CanPL Week 15 Recap: The Blowout Edition

I did not enjoy my Saturday as much as I was expecting. Maybe you had the same experience?

That’s football, sometimes. Everyone’s been there. Speaking as someone who’s followed Toronto FC from the beginning, I’ve been there a lot. You get used to it, and commiseration can be fun. So welcome aboard!

There are different kinds of blowouts, though. If you’re a fan of, say, Cardiff City, and they go down 0 – 5 to Man City, well.. that’s what’s supposed to happen–just compare the club’s respective wage bills. These teams are built to be dynasties. (Or, you could be the Vancouver Whitecaps, who lost 1 – 2 at home this week to a club with a tenth of its wage spend.)

The Canadian Premier League, though, has a salary cap. That usually makes results like York’s 6 – 2 rout of Wanderers less likely–not impossible, but rare. The same is true of MLS. The cap is designed to create parity.

Had it been, say, Cavalry scoring six (and it could have been more), I’d have been less cranky on Saturday night. Cavalry are the closest thing CanPL has to a dynasty, although they also don’t really win games with big scorelines. They’re much better at closing things down and managing exertion.

That exertion is key. Too many of those eight goals were caused not so much by truly elite skill (save maybe Gattas’ second) than by outright fatigue.

There’s no point in even analyzing most of these. Watching Wanderers try to close down–not just on Gattas’ long-ranger but just on balls to the back post–was like watching a Tough Mudder run. There are things Wanderers still do not do well defensively, but being slow to close is not usually one of them1Often, they have the opposite problem: they close down too aggressively and leave the weak side open. See all the goals in the first leg against Ottawa.. No, this is a product of the schedule.

Wanderers have now played nine games, in all competitions, in July. Five of them have been on the road, including multiple back-and-forth trips across the country, culminating this week with a trip to Edmonton before returning to Halifax again for a game five days later.

That’s crazy. And while York fans will be happy to see a big win–always fun–it’s not really the kind of soccer we want to advertise. Winning easy is winning boring. Our teams don’t have the deep, tribal history of a FC Barcelona or Manchester City to draw fans just from a sense of belonging.

It’s not just Wanderers, either: FC Edmonton and Valour have looked extremely leggy over their last few games, most of which have been bleh at best. Forge are heading into their CONCACAF gauntlet. Even Cavalry looked a tad slow against Valour. Impressive depth got them the win.

Make no mistake: last weekend wasn’t good for the league. There’s not much can be done now, and there are real limits on schedule design that go beyond practicality on the pitch. But that has to remain paramount, or else we won’t have the quality of play or players to draw fans and we won’t have the quality of development to help our national team.

Pacific (bye)

Fittingly for our overall topic, let’s start with the team on (yet another) bye week.

The seven-team league is one of those scheduling factors. It guarantees one team off every weekend, which means you either go two weeks without a game or have to schedule a mid-week fixture, which is tough on travel, attendance, and the team that played on the weekend, too.

That seems to have bee the direction CanPL has gone. I know for me, as a fan, I’d rather have a team take a bye week, like Pacific have several times, than try to cram in multiple games a week.

Pacific’s schedule is probably the best (I wouldn’t necessarily say easiest) in the league. There was that one tough stretch early on, but they’ve also had three solid breaks, and while they’ll make up some of the games in September, those games are mostly at home. That’s smart by the league: build time into the road trips, and keep the bunches at home.

This is critical for development, too. Pacific more than any other team are betting hard on young players getting better. And mostly, they have! Terran Campbell’s improved every game. Ahmed Al-ghamdi just got a call-up to the Saudi U-20s. José Hernandez makes an impact off the bench. Zach Verhoven has gone from late-game sub to impact winger. And that’s not even starting on guys like Tommy Gardner and Nick Fussell who are staying with UBC but who can come in to train with the team.

None of that is possible without consistent training time. It’s not just minutes: young players need to be able to both experience a variety of match situations and see them from afar. They need to be able to work 11-a-side in training and learn to match a professional’s intensity day in, day out. While Pacific have their model, young players still have to earn time across this league. That is very hard to do if said young player is only playing because an older guy is hurt or exhausted–then when he comes back, it’s back to not training properly for close to a month because of the schedule.

So Pacific have been smart, putting guys in when they can but also adding veterans like Alexander Gonzalez, who’s allowed Matt Baldisimo to play less frequently and in some of his other positions. Some of the early veteran adds weren’t the greatest, but that’s where being willing to trust those young players–see Campbell–comes in.

(Next: @ Valour on July 31st)

York 9 (W 6 – 2 v. Halifax)

Truth is, this game was coming for a while.

York do a lot of things right. Finishing has not, until now, been one of those things. Their xG has been among the better in the league for a while. They move really well in midfield. I was very harsh on Manny Aparicio in my season preview and I think that call was my single worst mistake in that piece, because it’s him who makes it all tick with his play in half spaces.

What’s changed isn’t big. As I wrote on the liveblog, it’s that they’re a little more willing to play the ball direct. That can be part of a process when learning a slightly more complex tactical system: at first, you’re so focused on possess, possess, possess that you forget to exploit opportunities in transition. Forge have gone through something similar, and York absolutely killed Wanderers every time Halifax ventured out of defense.

A lot of that was down to fatigue, sure. It also helped that, when York got the ball into wide positions, they didn’t just recycle to Aparicio or Rodrigo Gattas. They played balls to guys making deliberate runs to the back post, towards the spot, or into space at the top of the area. Nobody was trying to do too much.

When you get tired, that’s especially essential. For all Wanderers’ exhaustion, York had also played mid-week, further away, and against an MLS team (with Ignacio Piatti!)2They hadn’t had the run of games preceding, of course–but pretty close. They were smart to keep the ball, and smart to let it do most of the work with balls to the back post.

Wanderers’ counter-attack has caused problems for Brennan’s team in the past, and it did once again in the first thirty minutes on Wednesday. Before York’s first goal, Wanderers were running at a Y9 backline that was basically a square. Nathan Ingham made two or three very good saves.

That’s the next step for York. They’re still vulnerable in the moments when they can’t dictate control of the game. Against Cavalry, against Forge, that’s what tells.

(Next: off until Aug. 10th thanks to Forge being in CONCACAF.)

FC Edmonton (D 1 – 1 v. Forge)

I’m sitting here two days after this game and struggling to remember anything about it.

That is increasingly how the Eddies play (maybe it always has been?) and it had been working for them. What concerned me during their four-match winning run (five unbeaten) was that it felt like they were scoring on all of their chances.

Against Forge, they did not. Some of that was down to Forge being better-prepared–these sides met in Hamilton two weeks ago–and that’s an ongoing factor in a league where teams play each other five times. Some of it was down to Edmonton hitting a whopping 27 crosses. That’s high for them, and it felt like a lot of them ended in snatches and half-chances, as crosses often do.

It’s now two draws in a row, at home. While Edmonton have grabbed some road points, they haven’t been consistent at home–kind of the opposite problem as Wanderers3FC Edmonton are the one team yet to play in Halifax–they travel out east twice in September.. It’s always tougher to pick up those extra points away and Edmonton have to find them somewhere.

How much of these past two games has been down to atrocious conditions and how much is down to Tomi Ameobi and Oumar Diouck returning to earth? I fully admit I didn’t watch a lot of their game against Forge–it was late, and I was tired. Easton Ongaro made the biggest impact with his late equalizer–maybe it’s time he starts?

It’s hard to see an exhausted Wanderers getting a result on Wednesday, but they’ll be hurting from the big defeat. It’ll be on Edmonton to break down the Halifax defense.

(Next: v. Halifax on July 31)

Halifax (L 2 – 6 @ York)

It hurts.

It’s also pretty clear that, despite Hart putting out the same line-up in York as he did in Ottawa, the priority was on the Voyageur’s Cup match. That’s as it should be, I think, and it gave us another tremendously fun night of Wanderers soccer.

Skublak! That’s a terrific goal.

He added two more against York, too4Well, one, plus an own goal that he single-handedly created., as the only player with anything left to give, which is impressive given he had a busy week and is still coming off an injury. He was smart, too, and stayed out of trouble when things got silly at the end in York. League 1 Ontario Skublak probably gets a red card there.

Playing with Skublak up front gives Wanderers a really terrifying direct option. He’s been so much better now he’s settled in, and people forget that even against Pacific on Week 1 he drew half of a red card with his hold-up play. If he starts to score, look out.

The question that leaves for Wanderers is what to do with the midfield. Neither Skublak nor Luis Perea is all that useful defensively, though both put in some effort. Chrisnovic N’sa was awful on Saturday and Andre Rampersad isn’t really a defensive mid–he scored six goals in T&T.

Hart admitted after the game that he got the line-up wrong, but I’m not sure what choice he had. Elton John, Kodai Iida, and Juan Diego Gutierrez are all hurting. All three need to be more reliable when they do play, too. That Scott Firth keeps coming off the bench and improving the Wanderers midfield is very welcome but also a bit of a concern.

They miss Elliot Simmons, who was hurt in the first leg against Ottawa. That’s the toll the cup can take. It’s worth it, but it makes for a tough stretch. Wanderers aren’t out of it, but this road trip has been a black hole. A result in Edmonton, though probably unlikely, would rescue it a bit.

A home win against Valour is going to be essential to climb back up the table. Fortunately, Wanderers have really had Valour’s number this year.

(Next: @ Edmonton on July 31st; v. Valour on August 5th)

Forge (D 1 – 1 @ Edmonton)

I think Forge will take this, despite the late goal conceded. I think their primary focus is on Antigua GFC in the CONCACAF League, though Bobby Smyrniotis didn’t rest quite as many players as I might have on their road trip.

They have the advantage of playing the first leg against Antigua at home. It’s hard to gauge how the level will map, but I’d make Forge at least slim favourites, especially in Hamilton, and if they can win this by a couple of goals it will do a lot to ease the glut of big games coming up.

They also have Anthony Novak back, which will help against smaller CONCACAF backlines. Emery Welshman and Tristan Borges sat out most of the match in Edmonton, too, which suggests a very strong line-up is coming at the Guatemalans.

I know I’ve harped on about the defending before, but that remains the concern.

Ongaro’s 6’6″, so yeah. But it’s late in a road game, you’re leading by one–how is Dominic Samuel not in Ongaro’s way? Maybe you don’t stop him, but you make it difficult.

That’s often the key to success in CONCACAF. The level of skill is not that high–there is no one in the Guatemalan league who is miles above the CanPL level. If you make it difficult, you can stifle most of the minor teams. If you give them opportunities, particularly when you’re on the road, they’ll stab you.

The other concern for Forge, more evident on Saturday night, was chance creation. Without Borges, it dried up. Forge created only six chances, according to Opta data.

This is not what you want from Bekker when Borges isn’t in:

Passing map from Kyle Bekker's game against Edmonton.
Notice how many of those passes are backwards. (Data from Opta via CanPl.ca)

Without the second of the B’s (I like that nickname), Bekker was kinda toothless. He ends up bundling in a late goal, and sometimes you have to get the dirty ones, and that’s something Bekker has gotten better at since his earlier days.

Antigua will come to Hamilton and defend. Forge do a better job at home using the wide Tim Hortons Field to open up defenses, but Borges is key to that with his off-the-ball movement. He has to be healthy and disciplined if Forge are going to succeed in CONCACAF.

They get a fairly charitable break from CanPL play over the next couple of weeks–the league wants success here, which is good.

(Next: v. Antigua GFC in CONCACAF League on August 1st)

Cavalry (D 1 – 1 @ Valour)

What a week for Cavalry.

It was always possible, even likely, after Cavalry made such short work of the spring season. This is a team that is operating well above the level CanPL was expected to be.

In so doing, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and co. are pulling the whole league up, so it’s absolutely fair to cheer a bit for Cavalry, even if it feels awkward.

The Whitecaps were very, very bad, and in no way deserved to go through. Montreal will be a different test: the Impact have Piatti back, though they’re also in the thick of a playoff fight so whether they’ll use him (they did against York) is another matter.

I think they can do it, though. Cavalry are organized and powerful. Montreal struggle with that kind of team because, unlike York, who had to score at Stade Saputo, Cavalry will draw Montreal up the field, and that’s where Montreal struggle.

That it’s a question at all is amazing for Canadian soccer.

What Cavalry did on the weekend against Valour was in some ways more impressive. They should have won the game–not because Mavila’s foulw asn’t a penalty (it absolutely was) but because he should never be grabbing Marco Bustos’ shoulder there. He has cover. It’s a rare, rare mental mistake by a guy who’s been very solid.

That’s fatigue, too. If it gets to a point where that becomes a trend, Cavalry have a problem. I don’t think it will, though.

(Next: Off until August 7th, when they play the Impact in the Voyageur’s Cup.)

Valour (D 1 – 1 v. Cavalry)

I remain unconvinced.

They were extraordinarily lucky to get even a draw against Cavalry. Someone had to get lucky eventually.

Michele Paolucci did play his first thirty minutes. He made two passes, missed one of them, and generated one shot.

What went well was down to Valour’s young guys again. Rob Gale finally put Dylan Sacramento back in midfield, and he had their best chance from open play. Glenn Muenkat came on late and it was his run that drew the penalty. And it was a penalty.

You have to give it another two or three games, but the early returns on the two new signings aren’t encouraging. Neither really dominated play. José Galan has looked decent enough, and he had the pass that found Muenkat, but he was caught out on Cavalry’s goal, which was part of a lovely passing play by Mauro Eustaquio and Sergio Camargo through the hole where a defensive midfielder should be5I may do an anatomy of this one if I get time later, but for now: some of this is on both Raphael Ohin and Jordan Murrell, too. Ohin is the defensive half of the midfield pivot, but he’s also on the far side–thus why Camargo drops in behind Galan. It’s a very smart play, and Murrell is way too slow to react. So is Galan, who doesn’t get close to Camargo until Minatel is already through the gap where Murrell used to be. Galan looks slow..

That goal just shouldn’t happen in a team with a back three and two defensive players in midfield. The problem is Galan is not actually a d-mid–he’s a converted playmaker who can’t really run anymore.

The flipside of playing five guys reasonably deep is that while Valour can get some support, especially out wide, they lack target options. Paolucci had a couple nice flick-ons, but he’s not going to carry a three man attack at age 33. Marco Bustos has to do a lot of the creative work right now, and while I don’t think he’s been outright bad, he’s been a bit anonymous lately. Valour can’t afford that.

These next ten days are critical for Valour: they host Pacific, which is winnable even if Pacific are beginning to surge a bit. They travel to Halifax, where they struggle, but Wanderers will be tired. They travel to York, which is tougher, but if this rethink is going to succeed, Valour need points soon.

Otherwise you wonder about the confidence again.

(Next: v. Pacific on July 31st; @ Halifax on Aug. 5th)

Existential horror of the week

Sticking with our blow-out theme:

Stephen Hart is the best when his teams are getting demolished. Sometimes there’s not much you can do. Where some guys would rage pointlessly or try to coach every one of the litany of sins in real-time, Hart just sits back and admires it.

Occasionally he yells at Kodai Iida, but that’s pretty regular anyway and I imagine mostly just helps with the monotony.

It’s all you can do as a fan, too. There comes a point where screaming and cursing at the screen isn’t gonna help. You either sit back and relax or you keep cheering, because come the next game, you’ve got to keep going and try again. Hart’s been around long enough to know that (he’s seen his share of no-hopers on the road in  CONCACAF), and credit to the traveling Privateers who just kept going in York.

That’s the only cure for the existential horror.

What I’ll be watching this week

It’s CONCACAF time again! I secretly enjoy our weird, crazy, occasionally outright distressing federation. This is not big-money football. It’s football where you have to find other methods of motivation: tribal identity, maybe; sheer force of will; hope; local pride.

All of those will play a role on Thursday night. I booked a night off from reffing just to watch Forge take on Antigua GFC in the CONCACAF League. (The kick-off time is just unfortunate. But this is CONCACAF. It’s part of the magic.) There’s something about those, uh, “European” nights. Caribbean nights, maybe? Either way, it tends to bring out the best in supporters and I have no idea what will happen.

I’ll also be watching both Wanderers and Edmonton on Wednesday (liveblog will be here 15 minutes before, as usual) and also Valour – Pacific later on. One of those latter two teams could start moving in a more positive direction. My bet’s on Pacific, but you never know in this league. After a tough couple weeks in this league, that’s a good thing.

About Dylan Matthias 83 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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