Preview 2020: Valorous in Defeat Edition

Valour FC is a team that’s gotten worse from 2019 and the 2019 version was not that good to begin with.

To illustrate with a statistic: Valour scored 30 league goals in 2019. 28 of them have departed. (The other two are Dylan Carreiro’s, a deep-lying central mid.)

You could call this a rebuild. Certainly, it has the fire-sale aspect, but the team hasn’t gotten any younger–quite the opposite, actually. Fire evacuation might be a better phrase given some of the quotes coming out of the departees.

Louis Béland-Goyette, now in Halifax:

“I think that was the best decision for me and for my career. I’m always looking to go a step above in any way to get better and my goal is always to move forward. I think I’ve done that with the move, and it’ll always be to move forward and to get better, to take the step above in my career. That’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it.

“I have absolutely no regrets.”

to CanPL.ca Aug. 6, 2020

Okay, clichés. Players say this stuff. Marcos Bustos was a bit more candid:

“It was nothing against Valour; I enjoyed my time there… I didn’t feel like being in Winnipeg was going to push me to my limit. I needed to be in a place that was going to push me to try and ultimately win something in the (CPL) and then get out of the league.”

to One Soccer on Mar. 25, 2020

There’s a lot of ouch in there. When he said it, some people on Twitter jumped at Bustos for wanting to leave CanPL, but he’s 23, and moving players on is what this league is for. Players want to play where they’ll improve, and they know which coaches will make them better. That’s why they play.

Both Béland-Goyette and Bustos carefully, diplomatically, as players are smart to do, didn’t feel they could move forward at Valour. Bustos is explicitly saying he wasn’t pushed to win.

Also leaving was 18-year-old breakout star Tyler Attardo, who was likewise open about his desire to move to Europe. Valour sold him to a third division side in Chile, where Attardo has connections. It seems unlikely he’s more exposed to scouts on Chile’s semi-pro circuit than in the league where he scored six times and which just saw it’s top young player move to Belgium.

These guys have deserved rep in this league. Less-effective but still competent centre-backs Jordan Murrell and Skylar Thomas were both released but have found jobs–and in Thomas’ case, at least, playing time–with good USL sides. Adam Mitter, who literally bled for Valour FC in 2019, was also released without fanfare.

This isn’t all on Rob Gale, but some of it is. You don’t have that kind of stream for the exit when the main act is compelling. Gale has been put in a tough spot, in a nascent league, having not coached professionals before, without the contacts of some of the other coaches.

So far the early returns have been rocky at best.

Key Additions

A large number of the new arrivals have ties to old CSA youth teams, as does Gale. That’s been the trend in Valour’s recruitment from the start.

The trouble is, those guys are already identified and, in most cases, weren’t good enough. Many of Valour’s recruits will ring a bell for Voyageurs who long prayed they’d emerge to rescue the national team: guys like Fraser Aird, Stefan Cebara, Shaan Hundal, and Brett Levis. All can do a job, and likely will, but we know what they are.

The internationals are basically the same: most have played mostly semi-pro ball, mostly in Scandi regional leagues. Moses Dyer scored a bit in New Zealand, but so did Stephen Hoyle. Andrew Jean-Baptiste played for Haiti at the Gold Cup–that’s good!–but also couldn’t get off the bench in the Swedish third flight. Solomon Kojo Antwi, out of the delightfully-named Glow Lamp Academy in Ghana, was scouted a few times but has never played a professional game1The Valour release says he’s played with the Ghana U20 squad, but I can’t find any record of him playing with them in the 2019 CAF U20s, their last major tournament. It’s possible he’s played some friendlies–CAF rosters can be very hard to find–but if so, that doesn’t necessarily mean much, and the entire Ghana FA, never mind the U20 system, has been in a degree of turmoil of late (the entire technical staff was fired in January)..

Guys with similar paths–Zachary Sukunda, Oumar Diouck, Elimane Cissé–haven’t fit quite as well in CanPL as might have been thought. That may speak well of the league’s level, and it’s always a gamble with any add, but while other teams are bringing in players from Liga MX and the Dutch second division, Valour are bringing in guys from the margins of the professional game.

Key Departures

Pretty much everyone, as mentioned above. Nico Galvis, who showed flashes last year, is gone. So too is Ali Musse, which may be injury-related but he did offer a threat for Valour. Michele Paolucci was cut three months after he first signed. You can understand a lot of these departures and sometimes cleaning house is necessary, but it’s not clear what the plan is going forward or what the exact problem was.

There’s no core retained as there was in Halifax, where, yeah, the team was bad but you could see in some of the young pieces a spine to build around, and 2020’s recruits lowered the team’s average age by almost five years. Instead, Valour’s reload feels like it’s a team desperately fighting a relegation battle. Rob Gale is very like coaching for his job.

Key Players

Arnold Bouka Moutou (left-back)

Bouka Moutou was one of the strangest signings of the offseason2Up until this week, anyway, when Valour outdid themselves by signing an unnamed forward who won’t be able to play for the team in 2020, as well as a further unnamed forward to replace the previous unnamed forward. Very meta., a former Ligue 1 defender. He’s also 31 and hasn’t appeared in more than ten games since 2016. That suggests injury problems, but if there are any, I can’t find them, even in French. He’s played mostly for Angers and Dijon, and the latter was relegated in 2019. Bouka Moutou’s probably more of a solid Ligue 2 guy, but that’s still pretty good for CanPL, and stands out against the other additions.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste is, shall we say, not the most technical player but if he can be the legs while Bouka Moutou organizes, that might be an interesting combo. Bouka Moutou was an attacking left-back in France, but given his age, I could also see him playing centrally in Gale’s back three, much as Martin Arguinarena did last year. If he can stay healthy (Arguinarena didn’t) and handle defending in the box (Arguinarena couldn’t), there’ll be defensive improvement on a back-line that desperately needed it.

Raphael Ohin (defensive midfield / centre-back)

Ohin was quietly one of the league’s better young players, though at 25 I’m not sure how long he can be called young. He came straight out of the local game in Manitoba to play 20 games for Valour–it’s a great story, really–often as one of their better defenders. Ohin has his limits, especially technically, but if Rob Gale wants to get more physical, Ohin can bring that. He’s a monster to play against, with a penchant for hard tackles along with excellent recovery speed and strength to hold off strikers.

He played a fair bit at centre-back last year, either through necessity or because Gale wanted his pace on the outside of the back three. He’ll probably be in midfield more this year given they’ve added depth at the back, and his engine is suited to that kind of role, especially with a good passer in Jose Galan beside him.

Shaan Hundal

I want to give some love to Hundal, who I’ve always been a fan of from his TFC II days. He’s more subtle than flashy, and he’s had a hell of a time with injuries, form, and fighting for minutes, but give him service and he can put the ball in the back of the net. He’s a true poacher: rather than relying on brawn, Hundal is smart and quick enough to find space before it disappears and he only needs one touch to convert. He might be the most likely player on Valour to break out with 10+ goals.

He was stuck at TFC behind not just the star strikers on the big team but also younger, flashier prospects like Jayden Nelson. He got loaned to Ottawa and got hurt, only playing five minutes. It’s been a long layoff since 2018, and he’ll have to fight for minutes at Valour, too, as is only fair, but he’s still only 21. Figuring out just how to get him service–it needs to look very different than service to Daryl Fordyce–is going to be a real test for this group.

Tactics and Positioning

I confess I don’t understand how this roster is built. Valour have three natural central midfielders on the team–one of whom, Galan, is 34–ahead of a stretch of seven games in two and a half weeks.

They also have a pile of wingers, more than any team really needs. The only way it makes any sense is in a 3-4-3, which is what they mostly played last year and which, in my view, was a not-insignificant source of their problems. Much like Pacific, Valour were prone to giving up way too much space in transition, especially in the middle. Teams could play through them, too, because they just couldn’t close down space between lines. Defenders like Arguinarena or Murrell have to step out, but that often proved to be too little, too late.

Both Levis and Aird have experience playing as wing-backs in Vancouver, but both are defensively responsible players, which should help avoid the 2019 pattern where the wing-backs would consistently get caught too far up the pitch on turnovers.

That might create issues getting numbers into attack, though, something it seems like Gale is at least aware of, though he’s vague on how to fix it. I suspect Ohin will be critical–if he can settle into a starting role as a defensive mid, he has the legs to help  snuff out transitions before Galan has to scamper too much. He has to improve both his positional and his tackling discipline, however, or else he risks not being present, one way or another.

Bouka Moutou could also feature higher on the left if he’s still up for that kind of running, but Valour have to find a way to be more compact, especially against the top teams, which might mean a much more defensive shape… and hoping one of the young attackers can provide something single-handedly. The best bet would be Masta Kacher, a Canadian you’ve never heard of who was a regular with Real Monarchs in USL before an injury.

When things got too stretched last year, Valour swapped to more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, and were actually better in those, even though they lacked the natural fullbacks. Raphael Garcia does return and was one of the more promising young players in 2019–I’d like to see him get some more minutes in the weird format 2020’s given us.

Strengths

One thing that happens when you load up on veterans is you get a slightly more stable culture on the team. You see it with relegation-fodder teams in Europe. There are guys, like Bouka Moutou, who make careers out of helping teams avoid the drop, and they come in, they do a job, and they do it professionally.

I think Gale struggled with that in year one, with a lot of players who, though they’d played for him before, had played for him at U18 or U20 level, where the relationship is different. They were first-time pros, and it showed.

That won’t be the case with Aird3Well, Aird did get released by his previous club in Scotland’s League 2 for making, golly-gosh, a rude gesture in the stands at an Old Firm game. More concerning for Valour might be that a Scottish second division side was letting his contract run out to begin with., Fordyce, Cebara, Levis and Jean-Baptiste. I won’t hide from thinking that none of those guys are good enough to be starters in CanPL, but they will absolutely keep Valour in games.

The bigger question, however, is where you go from there. Teams fighting relegation often prioritize those kind of players over playing prospects–it’s one of the reasons pro/rel is a terrible idea for Canadian soccer. Valour aren’t going to be relegated, and 2020 is barely a real season. There has to be a plan for 2021. Fortunately, all of those guys save Fordyce and Bouka Moutou could stick around long-term as something of a core… if Gale can find a more top-end talent to go with.

Weaknesses

About the best you can say of the players up front is that there’ll be competition for spots, and, hopefully, motivation. FC Edmonton fans will remember Daryl Fordyce fondly, but he’s 33 and has two goals in the past three years, and nor was he ever exactly prolific in Edmonton. Moses Dyer can play on the wing or in midfield, and he can offer goals from there, but his numbers in New Zealand don’t suggest he’s any better than Hoyle.

Stef Cebara is a 29-year-old Canadian journeyman from the early days of TFC’s academy. He took a year off in 2019–don’t worry Stef, so did Valour. Austin Ricci didn’t play much last year, either, though not through choice, as Jimmy Brennan only gave him 200 minutes at York9. He has to earn those minutes, though, by showing something.

There are just a lot of guys on this team coming from Unattached FC, that long stalwart of the Canadian national team system.

Rob Gale is talking about scoring by committee, but that rather dodges that there’s no one on this roster who looks likely to come anywhere near ten goals.

Wildcard

At some point, a club develops a reputation. It’s too early for any CanPL club to have one yet, but first impressions can happen quickly.

Valour have now twice released a veteran player two months after signing him–first Stephen Hoyle, then Michele Paolucci. They benched, then loaned, then cut Dylan Sacramento, who was a year off being the League 1 Ontario golden boot winner. None of these moves were terribly surprising, but players–particularly veterans–talk, and when they talk amongst each other, they are less diplomatic than they are when talking to the press.

It doesn’t make it easier to find the kind of players Valour needs.

Prediction

In April, I had Valour seventh, but the thing is, Ottawa didn’t have any players at that point.

As I wrote in the other preview, Ottawa are going to be bad. They’ll probably finish below Valour in Charlottetown. But you can see a shape forming and you can see they have half a plan, even if they only have half a team. They will play young Canadian kids like Antoine Coupland and Kunle Dada-Luke and they’ve recruited internationals with legit experience to guide them. It will probably be ugly, but it will serve a purpose.

Rob Gale is mostly going to be playing CSA has-beens like Cebara, Levis, and Aird–the kind of guys who’ve forged careers keeping a team inches above water. None of them are at an age where they’re going to get a lot better, and they may keep out kids like Garcia and Gutierrez who could improve.

At some point, Valour have to find some identity, and Rob Gale is running out of time to do it. A good performance in Charlottetown involves not losing 8 – 0 to Cavalry, but I wouldn’t bet that way when the tournament is on the line and gal differential matters.

 

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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