Winnipeg are the team I could see going just about anywhere this year. Earlier in the offseason, I was quite high on them, thanks mainly to a sturdy centre-back pairing that should excel in what’s likely to be a physical Canadian Premier League.
Since then, we’ve had rumours of Diego Forlan, a whole pile of South American imports with ties to the Canadian youth national team set-ups, the departure of some of the same, Michael Petrasso, and a defender from an Indian second division I didn’t even realize existed.
I could almost talk myself into this working if it wasn’t for some really big questions hanging over how this team has lined up in pre-season. But hey, every CanPL team has question marks–the whole league is a kind of question mark. As I wrote in Edmonton’s preview, each coach has to make something of a guess at what the quality of the league will be like.
In that way, I applaud Valour’s ambition. One of the first three teams in, and thus competing for a CONCACAF League spot, they also have one of the larger stadiums in a market I think could be a tad tough–they need to be swinging for the fences.
Head coach Rob Gale’s main (some would say only) experience comes with the Canadian U17 and then U20 set-ups, and a large number of his signings–nearly all of them, in some way–connect back to those days. If you were a big believer in our run to the U17 World Cup (you may remember Quillan Roberts scoring on Jordan Pickford), you will like this team. If you were a big believer in our U20 run, which ended typically in CONCACAF qualifying, you will not.
Josip Golubar, defensive midfielder
Golubar is the crown jewel of Valour’s roster, by far the most experienced and a player who should be solidly capable in whatever CanPL ends up being.
He’s also 34, and has already played almost 1500 minutes this season, going back to fall 2018. There’s not a lot of d-mid depth on the roster, so managing Golubar physically is going to be critical, lest he end up hurt.
Fortunately, his résumé is the picture of reliability, and includes spells in the the top flights of both Slovenia and Croatia. He’s never been a star–often getting sold back to second division teams only to be reacquired when his previous clubs were relegated, making Golubar one of those steady players who make a career out of getting teams promoted.
Everything Rob Gale has talked about wanting to do tactically relies on Golubar. In possession, he needs to be a director, helping what is otherwise a very young midfield find the right passing option. Outside possession, expect him to drop deeper and take away space in front of the centre-backs, none of whom are the sort who’ll be excellent at defending space.
Valour really, really need him to stay healthy.
Jordan Murrell, centre back
Murrell is one of those players who Gale was familiar with from the Canadian youth set-up. His career started with TFC Academy, but through the machinations of MLS homegrown rules he ended up getting drafted by Real Salt Lake, despite some interest from other teams. He never caught on there, but has spent some quality time in USL.
He’s an athletic centre-back, and with Valour’s inaugural signing Skylar Thomas, gives Gale a tall, strong pairing. Murrell’s got better feet than Thomas, and though he’s still a physical-first player, his left foot will give them some options in the build-up.
This is the first team where he’s being counted on to be a leader, and he will need to be because Valour’s back line looks a tad slow on paper, plus it’s paper thin behind him. Murrell will need to be smart with his coverage to allow the outside backs to get forward as often as Gale wants them to.
Martín Arguiñarena, left-back
Speaking of which….
Arguiñarena is a solid signing for Valour, an experienced Argentinian fullback who’s played mostly in Uruguay. He’s very capable of getting forward, and has put up good offensive numbers in good offensive leagues.
His experience and decision-making in choosing when to go forward is going to be crucial, though, because nobody in the middle for Valour is especially pacy. If Arguiñarena is at the opponent’s by-line and his cross gets blocked, there’s going to be a huge amount of space behind him and in front of guys like Golubar and Thomas.
Valour are likely to be among the teams most susceptible to counter-attacks, but if Arguiñarena can put himself in smart positions to both support the attack and limit space on the break, he can limit a lot of the damage, particularly down the left side.
Tactics and positional depth
So far, so good, right?
You might notice I’ve written everything so far as if Valour will play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, built on the sturdy defense of Murrell and Thomas. Except that’s not what they’re doing.
Gale has been steadfastly using a back three in preseason and Valour have been getting routinely cooked in it, losing 2 – 0 to Forge in the only game we know about. Until recently, they didn’t even have a third bona fide CB on the roster, as Raphael Garcia (another youth national teamer and ex-Impact academy player) is a fullback.
Enter the Indian second division. Adam Mitter will likely start in a back three. He wasn’t even a consistent starter in India, and he’s been bouncing around the Southeast Asian leagues after coming out of Blackpool’s youth set-up. This is not a level that inspires confidence, and to top it all off, he’s an international signing.
Michael Petrasso, one of Valour’s marquee names, has been a right-back most often of late, but Gale’s talked about playing him centrally as a #8 with Golubar alone in defensive midfield, which is bold. Alongside Petrasso would be fellow former Impact player Louis Béland-Goyette, but he hasn’t played in almost two years thanks to the Impact closing FC Montreal, meaning USPORTs journeyman and former QPR prospect Dylan Carreiro could start.
In attacking midfield, Valour have a lot of intriguing young pieces but no real core playmaker, and I’d not be surprised if it’s actually a 3-4-3 from Gale, as they have a bit of depth out wide. None of the young players in midfield–Glenn Muenkat, Nicolas Galvis, Diego Gutierrez, Federico Pena–have much in the way of professional experience. Most have been Canadian youth teamers at some point, and that’s about it. Given the CSA has long struggled to identify talent at the youth level–this is part of why we have CanPL–this is a worry.
Everything in attack funnels towards Stephen Hoyle, an English striker who’s played primarily for Canterbury United in the New Zealand Premiership. Hoyle’s an affable guy in interviews and has good numbers in New Zealand, but I remain sceptical of the level there–Wellington Phoenix tend to hoover up most of the NZ internationals and even they’re a lower-tier A-League side. The A-League hasn’t grown like MLS has, and the lower divisions below it, while competitive, are probably slightly below USL-level, particularly in New Zealand. CanPL may well be a higher level.
Best-case for Hoyle is that he’s the kind of poacher who can score anywhere. He’s reasonably tall and quick, and likes a ball whipped in, which should give Valour a target for players like Galvis and Ali Musse (who was a depth player with Foothills) to find. Behind Hoyle, though, is only Calum Ferguson, a triallist with an intriguing résumé coming off a back injury, and 17-year-old Tyler Attardo.
If Valour can break quickly in transition and get Hoyle into space, they could be dangerous on the break, which might limit how easily teams can run into the space behind their attacking wingbacks. For all Gale’s talk of progressive soccer, I could see both Arguinarena and Petrasso playing as wide backs in a back five.
Valour’s line-up still feels like it’s waiting for Forlan, or someone who could tie the whole thing together in attacking midfield. There is promise here, and both Petrasso and Béland-Goyette shore up a midfield that had looked a little thin. Both should find a solid home in this league. With the right summer signing, I’d be much higher on this group for the fall season, but I’m slightly sceptical Gale can get that signing right.
Gale is as local a Winnipegger as you can get for a guy who grew up in England, having both played and coached in Winnipeg soccer. He also fits the traditional template of “experience adjacent to the English game” -> “provincial association technical director” -> “youth national team coach”.
There’s a certain amount of baggage associated with this path, but to be clear, I have no problem with Valour’s choice of manager. Gale does have his coaching qualifications, and his stint with the U17s, in particular, was very good. He hasn’t, however, coached any kind of professional men’s team before. Most of his pre-CSA coaching experience was with various pay-to-play academies running summer camps around the US and Canada.
He’s one of the better characters in this league, and I have a certain amount of faith in him getting the young guys to learn on the job. The international signings, though, are very much wait-and-see for me. If he adapts to coaching men quickly, and can hit a home run with a signing at some point, Valour become a much more threatening team.
Projections: 5th (Spring); 4th (Summer)
I just kept waiting for that playmaker who would coordinate the attack. Initially, I had Valour as part of a solid group of 3-4 teams who would be competitive behind Forge, mostly down to the solid back line, but since January I’ve dropped them down my own personal power rankings just because there’s such a big hole in this line up in attacking midfield.
Let’s look at how I think they’ll line up:
You can see why I’m a bit worried about that attack. You could swap in Pena or Gutierrez but, at least on paper, they all feel a bit too unproven.
I think there’s more than a bit of misdirection in the way Gale’s talked about his tactics. It makes no sense to play Petrasso centrally when that’s Béland-Goyette’s best position and Petrasso at right-back means Raphael Garcia can be more of a prospect than an every game starter.
Likely going off board, here’s how I’d line them up:
Give the fullbacks lots of room to attack, but let play build centrally rather than simply trying to cross for Hoyle every time. Muenkat’s a former TFC and Kaiserslautern youth player who could be interesting, though there’s still a huge question at #10.
Oh, there’s a pretty big question at goalkeeper, too. Tyson Farago is one of the least experienced keepers in a league of relatively inexperienced keepers. He has some potential (used to be part of the Eddies system) but hasn’t really tested himself anywhere–until now, anyway.
There’s a lot of promising young talent in this side, so they’re one of the groups could surprise with a diamond or two. In the right set-up, they could be quite hard to break down. I’m just not confident how often they’ll line up that way and, even if they do, I could see scoring being a consistent problem.
Put it all together and I don’t see more than the sum of parts–I see a team that won’t be the worst in CanPL but which hasn’t got enough about it to compete with the better rosters.