to come from tweaks around the edges. Alessandro Riggi departs the left side to be replaced by Aidan Daniels, who also departs the left side a lot to cut inside, where Riggi was more about selling crosses and combinations. Much as I am a fan of Riggi, who landed in Winnipeg, if Wanderers can figure out how to get Daniels to combine with Morelli (who also likes to drift left) and open up space for attacking fullback play, I think it’s an upgrade on that flank.

Alex Marshall has got the headband in this one.
He got rid of the headband for the Jamaica game, which I’m convinced is why they lost.

On the right, Alex Marshall is back, fresh off a World Cup qualifying debut against Canada no less. Wanderers could really use him to put up more than just the odd goal, but he does do a lot of good work in transition that doesn’t show up on scoresheets. The same is true of Sam Salter, last year’s breakout winge who now needs to put up more tangible numbers. The PLSQ grad displaces USPORTs grad Stef Karajovanovic, who ends up in the new MLS reserve league.1Out of respect for Ali Curtis, I’m not going to give it its full name. Former MLS prospect Mamadi Camara has been replaced by current MLS prospect Mo Omar, who’s coming out of a very good NCAA program in Notre Dame. Marcello Polisi did well in his debut season and provides a solid foundation behind Andre Rampersad and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé’s not-quite-a-double-pivot.

So there’s promise here, and you can see how this could work on paper.

Then there’s Akeem Garcia.

Coming off the 2020 final, Garcia was a top prospect on the verge of getting a real look with the Trinidadian national team ahead of the Gold Cup. He’s not necessarily a conventional striker, but his move in from the wing in 2020 let him dart into gaps between defenders and onto through-balls from Morelli. He won the tournament golden boot with six goals.

Everything fell apart in 2021. He finished with just two goals across twenty-two games–Wanderers really don’t have anyone else up front who can push defenders deeper — or finish — and it’s a problem.

To me, Garcia never looked healthy in 2021, though granted I haven’t seen the tail end of the season. Because CanPL started late, he missed any chance at the Gold Cup and any future move up a level or two that might have come with. He’s now 25 and playing in CanPL, which is a tough spot to be in when evaluating one’s career prospects.

Like Wanderers as a whole, 2022 is a double-edge for Garcia. Strikers are inherently streaky, and if he finds his earlier form, there are few better strikers in this league and Wanderers can easily be a play-off team or more. If he sputters again mentally or physically, expect another full rethink ahead of 2023.

There are some tactical tweaks the team could make to get the front four working in sync, and some luck wouldn’t hurt, but Wanderers weren’t necessarily a bad team in terms of creating chances last year, nor did the advanced stats suggest they were significantly unlucky. At this level, a lot more comes down to skill and composure.

Garcia is where the buck stops.

Draft Grade: C-
Colin Gander hitting a long pass for the Guelph Gryphons.
You cannot convince this kid is not from Newfoundland, no matter how much you tell me he’s from Toronto. (Photo from Guelph Gryphons.)

I didn’t get around to doing this back in January (why are we doing the USPORTs draft in January?) so I’ll cram it in here, especially now we’ve had a chance to see if any picks made the team out of camp.

Neither Colin Gander (out of Guelph) or Chris Campoli (a re-pick after York took him last year) have signed (Gander now has) for Wanderers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and both were defensible enough picks.

They weren’t particularly bold picks, though. Both have had opportunities now — Gander through TFC’s academy and Campoli in League 1 Ontario. Wanderers have brought lots of local picks into camp and should finally get the U23 program going full bore post-pandemic, but it was a surprisingly safe draft from a club that usually does so well with USPORTs selections.

(Update April 6: Wanderers have now signed Gander on the even of kick-off, which makes sense as they were a tad thin at left-back. My draft grade will remain unchanged as it’s more of a general impression, but I’m looking forward to Gander making it look very silly.)

Projection: 5th, but I’d love to be wrong again

Pre-season results have not been great. They’ve not been bad, either, but Wanderers have never actually been outright bad–they’re always entertaining enough, especially at home. They just don’t score all that much, and if they finish below thirty goals again, the fanbase will be quite justified in grumbling.

Currently, a bunch of trialists are out-scoring Garcia in pre-season. In fact, Garcia’s only started once.

Cory Bent is Garcia’s natural back-up, but he’s spent more time playing out wide, even at wingback since being drafted. It’s usually Morelli who ends up as a false-ish nine, but last year proves he can’t score enough on his own, even if he did win the golden boot.

It’s worth noting the club only has 19 players under contract right now, so could easily add some talent mid-season, as they did last year. I think that’s a smart approach, but I also don’t think it changes the overall calculus — the club has committed a lot of term and money to a front four of Garcia, Marshall, Morelli, and Daniels. It needs to work out.

About Dylan Matthias 205 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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