Distractions and Dropped Points: CanPL Potato Cup Week Three

Lot going on this week. Without wandering too far off the beaten path that is this blog, it’s a challenge for players, sitting in a bubble with little to do for eight or nine hours a day after training. I won’t tell you if you ought to find that understandable or not–but I do.

Players have now been away from home for three weeks. Every team has had, by this point, some sort of on-field adversity–injuries, execution, emotions. There’s nowhere to go to avoid that, and no rest with the games coming so fast.

It’s probably most obvious with FC Edmonton, a team that started with a very tough schedule and then found out the club’s first captain had died minutes before what ended up being their best game of this tournament so far. More on Edmonton below, but it’s a roller-coaster.

These guys are professional athletes (even if they’re not really paid like it). They’re expected to do community work and advocacy. They’re also expected to keep their focus in games. It is a very tricky balance. It always is. But 2020 is not a normal season, and we should remember that when forming opinions–good and bad–about these teams and these players.

Onto the soccer.

Wanderers

(W 3 – 0 v. Edmonton; D 1 – 1  v. York)

This team plays with so much energy, and now there’s a fair bit of talent to go with it, and that overwhelmed FC Edmonton midweek. On the weekend, it got them into trouble.

This is a young team, and one of Stephen Hart’s refrains through this tournament has been that they avoid getting distracted by refereeing decisions. Wanderers have been a bit hard done by, but they haven’t been that hard done by, and many of the problems against York were of their own creation.

It’ll be overshadowed by Omar Kreim’s last-minute equalizer, and by the team’s general enthusiasm, but Wanderers probably need all six points in the week to come. Whatever happens, this team has shown very well, both in terms of technical execution and, particularly, character. This isn’t my attempt to be negative or contrarian, just that the way CanPL is shaping up, every point is going to matter.

Hart switched to a 4-2-3-1 against Edmonton, and kept it against York. The change was in Abou Sissoko dropping out. You’ve got to rest him at some point, but the former Montreal Carabins and PLSQ star has been Wanderers key player, and without him against York, Wanderers lost balance in midfield even before Joao Morelli’s needless red card. Both Andre Rampersad and Louis Béland-Goyette want the ball, albeit in different ways, and as such, when either gets turned over, Wanderers can be exposed. They actually managed it better after the red, mostly by sitting deeper and narrower, at the expense of any sustained offensive possession. It worked out, in the end, but finding a way to get Rampersad, Louis, Morelli, and Sissoko on the same field together is Hart’s biggest challenge tactically heading into 2021.

Up next: v. Valour on Sept. 2; v. Ottawa on Sept. 6

Valour

(L 0 – 2 v. Pacific; W 2 – 1 v. Edmonton)

Rob Gale is doing his underdog schtick again, and if it works, fine. They’re back in the running with two wins, though both have come against the also-rans at this tournament.

Stuff like this is why I still doubt them. It’s a trademark Valour moment by this point.

This is just a cascade of mistakes, made against a team that’s been opportunistic but not necessarily lethal, except when they’ve been given gifts like that. Valour are also the only team Pacific have been able to keep a clean sheet against, thanks in large part to Dylan Carreiro spectacularly missing the penalty Pacific give away by routine.

There are improvements here, to be sure, and there are injuries. There is also real value in picking up the points you should pick up, and that’s why Valour are still in this thing, and deservedly so, but if they want this to be real, and they want to be taken serious, they’ve got to beat someone serious, and they’ve got to string together multiple wins.

So Rob Gale should be positive, especially if it helps his players focus and believe in themselves. But it’s the same old story for Valour–win one, lose one. They did it all last year because, once you win, the underdog spiel loses some effect, and you have to start working on the little things that lead to sustained success. And it’s those little things Valour don’t do well.

Up next: v. Wanderers on Sept. 2; v. Forge on Sept. 5

FC Edmonton

(L 1 – 3 v. Wanderers; L 1 – 2 v. Valour)

It’s been a wretched tournament for the Eddies. Almost everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. There’s been tragedy, the team is really obviously distracted and de-motivated, and that’s basically just 2020 for everyone, isn’t it?

Jeff Paulus is talking about himself, which is the right thing to do when the pressure is on his team, and he’s a stand-up guy, but Paulus is not the problem here. I’m not really sure any part of this is the problem, actually. The club has an identity. The ownership are never going to be big spenders, but the Fath family believes in that identity. The nature of being a club that works from its academy is you’re going to have bad years between producing stars. You’re going to have to be patient. When it’s not going as well, it’s about community and pride, both of which the Eddies have shown aplenty this season, whatever the results.

About the only criticism I can level at this group is that they look like they’ve given up, and that’s a bad look, even if it’s understandable given the distractions. If there’s anyone in Edmonton who should be looking in the mirror, it’d be guys like Keven Aleman, who shushed his teammate Anthony Caceres after a bad decision.

Aleman is not the only one who’s looked completely checked out. Edmonton are basically out at this point, so the remaining two games are about 2021. The only case for a change ahead of that season is if there’s a larger cultural issue in the room. As Wanderers showed this past winter, that has to be cleaned out. If guys like Aleman, Erik Zetterberg, and Terique Mohamed are not going to get with the program, then play a lineup with Caceres, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye1He’s been injured most of the tournament but returned to score spectacularly against Halifax., Chance Carter, and Prince Amanda.

I do think there might be a conversation to be had about how the academy is operating, but that’s not a conversation to have on PEI, in the middle of a pandemic-disrupted season. Enjoy the last couple of games, and look forward to 2021.

Up next: v. York on Sept. 1; v. Pacific on Sept. 6

Pacific

(W 2 – 0 v. Valour; W 2 – 1 v. Cavalry)

There’s just something about Pacific that always causes Cavalry fits, isn’t there? Remember way back to the end of the 2019 spring season, with Cavalry gunning for an undefeated campaign… 3 – 2 in Langford.

This time, it was because the attack clicked for the first time on PEI (with a helping hand from the wind and Marco Carducci) and they managed to outscore the regular penalty kick against. This is much more like what I thought Pacific would be.

Those mistakes, though. Both Lukas MacNaughton and Jordan Haynes have conceded two penalties each on the island. I like Pacific in the next round, actually, and I think they’ll get there, but maybe wrap those two in saran wrap or something so they can’t foul anyone or stick their arms out?

As it so often does, it took a goal from two yards out to really get Alejandro Diaz going, but a connection between he and Marco Bustos is growing. Diaz isn’t Marcus Haber–you have to time the pass, look for the movement, and then he’ll do the work. That suits Bustos, who has excellent vision if not always the decision-making, and he, too, looked terrific this week.

Containing that front three is going to be hard, which is why I give Pacific a chance. They are, for me, still far too easy to play against in midfield, which is why they’ve been dominated in so many games, and you can’t give up a penalty every game and expect to win against good teams. But once they’re out on the break, they roll, and they’re not playing good teams this week, so they should come out of this positively.

Up next: v. Ottawa on Sept. 2; v. Edmonton on Sept. 6

Ottleti

(W 2 – 0 v. Cavalry(!); L 0 – 2 v. Forge)

Prior to Thursday, only two teams had beaten Cavalry in league play: Pacific, and Forge. Now Ottawa have, too.

And it was on merit. Javier Acuna was tremendous. One of the things about the Mexican playmaker is that, unlike the vast majority of players in this league, he doesn’t panic under pressure. To watch Ottawa is to watch Acuna spinning around in circles, wheeling and shielding away until someone–anyone–gets open. Because this is an expansion team, that often takes far too long, but on Thursday Ben Fisk and Malcolm Shaw finally got there and it all worked.

This is obviously what you build on. Vashon Neufville, though a very different kind of player, is another who doesn’t panic. If that’s the kind of player Ottawa are going to try to recruit, I could stand to watch more of this team, and they’ll do well. They might be the first team in CanPL to try to emulate Forge’s model–skill plus international connections–rather than Cavalry’s.

So, fittingly, they lost to Forge on the weekend, and looked pretty well out of it. I suspect it was just too much for them. Too much energy and adrenaline in beating a team like Cavalry. They’ve absolutely shown they can get points off teams, and Mista and Acuna have been shrewd in exploiting weaknesses. There are still real problems defensively, though I thought hey looked their best against Forge, actually–Cavalry also missed a lot of chances.

You need luck, as an expansion team. It’s about the best thing you can hope for if you also need a bit of luck to beat them. That’s a credit to Ottleti in a brain-melting 2020, and next year bodes well.

Up next: v. Pacific on Sept. 2, v. Wanderers on Sept. 6

Cavalry

(L 0 – 2 v. Ottawa(!); L 1 – 2 v. Pacific)

Cavalry have done this before, and usually it’s at least partly down to rotation, as it was this time, albeit injury-enforced, and yeah, that’s a worry. They’ve also never done it back-to-back before. That’s new.

Don’t look now, but Cavalry could easily miss the next round. They have ten points, with only one game remaining, and I reckon it’s going to take 11 to get through, maybe 12. They’re going up against a York side that will be super motivated because, like most teams in this league not based in Ottawa, they’ve never beaten Cavalry, and after some of last year’s games, I’m not sure if any team dislikes Cavalry as much as Y9. Put Cavalry out? Yes, please.

How did this happen? Like many things in 2020, it was kind of quick and chaotic and maybe that’s the exact problem. Cavalry lost for structural reasons; they lost because they play the chaos better than anyone else, but chaos is a tricky beast of fate and, sometimes, chaos plays you. Sloppy defending, goalkeeping whiff, lost second balls, hinky finishing? Sounds like every team Cavalry’s ever beaten, right? Calvinball giveth, Calvinball taketh away.

I think their best game was actually the opener against Forge. They dismantled FC Edmonton, but that looks less impressive in hindsight. Cracks started to appear against Wanderers, who were not supposed to be winning duels and the midfield. Since then, it’s been just steady bleeding in transition moments.

They look tired, honestly. This happened last year, too–Cavalry started losing duels around mid-July, never really adjusted, and by the final looked spent and unimaginative. Everything’s hyper-compressed here. I can totally understand being a bit spent after six games in 2.5 weeks. Cavalry have been a game ahead of everyone the whole time. It’s tough.

But this team is supposed to be built for tough, and now it’s losing tough.

Up next: v. York on Sept. 5

Forge

(L 2 – 3 v. York; W 2 – 0 v. Ottawa)

I do not believe it is statistically possible to be this bad on set-pieces. Usually they’re one of those play-by-play canards–good teams are supposed to be good on them–but more often it’s that good teams aren’t good at them, and win because they create chances in other ways, while bad teams rely on the lower percentage plays.

Forge, however, are struggling a bit to create chances in other ways and, geezus do they have problems defending any kind of service into the box.

It’s hard to work out just what it is. Coaches spend a lot of time drilling set-pieces and marking assignments, but it’s the sort of thing you only see from the outside when it goes wrong. So there’s perhaps a results bias here, but it looks like Forge are really wedded to the zonal system at the back, and they’re losing runners nearly every time.

In some ways, this is a familiar refrain: Forge sticking to principles over efficacy. On the other, this happens when guys don’t execute, because there’s no reason a team with David Edgar, Daniel Krutzen, Johnny Grant, and Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson should be losing this many headers.

Further up the pitch, it’s been better. David Choiniere scored again against Ottawa, and Forge fought back twice against York. A lot of these have felt closer to the “wonder goal” than they have to the good systems play Forge more often showed last year, but there’s talent in this roster to rely at least a little bit on miracles, and they’re pretty much into the next round. They can afford to slowly improve.

They need a point to be absolutely sure, though, which is likely bad news for Valour. They also desperately need to pick up U21 minutes, so Monti Mohsen will play. Speaking of which….

Up next: v. Valour on Sept. 5

Scandal of the week

Twitter blow-ups are nothing new in CanPL, but this weekend’s uproar over Forge and the U21 minutes leads nicely into a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time.

Putting aside whether Forge should have put themselves in this predicament (they shouldn’t) and whether the league has a massive transparency problem (it does), the U21 minutes quota has been too low from the start, and I’m not even sold it’s the best tool for purpose anyway.

The quota stipulates that Canadian2The league changed this over the winter without telling anyone, which is why Paolo Sabak no longer counts for Forge, and part of why this mess has occurred in the first place. players born after January 1st, 1999 must play 1000 minutes a season. In the Potato Cup, the quota was prorated to 250 minutes.

This is lower than some of these quotas elsewhere (particularly in Europe), and in 2019 every CanPL team hit it easily. While I don’t think any club would outright shirk the spirit of the rule–and I don’t think Forge meant to here–it’s very possible to get to 1000 play giving a the U21s garbage time. A player plays about 2500 minutes in a typical CanPL season–the U21 quota is one guy playing less than half a year. Forge got almost all the quota out of Tristan Borges last year.

Clubs must also sign three U21s but these U21s count against the 23-man roster. I suppose that’s a good incentive to make sure they get minutes, but it means they have to be worth the roster spot, which incentivizes teams doing what Forge have done, which is sign just three, play them the minimum, and flesh out your depth with guys like 27-year-old Jordan Dunstan. That’s why they’re in this fix.

Instead, I’d like to see U21/developmental roster slots in addition to the 23. These guys aren’t paid much, anyway, and 23 slots is a tournament roster–it’s okay for PEI, actually, but ridiculous over a full season, as we saw too often last year. Having three to four developmental slots and a slightly higher minutes quota helps avoid a mess caused by injuries. It’s also in line with long-term player development: get the most kids possible the best opportunity possible at the highest level possible.

As a bonus, it’d solve the inherent problem with the USPORTs draft, since players can be drafted and then developed over more time.

This isn’t an area the league can afford to skimp on. It’s part of the league’s core purpose, and part of how it’s sold itself to fans. It’s about building local connections–Pacific and Halifax have both done very well, and won over fans, by playing local kids–and it’s about keeping our national team competitive.

Many of the biggest stars in CanPL are Canadian, but most of them developed somewhere else. Borges in Holland, guys like Amer Didic and Dom Zator in the MLS systems. We know those systems aren’t enough. If CanPL is going to work, it has to make itself attractive to young, local talent, and it has to make it possible for its clubs to sign and play that talent without cost.

It also should do a much, much better job telling fans how this works, because the fans care and know this is important.

What I’m watching this week

Folks, there’s a scenario in play where six teams could finish on eleven points. It’s not even that unlikely.

I am absolutely rooting for chaos, if only because it might well force the league to actually enforce the U21 minutes rule.

Otherwise, I’ll have a Wanderers liveblog on the final day and maybe something on Saturday as well, particularly as the York – Cavalry game could be critical in determining how the final table shapes up.

It would be nice if they could play all the final weekend’s matches at once, but we have one field in a bubble, so it’s more pressure and weird emotions for everyone.

About Dylan Matthias 160 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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