There’s been a puzzling, perplexingly enduring narrative about Halifax right from the start: that this team would be at a disadvantage due to its location, and said location’s smaller talent pool.
This seems rather at odds with the way professional football teams are actually built–nobody is trotting out 11 local guys1Well OK, Pacific are., and even if I’ll give you the travel concerns, the narrative should have ended as soon as Wanderers hired Stephen Hart to coach this team.
It’s a no-brainer, really. The ex-King of Donair coach, among other professional accomplishments, lives in Halifax and has deep ties to Soccer Nova Scotia and the Canadian national program. Still, I confess I didn’t think that was where Wanderers would go. Maybe I bought into the small-town mentality, assuming they’d hire some CSA up-and-comer or a local hero like Mesut Mert2Currently running Dartmouth’s main youth club and Hart’s old Saint Mary’s Huskies..
Instead, Hart instantly becomes the most legit manager in the Canadian Premier League, and Wanderers gain not only a local hero but someone with extensive contacts all over the CONCACAF game. Hart has been there.
That’s how this roster has been built. There is a very real CONCACAFy feel to this team. For those newer readers who may not be familiar with the unique joys of our corner of soccer’s regional hegemony, CONCACAF–the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football if you’re a FIFA delegate–is a handy word that works as both a noun and a verb. One can be “CONCACAF’d,” referring to any combination of overgrown pitch, crumbling stadium, dodgy refereeing decision, hostile hoteliers, food poisoning, or 3pm midsummer kick-off in San Pedro Sula. Some Canadian soccer fans have, shall we say, a visceral reaction to the word CONCACAF. We, too, have been there.
That game is, not entirely indirectly, why the Canadian Premier League exists. Hart was there.
It’s hard to quantify why Canadian teams have so often struggled in CONCACAF. It’s not that the domestic leagues that supply the vast majority of CONCACAF players are of superb quality. But it might be that there is a professionalism, and a level of grit that comes with it, that Canada has lacked until we, too, could boast our own league, our own pride.
Canadian Premier League teams are going to learn the CONCACAF lesson as early as this year, in the 2019 CONCACAF League, where they’ll be playing the likes of Arabe Unido, Motagua, and CD FAS.
They will also be going up against, in Halifax Wanderers FC, the likes of Jan-Michael Williams, himself a veteran of the appropriately-named “hex,” and Luis Perea, who banged them in on the regular for CD FAS.
But it’s as much an ethos. At some point, a Canadian side is going to come to Halifax in October and play in the rain on spongy grass against a team full of T&Ters.
Ask your American friends how that goes.
Jan-Michael Williams, goalkeeper
The aforementioned Williams was the back-up keeper when Trinidad & Tobago put the US out of Russia 2018. He has 81 caps for T&T, by far the most-capped international in the league. For comparison, the next most experienced keeper is either Pacific’s Mark Village, who’s 27 and plays mostly in the Vancouver Island Soccer League, or 24-year-old Quillan Roberts, who has about 40 appearances in USL.
Exactly how much influence a keeper can have depends on a lot of things, but Williams is definitely a leader, and is likely signed using the player/coach allocation CanPL teams have. He’s already made some spectacular saves in preseason and he’s as good a shot-stopped as there is in this league. He’s 34, and well-traveled, but goalkeepers can play into their late thirties, with that extra experience becoming a distinguishing factor, especially when games get bumpy. I’d expect Williams to be Wanderers’ captain, at least in year one.
Elliott Simmons, defensive midfielder
Simmons may hold a key to the Wanderers midfield. He’s a rangy d-mid with occasional call-ups to Canadian youth camps, but he’s mostly developed in England. Also, he looks like he just cut third period with the kids asking him for autographs.
He’s only 21, and Wanderers are his first full professional opportunity after a stint on loan in the Finnish third division. That may not sound like much, but he had been in several good youth set-ups, including Malaga and MK Dons, and had joined Swedish second division side Dalkurd FF. This isn’t an uncommon path for a young player.
Highlight videos can be deceptive, so let’s instead look at the Objective Rating of Midfielder Ability: or, how badly does he cause referees to get out of position? Refs are taught to read play, and if Simmons were already dominating games, they’d be further ahead of him. Look at how, every time Simmons makes a pass, it’s one the ref didn’t anticipate because it’s a pass breaking pressure or cutting lines to start an attack, leaving the ref–and everyone else–to scamper after it.
In years past, this was when Simmons’ career would have died–stuck as an international bouncing around Europe on loan. Now, he has a league where he can force his way into a first team. Rather than in Sweden, he’s getting that chance with Wanderers, and if he takes it it means Trinidadian journeyman Elton John can play either centre-back or right-back and patch what may be some holes there.
To be clear, I like this. I like that Wanderers have a 21-year-old at a key position. There’s youth throughout this league, but Simmons is someone who deserves this chance.
Juan Diego Gutierrez, attacking midfielder
Somehow, “Guti” is flying way under the radar as a talked-about signing. I struggle to think of a better playmaker in this league on paper, certainly a pure #10 (Kyle Bekker more often plays deeper).
That Wanderers will be unpleasant to play against is something of a given. Gutierrez is how they can take over games, holding the ball for a critical moment before making a cutting pass. And he’s done this is good leagues–the Peruvian first division isn’t the first league Canadians tend to think of but it’s a solidly mid-tier South American league, and Gutierrez was a regular for one of its better clubs through his early 20s.
Then he had a failed adventure to a European side going bankrupt and came back to a Peruvian side that was also going bankrupt. This is exactly the kind of player CanPL clubs should be targeting. Nobody in Peru is making huge money, and neither is anyone in Canada, but teams here have solid, established ownership groups and access to better amenities, and can thus lure players caught in the cycle of financial precariousness that often defines the lower levels of professional football. This is smart shopping by Wanderers, exactly the kind of thing that overcomes this over-hyped dearth of local talent. Gutierrez is still only 26 and is one of my top picks to make headlines in this league.
Tactics and positional depth
As mentioned, Wanderers are set up to play a fast, relatively direct style. Hart’s Canada teams were usually pleasant enough to watch, but they were most effective when simplifying a bit to hide some of our national team’s weaknesses. That’s going to be important in a new league where lack of familiarity means mistakes will happen. I expect Hart to capitalize on that with a degree of pressure and counterattacking, all held together by a balanced approach that won’t leave Wanderers too exposed.
I have some questions about the back line. It’s less a case of any glaring weaknesses as a collection of players without any clear star. I have questions about every defense in CanPL, to be honest, with the possible exception of York. Wanderers have made use of just about every pipeline of talent at the back, and need all of it to come together into more than the sum of parts.
Elton John needs to be slightly more than a journeyman T&T leaguer. Alex De Carolis, a solid NCAAer, needs to be the kind of overlooked stud who won’t make mistakes. Chakib Hocine to prove me wrong about the Finnish second division and prove that Ekenas IF are known for more than just disc golf (which has got to be the most Finnish sport ever invented).
I will say this for Hocine: he helped Ekenas to their best-ever league placing, missing the promotion playoff by 5 points. But even the Finnish first division is probably the weakest league in Scandinavia. He’s a hulking defender known for tough challenges, and he’ll make Wanderers hard to play against assuming he can stay on the pitch.
There’s been lots of chatter about which formation Hart will use. He’s tended to like back fours in the past, although Wanderers do likely have depth for a back three with both Alex De Carolis and Peter Schaale capable of playing as centre-backs.
Either way, expect both Zach Sukunda and Zela Langwa to attack a lot, which is a big part of what will make Halifax so unpleasant to play against–they will look to get the ball out wide quickly and pull defenders out of the middle. Sukunda can do things like this:
Sukunda’s actually spent more time on the left wing in preseason, with Hart using four at the back. On the right, “Zoom” Langwa is all pace and thunder, which is a good thing in a fullback, and the Italian Serie C shouldn’t be underestimated as a league. He’ll have to make smart decisions, though, to ensure Wanderers aren’t caught with too many players too high up the pitch. Schaale, John, and Sukunda can all fill in on the right for a different look.
The wildcard there is Peter Schaale, who’s had a hugely impressive camp, won a contract, and is a terrific on-the-ball centre-back. I wouldn’t be shocked if Hart introduces him carefully, and possibly at right-back, where he can balance out Sukunda’s attacking tendencies, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he’s starting in the middle sooner than later, in part because his passing ability gives Wanderers options in the build-up–they’ll have the pace to spring a counter and also some ability to probe patiently. Plus, the better Schaale plays, the more competition for places there will be, which can only be good for Wanderers defensively.
Wanderers have kept two clean sheets in preseason, albeit both against weaker sides in FC Edmonton and Inter RD. They’ve won both games 1 – 0, though I haven’t seen much of Luis Perea or Juan Gutierrez in what highlights there have been, and that partnership will be Halifax’s main attacking threat.
Akeem Garcia is the other big attacker, along with 19-year-old US Development Academy star Vincent Lamy. They both scored in preseason, but both are very different players. Garcia is a hybrid winger/attacker with pace and good vision, while Lamy is an opportunistic goal poacher capable of playing as a forward out wide or through the middle. Both were highly-rated prospects–Lamy still is and Garcia was on the fringes of the full Trinidadian national team before a knee injury. If Garcia has recovered, he’s actually my best for one of the first CanPL players to be sold on somewhere else.
Right from the start of camp, Wanderers have added some of the more intriguing depth pieces, particularly in attack. Momo Kourouma is a lanky wide forward with experience in PDL and Tomasz Skublak is a League 1 Ontario striker who’s done well enough in the NCAA to draw MLS interest. Neither will be expected to put up big numbers, but they give Wanderers some size and strength to batter home those 1 – 0 wins.
In midfield, Kodai Iida is an open triallist who’s looked good in camp and Andre Rampersad is a prospect from the Trinidadian leagues who made an immediate impact with Derek King’s FC Santa Rosa last year, actually outscoring Akeem Garcia. Again, they’re different kinds of players–Rampersad is a runner in support, Iida is more of a playmaker–but both should be capable of the depth minutes they’ll play. As both are internationals, expect them to play if Gutierrez, Perea, or John need a rest.
I’ve already talked about Hart, so instead I’ll talk about the fans, because that’s the other really positive story coming out of Halifax this offseason. Make no mistake, Wanderers Ground is going to be a tough place to play. The club deserves a shout-out for some very good off-field work in the lead-up to the season, wasting no time integrating itself into the community. It signed a smart deal with Soccer Nova Scotia to get a few headlines and, more importantly, keep local youth games away from Wanderers home fixtures, which ensures the main stand will be full. Behind one goal is a wall of fans and behind the other is a beer garden. It has the potential to be a reasonably intimidating atmosphere, if a typically festive one.
Too many people focus on just the ticket numbers. The home opener is sold out, and Wanderers marketed the hell out of an AUS derby between Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s and drew 2,000 people to a university game. But there’s a capable side on the field, too, and a solid fanbase gives Wanderers room to grow both now and in the future.
Projections: 2nd (Spring) / 2nd(Fall)
This team is better than people think. Halifax have one of the more balanced squads, and it’s deeper than many even if it lacks the top Canadian names. Instead, Hart has signed capable, experienced internationals, leveraging his contacts in the game.
There are questions about every CanPL team, and I haven’t paid any special attention to Halifax that I haven’t paid to them all at one point or another. I’ve dug into the careers of pretty much every player in this league. On paper, Wanderers are the most rounded of a whole pack of mid-tier teams, any of whom could finish somewhere between second and fifth. I give Wanderers an edge mostly on the back of Hart, but also because this team is built pragmatically.
The game isn’t played on paper, of course. This is still being written before a ball is kicked. The league is an eclectic mix; seven first-time teams, each built separately, each based on a different hypothetical of how this league will shape up. Hart has opted for a very gritty style, a style that may be as much about exploiting those inaugural mixes as weaknesses as it is about setting a true benchmark.
That’s CONCACAF for you.
In a new league, teams will lack familiarity, which in turn leads to turnovers. Wanderers are built to thrive on those. They are not going to play sexy football, but they will surprise teams, win a fair number of one-goal games, lose a few, and be generally rugged and gritty and, in that way, typically Maritime.
Formations matter a bit less for teams set up to counterattack and play direct, and I’d expect my guesses to be rough guides only, with lots of room for players to run and drift in attack so as to exploit those weaknesses. Exactly where and how Wanderers press is one of the things I’m most curious about on opening weekend–Simmons, Gutierrez, Garcia, and John all provide slightly different styles of engagement, and I’d guess we see Sukunda and maybe Langwa pressing higher, too.
De Carolis could easily play left-back while Sukunda goes to the right, but most of De Carolis’ experience is in the centre and I think Hart won’t risk Schaale in game one (though he has played for Victoria, so maybe a nice treat for his fans there?). Pacific are also particularly vulnerable to pace, which makes Sukunda useful since I don’t see Issey Nakajima-Farran tracking his attacking runs.
Due to Halifax’s international slot use, one of Scott Firth or Lamy almost has to start, plus they’ll rack up U20 minutes. I’d actually guess Lamy gets in on day one, but Firth might get a run sooner than people think. You could also move John around to create a few different looks–Hart has built this team to be very flexible, which makes predicting line-ups hard.
I’d still kind of like to see a 3-5-2, with Sukunda allowed to be more of an attacker and the defense set up to both control and clog the game through the middle:
The home opener against Forge, plus the long flight for opening day, means we’ll see lots of counterattacking early this season,and probably a lot of squad rotation throughout. But it’s hard to see any glaring holes in those teams, and if Gutierrez and Garcia live up to billing, Wanderers will create chances for Perea to stuff away.