Halifax Wanderers FC have very few players under contract now that the 2019 season is complete.
Player contracts expired on October 31st, and while many had an option for 2020, the fact that the Canadian Premier League salary cap hasn’t increased means teams have had to make difficult decisions about who will stay and who will go.
Hart expects to have resigned six or seven of this year’s players by the end of November, with more possible depending on recruitment.
The club announced today that goalkeeper Christian Oxner will return as the presumptive starter in 2020.
Elsewhere, Pacific FC have released seven players, including goalkeeper Mark Village and marquee centre-back Hendrik Starostzik. FC Edmonton chose not to pick up options on eight players, with several well-known Canadians like Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Bruno Zebie being released.
In Wanderers’ case, both on-field and off-field factors played a role in the decision to decline options on so many players. Club president Derek Martin sent an email to season ticket holders on Monday, writing that “our 2019 squad did not perform the way we had hoped on the pitch. Our last place finish in the standings and lack of goal production are not the results we expect at this club so change is necessary, however difficult it may be.”
The club has been looking to make that change for a while. “Long before the season finished, we started to put together a wishlist in certain positions,” said Hart, echoing Martin’s concerns about the lack of scoring.
In some cases, current players may be offered contracts if the club can’t land other targets. In the mean-time, those players will explore other options, particularly in USL.
“The biggest problem for us is always going to be the USL, which is the biggest league in the world1He means on sheer number of teams, and he’s mostly right–only the English football league has more, and it has far fewer than USL’s staggering 36 top-league sides.,” said Hart, “and Canadians don’t count as foreigners in that league. So you find that you’re in a situation where there’s competition for those players, and you have to accept that.”
Some of the USL teams can more than match CanPL salaries because USL has never had a firm salary cap. While there are small-budget teams, particularly in USL-1, there are also franchises effectively auditioning for MLS that spend very freely.
Off-field factors have also played a role in some of Wanderers’ departures.
“Everyone is just for themselves, and that was the difference this season,” said midfielder Andre Rampersad after Wanderers’ final home game. “They say you create your own luck, but when the vibe is right, and everyone is working for everyone, then the problems become a little smaller, you know?”
Suggestions of off-field issues have circled Wanderers all year. Hart has repeatedly said that a number of players had to learn what it took to take care of themselves at a professional level.
…Many of them still had that youthful swagger: they didn’t understand the importance of nutrition and sleep schedules, or the benefits of paying attention to senior players. Also, most players also had a lot of trouble adjusting to travel, but we knew that already…
— Privateers 1882 (@Privateers1882) October 31, 2019
Many CanPL players, particularly on Wanderers, are first-time professionals.
“There are always guys with egos,” said Rampersad. “Everyone is just chatting back at each other and then there’s no togetherness on the team. [If] one don’t like the other and one don’t want to cover the other in defense and all this sort of thing, so that’s how it goes, and that’s some of the reasons that we get scored on sometimes.”
Hart confirmed off-field professionalism factored into his decisions, but was sure to clarify that it’s not just the younger players who struggled.
“You see it all the time. But you have to be very, very careful that those situations don’t get out of hand. It’s a learning experience, it’s a growing experience.
“Every team has a certain hierarchy, and you have to respect that. If you don’t understand that, you’re missing something in the learning experience of a professional and how a team is actually formulated.”
Several of Wanderers’ key players were injured for much of the season. Luis Alberto Perea broke his hand shortly after arriving. Veteran Canadian Chakib Hocine was almost never healthy. Elton John, one of the leaders on the pitch whom Hart specifically praised for helping organize the team, also missed a long stretch of the summer, which coincided with Wanderers’ sharp down-turn in form at the beginning of the fall campaign.
“When I first put the team together,” said Hart, “we started training in a certain manner and wanted to play in a certain way. And then it became very, very evident that it was going to be difficult to do that, especially when we ran into injury problems. We didn’t have enough players who could play that way. So basically, we began to design the team to play differently and use the strengths of those available to us.”
Some of those injuries played a role in roster decisions, as well as the off-field issues.
“We didn’t have that many players that could take charge of those situations and were willing to show these players what was necessary in conducting themselves as professionals and how the dressing room operates and all of that. In most instances, a lot of our players with more experience were busy trying to settle themselves and learn a new country and adapt to a new league.”
Hart was keen to stress that building culture and tradition takes time, especially for a brand new team. But by the end of the season, some players had learned.
“I think you had some players that stepped up and were willing to show by example and willing to accept that ‘Wanderers is my team and I want to do everything for the team to be successful and I demand that of everybody else around me.'”