Spring in Review: CanPL at the mid-point

Simon Adjei lying face-down on the ground after missing agaisnt Pacific.
Pictured: Monastic masochism.

Three months ago, we didn’t have a league.

In hindsight, there were so many things that could have gone wrong, and so many things that, ultimately, didn’t. The miasma has faded a bit since that first home game, but I still remember leaving Wanderers’ Grounds on May 4th and having a kind of epiphany, not just because we had professional soccer in Halifax, but because the club and league had nailed the whole match on so many levels.

Since then, there have of course been stumbles. The schedule’s caused problems. OneSoccer’s streams have been iffy at best. The spring title was all but wrapped up way in advance, leaving some matches late in the year lacking in competition.

Fortunately, this all resets come July 6th. The two-stage season caused some confusion and it’s caused some of the scheduling problems, but from a competitive standpoint, it helps give each team–and the league itself–a fresh start, a chance to improve on what’s been laid down. For some teams, it’s very much remedial. For others, it’s about continuing what’s been done well both on and off the field.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at each team in some depth. Plus, we’ll see how things compare to what we thought before the season started.

Cavalry FC

The Quagmire

What I predicted: 3rd – Where they finished: 1st

Fall season prediction: then 1st; now 3rd

People mostly suspected Cavalry would be good. I thought they might take some time to settle into a new level. Instead, they very much set it, and now have a berth in the league’s first grand final.

What nobody gave enough credence to was communication. It’s something coaches harp on endlessly, often to no avail, and it was the one thing, when I finally got to see Cavalry live at Wanderers’ Grounds, that stood out above all else. You don’t hear it on TV, but these players talk to each other clearly and confidently.

It’s not that other teams don’t. It’s that, when someone like Dom Zator yells at Nico Pasquotti to track a run, there’s an understanding there built on multiple years playing together. They know where the run is going to come. By the time the call comes, Cavalry have already covered it.

This is how they win so many second balls. It’s why their press is the most organized in the league. It’s how they close out games so well. It’s how they score so many–nearly all, in fact–of their goals off set-pieces.

It’s not impossible to countervail. Other teams will get there, given time. It’s not like Valour or Wanderers don’t communicate–it’s just that little bit of reaction lag caused by a lack of familiarity and, sometimes, anticipation. Cavalry are very good at what they do, but they’re good because of that familiarity more, I think, than any significant skill gap.

Indeed, they score so many of their goals not off any real brilliance but by outworking teams. When I wrote about them earlier in the season, I compared Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s approach to Jesse Marsch’s with New York Red Bulls in MLS. The press creates most of the chances, forcing opponents into mistakes rather than proactively creating chances out of possession. Every so often, Dom Malonga blasts home a stunner, but mostly, they’re pretty workmanlike and effective at it.

When Cavalry have been vulnerable this year, it’s actually come when teams give them the ball. Not unlike Marsch’s teams, they struggle a bit breaking down packed defenses and guarding against the ensuing counterattacks. They have tended to grind out the results, especially at home: 1 – 0 in the end over Valour and Edmonton; 2 – 0 over Forge and Wanderers thanks to some set-pieces. Late goals on the road in Hamilton and Edmonton. A general malaise when they have to be patient and probe a packed defense–Cavalry tend to resort quickly to crosses and second balls, and other teams are getting wise to their deliveries.

This is part of what happened in week 10 at Westhills. (The other part was Tommy Wheeldon Jr. playing the kids.)Pacific got wise, and while Pacific don’t do a lot well, they bunkered, gave Cavalry the ball, and burned them again and again on the counter.

No good thing lasts forever. But for now, Cavalry is still indisputably the best team in CanPL.

Biggest surprise – Dominique Malonga

Malonga has one of the best résumés in CanPL, so he’s not a natural “surprise”, but he still didn’t get a lot of headlines when he was signed. He’s also made a career out of his speed and athleticism. How would those hold up after turning thrity?

Pretty darn well. Like Bradley Wright-Phillips in MLS, Malonga also has excellent technique and smarts (he developed in Monaco’s academy). He finds lose balls in and around the box that other players do not. He’s not reliant on his athleticism the way a Marcus Haber or Tomi Ameobi is, and that’s why he’s fit so quickly into this Cavalry team.

Biggest need – central midfield

Cavalry have issues in the build-up, especially now Nik Ledgerwood is hurt again1And at this point, you have to wonder if any injury is going to be his last. He missed everything after mid-summer both of the past two seasons with mid-term injuries that just never healed, so the signs aren’t good.. Eli Adekugbe’s been hot-and-cold, and is more of a destroyer than a real playmaker.

This is where Julian Buescher should fit, especially with Sergio Camargo playing (and scoring) further forward. Buescher’s likely one of the higher-paid Cavs, but all you can really say is that he works hard in the press, and any warm body can do that.

What’s stopped teams bunkering against Cavalry is their propensity to score more on set-pieces than Stoke City; you can’t park the bus when the other team is better at getting out of tight spaces.

The Cavs do have a roster spot available thanks to Chris Serban’s season-ending ACL injury. How much cap they have is a mystery, but while they have some bigger names signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the Foothills core came fairly cheap from PDL, thanks to familiarity with manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr. He’s also confirmed they have at least a small reserve set aside for injuries and such.

Off the field

Things are not as rosy off–or rather, under and around–the field as they are on it.

The show-jumping is already taking a toll on the Spruce Meadows pitch. While Eric Lamaze’s last hurrah made for a great storyline, the idea that horses and soccer players can share a pitch is… bold. The grounds crew has done what it can, but in a dry Calgary summer it’s only going to get harder. And sandier. Whether that actually suits Cavalry’s style or not….

More has been said about Cavalry’s ticket situation. It’s not been as bad as it probably could have been–having a winning team surely helps–but it’s still on the lower end of some worryingly low CanPL attendances. How things change in years two and three will be key.

What I think is hurting their gate more is the location. Spruce Meadows is outside the rapidly-growing and quite hip downtown Calgary, accessible only by the kind of ring road that Alberta specializes in. That makes the weeknight games especially hard. The supporters have been dutiful and loud, but the broader community presence is still a work-in-progress.

FC Edmonton

What I predicted: 6th – Where they finished: 3rd

Fall season: then 6th – now 6th

For a moment here or there, it looked like I was really wrong about Edmonton. An opening win in Winnipeg was followed up by a tired-but-shorthanded home draw against Pacific… but they also played reasonably well at Spruce Meadows in the first Alberta derby.

Then they didn’t score in the league for over a month.

Outside two late, late goals in the Canadian Championship, the Eddies went from May 4th to June 23rd without scoring. A strong finish to the spring season means they’ll finish third, but they’ve scored only eight goals in ten games and the underlying numbers are a bit worrying.

Props to Alex Sheppard for keeping advanced stats for CanPL–they’ve been largely non-existent on the league site, which is unfortunate. A caution here: ten games is just into respectable sample size when it comes to xG, and this doesn’t include Edmonton’s win over Wanderers this past weekend. But even there, they took the chances they got, rather than create a lot of stat-friendly opportunities.

This was a team that was supposed to be built on offense. Remember James Marcelin and his late runs? Tomi Ameobi’s presence in the box? Ajeej Sarkaria’s sixteen goals in USPORTs2In a weak Alberta conference, as I keep on saying.? Instead, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye scored a couple and a 17-year-old was often the team’s best player, despite Jeff Paulus rarely starting him. They were utterly reliant on long-throws for much of the early part of the year.

Watching them is kind of bizarre. Plays that should be attacks just aren’t, because nobody makes the run, sees the space, or anticipates the pass. It’s not that they’re lazy–there are runs, they just too often either don’t draw defenders or don’t result in a pass, which stifles future runs. The problems are cyclical.

Some of them have… faded somewhat over a late run of games, but while three wins in three is nice, the Eddies won two home games and a visit to Pacific. It’s a three-game sample, and the issues earlier were large enough that I’m not going to change my view until I see them come out and continue the form in the fall.

The start to their fall season is not kind: two on the road followed by three at home against tough teams in the summer heat. This group cannot let their heads go down if they lose two or three in there–the fall season is longer and more forgiving.

Biggest surprise – Marcus Velado-Tsegaye

He’s looked raw, but he’s also looked like the raw talent Jeff Paulus promised. A pure scorer at 17, if he can round his game out a bit–namely, get better at beating his man–he’ll be a regular sooner than later. He’s exactly what the Eddies need, but you can’t rush development too much. They’ve been wise to limit him a bit and help shelter some of the travel, but at some point he’ll get another run of games to show what he can do. Those three in a row at home might be a good spot.

Biggest need – forward

There’s more than one need, really: fullback is an issue, wing is an issue, central midfield is an issue, centre-back might be.

But Tomi Ameobi is 30 and banged up and was never a consistent scorer even when he was younger. He needs someone to deputize. Velado-Tsegaye isn’t ready and also isn’t really a true target man of the type the Eddies need.

This isn’t going to be the elegant team Jeff Paulus hoped for any time soon thanks to some poor signings: Jeannot Esua is technically lacking, especially when he plays at right wing; Son Yong-chan, too, hasn’t been incisive enough to create in midfield3He’s injured long-term now, too.. Where other teams got pieces out of the open trials and USPORTs draft, Edmonton went in-house and yet Paulus doesn’t seem to trust Ajay Khabra or Ajeej Sarkaria (and neither has done much to earn that trust). Academy guys like Prince Amanda and David Doe haven’t played much beyond the U20s, either.

Easton Ongaro might provide some of the answer. He had some moments against Wanderers on the final day, and a couple flashes in the cup, too. But he hasn’t put together a complete skill-set yet and at 22, he’s running out of time to do it.

What the Eddies really need is some confidence. There are good pieces in this team, and there’s only so much a manager can do. If they had someone who could get the fans out of their seats, who was goal dangerous every time he touched the ball, that would lift this team’s heads.

Off the field

About those fans and seats. Edmonton has been regularly near the bottom of the attendance standings. It’s not even so much a long-term thing as it’s difficult to play in front of a mostly empty stadium.

Everything the club does in terms of outreach seems smart to me–but Edmonton can be a tough market, and the Eddies were on the brink at times in NASL, too. I think the general energy of CanPL will lift them over time, but this is probably our first look at what happens in a tough market when the team’s not playing especially exciting football.

A signing would help there, too.

There is one big piece of good news, though, and that’s that the U20 side is killing it in AMSL play.

Not all off-field stuff is marketing and fans. It’s development, too, and FC Edmonton has long carried more than its weight in young Canadian professionals. Eddies like David Doe and Prince Amanda are looking excellent at the lower level and will get first-team looks eventually4I might have given them first team looks already.. That bodes will for local kids driving both the play on the field and interest in the community.

It takes time, though.

Forge FC

Yes, Darth, bring the boy to me. Oh wait, it’s just Kyle Bekker. Never mind, then.

What I predicted: 1st – Where they finished: 2nd

Fall season: Then 3rd – Now 3rd

I have a very hard time figuring this team out.

That’s a bit of a hedge, really, since I have a pretty strong opinion on them that simply seems to differ from Bobby Smyrniotis’. Fine, that’s football. He’s far more knowledgeable than I am, anyway.

Except I can’t help but shake the sense that, every time I watch Forge, they look miles better when they have a big target man to play off.

At the beginning of the season, they used Emery Welshman as the “1” in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid–however Forge line up, it’s usually one striker, which makes sense given their talent out wide and in attacking midfield. Welshman’s a curious striker–he is a target man, but he’s 5’9″ and needs the ball played into him on the turn almost exclusively. When he does that, his strength is truly elite. Watch the second goal Forge scored against Pacific:

That’s Welshman.

I think the ideal for Forge is to get to a point where they can score that goal regularly and against a packed defense, which is much, much harder to do than what they did here, catching Pacific with too many men forward. Turning against a packed defense is maybe the most difficult offensive tactic to execute in soccer.

Doing it on the counterattack is easier, but Smyrniotis’ team feels too good to be counterattacking. They want to dominate games. And so they usually do.

When you dominate games, you need someone in the box who can pin defenders deeper using, usually, raw size. That way, you get goals like this:

You know what that looks like? A Cavalry goal. Jace Kostopoulos, who’s 6’5″, forces the defenders to come to him at the near post. Even if he doesn’t connect with this, the ball is loose in the area.

Earlier in the season, it was Anthony Novak doing that same thing. It’s not elegant, but it’s worked better for them than trying to pass it into goal. Kostopoulos hasn’t started a game since that performance off the bench above.

He’s a useful super-sub, sure. But the fundamental for Forge is whether or not they want to be elegant or effective.

This will be put to a much more revealing test when they play Antigua GFC in CONCACAF play. One does not simply stroll into CONCACAF and try to play pretty passing plays for a collection of skilled but somewhat profligate false nines. On the road, anyway, you sit, you waste time, you try to force a mistake–there are lots of mistakes in CONCACAF–on the counter or a set-piece.

I think Forge can get by Antigua, though I say this admitting I know very little about Antigua Guatemala Futbol Club. Forge have talent, though, and there’s every reason they should come into the July 30th game in form.

Forge have a home-heavy start to the fall season and need all the points from those because once July 27th hits, they will play in Edmonton, fly home for the first leg against Antigua, then fly to rural Guatemala and play at altitude three days after that. Assuming they win, and I have to think CanPL wants to show well here, they will then do the same thing again two weeks later.

Even taking away (at least) two matches likely to be rescheduled5The Cavalry game on the 29th and the York game on the 2nd already have been., if Forge make it past Antigua they will play eight games in four weeks. Those rescheduled games have to go back somewhere, too.

Forge is not the deepest team in the league, not by a long shot. I wish them all the best in CONCACAF–carry the flag for Canada and win CanPL some renown. I want mid-tier CONCACAF clubs to dread drawing us in club play the way we dread them in international play. If Forge do well there, I will consider their season a success no matter what else, and I will heap praise on Bobby even if he never plays a target man ever again.

But their fall CanPL campaign is cooked. There is absolutely no way you can manage CONCACAF on a 23-man roster with a salary cap of under a million. No way. Go for it, Forge. Best of luck.

Biggest surprise – Tristan Borges

It’s an easy pick, but I wonder if it doesn’t tie into some of the problems with attacking systems. Borges has been terrific, leading CanPL with four goals as an attacking midfielder. And he’s nineteen.

Forge have a lot of wingers. Borges can play wide, and has a few times. When Kyle Bekker is healthy, you more or less expect him to. That means four of David Choiniere, Chris Nanco, Marcel Zajac, Emery Welshman, and (the also very surprising) Kadell Thomas have to sit if you want to play either Kostopoulos or Novak up top.

It’s a good problem to have, but also presents a challenge in how to balance the squad when you have two players in Borges and Bekker who both want to be the primary guy with the ball.

Biggest need – left side of defense

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Forge have some fairly major defensive problems that become glaring when they push up in possession. Watch the above clip and Marco Bustos and Valour just eviscerate the space between Dom Samuel and Kwame Awuah. Wanderers did the same thing earlier in the season. So did Cavalry.

It’s been a rotating cast at left-back, but none of Awuah, Daniel Krutzen, or converted midfielder Guiliano Frano have been anywhere near good enough without the ball. Samuel’s been steadier inside, as has Krutzen, but goals like Bustos’ come when you aren’t defending as a unit. One guy’s doing one thing, another guy’s marking someone else, and nobody’s managing the space between A and B.

This is mostly tactical and can’t easily be solved by plonking a new defender in. It may improve with time as Forge get more familiar. The amount of rotation back there suggests it won’t, though. And it is possible to bring in experienced defenders who handle the tactical part of the game–this usually falls into the cliché of a centre-back who’s good at leading or organizing the back-line. That’s part of it, but a lot of it is just simple communication, like with Cavalry. Dom Zator and Jay Wheeldon and Joel Waterman do this really, really well. Forge’s defense is much quieter, and much less coherent as a result.

Off the field

I… don’t know?

That can be a good thing–we’re still in an early stage. But what are Forge doing? They draw well enough, so that’s not an issue. But what’s the long-term recruitment and development plan for this team?

It can’t just be to harvest Sigma guys, though I’d expect that to be part of it. That was a lot of it this off-season–even Jace Kostopoulos wasn’t signed until well into the season. Forge haven’t made great use of the USPORTs or open trials pathways.

That’s fine when you’re batting 1.000 on international signings. Cissé’s been better than I expected (though not as good as everyone raves–he’s good for one positional mistake every game). Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson’s been terrific. But you won’t luck into a multi-relegated Swedish prospect every time, and no manager bats 1.000 on signings.

That’s why having a reserve system and developmental team(s) is so important. Forge are not the only team I’m going to talk about this with, but Bob Young has both the money and the geographic location (there are loads of good young players in the GTA) to push the league on this.

Halifax Wanderers

A donair on aluminum foil.
Welcome to Halifax.

What I predicted: 2nd – Where they finished: 4th

Fall season: Then 2nd – Now 1st

Bear with me.

The new prediction is mostly because Forge have far too difficult a schedule and I don’t think Cavalry will actually repeat the fall (they have too many reasons to rotate players, no matter what Tommy Wheeldon Jr. says).

Wanderers are the next best team among all the rest. They still marginally underperform their xG and have already finished fourth in the spring. When Stephen Hart says after losing in Edmonton that “it’s not good enough”–and he says this after more or less every game–that’s because the team ethos is so deep, the system of play so clear, that it’s obvious what Stephen Hart wants this side to do every time they step on the pitch. Wanderers are a Stephen Hart team. Never exactly flashy, but organized and direct.

My favourite Hart quote so far: “At some point, it’s going to start to go in. I just hoping I’m here when that happens.”

Of course every coach sees the potential in his own team. It could easily have been the case that we just wouldn’t know what to say about Wanderers because of the injuries. But at home, they’ve been extremely effective, with only one home loss in the league, to Cavalry, and Wanderers gave the Cavs as good a fight as anyone has. Away from Wanderers’ Grounds, it’s been much less pretty.

Top teams in most leagues around the world, however, win at home and draw on the road. Wanderers have too often coughed up a bad goal in road games, turning draws into narrow losses in Victoria, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. They also miss chances to win that have to be taken when they come.

But the blueprint is there, and they’ve won twice on the road in the Voyageur’s Cup. We knew the travel would be a factor, and that–plus the injuries–are where it’s shown up.

It’s reductive to say this team could be dominant when it gets healthy. It could, or it could never quite come together. The reason it’s a question, though, isn’t luck. Hart has made good use of every single avenue available for acquiring talent. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s something no other team in CanPL has done particularly well. Kodai Iida has a shout as the best open trialist. Peter Schaale has been, without a doubt, the best USPORTs pick. Mo Korouma and Tomasz Skublak came from lesser-known PDL and NCAA programs, respectively.

Appreciate, for a moment, that five other CanPL teams passed on Schaale after his strong performance at USPORTs nationals in Vancouver, including Pacific, who could desperately use a centre-back. And he played PDL for Victoria Highlanders! None of the players taken above him have been anything like as impactful.

There are holes in this Wanderers team. They’re still worryingly thin at full-back, as Zach Sukunda has (perhaps somewhat predictably) not lived up to (overly high) expectations. The right side was a problem early in the season, costing them goal after goal, though it’s tightened up a bit as Andre Bona (another USPORTs pick, from the second round) settles in. The left side is an issue if Ndzemzela Langwa doesn’t play. They still lack the finishing Luis Alberto Perea would provide were he healthy.

The more worrying issue has been a tendency to mental lapses, particularly at the end of the first half, of the sort you often see in younger teams. Stephen Hart’s clearly been working on it, but there’s only so much a coach can do there. It takes new professionals like Matthew Arnone, Alex De Carolis, and even Schaale learning to keep focus that two or three minutes longer.

If they can get Perea, Chakib Hocine, and Juan Gutierrez back into the side, they will effectively add that veteran savvy on every line–those three were expected to be the big three and have combined for 465 league minutes between them, which isn’t good enough6It’s a marginally better 806 if you count the Voyageur’s Cup, where Hocine’s played but Perea hasn’t. The three have not had a single minute on the pitch all together.

They still have 11 points from 10 games, playing mostly guys we thought would be depth players. Forge and Cavalry have been better over the spring sprint, but neither has looked beyond Wanderers at Wanderers Ground, and this is a win-your-home-games league. They’ll meet Cavalry in a critical game early in the fall season, with both teams also having big Voyageur’s Cup ties to think about.

Win that, and I think Wanderers should be in the conversation to win the fall season. They have to cut out the mental mistakes that are killing them, particularly on the road. If they do, they should be right with the pack again. If they can re-integrate the injured guys, they could very well challenge for the final.

Biggest surprise – Mo Korouma

It’s easier to pick Schaale, but he hardly counts as a surprise if you watch USPORTs. Korouma’s  kinder to highlight reels anyway. Bouncing around various leagues, from PDL to L1O to the open trials, he’s brought a direct threat to Wanderers left side to balance Akeem Garcia. He draws and takes free kicks well, unbalances fullbacks, and even has some leadership to boot, often being the first Wanderer to try and get the fans into it at home. It’s noticeable how much better Wanderers’ attack looks when he plays.

At this point, you wonder how easy it will be for Juan Gutierrez to get back into the team.

Biggest need – depth, especially up front

Luis Perea is 32 and has played about five games in the past calendar year. He’s been unlucky–breaking his hand in a bit of a weird way–but this is reality for a journeyman player.

Tomasz Skublak has been a pleasant surprise–he might be the best wall-passer in CanPL–but his finishing is just a touch below the level of a professional target forward right now. It’s less that he can’t get there (he’s only 21) then Wanderers could use someone behind him to spell him off, and maybe challenge for minutes. Akeem Garcia’s spent some time as a #9, which he’s okay at but you’d rather have him on the right blowing past fullbacks.

There’s not a lot of space for a move–Wanderers have 23 players. The best solution might come from within, and Vincent Lamy, who needs minutes right now to improve. They could do with adding someone, though, and I suspect will have to in the winter if Perea can’t get healthy.

Off the field

The attendance has been phenomenal, far better than I thought Halifax was capable of. It helps that the team is fun and exciting at home.

There has been some early talk about expanding Wanderers Grounds. I think the club is being very cautious about that, and it’s right to be, but I can also tell you that finding tickets to games is not just hard but almost impossible if you, say, want to bring your kids’ team out to a game. That needs to be possible so we can get kids exposed to professional soccer. There’s not enough corporate suite space to meet demand, either. These are great signs for the market, no matter how the club moves forward re: capacity.

What I would like to see the club do is figure out some sort of reserve system. Other teams in the league have been creative this way–both the Alberta teams have youth sides in AMSL, Pacific has some sort of set-up with VISL that allows them to keep tabs on some young islanders, Forge has Sigma academy and I think Valour have some set-up too. Wanderers could easily have put a team in the NSSL. I know there are guys they’re keeping tabs on–Suleiman Elromani impressed in preseason–but it would be good to have a place for guys like Vincent Lamy and Aziz Yousef to get regular game minutes when they’re not on the bench for the big team7We’ve seen a bit of Lamy, but some of that is down to Perea’s injury.. Yeah, yeah–1000 U21 minutes. That’s not enough to develop young players. Wanderers have already hit it thanks to Elliot Simmons and Zela Langwa, but both those players developed in Europe. Canada, and Nova Scotia, needs to be developing players here, and we need professional pathways to do it.

Pacific FC

What I predicted: 7th – Where they finished: 5th, thanks solely to their win this weekend

Fall season: Then 7th – Now 7th

Well. First, let’s cover the bases: Pacific deserve some credit for beating Cavalry last weekend. Yes, it was Cavalry’s B-team, but it was the first time Pacific have looked confident and organized this season.

I have nothing against Pacific, and this mid-season report is actually going to be a lot more positive than my pre-season because Pacific have done some really smart stuff off the pitch. On the pitch, it’s been about what you’d expect for a team that wants to focus on local, Vancouver Island talent and develop young players. The win this weekend was nice, but the underlying issues are far deeper than bad luck and a couple injuries.

The reality of young players is that they make mistakes and they lose control of games. This was the case even last weekend, when they should really have conceded an equalizer immediately after taking their 2 – 1 lead, but didn’t thanks to Nolan Wirth’s “bear claw”.

In so far as the team has a clear tactical identity, we saw it this weekend: grab a lead, bunker, and try to counter. It’s not especially innovative or imaginative, but it did work for them there, and it worked (again, barely, thanks largely to a crossbar) against Wanderers, in their other win. They looked okay doing it on the road in Edmonton, with the aid of a man advantage for an hour.

Other than that….

Pacific didn’t sign enough defenders,which makes it hard to stay tight at the back. In attack, they’ve been inconsistent, with a few nice highlights but little consistent danger even when Marcus Haber is in the line-up to, at the very least, occupy a defender.

Midfield, in particular, is very young. Noah Verhoeven gets raves8He only sorta got a call-up–he was brought in as a training player. Still important, but not a call-up., and Matt Baldisimo has been better at defensive midfield than I thought he’d be. Alessandro Hojabrpour and Jose Hernandez haven’t looked out of place.

That’s all progress, and the midfield has been better since Pacific added Alexander Gonzalez, the Panamanian d-mid who has a lot of bite. He’s actually pretty young, too, but adds some guile and experience and helps lead the young locals.

More concerning are the veterans who either aren’t playing or aren’t performing. Marcel de Jong and Hendrik Starostzik are injured. Haber has been, too. Issey’s barely able to go half an hour a game now. Victor Blasco has scored the odd goal but has been mostly toothless. Repatriating old Whitecaps guys and CMNT retirees is not a reliable recruitment strategy.

And Michael Silberbauer has not been able to pull it together. It’s not easy to manage a young team. It’s as much teaching as tactics. Silberbauer’s not impressed with either. Every time I hear him, he’s whining about the refereeing. Which, fine. But he comes across like a player. A natural leader, yes, but not necessarily someone who can sit this team down or build it up into something more.

The best case for Pacific was that this team would progress from a collection of Whitecaps Residency cast-offs to a tight group that could battle, even if it wouldn’t always win. Until last weekend, it had gotten progressively less organized and less threatening with every game. Yes, injuries. And also a natural byproduct of young kids losing confidence.

While they miss Starostzik in particular, one player is not going to fix the broader issue. They lack ideas, they lack speed in transition, they don’t really try to maintain possession.

It’s very hard to learn in that environment, and it’s even harder as pressure builds. We saw that in the spring and we’ll see it again in the fall.

Biggest surprise – José Hernandez

He’s faded out of the starting lineup, and has been inconsistent when he does play, but he’s 18 and that’s what you get at 18. He comes into games with confidence and has the desire and ability to do things in and around the box. He did that again last weekend, as did fellow teenager Ahmed Al-Ghamdi. Both have a goal.

I understand why Pacific give Campbell most of the games, though you can say the same about his consistency and he’s a couple years older. Without Hernandez, though, Pacific miss that creativity. Campbell’s more of a direct threat, which fits the way they have to play now, but Hernandez is the future and there might be some value to playing more to his strengths so he can learn in the best environment.

Biggest need – defense, but particularly left-back

Obviously, they need centre-backs. That’s largely because of Starostzik’s injury. He should eventually be back, and right now the only kind of player they’re going to get is a semi-pro piece like Lukas MacNaughton or Ryan McCurdy, neither of whom have been good enough. Numbers aren’t Pacific’s problem–poor recruitment choices are.

Left-back is its own issue. Blake Smith has been extremely underwhelming considering his résumé. More and more of the goals Pacific concede come down that side. Smith was signed (on loan) as an emergency replacement for de Jong. He’s not brought anything like the same level–he’s industrious, but he doesn’t put great balls into the box and he’s too often out-of-position defensively, which is particularly disastrous with Starostzik out, since neither MacNaughton nor McCurdy is great stepping into space. Without de Jong, there’s really no one to challenge him for minutes and it shows.

To be truly competitive, Pacific still need a major piece on each line–a CB to partner Staro, a creative player to build play (Gonzalez has been good defensively and is probably pretty cap-friendly), and a genuinely dangerous striker because Haber is not. If those come at all, they’re winter signings.

But I’d almost rather see Pacific stay local and make a go of it with that identity. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Off the field

Here, Pacific have done better.

There was some turmoil due to some early front office changes, but they were mid-level moves. Since then, the stadium is coming along nicely with the addition of the large stand behind the goal. The hydro pole will be gone next year, and Westhills should look a lot better on TV and, I imagine, in stadium, too. I very much like the raking of that new stand behind the goal, which is vaguely Westfalenstadionish.

People are coming out, too, even with a not-great team. Westhills is small and cozy enough to give it some energy, which makes up for a sub-par suburban location. So that’s a plus.

The real smart move, for me, is this story–Pacific paid $5M for a full-size indoor facility in Langford. These things are slightly less necessary in BC than elsewhere in the country, but winter on Van Isle is still winter. You need to play inside and you need to play year-round if you want to develop professionally. I’m not talking about Pacific players here (though they’ll train there). I’m talking about young kids on the island, the kind of kids Pacific wants to be bringing into the team and developing into quality Canadian professionals.

That’s smart, long-term thinking. They spent money to do it and they spent it smart. That’s exactly what Pacific should be doing in terms of community engagement and development.

Ditch the secondary logos and cheesy videos, and develop local players and facilities. Pacific win my initial off-field rankings for this alone.

Valour FC

What I predicted: 5th – Where they finished: 7th

Fall season: Then 4th – Now 5th

It kind of fell apart for Valour. There’s talent in this squad, and sometimes you can even see it, but they’re easily the most disorganized side in the league, and too often it’s cost them results.

Nobody seems to quite know which system Rob Gale wants to use, including possibly his players, and that’s kind of run back to preseason. I couldn’t believe they were playing a back three–then they did, and it was alright! So they moved away from it, back to four at the back. It didn’t work much better.

Injuries are a part of this. When they were healthy, the talent–both physical and technical–of guys like Skylar Thomas and Michael Petrasso masked some of the systemic problems. Petrasso, in particular, was critical to the 3-4-3, providing the forward threat from the wide position. They lost him in the second leg of the cup against Wanderers and haven’t won since.

I think people are a bit down on Valour, though. And that might even include Rob Gale, who absolutely lit up his team when they closed the spring season 1 – 3 against York.

That’s putting the players on notice. “First team” encompasses a lot of things, but conspicuously missing from that list of things they got right was on-field personnel.

But here’s the thing: guys like Dylan Carreiro, Dylan Sacramento, Nico Galvis9Remember him?, and even Stephen Hoyle, who seems to have permanently lost his starting spot, aren’t bad players. Those guys were a big part of their early season wins!

Sometimes you have to believe a little bit. Take Sacramento: he’s a young-ish player capable of scoring 1 v. 1 or from distance. He sometimes also fades in and out of games, like every winger ever. You can bench him, or you can stick with him, help him get his head up, get him shooting and trying stuff again, and see if the goals come.

Pressers like the ones above are a different–though sometimes necessary–approach.

The trouble for Gale, I think, is that because of the way inaugural rosters were built, he has ten or eleven players in midfield all of whom are dmore or less interchangeable. They can all attack, they can all go on the dribble, none of them really commit to efense, and all of them been injured at one point or another.

At some point, though, you’ve just got to stick with a team.

If that team doesn’t contain Hoyle–or Carreiro, or Sacramento–what does that say about the initial recruitment? I guess that presser is the answer.

I get Gale’s frustration. No team has had as many goalkeeping howlers as Valour. The defending has been… leaky. It feels like there’s a lot of people looking at each other when things aren’t going well for Valour.

They’re a better team than that, though, and they’re a better team than last in CanPL. I think it could very well come together for them–but if it doesn’t, this team will be blown up this winter.

Biggest surprise – Marco Bustos

Bustos had had himself an odd career. He was once a favoured young Canadian prospect in the Whitecaps system, and even got some tidbits of first-team time. He wasn’t good enough, at least then, for MLS, struggled like so many in USL, and spent a bit of time in Central America, where he also struggled for time.

So he wasn’t a sure thing signing for Rob Gale, but when Josip Golubar went down, Bustos was there. He’s not as good two ways as Golubar was, but he creates, and that’s what Valour really needs. Right now, he’s lacking options ahead of him–sometimes he is the striker option, like when he played as a false nine against Forge and scored.

If they can get some people for him to reliably set up, Valour will improve.

Biggest need – centre forwards

Not just a striker. An old-school, hulking target forward. More tattoos, the better.

Stephen Hoyle is not really a lone striker (though he does have the tattoos). He’s a buzzsaw–runs all over the place and presses teams into mistakes. I think he has more of a use than he’s getting right now, but he can’t provide enough goals on his own. Valour do not have a player who is truly goal dangerous every time he gets the ball.

It’s unlikely they can sign that kind of player now, having already signed Bustos. There were some teases about a big player earlier in the offseason, so maybe there’s some ace in Rob Gale’s hand, but I doubt it. This is more about next year.

Off the field

Investors Group Field is not the sexiest stadium in the league, but Winnipeggers are doing a nice job of filling it out a bit. Ownership has come in for some flack online for prioritizing the Blue Bombers–they don’t exactly hide the connection–but Valour have done a good job from everything I can see (and I am thousands of miles away).

Manitoba soccer is a small community but it’s produced some decent players (and referees!) before. It is, again, hard to get sense of it, but there don’t seem to have been any frictions, which is the main thing. As with Wanderers, I’d like to see Valour make full use of the local teams, but they do seem to have a pretty open relationship with WSA Winnipeg, the PDL team, having signed a few alumni.

So it’s kind of neutral–keep doin’ what you’re doin’. If the fall season goes sideways, they’ll need to keep enough people interested to keep filling enough of the behemoth stadium to be respectable.

York9

What I predicted: 4th – Where they finished: 6th

Fall season predictions: Then 5th – Now 5th

There are a lot of questions around this team. Like first, what exactly is a “Generation IX” and is the club operated by aliens? This demands an answer.

There are questions on the field, too. York9 has to be one of the more frustrating CanPL teams to support. They often look decent enough, but then there’s finishing. If you aren’t scoring, you aren’t winning.

Unlike FC Edmonton, York actually do generate chances. They just miss them. Rodrigo Gattas, in particular, usually puts up about five shots per game, but has three goals in 14 appearances10And two of those were penalties., and very possibly the miss of the spring season.

Yeah.

What York do well is transition. They have a bevy of attack-minded midfielders and get it forward quick, which makes them exciting enough. Then they pretty obviously run out of ideas.

New teams in a new league understandably rely a bit more on crossing and second balls. When Manny Aparicio is on, he’s been York’s best chance of creating something off a through-ball, but while he’s been better than I’d thought he would be, he’s not single-handedly capable of unlocking a packed defense, especially on the York Lions Stadium pitch.

That thing is hurting York more than any other team. This is a team that needs to use its pace and width to open up channels for guys like Ryan Telfer (who despite his TFC impact has been fairly poor in CanPL) and Kyle Porter. But on a pitch that’s 56 yards wide, it’s so easy to just close up the gaps and stifle the hosts. Thus you get a lot of 0 – 0 draws.

Ideally, they could turn some of them into wins in the fall, but that’s really going to come down to finishing chances in tight games, which York’s forward group has shown no sign of being able to do. The one panacea might be if Michael Cox can get healthy–he’s not flashy but if you give him chances he can put up goals.

At the same time, defending remains a bit of a white elephant. Nathan Ingham’s been excellent, but any time your ‘keeper is your best player, you have to question why so many shots come his way. York’s draw on week 9 against Wanderers was a fairly typical performance: tight game, 0 – 0, chances either way–but even then, Ingham needed to make two or three big saves.

Some of this will be ameliorated by having Joseph Di Chiara back and healthy. He missed most of the spring with the hamstring injury he picked up in the inaugural match, and when he’s there, York don’t just play fast, they play a lot smarter, picking better locations to attack and using possesion more effectively. He also shields the back line–when Di Chiara is out, York really don’t have a deputy, and it shows. Teams run through their midfield too easily, they don’t get pressure to the ball, and no matter how good your goalkeeper is, if you give up repeated runs into zone 14, well, that’s how you get an xG against of 1.6/game. Basically, they need Ingham to steal them a save every time they step on the pitch.

That stat is among the worst in the league, by the way. As above, we’re just getting into meaningful xG sample size, but right now the chances created are holding things together.

This team is either going to rocket up the table or, more likely, come crashing back to Earth hard.

Biggest surprise – Emilio Estevez

Estevez was an open trialist who played futsal and CCAA soccer. He’s one of only three CanPL players who’ve mostly played on the Canadian small college circuit11The others are David Doe, who’s had spot minutes for the Eddies, and Ryan McCurdy’s, who’s struggled for Pacific. and he’s looked competitive. This is the kind of signing Canadian teams needed to make work. Particularly York, a team linked to all kinds of wild offseason rumours.

Playing either wide or, I think more effectively, through the middle in York’s 3-4-1-2, Estevez offers a bit of trickery and inventiveness of the sort Manny Aparicio used to have before he had it eliminated by strange experiments at TFC II. I actually think York are at their best when they get Estevez and Aparicio out there together, but this rather relies on a healthy Di Chiara to mop up behind them.

Biggest need – defensive midfield

You can’t run with just one d-mid, particularly when that d-mid is Di Chiara, who’s had injury problems more or less his entire career. Wataru Murofushi has played there, but Murofushi is clearly more comfortable further forward and doesn’t offer the pressure or marking a good #6 should. Watching him defend countryman Kodai Iida at Wanderers’ Grounds was a mismatch.

The back three/four are held together like a backyard pool in Richmond Hill. Morey Doner’s been a pleasant surprise–he gets beat two or three times a game, but is mostly responsible and solid (the volley he scored last weekend is a nice bonus). Same goes for Dan Gogarty, who’s yet another key piece added from USPORTs.

What they really need, though, is for the bigger names to play like it. Kyle Porter’s been a shadow of his old self, and it looks like the decline he’s suffered the past few seasons may be permanent. Simon Adjei hasn’t lived up to expectations. Roger Thompson’s been hurt.

Off the field

Ouch.

This team needs its own stadium. There’s been precious little talk about it that I’ve seen, though.

It also needs to find some way to attract fans. Sub-3K and falling is not going to cut it. Yeah, the stadium has a track, but if the theory is that this team can attract suburbanites, it’s actually pretty well located.

Theory hasn’t held up to reality.

Plus, I’ve seen nothing about any local collaborative developmental work. Where do the Emmanuel Zambazis’ and Colm Vance’s get minutes? Is there any kind of youth pipeline? My guess is we’ll see York continue to leverage Carmine Isacco’s USPORTs and League 1 Ontario ties, but it’s fair to say other CanPL teams will be more aware of the same.

About Dylan Matthias 83 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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