Well, that was fun.
You might think I’d be bitter about the Wanderers’ inaugural loss, but I’m not. This was a weekend about the league and the festival around it, and both the headline games delivered more than could have been expected on that front.
Both were entertaining games, too, though admittedly Halifax did play an exceedingly conservative and at times frustrating style on the road, and there were some long stretches of pointless possession at Westhills Stadium. While not quite as many goals went in as I’d thought there easily could have been two or three more in both the weekends’ games.
It’s exceedingly risky to extrapolate much from these first games, so let’s stick to looking at what went right/wrong for both teams over the course of the first 90 minutes in CanPL history.
Halifax Wanderers (L 0 – 1 @ Pacific)
In an ideal world, Halifax ekes out a point from the marathon road trip. It wasn’t ideal right from the start, though, when it was confirmed Luis Perea and Chakib Hocine were both out injured.
Stephen Hart played very pragmatically, looking to hit on the counter, primarily through the pacey Akeem Garcia. He did threaten early on thanks to some nice hold-up play from Juan Gutierrez. But when you set out to play that way, you don’t want to give up a goal 23 minutes in. Wanderers were smart not to open up too much, and had chances, but never quite managed to adjust out of the absorb-and-counter game plan, at least until they went up a man late.
This isn’t actually a huge problem. The CanPL spring season is a lot like CONCACAF’s “hex”: ten games, seven teams (rather than six), and lots of travel with compressed games. Yeah, it’s a sprint, but it’s also a sprint where you have to be pragmatic about the realities of playing away from home with injured starters. Unfortunately, Wanderers might be that they lost Tomasz Skublak to injury as well.
I didn’t see a lot of what I’d call a talent gap on that field. Wanderers didn’t want the ball–they were at their best early on when they kept an extremely tight shape and tried to turn Pacific over in midfield, which they were actually quite adept at doing, but they got caught sitting too deep for about 10 minutes, and that led to the goal off a succession of corner kicks.
More concerning was some questionable decision-making in the final third. Some of it was typical of Week 1, some of it was desperation, but potshots from 30 yards weren’t likely to beat Mark Village. Sometimes a more cutting pass was needed, but more often, it was a better run. Too often, Gutierrez had the ball and the wingers were running into cover.
Gutierrez was excellent, though, as was Kodai Iida when he came on. Peter Schaale looked like he was bossing an AUS match, only this time it was his first professional game. No biggie. Andre Bona came on and looked effective. Zela Langwa was superb in the tackle. Chrisnovic N’sa was a revelation, both on and off the ball. All of a sudden there’s depth in this team, and the experience they got in Victoria might be more important than the points left on the table.
Lost in the chatter about how much possession Pacific had is that the hosts only created one decent chance from open play–Ben Fisk’s low shot saved by Jan-Michael Williams. The difference in this game was a set piece and a crossbar.
— alex sheppard (@its_shep) April 29, 2019
That is very much what Wanderers wanted this map to look like, and it’s not Pacific dominating the game.
Wanderers come home now to face Forge, which is a much more important test, and one which will say a lot more about how each team’s spring season will go: win, and either team could be right back in the pack, whereas a loss–particularly for Forge–might necessitate a chance of expectations.
As we’ll see below I think Halifax can match up well against Smyrniotis’ side. It would help if Luis Perea was available, though.
Pacific FC (W 1 – 0 v. Wanderers)
Pacific were better than I thought they’d be, particularly in defense.
They’re already down one on that back line to a rather needless red card caused by pushing the back line too high, which was very much one of my worries about that defense. It wasn’t exploited often enough by Wanderers; it will be by Valour mid-week.
They did what they needed to do, and for this team, which has, no matter how you look at it, come together late, that’s a big accomplishment. They exceed expectations based solely on those expectations being very–maybe unfairly–low.
Hendrik Starostzik was very good, settling in well, though it was notable that the back line was far less organized when fellow German-speaker MacNaughton was off. Noah Verhoeven had himself a day in midfield, too, and that was before sending in the cross that Starostzik headed home.
They also created only one proper chance from open play against Halifax, and were two goal-mouth clearances and a crossbar away from a 1 – 1 or even 1 – 2 scoreline. Marcus Haber was effective occupying a defender and a big part of managing the game, but he only had one shot in the game and that one landed somewhere in Nanaimo. Terran Campbell and Victor Blasco got shut down by an undermanned Wanderers back line. Only Ben Fisk managed a clear chance.
On the upside, Issey came off the bench and for the 15 or so minutes between that and MacNaughton’s red, his work between lines caused problems for Halifax. He’s no longer got any speed whatsoever, but it’s good to see Issey still has the smarts that always made him effective.
Pacific are either going to have to outscore defensive problems or outdefend scoring problems this year. The latter won them the opener. At some point, likely Wednesday night, they’re likely to need to score more.
Before gloating, Pacific fans might consider whether they’d be happy with a competitive 0 – 1 away to Valour. (Update: Gloat, if you like, about my inability to read a schedule–I also get timezones wrong–as Pacific in fact host Valour on Wednesday. Still an interesting test, and they’ll be on the road come May 8th in Hamilton, when the same considerations will apply.)
Forge FC (D 1 – 1 v. York)
Forge are the team I have the most questions about coming out of week one, and it’s not because a draw is necessarily a terrible result against a York team that looks like it could be better than expected.
It’s because the way Bobby Smyrniotis came out in that game was tactical suicide, and but for some luck and a naive adjustment by York, this could have been ugly.
There’s a danger reading too much into any first week. We now have 90 minutes of sample size for most of these players, but players can have good or bad days. Kwame Awuah, for instance, had a bad day. So did Guiliano Frano. But the reason they did is because Smyrniotis was asking them to tuck in as inverted fullbacks. He was asking Kyle Bekker to drift to the right. He was using Chris Nanco as an inverted winger.
It was all incredibly disjointed, as should have been predictable for a season opener, and Forge were lucky not to be completely underwater inside 10 minutes. York’s wide players routinely attacked the space vacated by the fullbacks, nobody tracked it well, and the energy was gone from the 17,000-strong crowd.
That Forge’s young players–who were by far the (only) bright spot on Saturday–are learning how to move fluidly is really good for Canadian soccer, but Forge had a lot of the ball but did precious little with it for about 75 minutes, tending to drift out wide rather than find Emery Welshman to feet and let him turn. Welshman’s 5’9″–he’s not going to win a lot of headers. He was way better when he went out wide late, and that–plus a bad mistake from the otherwise magnificent Justin Springer–led to an equalizer.
Everything else Forge did came from Tristan Borges. All I did to make that map with a whole lot of red was take away Borges’ shots–which is a bit unfair since he had two of the best chances of the game. The 20-year-old was electric in the #10 role and he was terrific making late runs to get on the end of broken plays. 23-year-old Kadell Thomas (#17 above) came into the game for the last half hour and did a great job drifting away from York’s congested box, eventually nabbing Forge’s first ever goal.
Forge need way more of that freedom and way less of Kyle Bekker pinging crosses into a packed box from right midfield.
Trouble is, Halifax will present a similar test for Smyrniotis. Wanderers are likely to sit deeper and counter again, but on what can be a slightly slow grass surface, there’ll be more risk playing those quick passes under pressure. Forge have to figure out a way to get Emery Welshman and Kyle Bekker into games.
York 9 (D 1 – 1 @ Forge)
“Give it five more and then we dial it back.”
That was Jimmy Brennan, helpfully picked up by One Soccer’s really sensitive pitch-side mic, in the 12th minute on Saturday.
Full credit to Jim Brennan, who outcoached Bobby Smyrniotis. He used the 3-5-2, but he took advantage of that shape’s inherent numbers in midfield to press Forge anywhere and everywhere.
For 12 minutes, York were absolutely taking it to Forge. The hosts would advance slowly out of the back, pass their way into trouble, and get burned by Cyrus Rollocks, Kyle Porter, or Ryan Telfer on the break. It was the latter who scored the league’s first-ever goal by seizing on just such a turnover. Rollocks should have had one two minutes before and Simon Adjei should have had one two minutes later. The York midfield, led by Joseph Di Chiara and helped by Manny Aparicio, was just taking it to Forge.
Then Brennan decided to sit back for 70 minutes.
It was a mistake, an understandable one, but at the same time an overly cautious move. Forge had had some half-chances, but only that. Over the rest of the game, they slowly found some rhythm and York slowly lost theirs–that press became sporadic, Adjei became a spectator, and York were defending for dear life in their own area.
Luca Gasparotto and Nathan Ingham were tremendous, or else Forge could have had a goal back earlier. On another day, they might have. Credit, too, to Dan Gogarty, who did very well as the left side of York’s back three.
All that said, York were my team of the weekend. They did–for 12 minutes, anyway–exactly what they needed to do, and it was enough to get a road point against what will likely be a good team. They face Cavalry next, again on the road, which could be a stern test although Cavalry’s back line, too, will be vulnerable to pace. This time, Brennan needs to stick with what works.
Substitution of the week
In the 70th minute on Sunday, Stephen Hart took off box-to-box mid Andre Rampersad for the more attack-minded Kodai Iida.
In the 71st minute, on a Pacific free kick, Michael Silberbauer responds by… bringing off his #6 Matthew Baldisimo for a second striker in Jose Hernandez.
Hernandez gives the ball away on the free kick, and Iida drives right through the space Baldisimo had on lock-down all game. Lukas MacNaughton has to step out of the back for really the only time all afternoon and fouls Iida for his second yellow.
In the 74th minute, Silberbauer pulls winger Terran Campbell for centre-back Ryan McCurdy, going from a solid 4-2-3-1 that hadn’t given up chances all game to a 10-man 4-4-1 without a recognizable defensive midfielder. Wanderers hit the cross bar and have two shots cleared off the line in the next five minutes.
What I’ll be watching next week
Well, first there’s the midweek game: Pacific travel to Winnipeg for Valour’s home opener. That will be a tough match for Pacific, meaning we’re likely to see a very tight table after Week 2.
I’ll also be watching–both in-person and analytically–Wanderers’ home opener against Forge. Stephen Hart was less than pleased with his team on Sunday; Smyrniotis also has to adjust. I’ll be curious to see if Halifax be better execute the plan second time around, and what both teams do when the game changes.
It’s actually a triple-header on May 4th–a good move by the league to fill the day with soccer. Cavalry – York should be an excellent game, and could provide our first road win as I think Cavalry’s PDL talent will need some time to adjust. Then Valour play to close out the weekend at home against Edmonton. I wasn’t particularly high on either of those teams, but if Edmonton can get a road draw on a tough week for Valour it’ll be a sign I had the Eddies too low.