I’ve always liked midweek games. Apparently I’m the only one–attendance is regularly brutal at these the world over, and the Canadian Premier League is no exception. Forge drew nearly 6,000 on Wednesday before getting rained on Saturday, which actually isn’t bad at all, but boy does it look rough in a 27,000-seat stadium. Cavalry drew only 2,055.
The soccer was great, though, both midweek and through the full slate of weekenders in our first really full week of CanPL. Every team needed the points on offer. Forge and Pacific needed them bad. Cavalry got an early surge to the top of the table. Valour and Halifax ended up somewhere in the middle, and York finally got a chance to rest.
But now we know a little more about each team, with all but York and Edmonton having played at least three games. So let’s look at where each falls.
Cavalry (W 1 – 0 v. Valour; W 2 – 1 @ Forge)
Big week for Cavalry. Insert obligatory bit here about how they’re top of the table, ZOMG hype!
There’s one big issue with this team, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, credit where due off the field (well, sorta): the pitch looked a lot better on Wednesday now it’s had some time to relax in the sun, maybe get a mani/pedi, and sip a margarita.
The team on it, too, is starting to loosen up. Cavalry are looking like the fashionable/powerhouse/darkhorse team people thought they could be. Jose Escalante, who was not good in MLS and USL, had himself a fine week against two back lines that struggle to defend pace. Escalante’s performances might make it seem like CanPL is a lower level, but that’s not my read. Cavalry played two good games, as exciting as you’ll get, and very, very physical. They feel like a prototype of what we expected CanPL teams to be.
The worry is that they’re three games in and still haven’t scored from open play. They’re as dangerous on set-pieces as you can get, but the final ball is proving a bit trickier. Julian Buescher’s not been dreadful, but he’s in a bit of a fight with the other #10s around the league if he wants to be considered the most dangerous. I think he’ll get there, but I don’t know that Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 is really helping him.
CanPL doesn’t provide aggregate position or heatmap data (yet), but you can usually guesstimate it based on a passing map. Anybody want to take a guess at Buescher’s position from the home game against Valour?
Some of that is Cavalry playing fairly direct. Some of it was Buescher drifting around as the game went on to both break Valour’s shape apart and defend them on the break. The latter part of that worked, the first part didn’t, and they end up rescuing two wins from disappointing draws thanks mostly to a couple goalkeeping errors.
On a certain level, that’s success. And they’re not as wholly reliant on set-pieces as Edmonton or Pacific, so there’s reason to think the goal will come. Certainly, they’ve had a few spectacular misses–Escalante on Wednesday, Camargo on Sunday–but they’ve also probably four points richer than they should be based on the eye test. They’re not the worst statistical team in the league, but they’re not top, either
Teams are going to figure them out on set plays, much as Pacific showed against Edmonton. Set-pieces are generally low-percentage chances anyway.
The question is when that regression happens. It could be they fly high long enough to win the spring season and coast a bit in the fall. My guess, though, is they struggle in the next couple games against Edmonton and Halifax. Both teams defend set pieces relatively well, and Cavalry are heading into their first brutal stretch of the schedule, with the Voyageur’s Cup games against Pacific, followed by a very road-heavy schedule for most of the rest of the spring season.
This race ain’t won yet.
(Next: @ Pacific on May 15th in the cup, v. Edmonton on May 18th)
Pacific (L 0 – 3 @ Forge; D 0 – 0 @ Edmonton)
It wasn’t a great week for Pacific, but instead of focusing on what hasn’t worked for them, I want to focus on one big thing that did.
Michael Silberbauer came off the soul-destroying loss at Forge and got his team to regroup on short rest with a game plan that absolutely foiled the Eddies.
Up until Sunday night, Edmonton had only scored off set pieces. Silberbauer clearly knew this, prepared his team for it, and got a point he probably shouldn’t have had. Still reading, Cavalry fans? Because this is what will happen when teams start to learn each others’ games.
Pacific knew that Edmonton would always look for Amer Didic to flick on at the near post. They knew Randy Edwini-Bonsu could be neutralized by sitting a bit deeper and crowding him onto his weaker foot. And yeah, Pacific were up a man for an hour and were obviously exhausted, having played three games in ten days; a 0 – 0 really isn’t a great result. But I maintain this is about building, and successfully executing a game plan to get a draw on the road is the sort of thing young players learn from.
In fact, game plan, particularly in attack, has been part of the larger issue so far. So if Silberbauer can solve it defensively, maybe he can solve it offensively, too? Because right now, they create nothing from midfield.
There’s a Vancouver Island-sized hole in attacking midfield for #PacificFC tonight.
— The Merchant Sailor (@merchant_sailor) May 9, 2019
They’ve scored one goal from open play, and it came off a deflected long ball. Against Forge, and without Marcus Haber to at least focus some of those long balls towards a target, they got nothing. They just completely run out of ideas as soon as they cross the centre line. They play a few passes back and forth, the ball goes out wide, and it inevitably gets launched in towards Haber or, if he’s out, a 5’9″ Nakajima-Farran.
They did have some chances on Wednesday night, mostly because Forge still have some pretty large defensive issues. Issey Nakajima-Farran should have scored. Terran Campbell hit the post.
But even if those had gone in, Pacific were down two goals inside twenty minutes. They missed the injured Hendrik Starostzik again and struggled with depth again. Without Starostzik, MacNaughton was exposed more often, particularly by Anthony Novak on Forge’s early opener.
None of the young talents on the roster has been able to hold the ball up and create near the area. Through three games, Michael Silberbauer has already tried Ben Fisk, Issey, Victor Blasco, Campbell, and Jose Hernandez in that role. Hernandez has probably been the best at it, and was occasionally lively in Hamilton and Edmonton, but as was the problem with this team from the start, that’s simply too big an ask for a 19-year-old.
So as usual, I give them credit for the identity and the project. They’re just not there yet, and with a cup tie against Cavalry and three of their next four on the road in CanPL, Pacific are likely out of the running for the spring season already.
(Next: v. Cavalry on May 15th in the cup, v. York on May 18th)
FC Edmonton (D 0 – 0 v. Pacific)
Have FC Edmonton already been figured out? It’s been only two games and already Jeff Paulus is talking about changing things up, which might be a good idea after a dispiriting 0 – 0 draw in their home opener.
They obviously miss Tomi Ameobi, but like Marcus Haber he’s more of a focal point than a real goal-getter. Right now, their biggest threat in attack is Amer Didic. Goalkeeper Connor James has probably been their best player–and another great USPORTs grad–without him Pacific could easily have snatched a win at Clarke Field.
I’m being a bit facetious. Their biggest threat has actually been Oumar Diouck. He hasn’t started a game yet, but he’s looked good for a guy who’s been out of contract twice in three years. Problem is, the Eddies too often aren’t seeing him. Three, four times against Pacific he was in acres of space–quite how, given Pacific had a man advantage, I don’t know–and nobody looked up to find him. Likewise, when he has got on it, his long switches to either Son Yong-chan or Jeannot Esua have too often been miscontrolled by two players who haven’t looked comfortable at this level.
The backline seems solid enough, and they may be able to stifle Cavalry next week if they’re hard to break down. Looking for the break might help this team.
But you gotta win your home games. Especially your home games against Pacific. Instead, the Eddies looked flat as a board and it took having a man sent off to wake them up. For a team that spent preseason frozen in the woods, I’m not sure if this start suggests good character or bad. Jeff Paulus would know.
They’re lucky to have anything, really, from two games–thank Connor James. The good news for Edmonton is they don’t play much in the next couple weeks due to the Voyageurs Cup. That gives some time for Ameobi to get healthy and for Paulus to instill a slightly more coherent identity into this team. Right now, they’re too predictable.
After that, it’s a busy, busy June.
(Next: @ Cavalry on May 18th)
Valour FC (L 0 – 1 @ Cavalry; W 1 – 0 v. Halifax)
Let’s get positive again!
It was a tough, tough week for Valour physically–four games in ten days tough. With a 23-man roster already beset by injuries to key guys.
To come out of that with six points from wins against Pacific on the road and Halifax at home is pretty good! I feel a bit for them, because they could have had more from both their other two games, but they still did what you have to do, professionally, and kept pace. While every other team heads into a busy stretch, Valour get some rest and can heal. Well, after Thursday’s match, anyway.
That one’s a biggie, with Forge also needing points. I give Valour an edge, though, and it’s mostly because through four games they already know what they are, whereas Bobby Smyrniotis’ men don’t. I really like what I’ve seen from Rob Gale thus far–there’s a real balance to this squad and the way they play that you wouldn’t necessarily guess based on their roster or shape on a page. A 3-4-3’s not a common formation, but Valour play it well, with plenty of effort and will devoted to pressing wide and funneling play towards Louis Béland-Goyette, who’s been excellent thus far.
Until Saturday, they lacked a true playmaker, that “big fish” I talked about in my season preview. Josip Golubar has been a fair bit less than that, and now he’s probably out for the season. Enter Marco Bustos.
Particularly against a team like the Wanderers that looks to stay compact, you need your playmaker flaring wide and interlinking quickly. Bustos did both, not only popping up in half-spaces but also getting the ball out of them. The best example of this, by the way, is at 27′ on the game clock: if you have OneSoccer, go rewatch that, and watch his movement leading up to his mazy run. He pulled Wanderers apart every time he got on the ball.
Valour’s finishing of these chances on Saturday suffered for not having either Stephen Hoyle or Michael Petrasso, and I still have questions about their attacking depth, but they’re getting in the right spots now.
No, the problem for Valour is at the back. They only have three true CBs on the roster–Arguinarena and Raphael Garcia are converted fullbacks. Mitter might be hurt now, too. And for all Valour look good going forward, there have been worrying signs at the back, even if they only gave up one goal this week. It should have been more, maybe many more if Halifax could finish. We’re four games in and it’s readily apparent that Valour do not scramble balls well in the box, perhaps best evidenced by two iffy but avoidable penalty shouts from Wanderers on Saturday1I’m not 100% convinced either were penalties–it was tough to tell. Definitely shouts, though, and you don’t want to give the referee a decision to make..
That’s what hurt them against Cavalry–there, too, on a scrambly foul. It hurt them at home against Edmonton. After Forge on Thursday, they get two weeks off before a busy June when the depth will be tested again. They’ve dropped a home game, which isn’t great, but I think Gale has shown this team can play with anyone and they’re entertaining as anything.
(Next: v. Forge on May 16th)
Halifax (L 0 – 1 @ Valour)
To further illustrate Valour’s defensive problems, let’s talk about Halifax in front of goal, shall we?
💥 @HfxWanderersFC with nice lil cross swung into the box!
🔴 VAL 1 – 0 HFX 🔵
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 11, 2019
That has got to go in the net.
Fortunately for Garcia, that was only the worst miss in CanPL history for less than 24 hours, until Sergio Camargo against Cavalry. Oof.
But Garcia’s not really a target man. Luis Perea probably finishes that, and his absence through injury hurt Halifax again. The build-up was actually a lot better–check out that pass above from Peter Schaale, who was yet again incredible–but it’s tough to score when you have one striker and, count ’em, seven defenders starting the game.
Some of this is therefore on Stephen Hart. I mean, I get it: it’s a road game, there are injuries, and it’s not like bunker and counter wasn’t fairly effective. We’re now three games in, though, and I feel like I haven’t seen Wanderers truly attack yet outside spurts at the end of games. Given the schedule, that’s not super surprising, but at some point you have to take the advantage you get, even on the road. For all my comparisons to CONCACAF, this isn’t the hex, where a 0 – 1 away from home can be a good thing.
He did make attacking subs, but they came fairly late–he only introduced Mo Korouma for left-back-turned-left-winger Alex De Carolis at 65 minutes. It was Korouma who received that pass from Schaale and put a great ball in for Garcia. That, plus the other chances, are signs of the progress that has been there for Wanderers–Korouma and Kodai Iida have got better every game, and even Akeem Garcia did a lot better as a centre forward on Saturday than he had against Pacific. There was a fluidity and comfort about the way Halifax constructed and they were quicker to find their counterattacking pockets.
They haven’t lost at home yet and have a home heavy next stretch after the cup games. When I picked this team second, I figured they’d win most or all of the home games and that they could snatch a result on the road. They could have, in either of their road games so far. The misses have been narrow. If those start clicking, they could shoot up the standings.
At some point, they have to seize the opportunity, though. That might mean taking a risk. I’ll be watching the cup game particularly to see who plays his way into Hart’s line-up–he may have been conservative on Saturday but Hart’s also shown a pleasing willingness to trust guys in form, like Kodai Iida. I’d bet we see Vincent Lamy, the 19-year-old who tore up the US Development Academy for the Impact, against Vaughan. He could be just what Wanderers need if and when Perea misses time.
(Next: @ Vaughan on May 15th, which I’ll be liveblogging right here. Wanderers are off next weekend, if you’re wondering.)
Forge FC (W 3 – 0 v. Pacific; L 1 – 2 v. Cavalry)
Forge got three points for the first time this week but it’s now obvious something is very wrong with this team.
You’ll see what I mean when you watch the two minutes leading up to the winner they conceded against Cavalry, again at home. They had the ball twice on throw-ins, and threw them away both times on high-risk plays. Kwame Awuah had the ball wide and tried a cross, cue the counter. It’s not just bad decision-making, but a lack of understanding of who should be where and when that’s leading to giveaways.
Bobby Smyrniotis, to his credit, has tried different things. He’s let his fullbacks get freer out wide rather than having them tuck in–and Awuah and Guiliano Frano are still struggling defensively. He’s tried putting Anthony Novak up front, and it worked against Pacific–he took advantage of some very wobbly Pacific defending, but also had a real sweet finish and, more importantly, gave Forge’s someone to play off of. Welshman got on the board against Pacific as well, and most importantly their midfield looked like it had purpose every time David Choiniere touched the ball.
I wrote parts of this recap midweek, and here’s what I wrote after Forge beat Pacific: “on a different day, Pacific might have been back in this. Given Pacific’s attacking issues, it was never likely, but you can bet Cavalry will take those chances on the weekend.”
Forge have issues at the back. So does everyone in CanPL, but you can’t concede off a throw-in the way they did early against the Cavs. They had the run of the play–they have often had the run of playthis season–but yet again couldn’t break an organized team down and yet again switched off in key moments.
This is a frustrated group. They’ve looked tight and snatchy every time I’ve seen them–it was especially obvious live, by the way. They could certainly use Johnny Grant, who’s been out with a hamstring problem. Kyle Bekker will be back for a tough midweek trip to Winnipeg, but now Bobby Smyrniotis is suspended.
It feels weird to type it, but the spring season is probably toast for Forge.. The return of the GTA derby is going to be critical, as Forge can expect to have vocal support away to York. Beyond that, they have one of the most difficult June schedules in the league. I still wouldn’t bet against them for the longer fall season, but they need a big mentality reset at some point and if they’re going to stick with the very fluid system Smyrniotis likes, they’re going to have to get clearer about who’s doing what, in both attack and defense. And it may be, in year one of a new league with some mixed personnel, that’s too much to ask.
(Next: @ Valour on May 16th; Forge are off next weekend, too)
York (bye week)
More than any other team, York needed a week off. That’s going to happen a lot in CanPL Year One, I suspect: those bye weeks come and you best make good use of them.
Likewise, we haven’t really had to start talking about cup and, eventually, CONCACAF commitments. But that’s coming for one or two of these teams. If a CanPL team makes a run in the cup, that’s great, but it likely comes at the expense of their league play.
York won’t have to worry about that. And I’m not convinced this team is out of it in the league, either, having played only two games, both on the road. They still have a lot of top-end talent when healthy.
What they don’t really need right now, but will get anyway, is another road trip all the way out west. All the way to Westhills Stadium. On short rest after playing even further east, in Quebec.
The good news is Pacific will be busy in the cup, too, and my guess is Michael Silberbauer will prioritize that in hopes of getting a big local match-up with the Whitecaps. Frankly, neither team has much depth, but I though some of York’s looked alright last week once guys like Estevez had settled in. I’m not sure they have enough to see off Blainville, which almost beat Ottawa last year, and my guess is York wouldn’t mind going out early before trying to put a CanPL run together on their long home stand.
(Next: @ Blainville in the cup on May 15th, @ Pacific on May 18th)
Shirt of the week
OneSoccer’s been hit-and-miss for me so far. Gareth Wheeler’s shirt manages to be both at once, and is very OneSoccer in this regard.
What I’ll be watching next week
I’ll be watching the cup, first.
And let’s be very, very clear, here: aboard this ship, it’s the Voyageur’s Cup. I’m not going to go so far as to say I’ll ban commenters who refer to it as the Canadian Championship2But if you insert the damn sponsor name in front of it, heaven help you. but I make no promises if I emerge from my quarters half-gone on bad rum and see someone denigrating the history of our domestic trophy.
See, the Voyageur’s Cup is what we had before we had anything else. Back when the CSA wasn’t too bothered about crowning a national champion, the national team supporters group took it upon themselves, raising money to buy a (quite nice actually3I mean, seriously, compare our cup to whatever mangled roadsign CONCACAF is giving out this year.) trophy and awarding it to whichever Canadian team finished with the best record against Canadian teams.
But what’s important, aside from it having been bought by the supporters, is that, like everything else in Canadian soccer that matters, it kept our competition alive and showed the support that has always existed in this country. That support has often been badly served. The cup itself is often badly served by corporate naming agreements these days, but that refers to the competition, not the prize, and the cup is still owned by the Voyageurs.
It is still, and will be for the foreseeable, so long as Toronto FC stays in MLS, our national title, the unifier of Canadian soccer. CanPL would not have legitimacy as a league if its teams weren’t playing in this. So tune in on Wednesday and watch it. There is always plenty of drama.