I dreaded writing this one. Valour fans probably dread reading it. Because boy, were there some lows this season for Valour. There weren’t many highs, either, but neither was the whole quite so bad as it sometimes seemed.
This team was really, really inconsistent. Dread feels like a good emotion for them. For Winnipeg as a whole, actually.
Quite literally, even. Halifax tends to get the talk as the city that soccer forgot, but Winnipeg is up there, too. Valour FC was similarly built mostly from scratch, with a small local talent pool and a need to reach out to casual fans.
Valour finished three points better in the overall table than last-place Wanderers, so things did go right. A lot of people–myself included–have been tough on this club in year one. I think there are good reasons to be, as with any CanPL club, because there isn’t as much room for error as we might like. But Valour’s season wasn’t a failure any more than any team’s.
There is soccer in Winnipeg now, too.
What it meant
Right from the start, some early decisions impacted how the club would function. First and foremost, Valour wouldn’t exist without the Winnipeg Blue Bombers ownership. They deserve immense credit for getting soccer off the ground. A Grey Cup will do as reward.
The downside of CFL ownership is the stadium. Investors Group Field would be a great venue–for an MLS team. It’s oversized for Canadian soccer, at least right now, and though Red River Rising do an admirable job trying to fill it with noise, it’s a cavern.
It affected Valour’s schedule, too, especially late in the year when the Bombers were playing. Unlike Halifax, which had no other fully professional sports teams, the market in Winnipeg has competition for fans.
Valour are in tough.
Hiring Rob Gale was a mistake. Not because Gale isn’t a wonderful, charming Canadian coach with decent ideas about the game who deserves a shot. But in a market like Winnipeg, his lack of connections in the professional game–he’d never managed a men’s professional side–has hurt in recruitment and in the locker-room.
That said, my position is and has always been that he should be–as he more or less has been–given the opportunity to learn his way through these challenges. That is what Canadian coaches need.
So it is that Valour went from a collection of local talent and ex-CanU20 prospects to being linked to Diego Forlan to signing aging Europeans to salvage a rapidly sinking ship. It’s like the North American soccer learning curve, all in six months!
Gale managed to avoid being the first manager fired, but it’s fair to say he needs a lot better next year or Valour will be starting over.
My projection: Spring 5th / Fall 4th
I predicted they’d get shredded in the 3-4-3 and I was right about that, too.
There’s room to go up–or down. Valour will be happy to stay off the bottom, but they’re above it only on the back of decent road form and a couple of emergency signings.
José Galan and Michele Paolucci really did help. Neither set the league on fire, but along with the occasional return of Michael Petrasso, Valour were at least a solid offensive force: they actually underperformed their 36.5 expected goals a bit. The problem is that they gave up a whopping xGA over fifty.
By contrast: Wanderers, the only team behind them in the overall table, only gave up an expected 28 goals against. This could have been much, much worse for Valour.
Key game: Sept. 15, 4 – 2 @ York9
Sometimes, it was. 0 – 8 at home against Cavalry was, obviously, the low point.
Valour were never consistent. They had lows and highs, and never any steady form. But losing 8 – 0 at home could have sunk this team, and somehow it didn’t.
Two weeks later, they went to York–a team that finished third but which was similarly streaky–and won. Valour were dominant, especially offensively. This was the same team that had beaten them at home 3 – 1 on Canada Day. Rob Gale’s side followed it up with a solid draw away to Wanderers, in a stadium where they’d struggled all year.
It was the closest thing to form this team got. For whatever reason, Valour were way better away from IG Field. But they stopped the bleeding, and even got a second win over the Eddies, who had handed them that first-ever home loss.
If only they hadn’t laid a 0 – 4 egg in the final home game….
Style of play
Beyond recruitment and off-field stuff, Rob Gale’s tactical learning curve in this league was steep.
Valour started as a 3-4-3 team and Gale seemed determined to stick with it even as Martin Arguinarena and Jordan Murrell were routinely exposed in the wide channels as outside-backs in a three.
Petrasso actually started the season in the middle, then eventually moved wide where he was quite effective–one of the better right-wingers in the league before he got hurt. His loss, along with that of Ali Musse, wrecked the attacking balance Valour had been developing.
At the same time, Louis Béland-Goyette was the only player in central midfield who could hold things together, and his lack of pace was shown up again and again when Valour, as they did all season, committed too many midfielders forward.
There were eleventy attacking midfielders on the inaugural roster, none of whom Rob Gale seemed to trust. Dylan Carreiro looked decent early on, but fell out of favour. Dylan Sacramento got cut before the season even ended. Nico Galvis was benched after poor defensive performances as a left wing-back–possibly because he’s actually a winger.
About the only midfield signing Gale hit on was Marco Bustos as a free playmaker coming in either from the left or dropping between lines in the build-up. That’s a big deal: Bustos has legit potential but looked lost with the Whitecaps, and if he can keep his form and Gale can build better around him, he’ll have CanMNT and best XI looks.
Most CanPL players are on one-year deals, so tinkering around the edges should be no problem. But Valour had several big, expensive pieces that underperformed.
I don’t seem they’ll get rid of either Jordan Murrell or Skylar Thomas–both were centre-piece signings. That leaves less room to fix the back-line. Adam Mitter, an international who, when healthy, plugged some holes, is gone, having lost his spot to local hero Raphael Ohin. That’s probably a necessary move to free up a slot.
I like Ohin, even if he racks up yellow cards. But Valour need at least one centre-back, and probably new fullbacks, too, though Raphael Garcia isn’t bad when he’s not asked to attack too much.
Likewise, I’d guess Michele Paolucci will be back. He was something of an emergency signing, but Valour played better with him in there and he was reasonably productive, with three goals in just over a thousand minutes. It is fair to wonder if he can manage many more games than that, though–he’ll be 34 before next season starts.
I’m less sure about José Galan, but I’d be surprised if he just came for three months.
See how the international spots and cap get a bit tight a bit quick? It’s hard to be sure until the league decides to finally release figures, but I’d guess Valour are in a bind.
All that said, I think there’s room to grow, too. A lot of it will have to come locally, but Gale had a good USPORTs draft after mostly missing in 2018. Both Marcus Campanile and Charlie Waters should make this team and both bring affordable depth to positions of need.
In addition to Ohin, Tyler Attardo, another WSA Winnipeg product, surprised everyone in year one. Six goals in a thousand minutes is alright for anyone; for a 17-year-old rookie, it’s excellent. It’s too soon for Valour to rely on him, but if he can put up eight or ten goals next year in a few more minutes, he’ll make the larger international signings expendable, which is how you solve a cap crunch.
Martin Arguinarena is probably gone after a bad knee injury. Josip Golubar’s departure was announced last week, too. Valour won’t have the flexibility to completely start over, but they will have enough wiggle room that, if Gale gets the signing(s) right, there’s hope.
That’s a big if, though.
Gale also seemed to hit on a bit of a motivational streak later in the season, too, staking out a claim as the coach–there’s one in every league–who moans about everything going against him. Thing is, some teams need that. They need to feel like the little guy punching up.
There’s some truth to it, too, not because Valour actually got robbed but because they are a small-market team trying to do big things.