By the time Halifax Wanderers finish the Voyageur’s Cup tie against Ottawa Fury, the team will have played four games in ten days for the second time this season. Five in fourteen days, if you go back to July 6th.
The midweek games continue–Wanderers won’t have six days off between games again until early August. Meanwhile, Valour FCjust finished 17 days without a game to start the fall season1And nearly went longer, thanks to the weather..
It’s not hard to think something has gone wrong here.
“It’s something we have to talk about, for sure, because you’re in a situation where we play ten games this mont. You cannot bring the quality to the pitch. You simply cannot.
“We know things we need to work on from an individual and collective perspective, but we have no time to work on it because you have to give players time to rest. And then you have maybe a half of a training session the day before you play a team like Cavalry—or any team.
So yeah, we need to sit down and talk about it. The schedule is way too compact. I think there are three teams that play nine games this month and one that plays ten. And we are desperate. We have been going like this for quite some time.”
That was Stephen Hart, after Wanderers’ match last weekend against Cavalry.
The fatigue was noticeable in that match, and even more so when Wanderers played Forge on Wednesday.
Hart spent most of that press conference last weekend praising his team, so I don’t think this was a case of making excuses–and he didn’t mention it at all after Wanderers’ dispiriting loss in Hamilton. Besides, it’s reality for every Canadian Premier League team, although the two coastal clubs are probably hit the hardest.
This is a league-wide issue. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. after the win in Halifax:
“It’s tough, but we knew it’s a big country so we have a saying: we have to adapt and overcome. We’ve had line-up changes. So we wanted a durable squad, coverage in each position, different formations. We’re heavy on sports science—the type of training load we have,t he physical outputs. We’re heavy on diet, sleep, and keeping in time zones.
“Aside from my coaching license, I got a degree in sports science and coaching. So we wanted to make sure we had players—you look at players like Nico Pasquotti and Jordan Brown, these guys can keep running through a brick wall.Elijah Adekugbe, Zator, Dean Northover who’s suspended—these guys can last the course of a season, and then you have to chop and change with the fast-twitch fibre players like Jose Escalante, Sergio Camargo, Dominique Malonga.”
That’s a smart way of dealing with the schedule, and one more way in which Cavalry were the best-prepared team in this league.
They’ve had a teensy bit of luck with injuries, mind–though Malonga’s out now. They’re still thin in a couple of positions, and Wheeldon Jr.’s rotated side lost to Pacific to end the spring season.
It helps, though, that they’re a veteran group of very physical players, and the league’s style of play is rapidly evolving to suit teams that can will their way through a game, as I wrote about earlier in the week.
That’s not, however, how this league was sold. Or at least, not on the soccer side. While feats of superb endurance are an integral part of sports, our problem in Canadian soccer has never been that we can’t develop players capable of enduring gruelling elements. It’s that those players are all we can develop.
Our climate has long compressed how we play and coach soccer. Nova Scotia only got a full-size indoor field in 2012. Prior to that, our top players played April to September, much like CanPL, then saw limited playing time in the winter, often in gyms. The change since has been noticeable: players who start in recreational soccer play in the winter and… continue to get better! Amazing! What Pacific FC just did–buying a similar facility for Victoria–is the kind of thing that can make a huge difference in development.
This is entirely in line with the rethink that occurred a little while back. As Jason de Vos often puts it: soccer “for as many players as possible, as long as possible, and as fun as possible.2The link will take you to De Vos’ keynote to the Ontario Soccer Summit in 2017. It’s a lengthy video, but it’s one of the best videos I’ve seen on Canadian soccer. The bit I’m quoting comes around 25:00.”
CanPL faces the challenge of fusing that developmental ethos with soccer that paying fans want to watch.
Busy schedule, busy life
Fans have lives, too. For the core supporters, coming to the stadium three times in a week or four times in two can be fun–you form friendships, see some wins, some losses. That’s football.
For the family coming out to some but not all of the games–by far the league’s broader customer base–it’s too much of a commitment, and the incredibly unbalanced schedule (home for three games in a week, on the road for four, to use Wanderers as an example) means by the time young fans next get back to a game, a month will have passed, the team will be in a totally different place in the table, and likely fielding a very different line-up.
More than once at Wanderers’ Grounds this year, I’ve heard people ask where Tomasz Skublak went, or why Mo Kourouma’s not playing. I don’t know if some of the newcomers even know who Chakib Hocine is, and I can’t blame them. Last week, people were asking why the Cavalry game was so different from the night against Ottawa.
Simple: you just can’t sustain that intensity.
There’s a reason most European leagues more or less alternate home and away games. Or Major League Baseball plays a home series followed by an away series. It builds continuity in the market and a natural, easy to follow narrative throughout the season.
CanPL is lacking that, especially in some of the tougher markets like Edmonton and York.
A good product helps, of course. We’ve seen Cavalry’s attendance edge upward over the season thanks to winning nearly every game. Marquee games like Cavalry – Forge and the MLS ties in the cup have helped, too.
With every passing week, though, those marquee games get tougher to find. This past week it was painfully apparent. What should have been a significant clash between Forge and Wanderers sputtered. Edmonton looked gassed against York, too, and even more so after traveling home to play a multiple-times-rain-delayed stinker against Valour.
I don’t even know how I’m going to write about those. These are not games that have natural narrative, nor are they games that will bring fans out.
Fatigue has been a factor in all of them.
Health & safety
“The players are struggling to even get back their playing weight. It’s dangerous. If you have some injuries, you can’t rotate the players as you would like, so they have to soldier on.”
That’s Hart again.
We can’t have a league where players are physically unable to play games through sheer fatigue. We can’t incentivize teams to play guys through hydration and nutrition barriers.
It is, as Hart says, dangerous. The professional game is faster, harder, and longer than, say, your local rec league–and in order to achieve the feats of skill we’ve already seen in this league, players need to both rest and prepare.
That’s one of the reasons a clear golden boot leader hasn’t really emerged in CanPL. With all due respect to Tristan Borges, who’s been spectacular, he only has seven–and he’s an attacking midfielder benefiting at least somewhat from Forge’s system.
Marquee strikers like Dominique Malonga, Luis Alberto Perea, and Tomi Ameobi have all missed substantial time to injuries. Promising prospects like Anthony Novak and Tomasz Skublak have had good runs disrupted3Yeah, I know Skublak hasn’t scored. He does a lot of other things exceptionally well, and he’s 21–he will score at some point.. The guys who are on the scoring charts have mostly played the most games: Akeem Garcia, Terran Campbell, and Oumar Diouck have all played in almost every game.
When one player blazes to glory, that’s good for the league. Think Mo Salah in the Premier League, or Sebastian Giovinco in MLS, or even players like Ajeej Sarkaria and Jace Kotsopoulos in USPORTs or Dylan Sacramento in League 1 Ontario–prospects who become better known, at least in their communities, by filling the net. It creates expectation as soon as people enter the stadium.
Those players bring out fans. They’re the ones kids want to be. That can’t happen when these guys can’t score–or worse, can’t play at all. Notice how most of the injuries occurring are soft tissue injuries? Hamstrings, groins, all manner of cramping.
That’s all fatigue.
A development league
There’s still something innately appealing about watching a player like Sergio Camargo exploit mistakes of fatigue (he was coming off the bench, mind you–Wheeldon Jr. limited him to half an hour because of… the schedule).
It’s fun to sit and talk about tactics either in the stands or over beers. But tactics–long one of the relatively weaknesses of the Canadian player pool–take time. Tactics takes being able to execute what’s trained.
“Well, [the schedule] impacts the younger players. A lot of times they’re training only with small numbers because the rest of the squad has to recuperate and rest. So they don’t get that 11-a-side feel in training. So yes, it does have a bit of an impact. It’s something we have to sit down and discuss.”
Stephen Hart has been around for a long time. He’s reaped the reward of our broken development system on the national team, so when he says something is wrong developmentally, I’m inclined to listen.
For a young team like Wanderers–or Pacific, or York, or Edmonton–that kind of schedule doesn’t allow for players to get critical distance from the game. It doesn’t allow them to develop good recovery habits or learn from their mistakes.
CanPL is a league for fans, yes–it relies on fans to survive–but it exists because we need to be able to go into CONCACAF regions with populations the size of Halifax and win. Consistently. We have the resources. We have not, to this date, had the ability to execute.
We want our players be able to elevate their play for big occasions. That has been a long-time problem in Canadian soccer. We want CanPL players being sold on to bigger and better leagues, for the good of the Canadian game (and the financial bottom line of the selling club).
CanPL’s schedule, from late April to late October, is in my view too brief. The climate presents a challenge, yes, but how fun was that snow game in Calgary this spring? It might be necessary to get creative–Edmonton might not get to open many seasons at home–but leagues like MLS and the Russian Premier League already do this.
I contacted the league to try and speak to those with a hand in creating the schedule. I got no response.
But I wish they had got back to me by deadline, because the scheduling situation wasn’t easy for the league. Ottawa’s late departure made for a seven-team league, which means one team is on a bye every week. Plus, the league has to balance financial needs with soccer needs: too few games and there’s too little incentive to purchase season tickets and thus too little revenue for clubs; too many and, well, this. It’s not an easy balancing act.
(I’ll update this piece if anyone from the league reaches out. Consider that a standing offer, if you’re reading this at CanPL HQ.)
The coaches know this. “Everything is new, I understand that,” said Hart. “We all have to understand that. But that being said, even with two tired teams, there was some good quality out there today.”
Wheeldon Jr. mentioned the cup: “Myself and Halifax and York, we’re guilty of our own success because the Canadian Championship brings a whole set of issues—not issues, but a whole set of more game traffic.”
It is only going to get harder. The success of markets like Halifax means interest in expansion continues. More teams means more games. Stadia continue to be the major issue, and any shared situation (as is the case at Spruce Meadows, IG Field, Tim Hortons Field, and, to an extent, Westhills Stadium) means midweek dates are sometimes necessary.
I’d still like to see the midweek games minimized. It’s abundantly obvious across the league that nobody is coming to these. Personally, I quite like them–I’m a night owl–but even in Halifax the attendance has been a bit spottier, particularly against Vaughan in the cup. In other cities, it’s been atrocious.
That would also allow teams to establish a more consistent training rhythm. Travel is just always going to be an issue in a country as wide as Canada, but it’s a lot easier when you can fly home on a Sunday, rest Monday, and be back in training Tuesday.
Wheeldon Jr. echoed some of those ideas:
“If you start a week or two earlier—for me, I’d like to see a spring season fourteen, and a fall season fourteen. And maybe the August long weekend’s off. And you can still do the Canada Day, but we’ve just got to balance it as best as we can. Or maybe when you go to Ontario, you play Wednesday-Saturday there. When you come to Alberta, you play Wednesday to Saturday there. But it’s tough.”
Just so tired
It’s July. It’s hot4I’m a Canadian: I complain about the cold for four months, enjoy spring for a week, and complain about the heat ASAP.. But whenever I think of a Canadian Premier League game right now, I think, “ugh.”
I really enjoy writing this blog, and hope you enjoy reading it. Going out and watching Wanderers, and doing the liveblogs, is the most fun I’ve had at a soccer game since Hamzeh Afani and Michel Daoust played together5At the risk of explaining an in-joke: these two teamed up for Dalhousie back in 2009 and were just immensely watchable for about a month, until Afani got injured and Daoust graduated. University soccer is like that..
And yet, this league is already burning me out a bit. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people trying to follow the league in their off-hours. Or for people who work for the league for a living, frankly. Some weeks, it feels like mayhem–in a good way, but whew.
It’s inevitable that interest in this league will fade over time–and spring back up again as things grow and change. We’re already down some of the podcasts we started the year with (don’t worry–we’ve got lots more!) and, one day, this blog too will spring one leak too many (and, hopefully, be rebuilt at exorbitant public expense).
But for now, it’s imperative that interest in this league stay high for as long as possible. I find it hard to write pieces like this, for instance, even when there are legitimate stories, because there are only so many hours in a day and there are so very many liveblogs to do. And while I don’t mean to toot the ship’s horn unless there’s fog, it’s important to have stories and analysis that can bring a casual fan deeper into the league, whether those are written by bloggers or by freelancers working for the league office6Most of whom were bloggers in their earlier days..
Not all of that has to do with the sheer number of games. It’s a factor, one which also affects the product on the pitch and in the stands. It is tough to sing for 90+ minutes three times a week. It is tough to come up with new and inventive songs. It’s almost impossible to do good tifo on that kind of schedule.
It all takes time.
And it’s going to take time for the schedule to become what it needs to be for everyone: league, players, and fans alike.
Make no mistake that it will take work, and make no mistake that the work has to start now–before a player is seriously hurt, and not after.