Midwinter Off-season Update

Stock photo. Airplanes in gate at Halifax's airport.

Right. I’ve been off for a while, and so was the Canadian Premier League for most of the first part of January 2020. Some relatively minor stuff happened before Christmas, but it wasn’t until this week things started moving.

Except for Wanderers, who announced most of their signings right at the peak of the holidays.

So let’s quickly check in. Keep in mind there are almost certainly signings made we just don’t know about yet. I’ll try to update things here and re-post as these come in.

Halifax

Let’s start at home.

Most of last year’s roster is gone, so inbound are a host of new faces. I doubt Wanderers are done yet–they’ve still only got 13 players–but the core is taking a bit of shape thanks to the acquisitions of Alessandro and Louis Béland-Goyette.

Béland-Goyette will be tasked with getting the ball out of the back and into transition so Wanderers aren’t as reliant on Peter Schaale’s long passes, though Schaale is a welcome (and very popular) returnee. LBG had some of the best deep distribution numbers in CanPL last year, and once again Valour’s loss is Wanderers’ gain. I do worry a bit about his speed, though. Andre Rampersad–also re-signed–will help balance that.

But I still think Wanderers need a destroyer for the tough road trips, someone who can build a wall in front of the back-line while Béland-Goyette sprays passes.

Riggi, who’s been at USL contenders Phoenix Rising for a few years now, is a legitimately big get for CanPL–I’m surprised he hasn’t been talked about more. Rising are good–and he put up solid numbers when he was healthy. Healthy’s the caveat.

Sad as I am to see Juan Diego Gutierrez go, Riggi is the better player and Canadian to boot. We don’t have a lot of gifted chance creators in this country: Riggi is on that very short list.

Injuries aside, I think the biggest challenge for him in CanPL is going to be creating for less-instinctive finishers. Guys like Shaun Wright-Philips and, damn, Didier Drogba, do a lot to create their own space. You find them, they score. The same cannot always be said of Wanderers’ strikers.

That’s the one glaring hole in this offseason as yet. With Akeem Garcia back and Jamaican international Alex Marshall all but signed, Wanderers have pace on the wings–Marshall is a right-footed left-winger, so Hart will have options–but it all needs a main threat in the box to pin defenses back, open space, and most importantly, score some actual goals.

There have been few rumours in that direction. Hart has said he’s still talking to people. That, plus the signings and large crop of departures, makes me think a fairly big name #9 (by CanPL standards) is coming. Not Kenwyne Jones, but someone you can build an attack around (which is also not Kenwyne Jones, certainly not now, maybe not ever). There are still all kinds of worries about cohesion, which will come later. This rejig isn’t anywhere near done, and given Hart’s comments, this is firmly a wait-and-see situation.

Valour

It’s all the fun of a Winnipeg winter.

There were rumours of internal problems last year. Now players are leaving, the mood is sour, and there’s slush everywhere.

Béland-Goyette was the first big departure, but both Marco Bustos and Mike Petrasso remain unsigned. Jordan Murrell was just released, and Kurt Larson is reporting it was likely by request.

The thing about January (and in North America, early February), is that this is when camps start to open and teams figure out what they need. A guy like Petrasso, who’s out-of-contract, will have options. So will Murrell, who was signed for multiple years to get him out of a decent USL situation. And though he had some terrible moments last year, he was still a big part of Valour–the captain, for much of the season.

They’ve added a couple of veteran journeymen in Daryl Fordyce and Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Both will bring some leadership but both are last-chance guys. Some of those strike gold one last time in CanPL, so it’s not a bad gamble, but Valour have a whole pile of those players right now and not much else.

There will be more adds in the next few weeks as winter options in Europe dry up and CanPL camps start properly. Time is ticking, though, and the early returns are not strong. Valour could easily start 2020 with the corpse of last year’s core, minus the best players, plus a bunch of veteran, international journeymen of varying quality and consistency.

Rob Gale is a wonderful guy and he’s done good work with the kids, but he’d never coached professional men before 2019, and it’s shown. If Marco Bustos doesn’t re-sign, I think panic sets in. Even before the offseason, I thought the chances of Gale making it past June were slim. If this is all he can muster, he might not even get that long.

Cavalry

It had actually been a bit quiet at Spruce Meadows until Joel Waterman made history as the first player bought from CanPL.

Waterman goes from being a below-the-radar guy with Trinity Western to a (still slightly below-the-radar) solid defender in CanPL, then to MLS, all in the span of about a year–it’s been 15 months since he was suiting up at nationals against the Carabins.

That’s a hell of a pathway, and it’s what CanPL is for.

Even better for the long-term viability of the league, Cavalry actually netted $100K in the deal, which is peanuts these days in MLS1It does count against the cap, although that can be paid down with allocation money. It means Montreal had to use a senior roster spot on him, though–I have questions about Montreal’s end of this but don’t want to rain on the parade too much. but a significant chunk against a CanPL operating expenses. The Smiths just became the first owners to see this kind of revenue. My guess is they like it, and that’s good for the league as a whole.

Waterman aside, most of the rest of the 2019 team will be back. Not on that list? Dom Malonga.

Malonga’s been at this a long time. Every January, European teams miss targets, and turn to second, third, fourth options. That’s where a guy like Malonga earns his keep. So it’s not surprising that he’s unsigned, and given he’s 31 and slowing down, there might be some sense in Cavalry looking elsewhere. That’s how it goes at this level.

Jair Cordova is interesting but maybe not the answer. Although he’s coming form the Peruvian top flight, he’s mostly bounced around on loan, never really scoring above a goal every few games. This is also a typical path for a 23-year-old: his options in South America are dwindling, so try something else. The risk for CanPL in prioritizing younger internationals is that you’ll see fewer proven journeymen and more random young guys who need a chance.

After last year, I trust the talent ID of Tommy Wheeldon and Martin Nash a lot. But nobody bats 1.000, ever. If Malonga goes, some combination of Cordova, Jose Hernandez, and Jordan Brown has to cover his eleven goals.

That’s a bigger question. How do you like Aribim Pepple? ‘Cause I think we might see a lot more of him.

Pacific

They’ve got a coach, now. I can’t help but feel like Pa-Modou Kah might have been the second choice, though: he was Alan Koch’s assistant at FC Cincinatti. Koch, the former SFU Clan coach, is available but might want another MLS or college shot, which leaves Pacific with another rookie head coach.

Everyone loves Kah, as is often the way with assistant coaches. He was Carl Robinson’s AC at Whitecaps for a long time, too, so he knows Pacific’s main pipeline.

While he’s saying all the right things about playing the youth, it should be noted that Vancouver’s youth pipeline over the time Kah was there was utterly dry. That’s not his fault, but an assistant coach is still part of that operation, part of the brain-trust that couldn’t find a way to give young players minutes.

More promising is that the staff will be larger this year: James Merriman comes back, and they’ve added Riley O’Neill and Neil Sedgwick2Of long-time Dal Tigers fame.. Both have connections to Victoria Highlanders’ program, and Sedgwick coached the successful UNBC college program as well. That Pacific are working more closely with Highlanders is good, and Sedgwick is the kind of youth development specialist they need if the ethos is going to be promote every kid we can.

To which end, most of last year’s roster is back. Rob Friend and Josh Simpson did walk away from some of the kids–Emile Legault is gone, and Jose Hernandez is in Calgary–but they’ve re-signed the ones who won spots under Michael Silberbauer. Which maybe says something about Silberbauer’s talent ID?

It does leave a lot of the same questions: there is still no proven centre-back partnership, though Lukas MacNaughton just re-signed and I think Matt Baldisimo fits better there long-term3Yeah, there’s Jan Pirretas Glasmacher. But even if we comp him to Peter Schaale, Schaale didn’t come into Wanderers camp as a starter–he won that spot in pre-season. Victor Blasco’s back, while Issey, Marcus Haber, and Ben Fisk remain as unsigned veterans. It’s starting to look like all of them will be gone, which frees up cap space for Pacific to sign a bigger name.

The process is what it is. If they get Marco Bustos, who they’ve been linked to, it’ll be a welcome sign of ambition at Westhills.

Forge

I feel bad because I didn’t get around to writing Forge’s season recap. Truth is, a lot of it went in my league recap and I didn’t feel like repeating myself. I do a lot of that already.

Which makes this update hard, too, because Forge are mostly repeating themselves. Almost the entire 2019 team is back, minus cap casualty Bertrand Owundi, who was better than I thought he’d be but hardly irreplaceable. David Edgar had taken that spot in the summer much like Triston Henry took Quillan Roberts’ in the spring.

That leaves Bobby Smyrniotis some cap space, though probably not a huge amount after re-signing Borges, which happened pretty early and was obviously the big priority. They’ll find a cheap back-up ‘keeper and a U21 to spell some CB minutes. What money there is will go up top.

Which is where the only real question is, because neither Anthony Novak or Jace Kotsopoulos are confirmed back yet. At the risk of, y’know, repeating myself: I think Forge are way better with a big man to create space in the box for all their creators, but I can’t shake the feeling Smyrniotis doesn’t trust either.

I’m really curious to see what he does with that role. Were Novak not to return, he’d have other suitors.

FC Edmonton

I was actually pretty happy with Edmonton’s off-season until I opened Twitter this morning and read that Amer Didic had signed for Vancouver.

He hasn’t–that’s Twitter for you–but he’s not signed in Edmonton, either. Uh-oh.

Here’s what I wrote back in the late fall:

Paulus was coming off a Voyageur’s Cup exit in Toronto, having blown a lead with three goals off corners. The Eddies had been beaten handily in both of the spring “Al Clasicos”1 and Paulus came out and announced his team couldn’t play with the ball so they wouldn’t bother anymore.

Things looked bad. They were going back to York’s tiny pitch. Set-pieces were being talked about.

It was 0 – 0, which is better than 1 – 3, but it was also a prototype of what the Eddies were on their way to becoming: defense-first, stay compact, wait for the opponent to make a mistake.

That was all prefaced on the idea that Didic would be there to lead a back-line that was otherwise very anonymous–sometimes in a good way, but short on talent, overall. And it’s a back-line that gets leaned on a lot because there just aren’t goals in this team at the moment.

Didic, of course, was never a lock to be back. They got him late and, by my guess, fairly cheap because the ex-Sporting Rangers USL star was having a bit of trouble getting time in Sacramento. If he did well in CanPL–and he did–there were always going to be suitors.

So we’ll see. In the mean-time, almost everyone else is back, plus Hanson Boakai. Or, “Canadian Messi.”

His rise in Edmonton was mostly hype from one game. He moved to Europe and cratered. Hard. It was, more or less, the critical failure of any advertised skill combined with a young guy’s ego. It’s not his fault he got hyped on, more or less, one play. It is, to an extent, his fault that he only had that one play.

As a repatriation act, I like this move. This is about Jeff Paulus standing by an academy grad when no one else will. Everything in Edmonton is about loyalty, and as a result, players play for Paulus. If Boakai’s going to revive is career, this is where it will happen. This is where it has to happen.

He’s not, however, the star creator Edmonton needed. He’ll be perfectly useful for Edmonton, but I don’t know that he can single-handedly connect midfield and attack, and that’s what Edmonton need. The league already spent a good chunk of time over Christmas hyping him up again. He’s a smarter man now, but my suspicion is he’d like to never see the “Canadian Messi” tag again. Sorry, Hanson.

Last year’s external signings were distinctly 50/50–that’s not where Edmonton want to work. It’s why I was so surprised they blew off the USPORTs draft, only to see their Alberta rivals sell a guy they drafted.

There may be some more moves, but I’d expect most of them to be internal. If Didic goes, I don’t think there’s another Didic in the academy and I’m not sure the Eddies can fall back on falling back. There’s a lot riding on Tomi Ameobi staying healthy, and Ongaro living up to his underlying numbers. Even then, they needed a spark in 2019. There is likely cap space available with the departures of Tony Tchani, Diouck, and James Marcelin. Can Paulus use it in the coming weeks?

York

Things have been so quiet, there are still game recaps on the York homepage. It’s nostalgic and a bit quaint but probably also speaks to York9’s larger issue with fan engagement.

Part of the reason for the silence is they brought back more than I thought they would. Kyle Porer! Simon Adjei! Didn’t expect them back.

I’m not as sold as most on this group–I think there’s promise, sure, but also a lot of flaws and not much has been done to address those.

For instance, Rodrigo Gattas looks almost certain to be gone–he’s not re-signed, it’s late January, and he’s got enough a résumé to land somewhere else. Does York even want him back? He’s a frustrating player, sure, but he had 11 goals, almost a third of York’s total. Ryan Telfer won’t likely be back, either.

I watched this team a fair bit in Halifax last year, and they didn’t get the ball into the box in dangerous enough positions. Some of that started in midfield, but it mostly came down to static options around the box.

So they’ve added another midfielder, Chris Mannella, from Ottawa and TFC. Mannella’s a solid get, make no mistake, but joins a crowded midfield. York has the best midfield in the league without question, but I’m not sure there’s much else.

I’m a little disappointed, too, to see so many young players released. At some point, teams in this league have to learn how to identify and develop these guys. York, without any natural ties to an academy, are at a disadvantage there, and none of their USPORTs or ex-TFC Academy picks really panned out.

There will be signings yet. I still think Jordan Hamilton is coming, though I’ve got no info or anything, aside from York having only one striker, Adjei, on the roster, and if they’re going into 2020 relying on him for 15 goals, yikes. The backline starters are mostly back. But there are still questions about depth, and, for me, balance. Keep an eye on the 905, though.

Ottawa?

When I started writing this update, they didn’t exist. Atletico Madrid’s interest has developed so quickly that a new team is almost a sure thing.

I see why the league was quiet about this, and also why it wants Ottawa in for 2020–there are good reasons for that and I’ll weigh them a bit in another post–but it creates a real roster-building challenge if the team is to be even close to competitive.

There are some ex-Fury guys still available, but the top end of that roster will find jobs elsewhere in USL for more money, and I’m not sure the bottom end is actually CanPL quality4The sheer number of teams in USL, with a generous handful more every year, mean there tends to be more variability..

Atleti would likely loan some young players to Ottawa, but the league has to be very careful with that lest it badly undercut the Canadian player pool or imbalance the league’s parity even more. You also want those players playing under a decent coach, and Nikola Popovic is long gone. Even if the team is branded as an Atletico team, it needs to remain semi-distinct and local.

CanPL HQ has another very tricky problem to solve here and not a very long time to solve it.

 

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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