No team in the Canadian Premier League has received as much coverage for what’s happening off the field–in a good way–than Halifax Wanderers FC.
No team has received less coverage about what’s happening on the field, which is a pity, because this team is legitimately fascinating.
As a project, it’s something almost entirely unique in the world: there are few cities, anyway, with less professional footprint in the game than Halifax. Yes, we once had a successful team named after a donair shop, but I can count the former professional players from here on one hand.
Nobody had any idea what this was going to look like.
What it meant
In the end, it looks a lot like Nova Scotia itself, a patchwork of people from different places and paths of life. Neither our soccer history nor its present looks like one exact thing, like some “pathway” dreamed up in the corridors of Metcalfe St. or York Region.
This is, and was, and will be, Halifax soccer.
Figuring out exactly what it is and isn’t is a happily impossible task. I’m fond of the description Gary at From Aways came up with:
To try to sum up the past six months in a clean, linear manner isn’t easy. You can’t bend the story of the season into a well-defined shape that sits neatly on a shelf, nor can you force an ending that satisfactorily resolves all the strands and subplots that have run alongside the headline story of HFX Wanderers Football Club becoming a genuinely beautiful part of this city.
There really isn’t one coherent narrative. I like that. For me, this is just beginning. If it made sense right away, it wouldn’t be ours.
It feels like, had Wanderers been “forever first” it would only be downhill. That’s probably not a sentiment shared by the club itself, but while a Canadian professional league is fantastical enough, a professional club in Halifax is so surreal that for it to be any more than a collection of journeyman parts that finished last would have left it looking like a summer fairy-tale.
On the pitch, which is where I try to focus when not on bouts of poetic whimsy, Wanderers were not always successful. But while everyone talks about injuries and travel and the stands and anything but the actual football, Stephen Hart built something that let the fans cheer. It was not always the most exciting group in the league, and the contraption gummed up a little bit down the stretch, but it was terribly fun to follow and, on its day, Wanderers belonged in this league in a way no Haligonian could ever have imagined on Day One.
They fell down on some of their tougher hurdles, and now everyone’s talking about how bad this team was, but that’s never been my impression watching them. Frustrating? Sure. Sometimes even overmatched. Never bad1I say this as someone who watched TFC in 2014. I know of bad..
That kitchen party started on May 4th. But everyone will tell you it doesn’t really begin until the sun goes down.
My Projection: Spring 2nd / Fall 2nd
I should own that I picked Wanderers top at the mid-point, too. Was there some sentiment in that pick? Perhaps. There was also logic: coming out of the spring, they were through in the Cup and looking a couple of road bounces away from the kind of scraggly consistency I predicted.
It never quite happened, of course, and because this was a year one team full of young first-time professionals it all spiraled a bit. Other teams got some luck, Wanderers got very little–thanks to the xG data CanPL finally released this week2Massive props to Oliver Gage, who’s been fighting for this all year, and for the right reasons, too–this isn’t just a PR stunt with some pseudo-stats: this is a real and growing package for people to use., we know they underperformed their expected goals by more than 10, the highest margin in the league
Key game: Sept. 15th @ Forge, 2 – 2
There are a lot I could choose: the home opener was legitimately surreal, the 6 – 2 loss at York maybe more defining overall.
But in terms of actual football, the 2 – 2 draw away to Forge was key. This was post-CONCACAF Forge, the side that was beginning to hit top form before the final.
Wanderers hung with them, and blew a two-goal lead late. It was the second draw of what would become seven, but the next three came at home, two more with late equalizers conceded. In early September, it still felt like there was something more coming.
Truthfully, they outplayed Forge. On the road. Elton John controlled the midfield. They got behind the fullbacks, cut the ball back, and should have put the game away. Juan Diego Gutierrez scored his one and only belter with the left foot.
It also featured the deeper banes of the Wanderers season: an inability to track runs when the ball is out wide, subs made too late, and a general lack of belief that hinted at underlying problems.
Style of play
The reason I put Wanderers so high in my projections back in the spring was the way this team had been built for flexibility, familiarity, and pragmatism. They would be tough to play against.
They mostly were. Wanderers were fourth defensively, just two goals against worse than the stingy Eddies (if well back of Cavalry and Forge). The rest of the stats are pretty sobering: last overall, second worst goals difference, lowest goals scored by a mile, one of the longest winless runs. While they did underperform their expected goals, their xG was still the lowest.
Stephen Hart has never been what I’d call a tactically adventurous manager, and Wanderers were mostly a 4-4-1-1 team that could hit on the counter or off a long pass, usually to Akeem Garcia.
Often, that was necessary because the midfield wasn’t producing anything worth writing about. I’ll let Stephen Hart explain:
When I first put the team together, 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, the team, we began to design the team to play differently and use the strengths of those available to us.
Early in the year, there was a lot of talk about how well Wanderers played in training. Every team trains better than it plays, of course, and that talk mostly stopped when it became clear chance creation was going to be a consistent problem.
— alex sheppard (@its_shep) November 20, 2019
Alex is going to write about shot selection at some point, and it’s not going to be pretty reading for Wanderers fans.
When this team got into the final third, it had no idea what to do. That, among other reasons, is why more than half the team is being turned over.
I would like to have the flexibility of playing differently at times. I would like us to be a little more patient with the ball, be able to play against a team that plays with a deeper defending line, which would mean keeping the ball with a fair amount of precision. And of course to keep our ability to play on the counter-attack.
When certain players were missing it became very difficult to play that way.
Part of that is Kodai Iida. Wanderers’ fall nose-dive mostly coincided with his hamstring injury sustained from playing way, way too many games3He had to because Gutierrez was hurt. This is why Stephen Hart called the league’s scheduling “dangerous”.. He could run hot and cold, but his ability to draw defenders and, often, fouls, was missed. There was no one else who could manage that.
What went wrong is fairly obvious: the high-end internationals brought in to create and score goals largely didn’t.
There is, in fact, some frustration within the club at that. As there should be. In some ways, this was a gamble I think they had to take. In this kind of league, you have to take chances. Wanderers, in particular. Those guys had to be the main act, and some of them barely even made the show: veteran Chakib Hocine played only four games. Luis Alberto Perea scored only once from open play. Jan-Michael Williams’ numbers were terrible and he deservedly lost the starting job.
The depth players did what depth players will: they tried, produced in spurts, and let fans fall in love with them. They don’t deserve the blame–it could have been so much worse without the likes of Iida, Tomasz Skublak, and Elliott Simmons.
No team made as much use of the varied avenues to acquire talent as Wanderers. No team had to search and scrape quite like this one, and it’s a skill that bodes well in a capped league. Four USPORTs players turned out for Wanderers, three as regular starters. Three players came through the open trials.
The youthful variety gave Wanderers an energy and diversity the fans loved. Young Trinidadians Akeem Garcia and Andre Rampersad showed a lot of promise (and both have re-signed, which is pretty good business by the club). It also led to some scrappy play and upended any dressing room culture the team was trying to build.
One reason so many players are gone is that Wanderers had dressing room issues all year. Pinning it down exactly is difficult and probably not productive, but there were multiple major incidents.
These things happen in football, but when you have internal problems, you gotta clean house. That’s exactly what Stephen Hart did.
Most of the team is gone. The club is being very coy with who’s left because it’s practically no one. Nobody had a contract beyond 2019, which is probably sensible for a start-up team in a new city.
We know Garcia, Rampersad, as well as local heroes Christian Oxner and Scott Firth, have already re-signed. Alex De Carolis re-upped while I was writing this, giving Wanderers a steady option at left-back, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked to bolster there, too.
The next step is obviously to identify better talent–Derek Martin has said they signed players too early last year, then missed out on options for cap reasons–but it’s also key to retain and develop what talent was in this squad in order to start building a better culture
“It’s not necessarily a situation with only young players,” said Hart, who’s usually studious to avoid blaming anyone. But lack of leadership was a problem, and it’s a tricky one to fix in a new league. It means there’s a big risk in blowing this team up.
Garcia’s extension is a good start, as he led Wanderers in scoring by a mile, though I’d be more confident if the club told me it was a multi-year deal that would allow Wanderers to recoup the investment if he keeps developing and producing.
Otherwise, I’d expect a #9 to be high on the shopping list. Getting Cory Bent in the USPORTs draft will help, but he’s mostly a winger and quite similar in style to Garcia–expect him to rotate in to help manage the travel and volume of games.
I’d also like to see a defensive midfielder come in. Wanderers are always going to struggle on the road, just because of the travel. Improving the style of play is well and good, but when the going is tough–and it will be tough for this club, especially through the first few years–Wanderers need someone who can inflict hurt without the ball.
Expect a few more of last year’s unlikely heroes to re-sign, too: it wasn’t all bad, and there are negotiations ongoing with several, though the cap means there may be tough decisions to make. Expect new names, too. Whatever culture this club wants to build, it will have to come from those new signings, and also from locals like Oxner who are now “veterans” when it comes to soccer in Halifax.