CanPL 2019: In Memoriam

We have a league now.

There were a million ways this whole endeavour could have failed even in year one. That it not only survived but succeeded is nothing short of a Canadian soccer miracle.

I’m always torn how much time to spend on this. It’s easy to look back instead of forward. I tend to prefer to focus on what’s to come–but there’s value in taking that moment to look back, too, and remember. We won’t ever have a year quite like this one again.

So cue the sappy music and whimsical mugshots–let’s take a look back at all our favourite moments gone too soon.

(I’ll add links to each team, as well as my Contrarian XI and Awards as they go up.)

Jump to…
Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

What it meant

But first, the league itself.

The Canadian Premier League can never be a magic bullet. It can’t solve all of Canada’s sorry soccer history in one year or in ten. It is never going to satisfy everyone, even in a hundred years.

It is the jewel atop the crown. Without that, you don’t really have a king. Without a top flight, Canadian soccer players have nothing to aspire to.

It may not have playoffs. Or even a single true winner. It may never have promotion and relegation, nor does it necessarily need to have any of these things.  It exists so that fans across this country have meaningful local soccer to support.

Vaughan Azzurri and Halifax Wanderers played out a thrilling tie in the first round of the Voyageur’s Cup. (Photo via League 1 Ontario)

To that end, many of the nascent league’s biggest successes came below the league itself. The Canadian Premier League bought League 1 Ontario early in 2019, and the addition of PLSQ is at least being talked about. Both Alberta teams have U20 systems already in place locally, and Halifax is working on something similar. Edmonton and Hamilton have academy connections, and Calgary has a PDL affiliation–the kinds of partnerships that often take years to build. York share facilities and staff with a USPORTs program and the league itself instituted a draft for university players that bore significant fruit even in year one.

That local level of soccer has always existed, often outside the consciousness of soccer fans. And while it is important, no single amateur league can attract the kind of attention a professional club can. Some of it is marketing. Some of it is quality of play. Some of it is collective pride.

James Merriman has taken over the interim manager job at Pacific.

Those connections mean that not only do younger and amateur players have a pathway to professional soccer, professional players have a much clearer pathway back to the developmental system as coaches, managers, and mentors. One of my favourite parts of this year was seeing Martin Nash coaching Cavalry. Or Trinidadian international Jan-Michael Williams working with a local Halifax youth star in Christian Oxner. Likewise, six of the league’s inaugural coaches were Canadian and a seventh is now an interim in Victoria, where James Merriman was almost a co-coach anyway.

The league won’t be–and isn’t meant to be–a landing spot for every out-of-contract Canadian in the game. That’s okay. But we have a massive coaching deficit in this country and the more people get experience in the professional clubs, the more it will transfer to the grassroots game, which in turn means better quality of players competing for jobs in CanPL.

Style of play

It was almost impossible to figure out what the league would look like on the field before match #1–and even after it.

I tried in my season preview, but honestly, it stumped me and I fell back on looking at where players had arrived from, which is a blunt instrument at best. USL led the pack with 21 arrivals. PLSQ/L1O was close behind.

It was surprising to me in the spring that so few CanPL players looked for talent in CONCACAF and the lower-tier CONMEBOL nations. This was remedied a bit after the fact: both Alexander Gonzalez (via Panama) and Rodrigo Gattas (Chile) came in mid-season and did well.

My guess was mostly that CanPL would operate around or a tad below USL Championship level and I think I was mostly right: Ottawa Fury, a mid-table USL side, outplayed Wanderers, but didn’t utterly dominate as they (and some of their fans) might have hoped.

Other CanPL clubs had higher successes: Cavalry and Forge are obviously a cut above, and that presents a small challenge for the league even as it bodes very, very well for the quality of play on offer.

I’ll go into it in more detail in each team’s respective recap, but Tommy Wheeldon Jr. dominated the spring and much of the fall seasons building a team that was athletic and skilled–the prototype of a Year One juggernaut, right out of the gate. He hit on just about every signing and got a group working together to set the standard for the rest of the league.

Bobby Smyrniotis and Forge surpassed it in the league’s final. After spluttering a couple of times in the spring and the  Voyageur’s Cup, Forge were a fine-tuned machine capable of a level of precision and execution I did not think teams in this league would be capable of for at least five years. They thoroughly outplayed Honduran giants CD Olimpia in the CONCACAF League, only going out because what happens in San Pedro Sula does not obey any other law of physics, reality, or sometimes association football.

In the final, they dismantled the prototype Wheeldon Jr. built and challenged teams to do more than opportunistically exploit the inherent weaknesses of a new league and build something with a clear identity and purpose. The clash of cultures between Cavalry and Forge–the final tie saw as many red cards as goals–is going to be incredible to watch over the next few years.

The other five teams have work to do. None were without successes on the field, but all five looked like collections of parts rather than well-drilled units. Expect a lot of movement in the offseason ahead as teams try to identify and build a stable core of players.

Challenges

Just because the league got through year one doesn’t mean there aren’t major hurdles ahead.

I think the owners and administrators that make up the league  know this–I’ve been regularly impressed by David Clanachan’s ability to learn on the fly and implement feedback.

That doesn’t change the fact that many of the league’s owners come from other sports, from show-jumping to Canadian football, and while that diversity is actually a source of strength, it’s also led to some cringe-worthy mistakes.

So far most of them have merely been a bit embarrassing, and being Canadian, we as a soccer community have made them into something somewhat adorable. The league’s trophy may look like a microwave plate, but what’s a trophy without a little, uh, history?

More tangibly, the unbalanced two-part schedule and insistence on playing on holiday Mondays were mistakes, both of which Clanachan has acknowledged and promised to fix for 2020, which is good. Travel was always going to be killer in a national Canadian league, but somehow the league failed to anticipate that in its scheduling.

That’s how you get Stephen Hart calling the schedule “dangerous”. It’s not that the league isn’t allowed some mistakes and a learning curve–of course it is, and fans ought to be patient–but some of these mistakes can and should be averted by having experienced soccer people in the room who can say, “no, playing every three days with cross-continental travel is going to be a problem.”

This, too, is something that merely having a league will improve. Without one, it’s pretty much impossible for Canadians to gain the kind of cumulative and collaborative soccer experience that helps avoid the clangers. To some extent, making these mistakes is how we get there.

For us hard-core soccer supporters, the league’s very existence is enough. With average attendance around 4,000 per game, there’s work to do. We can’t coast on novelty.

Changes are almost certainly on the way, too. So without further ado, onto them.

What’s ahead

Akeem Garcia has re-signed for Wanderers, and is one of the most promising players in the league. (Photo: Allan V. Crane via HFX Wanderers)

Over the past couple weeks, teams have started to shed players. Some of these were guys we got to know and love in year one.

That’s typical in a league at CanPL’s level. It’s also sensible. There’s a lot of talk right now about how to minimize risk in signings, particularly international ones, but truth is, nobody bats 1.000 on signings in this sport. I usually figure if you get about 50% contributing, you’ve had a very good season.

I’ll have more on signings and releases in each team’s 2019 obituary. For the league overall, it’s important to recognize not just the successes but the more incremental progress.

Nobody was allowed to pay transfer fees in year one–a sensible move, even if it’s unlikely any clubs had the means to even want to try. That put a much more significant burden on coaches’ own networks. Finding players out of contract isn’t easy–most professionals, understandably, want to know where they’re going to be before their contracts run out, just like you or me.

Some CanPL teams rather knee-capped themselves by signing players too early and/or by hiring managers without much in the way of a rolodex–that, not the players’ themselves, is the risk–but I think it’s worth it for the sake of developing Canadian professional coaches.

Rob Gale is probably the best example. He’s a CSA guy who’d spent most of his career in Manitoba Soccer. Which is fine–he’s one of many in Canada deserved (and still deserves1Yeah, he had a rough first year. You know what, though? Good on Valour for not jumping in and firing him even after the horrendous 8-0 against Cavalry. Nobody is going to learn without room to fail. Guarantee you Rob Gale is way better in year two.) a shot. But his international signings were poor, and it cost Valour.

Over time, that will come. Nobody, least of all me, is expecting to see the kind of movement we see in Europe’s top leagues. Success for CanPL is finding a pipeline of cheap talent that can fill seats, win games, and move on to better things–hopefully, one day, for a modest transfer fee.

The first two parts of that happened in year one. No matter what you think of Stephen Hoyle or Luis Alberto Perea, both provided some moments and both won games. Those kinds of journeymen are important parts even if they’re time in Canada is forever temporary–they provide mentorship, professional experience, and leadership–but players like Akeem Garcia and Elimane Cissé are young internationals nobody had heard of before who, if managed well, might bear fruit in the future.

It’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Being a sustainable part of the world soccer market isn’t all glamour moves and Russian oil money. Teams in England’s League One and even Championship have bought burgeoning Trinidadian internationals before, and even a modest transfer fee for those leagues could cover most of a CanPL’s operating losses for a year, maybe more.

This is how most of the soccer world works. Teams have to be brave in developing and managing players with promise, be they Canadian or international. That, too, will understandably take time, and there’s been progress already, but it’s essential for the long-term viability of this league.

One Last Look Back

Supporters march to the Wanderers home opener.
Supporters march to the Wanderers home opener.

Back in the season preview, I guessed the answers to some questions I’d thought up about how the league would go.

And while I promise you I forgot about these three-point-six seconds after writing them, it might be fun to revisit them now.

  • Prediction: Forge qualifies for CONCACAF League
    I got this right, and they did pretty well there, too.
  • Prediction: Attendances are the best story in year one
    Well, mostly. The inaugural game and the final did very well. Wanderers did well all year. Other markers had some peaks and dips. There are challenges–even in Halifax–but it’s a good baseline.
  • Prediction: Some Canadian teenager you’ve never heard of scores a bunch of  goals
    Meet Tristan Borges. My own picks were (predictably) wrong, but I did okay on Tyler Attardo, who was a bright spot for Valour.
  • Prediction: Supporters culture might be a bit of a challenge (unless the mascots overthrow the commissioner)
    Happily, neither happened. CanPL supporters culture has not just been safe (if appropriately rambunctious) but pretty positive and engaged in the communities. Privateers get a big shout-out for charity work, and they weren’t the only ones. CanPL stadia are places where everyone feels welcome, and I’m proud of that. There will be challenges as the shine wears off the new league, but the culture created across this country will help manage those.
  • Prediction: Chakib Hocine, Joseph di Chiara, or Luca Gasparotto gets the first red card
    Not only was this wrong, none of them got a red all year. Admittedly, Hocine was injured a lot. di Chiara actually got someone else sent off in the opener. Kyle Bekker got the first retroactive red for that while Tristan Borges was the first to have a red overturned. Philippe Lincourt-Joseph gets the actual honour.
  • Prediction: York-Forge is the best rivalry
    It sputtered a bit, I think as much because York struggled mightily to get fans out, which sucked the atmosphere out. Forge-Cavalry was undoubtedly the best, far eclipsing the Battle of Alberta. Shout-out to Cavalry-York, too, which didn’t disappoint right from Week Two.
  • Prediction: Luis Alberto Perea wins golden boot
    If he hadn’t gotten hurt, man…. His skill and class were so obvious, but by the end of the season, his race was run. In fairness, nobody saw Borges coming, nor Easton Ongaro. I did get Malonga right as a contender.

Up Next

My contrarian XI and league awards–the cheesy mid-show is here!–followed by a look at each team after Year One (plus a look ahead to their offseasons).

About Dylan Matthias 125 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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