The 2022 CanPL Preview

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

Things got a bit weird in Canadian soccer last year. We were on top of CONCACAF qualifying! York were actually good! Pacific won! These things make no sense.

As a result of such oddities, I wasn’t able to watch quite as much of the Canadian Premier League as I was hoping in 2021. I caught the national team games late, and was caught up through the Winnipeg bubble when OneSoccer disappeared the archives.

I wasn’t actually going to do this preview at all, but then last week happened. I’ve got no time for gushy sentimentality on this ship, but it seemed remiss not to commemorate Canada’s qualification for Qatar (ugh) 2022 by dumping all over Valour, as is tradition.1Not really. They actually look pretty good this year. But we’re all about tradition here.

Qualification for the World Cup is going to massively increase interest in soccer in this country. Probably far more than the launch of the Canadian Premier League in 2019, which is why I started this blog in the span of two hours in the Dal Student Union Building during a first-aid training. Ask anyone who’s followed Canadian soccer long-term exactly how much of a miracle it was to start a coast-to-coast league in this country, and World Cup qualification doesn’t even come close.

Those same followers also know how difficult it can be to translate interest in a World Cup into interest in a domestic league. Ask fans in South Africa. Or South Korea. Or the U.S.A. — Major League Soccer was on the brink eight years after the ’94 World Cup, just two years after the US women won their first World Cup, and needed expansion to backwaters like Utah and Toronto to stay afloat.

It’s never easy, even when it looks that way.

(Photo via Canada Soccer.)

This coming summer, with its bizarrely long break between qualifying and what will almost certainly be a very bizarre World Cup, will be the best opportunity CanPL will ever have to capture a slice of the Canadian sporting landscape. It isn’t enough to capture the diehard supporters — a league needs a presence in the casual consciousness, and that is far, far more challenging than getting a result in Panama while slightly hungover.

The league has done a lot right this winter to address this and other challenges, some of its own making. Among important granular tweaks for hard-core fans — like publishing the salary cap info, expanding the U21 quota to a level I can finally take seriously2It should still be least 3,000, but they’re obviously incrementing it each year and I live in hope., and posting pre-season friendly squads — are two very important developments for growing the league more broadly. I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to them.

We finally have a weekly schedule, more or less. The pandemic restricted this move, which should and maybe would have happened in 2020 otherwise. The 2019 schedule was a terrible mistake designed to cram everything into six months of summer despite the fact Snow Is Cool. After a strong start with a surprisingly high level of play, quality tailed off. The Winnipeg bubble last year was, I think, the nadir — playing every two days, on little prep, the quality was unwatchable. The players in this league are way, way better than that, and the league has finally put them in a position to strut their stuff.

There are still inevitable quirks due to travel and venue restrictions, among other things the league can’t control. But the 2022 schedule is, broadly, week to week. Most teams have mostly consistent start times. Wanderers, for instance, will largely avoid evening games (boo, but it will be warmer) and will play almost entirely on weekends. York are going to make Friday nights their own. Pacific have moved times a bit earlier to help with ferries.

Different clubs need different set-ups, but consistency makes it easier to get fans in the buildings and easier to convert them to returning regulars. That’s critical to growing a gate-driven league. If it does want to grow into a true developmental league, a realistic schedule is also critical in avoiding injuries and player burn-out.

The league finally more or less recognized its players’ union.3Legally, they haven’t, but a tweet is a helluva lot more recognition than they’ve given before, and signals of intent matter with these things. This was long overdue not just on moral grounds but practical ones. You can’t run a professional sports league in Canada and expect it not to have a players’ union. And yet it often seemed like now-former commissioner David Clanachan thought this league was a Tim Hortons, and the league indulged in some truly stupid attempts at union-busting disguised as cost-cutting last year, putting players in sub-standard accommodations, sanctioning them for wearing t-shirts, and abusing secretive contract terms. These are plans to end up in federal court4Ask the Alberta Soccer Association how much Canadian courts care about FIFA and CSA politics., not plans to grow a professional sports league.

Clanachan is now gone5As a measure of just how self-defeating his approach to the union was, consider that the players initially formed the union roughly mid-2020. CanPL was coming off a quite successful and well-managed PEI tournament, and it was the middle of a pandemic. Borders were closed, and there was no guarantee of a 2021 season due to Covid. The league could have recognized that nascent union and won just about anything it wanted in collective bargaining that year, including probably a term through 2026, while generating goodwill and PR through a growth period for Canadian soccer. Instead, Clanachan farted around until now, Canada is in its first World Cup for 36 years, coming off women’s gold in Tokyo, with a golden generation of young, progressive talent (talent that loves speaking out on social media, and some of them have huge followings) and people are raving about Canadian development. Borders are back open, players have more options than ever before, and the league just spent 18 months ignoring them. The players now have all the leverage and any threat of a lock-out this summer or next fall, on the heels of the World Cup, would be a disaster for the league. Clanachan got played like a box of Timbits, and if I was an owner, I’d have sent Dave off to develop CanPL interests in abandoned Yukon gold mines, not Windsor, but same difference, really, I guess., off to Windsor to hopefully do a better job managing an expansion bid than he did the league’s negotiating position. Fortunately, I suspect general goodwill still prevails (last week helps there, too), and everyone wants to see this work.

The clock’s ticking, though. By the end of this season, the league needs more than just a tweet stating positive intent.

The real challenge here isn’t schedules or unions. Canadian soccer is too often a story of people fighting each other over money or turf when the real need is to get fans into stands in places like York, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Edmonton. A lot of that starts and ends on the pitch, but it also takes being smart behind the scenes — with players, staff, and the community we’ve built around the game in this country.

Ask the Voyageurs about that.

Without further ado, the Merchant Sailor 2022 CanPL Preview.

 

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Ottawa Pacific FC Valour FC York

2022 CanPL Preview: Halifax Wanderers

Akeem Garcia celebrates after scoring the first-ever goal at Wanderers' Grounds.

 

I’m doing this in the order of games played, okay?

Besides, every time I pick Wanderers to do well, they go and finish sixth. I’ve twice gambled on a roster I quite like on paper. The one time I didn’t, in 2020, they made the final.

So what’s the point of a preview based largely on paper? (As a reminder: I wasn’t able to watch as much of CanPL as I’d have liked last year, though I did try to catch at least a bit of Wanderers when they were on.)

Let’s get the climax out of the way early: I’m going to put Wanderers about where everyone else has put them, which is to say, pretty low, with a chance to sink or swim a bit higher.

We know what they can do when it works. If they sink, it’s going to be all the way. The club has, broadly, bet on the same core Stephen Hart and new Director of More Football Than He Was Already Directing Matt Fegan built ahead of the 2020 tournament.

As I said, I like this team a lot on paper. Wanderers have, in my view, the best #10 in the league in Joao Morelli. Betting on the best #10 to carry a team, as Morelli did last year, is not a bad idea. The question is how far he can take them alone.

The defense anchored by Peter Schaale, remains largely unchanged. I’ll miss Morey Doner’s surging transitions, but I think Wanderers over-relied on them at times, and both Jake Ruby and Mateo Restrepo have grown into decent CanPL options, so Doner was expendable and now gets a USL payday to boot. Wanderers remained in the top half in goals against last year — defense is not the problem; scoring is.

The club has been vocal about trying to fix that, but improvement will have to come from tweaks around the edges. Alessandro Riggi departs the left side to be replaced by Aidan Daniels, who also departs the left side a lot to cut inside, where Riggi was more about selling crosses and combinations. Much as I am a fan of Riggi, who landed in Winnipeg, if Wanderers can figure out how to get Daniels to combine with Morelli (who also likes to drift left) and open up space for attacking fullback play, I think it’s an upgrade on that flank.

Alex Marshall has got the headband in this one.
He got rid of the headband for the Jamaica game, which I’m convinced is why they lost.

On the right, Alex Marshall is back, fresh off a World Cup qualifying debut against Canada no less. Wanderers could really use him to put up more than just the odd goal, but he does do a lot of good work in transition that doesn’t show up on scoresheets. The same is true of Sam Salter, last year’s breakout winge who now needs to put up more tangible numbers. The PLSQ grad displaces USPORTs grad Stef Karajovanovic, who ends up in the new MLS reserve league.1Out of respect for Ali Curtis, I’m not going to give it its full name. Former MLS prospect Mamadi Camara has been replaced by current MLS prospect Mo Omar, who’s coming out of a very good NCAA program in Notre Dame. Marcello Polisi did well in his debut season and provides a solid foundation behind Andre Rampersad and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé’s not-quite-a-double-pivot.

So there’s promise here, and you can see how this could work on paper.

Then there’s Akeem Garcia.

Coming off the 2020 final, Garcia was a top prospect on the verge of getting a real look with the Trinidadian national team ahead of the Gold Cup. He’s not necessarily a conventional striker, but his move in from the wing in 2020 let him dart into gaps between defenders and onto through-balls from Morelli. He won the tournament golden boot with six goals.

Everything fell apart in 2021. He finished with just two goals across twenty-two games–Wanderers really don’t have anyone else up front who can push defenders deeper — or finish — and it’s a problem.

To me, Garcia never looked healthy in 2021, though granted I haven’t seen the tail end of the season. Because CanPL started late, he missed any chance at the Gold Cup and any future move up a level or two that might have come with. He’s now 25 and playing in CanPL, which is a tough spot to be in when evaluating one’s career prospects.

Like Wanderers as a whole, 2022 is a double-edge for Garcia. Strikers are inherently streaky, and if he finds his earlier form, there are few better strikers in this league and Wanderers can easily be a play-off team or more. If he sputters again mentally or physically, expect another full rethink ahead of 2023.

There are some tactical tweaks the team could make to get the front four working in sync, and some luck wouldn’t hurt, but Wanderers weren’t necessarily a bad team in terms of creating chances last year, nor did the advanced stats suggest they were significantly unlucky. At this level, a lot more comes down to skill and composure.

Garcia is where the buck stops.

Draft Grade: C-
Colin Gander hitting a long pass for the Guelph Gryphons.
You cannot convince this kid is not from Newfoundland, no matter how much you tell me he’s from Toronto. (Photo from Guelph Gryphons.)

I didn’t get around to doing this back in January (why are we doing the USPORTs draft in January?) so I’ll cram it in here, especially now we’ve had a chance to see if any picks made the team out of camp.

Neither Colin Gander (out of Guelph) or Chris Campoli (a re-pick after York took him last year) have signed (Gander now has) for Wanderers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and both were defensible enough picks.

They weren’t particularly bold picks, though. Both have had opportunities now — Gander through TFC’s academy and Campoli in League 1 Ontario. Wanderers have brought lots of local picks into camp and should finally get the U23 program going full bore post-pandemic, but it was a surprisingly safe draft from a club that usually does so well with USPORTs selections.

(Update April 6: Wanderers have now signed Gander on the even of kick-off, which makes sense as they were a tad thin at left-back. My draft grade will remain unchanged as it’s more of a general impression, but I’m looking forward to Gander making it look very silly.)

Projection: 5th, but I’d love to be wrong again

Pre-season results have not been great. They’ve not been bad, either, but Wanderers have never actually been outright bad–they’re always entertaining enough, especially at home. They just don’t score all that much, and if they finish below thirty goals again, the fanbase will be quite justified in grumbling.

Currently, a bunch of trialists are out-scoring Garcia in pre-season. In fact, Garcia’s only started once.

Cory Bent is Garcia’s natural back-up, but he’s spent more time playing out wide, even at wingback since being drafted. It’s usually Morelli who ends up as a false-ish nine, but last year proves he can’t score enough on his own, even if he did win the golden boot.

It’s worth noting the club only has 19 players under contract right now, so could easily add some talent mid-season, as they did last year. I think that’s a smart approach, but I also don’t think it changes the overall calculus — the club has committed a lot of term and money to a front four of Garcia, Marshall, Morelli, and Daniels. It needs to work out.

 

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: FC Edmonton

 

This is going to be rough. This preview, this season — the whole existence of FC Edmonton, from 2011 to 2022, needs to be a warning to all those around Canadian soccer not to take anything for granted.

Not that anyone in Edmonton has. There was no lack of excitement back in 2012 when the Eddies were in the NASL semi-final. Tom Fath established the first and only club academy in this country not paid for by Adidas. Kyle Porter, Shamit Shome, Hanson Boakai, Paul Hamilton, and several others all carved out professional careers in the sport after coming through Edmonton. That’s a lot for any club in just over ten years.

It’s hard to see one of the most important club badges in Canada come to a point where most of its squad will be on loan. Obviously the hope is there will be a new owner by 2023, but unless a lot of those 50,000 people who came out to watch the national team at Commonwealth in January come out to see an Eddies game — and they could! — the league has already had a year to find an owner and it hasn’t happened.

I don’t want to spend all my words here focusing on off-field issues, but the truth is Edmonton don’t have much on the field at the moment, either. Based on announced signings that I can find, I count only fifteen players — they can’t field a bench and they can’t be much above the league minimum roster.

The league is running the team, and the league is not yet at a place where it’s breaking even, for a lot of reasons, so this has to be about saving money first and foremost, even if it’s going to be very, very unpleasant to be an Eddie this year.

Everyone is out for himself because everyone is playing for contracts elsewhere. There is zero depth, and while they’ll probably add a couple local guys on short-term deals and it’s likely Alan Koch will get a couple more players on loan in the summer, there’s a non-zero chance they could end up forfeiting a game before then through lack of players, which would be a very, very bad look for the league, and the kind of thing that costs you a chance with prospective owners, fans, and sponsors.

So this has to be managed very carefully, to maintain legitimacy. I won’t quarrel with the league keeping the Eddies going one more year, so as to give fans one more hurrah for an historic club, and to keep the schedule balanced and competitive.

But this is going to be bad

There is currently one (1) actual midfielder in the squad, in the form of last year’s star signing Shamit Shome. I cannot imagine where his head is going to be at playing the last round for the club that gave him his start. To his credit, he’s saying all the right things, but what else can he do? If he thought he had to carry the team last year, wait for this year.

Toronto FC have had a bit of a domineering relationship with CanPL from the start, and have sent a number of reserve prospects to Edmonton to get playing time, which they certainly will. Andreas Vaikla is actually quite a decent ‘keeper — TFC II were a very good USL1 side last year — and will help ease the departure of Connor James. Luke Singh, too, showed enough quality when thrown in against Liga MX teams early last year to make me think he could make up for Amer Didic.

In a weird way, it’s encouraging — and actually very true to the Eddies’ identity as a club — that a lot of very young, very raw Canadians (again, I hope some of them local) are going to get a shot. A guy like Félix N’sa wasn’t ready for CanPL last year, and wouldn’t have got many minutes this year on a York team that wants to win. Now he’s got a chance in Edmonton. One or more is going to show up, surprise someone, and use these terrible circumstances to earn a chance somewhere else. That’s the Canadian soccer story.

Wanderers did a smart thing and signed three marginal prospects — two of them from CCAA teams, one from Cyrus by way of the Portuguese youth system1Though especially astute Voyageurs may remember Wesley Timoteo from various “maybe he’ll play for Canada” that now feel distinctly historical. — then immediately loaned them to Edmonton to play. A couple of CanPL clubs have done likewise, though more in using Edmonton as a holding container to keep international prospects like Tomasz Warscheski and Julian Ulbricht in the league. Warschewski will be one of only four Eddies to return for 2022, the others being Azrael Gonzalez, the American who’s now technically owned by York, as well as Eddies academy products T-Boy Fayia and Darlington Murasiranwa.

It’s impossible to put together any kind of a depth chart. You can just about see a back-line of Fayia, Singh, Nyal Higgins, and Terique Mohamed, at least until Mohamed gets his first red of the season. Higgins is a former TFC academy grad who couldn’t get minutes with Ottawa last year.

Likewise up front you have a rough front four of Warschewski, Kacher, Camara, and Ulbricht. None of those guys are sure things, but in a cruel twist of fate, they might actually be more fun in attack than past Eddies teams. The worry is going to be health, and the Eddies are likely to have to play some of these guys out of position, too, at least until reinforcements arrive. If they arrive.

Draft Grade: C+

(Update April 10: Inevitably, I miss someone on the roster when I do these things, and this time I missed Gabriel Bitar and Kairo Coore. Apologies, Eddies fans, and thanks to Kevin Smith on Twitter for catching my mistake.)

Bitar isn’t technically a USPORTs pick, and has already had ample opportunity after twice being drafted by Cavalry, but Edmonton did work magic with another USPORTs pick Cavalry didn’t want, though Easton Ongaro is now in Romania.

They also got some decent mileage out of Tommy Gardner last year, and Alan Koch has reversed some of the Eddies’ previously perplexing tendency to punt on this draft in favour of picking academy graduates. I sort of got that, as a loyalty option, but it meant the Eddies missed out on talent outside Edmonton.

Signing Coore is a good move. He’s inexperienced, but was a highly-rated Ontario prospect and he should have a future in CanPL with Edmonton or elsewhere. Second-round pick Quentin Paumier I’m a bit less sure on — he’s a quietly good midfielder, similar in some ways to Wanderers’ Pierre Lamothe, and he can hit a mean free-kick — but I’m not sold on his being up to the physicality of CanPL.

It might have been a decent idea to give Edmonton extra USPORTs picks this year, as the university-CanPL contract options are cheap and there are a lot of guys in the university system, especially in the Prairies, who haven’t had much an opportunity and who could do a job in a difficult situation for Edmonton this year.

Projection: 8th
Clarke Stadium is kind of a weird place–I still sort of believe there might be a black hole beneath that turf. It would feel more like a stadium if Edmonton won more often, though.

I just don’t know that I see a way back. I really don’t want to write that, but it’s what it is.

Edmonton averaged 961 fans at games last year, down from nearly 3,000 in 2019. The only hope is that the qualifying campaign draws people out. I think it will, to an extent. But even if Edmontonians are sentimental enough to come out in May, are they going to come in July when the club is 25 points off the pace?

I wonder if the league is shooting itself in the foot with this roster, because it’s going to be unfair to those fans who do come, who will have to watch a bunch of young guys playing out of position, overworked, underpaid, and heading for the exits.

This is the lesson. This is not taking it for granted. People are not going to show up and watch Canadian soccer because they should. They’ll show up if you give them a reason. Alphonso Davies is a reason. Beating Mexico in the snow to qualify for the World Cup is a reason. Patriotism, commitment, causes — that all comes later, once fans are hooked.

Build it and they won’t come. It has to be sold, sustained. Edmonton did a lot right. A lot. But there are no guarantees. Before dreaming about expansion cities and multiple divisions and promotion runs, stop. Figure out how it’s going to work.

It won’t always. But I hope it does in Edmonton. We have one more season to make it happen.

 

 

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: Atlético Ottawa

 

It feels like this is the first real season Atlético Ottawa will play. It’s certainly the first one they’ll open at home, when they play Cavalry on Saturday. Yeah, there was a “home opener” last year, but it was in August. Not quite the same.

It’ll be nice to see Ottleti finally take flight. Nothing in the first two seasons has gone particularly well, perhaps inevitably given the club has had nightmare luck for its launch, in the middle of a pandemic. Atlético Madrid did a good thing saving the Fury at the very last minute — they took the same approach with San Luis — but it’s felt like they’ve been a step behind ever since. Maybe that changes this week.

Somewhat oddly, given all the tumult, Ottawa have quickly evolved a pretty clear identity as a club that will offer Canadian guys a second, third, or fourth chance — sometimes, maybe, more chances than strictly necessary, but it has, to be fair, worked alright at times. Mo Kourouma scored their first-ever goal. Ben Fisk was their first captain. Ajay Khabre and Malyk Hamilton were  among their first signings, and Drew Beckie was their first signing in 2021. I’ve tended to think, at the time, that some of those guys deserved another chance, and some took it. Others didn’t.

Unfortunately, Ottawa have a couple of bucket finishes to show for that loyalty. They were actually worse in 2021, on a points-per-game comparison, than they were in 2020. They cannot score goals, and they shipped nearly 50.

It was time for Mista to go. In 2020, with borders closed, I suppose there was an argument he was a good pick as the club’s first head coach. He spoke Spanish, had worked a bit with Atleti, and… that’s about it, really.

In keeping with the club’s tendency to announce signings way after most CanPL clubs, they didn’t name his replacement until late February. Carlos Gonzalez has an interesting background and approach, and there are plenty more reasons to believe he’ll do alright in Canada, but the hire still feels a bit like a parachute signing, like Madrid wanting someone they know rather than someone who knows Ottawa, knows the talent there, and knows Canadian soccer more broadly. Given CanSoc is on the up-and-up, it almost feels like a missed opportunity for the parent club.

(I wrote a lot of this post before Ottawa announced Kwesi Loney would be an assistant coach on April 5th. It’s a very good signing, and obviously helps address much of the above. I’d love to see a CanPL club give a successful USPORTs coach like Loney a head coaching gig, but it is worth mentioning that university coaches, especially top-tier ones like Loney, actually make pretty good money, and have much better relative job security than club coaches. Loney will stay with Carleton while assisting Gonzalez, which is good for Carleton, good for Ottawa soccer development, and good way for him to get exposure to the broader professional game.)

A lot of what Ottawa have done feels a bit experimental, like a 2019 CanPL build in a 2022 CanPL where it’s year four and teams are starting to really round out. The roster lacks any clear star power, or anyone like Javier Acuna who could elevate the whole team and do things nobody else in CanPL could pull off. Were I in Ottawa, I’d absolutely go check out the home opener, but I’m not sure what’s keeping me there through 90 minutes.1The club is also doing a “pay what you can” event for it, which is ehhhh. Now, it’s in support of Ukrainian relief so it’s a good cause — there is nothing this league loves more than to wrap itself in a good cause — but I always think the home opener should be a big ticket event. Maybe we’re not at that point yet, with Covid and with Ottleti’s development, but “pay what you can” doesn’t scream that we’re getting there any time soon.

It’s not a bad roster, and it’s a familiar one if you’ve been watching CanPL since day one. Nate Ingham’s in goal. Chris Mannella is back in midfield. Zach Verhoven is a lot of fun. These are all good players.

Former Fury star Carl Haworth is back, too, after a couple years in Indiana post-Fury-facto. Ollie Bassett and Max Tissot both land in Ottawa looking for minutes. That’s a good midfield.

Then you have the more… enigmatic pieces. Keven Aleman! A pair of CCAA guys! (Though Zachary Roy, out of Champlain College, has apparently impressed in pre-season.) A couple very young Madrid loanees will hopefully work out better than the last batch. And Ballou Tabla.

Gonzalez is going to have his work cut out for him, and not just because Tabla needs three psychics, a snake charmer, and an unopened bottle of century-old Greek retsina to motivate him to move up and down the length of the pitch. This collection of talent is more eclectic than a tapas spread at La Vicenté Calderon. There’s injury-prone. There’s a striker who doesn’t score very much. There’s a 19-year-old centre-back.

I have no idea what holds it all together, or if it is cosmically possible to hold it together, even for a guy who’s coached the Kuwaiti national team, which has to be its own psycho-memetic challenge. There are a hundred ways Gonzalez could put out a decent, functioning, probably even quite flexible line-up, much as Mista did and, yeah — less than a point-per-game.

Abdoul Sissoko playing in Turkey. (Photo via Creative Commons.)

The closest thing to a centre-piece is 32-year-old journeyman d-mid Abdou Wahid Sissoko. Gonzalez knows him from Kuwait SC, and he has a lengthy history bouncing around various yo-yo teams in France and Turkey. We’ve seen these kind of guys in CanPL before, and depending slightly on how much gas is left in the tank, they can do a job and do it well enough. I expect Sissoko will be effectively a player-coach, which isn’t a bad thing on an otherwise heavily domestic roster. He’s been around, knows the game, etc. However, with the possible exception of Dom Malonga, we haven’t seen any of these guys really carry a team, and a few have ended up being busts. It’s world football, sure, but Sissoko feels like a 2019 signing, a short-term stability piece, not someone Ottawa can build around long-term.

There are departures, too — a lot of them, some of which are guys who just ran out of chances, replaced by other guys on a last chances (like Aléman and Ballou). Sissoko probably covers for the loss of Viti, and Tevin Shaw never quite kicked on. Antoine Coupland went to Croatia, which is a bit disappointing — not for Coupland, but the basic idea of this Atlético Ottawa thing is the big club will develop young Canadians and move them up the pipeline. Coupland is still just 18 so only just able to move outside Canada, and it’s not a great sign if he’s leaving for a spot in a U19 side somewhere.

Draft Grade: B-

I am forever at a loss as to why Ottleti don’t do more with the USPORTs picks. This is an expansion side, in a pandemic, tossing out minutes to a lot of guys who have been, frankly, mediocre in this league, and a guy like Reggie Laryea can’t get a sniff?

There was some noticeable grumbling about it locally this year, too — soccer communities in Canada are fickle, and have been hurt by larger clubs before. Foreign owners would do well to bear that in mind. (Hiring Kwesi Loney goes some way here, though.)

All this might not seem like a “B-” sentiment, but Ottawa haven’t necessarily drafted badly, and they did sign 2022 first-overall pick Jose da Cunha. He finally got a chance to actually play in USPORTs last fall, and he’s still a tiny bit defensively naive, but his upside is obvious — he’ll immediately become one of the best on-the-ball centre-backs in the league.

I think some of the helter-skelter draft approach is down to the helter-skelter existence of the club so far. This is what I wrote about second-round pick Julien Bruce on the draft day liveblog:

This is a “we don’t have a coach right now and are going to take the guy who scored a big one in the final” pick.

There’s a tendency in the draft for teams to take most of their picks from the big teams they saw at nationals. I’m not saying Ottawa have to pick from Carleton every time — and hey, they’re a big university side too, maybe give the GeeGees a shot? — but there were players at Carleton who declared for this draft and who would likely have made more of an impact than some of the more marginal depth pieces on Ottawa’s roster, many of whom will not be back next year anyway.

Projection: 7th

There’s been some talk that Ottleti could be much-improved, but I think that’s mostly coming from Ottawans and, hey, if they’re excited, good. They deserve to be excited about finally having their team back in town.

I think even if Ottawa are much-improved — and they could be! — they’ll still be towards the bottom.The gap this year is going to be between 7th and 8th, not 6th and 7th. I expect this season to be much, much more competitive and close-fought. That’s where you miss star players the most, and Ottawa don’t have any.

The aim should be longer-term anyway, and I’d call 2022 a success if they’re better than 1.2ppg (which would actually make them close to a playoff team, last year) and concede a lot less often. The rebuild looks more defensively-inclined already, which is good.

I’m not sure there’s enough up front to expect more. Malcolm Shaw and Brian Wright are both decent players, but they’re very similar and they’re both in their late 20s — neither is likely to get a lot better. They combined for 16 goals last year, over half the team’s output, and neither sets up a lot. Ollie Bassett will nab a couple and Ben McKendry will redirect one into the net off something other than his foot at some point, but year. If Ballou doesn’t put up something like 6g/9a — and, at this point, that is not the way to bet with Ballou — there are going to be some long barren periods, much like last year.

This is usually where I’d insert an optimistic outlook for various young Canadians in a team, but Ottawa actually don’t have very many — barring some developmental signings, they’re going to have a really tough time hitting 2,000 domestic U21 minutes, especially as da Cunha won’t count.

In that case, the focus shifts to identifying the key veterans who can make good on their chance, who can then take this club forward to be more than just a salvage job. Giving out fifth chances is nice and all, but it’s been too long since Ottawa had a winning side.

 

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: Cavalry FC

Tristan Borges with the North Star Shield at Spruce Meadows in 2019.

 

Continuity is one of those sports words, an unequivocal Good Thing that no one can tangibly define.

Cavalry have consistency. Same manager through four years (and before that, if you count Foothills), several of the same players, a consistent tactical identity.

They have won precisely bupkis. One memorable Voyageur’s Cup game against what was, if we’re being honest, a very poor Whitecaps side.

Does “continuity” apply if you’re not actually winning? I’ve followed sports for a good while and I genuinely don’t know.

Now, Cavalry have been consistently good over that time. This isn’t intended as an exercise in taking anything away from what Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and the rest of the leadership team there has accomplished, which has been a side that’s polished and often very fun to watch. The club is at least one of the templates in how to build a CanPL team right.

But you can’t miss the hunger for more — from the players and from Wheeldon Jr. himself, obviously, that’s to be expected, but from the fanbase, from ownership, even from the league. This team was supposed to win something. Trophies, medals, drinking off the Shield. Sports moments. What “moments” Cavalry have had have mostly not been that.

Marco Carducci lying on his ace after being scored on in the 2019 Canadian Premier League final, second leg.
They’ve been more like this.

Forge have made this all look so, so easy and it’s not. Cavalry keep coming up so finely short it’s almost poetic. They finished level on points with Forge last year. Beat them in 2020, only to lose in the playoffs. Losing the big games is becoming a bit of a tradition, and I suspect that fuels the hunger as much as watching young upstarts Pacific beat Cavalry to their own revenge.

There were periods last year — and just a reminder, again, that I haven’t watched all of them yet — where you could see cracks forming in the group out west. Not big cracks, but the kind that hurt consistency and make you wonder if it’s been one season too long. Guys like Nik Ledgerwood and Oliver Minatel started breaking down. Guys like Ledgerwood and Minatel are now gone. So is Richard Luca, who was a massive, massive bust — thanks, 21st Club.

But it’s largely the same team. Elijah Adekugbe is back from almost three seasons of on-again-off-again injuries — he hasn’t played more than a couple games a year since hurting his knee (again) in 2019. He can fill some of the hole left by Ledgerwood’s retirement, and it’s still one of the best midfields in the league, with Elliott Simmons, Joe di Chiara, and David Norman Jr. joining Jose Escalante out wide. (As of April 8, Di Chiara is out until July with an MCL injury.)

That’s a very good group on both sides of the ball, except that I tend to think consistency is downstream from midfield play and Cavalry didn’t have that last year from this group. I think Victor Loturi — who played 1600 minutes across 27 games last year, not quite starting always, but meaningfully involved in a way he wasn’t as a raw 18-year-old in 2019 —  has a very high ceiling, and he’s 20 now and will be in a good place to start hitting it more consistently.

Cavalry also added one-time Whitecaps prospect Charlie Trafford from Wrexham. He didn’t have a great time there, but made a career for himself with Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Championship all through his 20s. He’s the kind of perfectly serviceable veteran Tommy usually manages to get more out of in CanPL.

Likewise, the back line is fine. Mason Trafford, Daan Klomp, and Tom Field are all back. Right-back is a bit of a question mark now Mo Farsi is gone, and while his move to MLS NextTry has been talked about a lot, I think Cavalry can replace him in their 3-4-2-1, either with Trafford (who can still play wide) or with Fraser Aird, whom they poached from Valour to rack up yellow cards and score the odd screamer from obscene positions.

No, I’m more worried about the attack, and less because of Farsi’s inventiveness than because Cavalry only put up 34 goals last year, tied with… noted offensive juggernauts FC Edmonton. Cavalry don’t like to be tied with Edmonton in anything (though those two drawing games is another tradition Cavalry might like to forget). I generally like Cavalry’s attacking group on paper, but Anthony Novak had only four goals last year. Ali Musse had two. Sergio Camargo had four in a career-high 22 games. Joe Mason had seven, which is even better when you consider he didn’t even hit 1,000 minutes last year.

Injuries might be the most continuity Cavalry have ever had.

Update April 8th: As if to prove much of the above, Cavalry have announced that a whole host of fairly key players will miss at least the start of the season, including Tyson Farago, Tom Field, Joe Di Chiara, and Anthony Novak. All are having surgery, too, so expect these to be longer-term absences. All are knee injuries except for Farago.

Draft Grade: C-

It bears mentioning they drafted Victor Loturi in 2021, probably mainly to keep his rights since they can’t claim they didn’t know about him. It also bears mentioning I had to re-check my own liveblog to see who they drafted this year.

Cavalry have usually stayed mostly in-house — even Joel Waterman was a Foothills player. Rogozinski is a local Calgary youth player, which is nice to see, and Tommy Wheeldon Jr. compared him to Dom Zator, so there’s that. I rate Markus Kaiser, too. But neither has signed, and neither is super young. It’s fair to note Cavalry are building — have always been built — to win now, and they’ll figure out the future in the future. But it’s also fair to note they’ve not done a great job capitalizing on draft picks.

Projection: 3rd, but lower if the injuries start to bite again

At some point, the wind blows and cracks become chasms.

Everyone in that core group is a year older, a year more banged-up by travel and the pandemic and everything else. Cavalry have already lost Marco Carducci to a really unfortunate cancer diagnosis1Wishing him well, and it sounds like he’s pretty positive., though Tyson Farago deserves another shot and they’ve signed a young German ‘keeper as well.

If Adekugbe succumbs again, or Mason goes down longer term, or Trafford’s 35-year-old legs call time, there are some noticeable gaps in the depth chart. That’s true of most CanPL teams, and it’s always possible, in this league, to see a young player like Loturi step into real minutes and perform. That’s a large part of the fun of this league.

Cavalry aren’t here for fun, though. They’ve watched Forge and Pacific have quite a lot of fun the past couple years, quite often at their own expense. That’s gotta stop.

They’ll be right there again — they’re too good, and too well-coached, to fall out of the playoff hunt. Spruce Meadows is small and a bit weird but it’s definitely loud and definitely a home-field advantage now we’re back playing the full complement of home games.

Once they’re in, it’s all about big games. If they can’t limp over the finish line at last, it might be time for a rebuild.

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: Pacific FC

 

Texas barbeque is never going to be quite the same in Victoria.

If you’re still grieving Pa-Modou Kah’s departure, know that we here at The Merchant Sailor take full responsibility.

I’m actually of a mind that Dallas got the wrong guy. Not because they shouldn’t have hired Kah, but because they should have hired him for the first team, not MLS NotQuite. It’s nothing against Nico Estevez, but Kah is a really, really good coach.

He’s a gravitational personality, the kind that can lead a team on sheer charisma and style. Leadership is over-used in sports, but Kah has it, and he has it in a way that particularly resonates with young players. Given Dallas’ strength in their academy, it should be a no-brainer (and maybe it will be if Estevez doesn’t get it done).

The other thing about Pa-Modou Kah, and guys like him, is that he’s primarily concerned with Pa-Modou Kah. Ego and talent often feed each other. I don’t mean this as a knock. Guy’s gotta make his way in his coaching career. But if it helps, there was no way he was going to stick around Victoria long-term.

In a way, there’s an upside for Pacific, too, in that it means James Merriman finally gets his chance.1They also get some broader recognition, which is nice, and I’m sure Kah will keep an eye on Pacific for anyone who might help Dallas. They’re not really a big-spending team by MLS standards these days, and it won’t be long before more MLS sides start looking at CanPL. I thought Pacific should have just bit it and gone with Merriman in 2019 — he was green, but hell, so was Michael Silberbauer, and Pacific were (and are) supposed to be about giving young Canadians a chance.

I always got the impression Merriman steered that 2019 team spiritually and emotionally, and maybe even did a fair bit of the actual coaching. Plus it would be weird not to give him at least some of the credit for Kah’s success over the past two years. It’s about time he get what he deserves.

Familiarity means it’s unlikely Merriman makes any massive changes in approach. Why would he? He will have an opportunity to put his own stamp on the side, however, because Pacific have lost a huge number of players, a lot of them first-teamers, and a lot of them to the same intra-league moves they used to build in the first place. That might sting as much as Kah’s departure.

Kadin Chung was the best fullback in the league. Despite his form with Toronto, Lukas MacNaughton was not the best centre-back in the league (a measure of how much talent is there to be mined in CanPL, especially in defense), but he was pretty good. Alessandro Hojabrpour is going to be the best player in the league in a couple of years. Add in Terran Campbell and basically the whole spine of the team is gone — and Pacific got very little compensation for any of them.2They got a token sum from TFC for MacNaughton, who was on a club option. Club options are essentially unenforceable, however, and when push comes to shove, clubs know it. TFC will have paid a little bit mostly as a PR move to let Pacific say they got something — this is part of doing business in world football and nobody should think less of either side for it. At some point, CanPL clubs will need to wean themselves off of option years and onto guaranteed contracts, at least for top players, so they retain more control of the sale price. But we may be a few years away from that as financial reality, and ultimately, clubs rightly don’t want to stand in the way of a player moving up a level, as this helps attract more young players.

That’s okay. I doubt Pacific are worried about the losses, even. They’ve rightly been very open about wanting to develop young, local players and move them up to higher levels. They’ve replaced most of the losses with similar moves within the league — no team has benefited quite so much as Pacific from FC Edmonton’s situation — and a few loans from Vancouver.

It’s also a fair bet that there’ll be improvement from within. It took Sean Young a little bit of time to win Kah’s trust, but I think he did just in time for Kah to leave, and with Jamar Dixon alongside him in central midfield, I think he can be a very solid starter in this league.

Matt Baldisimo and Abdou Samake have a little further to go, but both have upside and will have another chance to win (and keep) the starting job. Samake played over 2,000 minutes last year as essentially a rookie filling in for Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, but Pacific have Amer Didic, who’s been one of the best centre-backs in the league, to replace MacNaughton. Samake, who’s 25 and not that young, will have to battle.

It’s a similar story at left-back, long a problem position for Pacific. Jordan Haynes has settled into being a good-enough CanPLer, but by bringing ex-Cavalry man Nathan Mavila back, Pacific have given him some competition. Plus I like to see teams willing to give Mavila another look even after he left the league for an opportunity in his native England.

Josh Heard is back, as is Matteo Polisi. Gianni dos Santos probably edged out Oli Bassett for a roster spot, which is too bad because both are fun players. Heard, in particular, has become a key vertical piece for Pacific, particularly in the playoffs and cup games.

It is all a little thinner, and as a result, Pacific are going to need the big-money guys — Manny Aparicio and Marco Bustos — to haul a little more now. The nature of paying those guys a little more to bring them from York and Valour, respectively, means losing starlets like Campbell and Hojabrpour. While Aparicio and Bustos are both excellent players and a big part of what Pacific are about, I also don’t think Pacific win last year without Hohabrpour and Campbell. Campbell alone means replacing ten goals, which is not easy.

Alejandro Diaz is now the guy up front. He remains one of the league’s more effective enigmas — he had 12g/4a in all competitions last year. I wonder a tiny bit if he was the beneficiary of Kah’s gregarious tactics, but Diaz remains a very smart, technically sound poacher. If Merriman can engineer the side to get him the ball, he’ll score, and set up a couple as well.

Under Kah, Pacific generated a lot of their chances with wing play, particularly by having Chung overlap on the right. Kunle Dada-Luke, signed in 2021 after Ottawa released him, has a lot of the same upside and is a year younger than Chung. I think right-back is his job to lose, and with another 2,000 minutes I could see him (back) in MLS, too, actually.

It’s a bit of an experiment, but Pacific have depth and contingency plans, one of which is Georges Mukumbilwa, on loan from the Whitecaps. He’s also 22, and really, really needs a chance (and needs to take it, too). I tend to doubt Marc dos Santos’ ultra-defensive system afforded Mukumbilwa many opportunities in Vancouver, but for one reason or another, he hasn’t been able to stake any kind of claim to MLS minutes. He has bags of talent, and will fit Pacific’s high-octane system perfectly, but he’d better deliver this year.

The other experiment is Kamron Habibullah, though just about everyone agrees this kid is going to be a phenomenal talent. This is exactly what CanPL is for. Sure, he’s on loan, and any long-term benefit is going to be Vancouver’s, but he’s only 18, and having him compete for first-team minutes somewhere is terrific for Habibullah, Vancouver, and the national team, and Pacific get a playmaker who can break a game open in the second half. He probably won’t start every game, but if Pacific are good again this year — and they probably will be — he’ll be a key rotational piece in another playoff run.

Draft Grade: A-

Pacific got scooped for the second straight year, as York snagged Christian Rossi out from under their noses at Trinity Western after FC Edmonton stole Tommy Gardner from then in 2021.

Luca Ricci was a very good pick, though, a like-for-like with Rossi, but more experienced and probably more likely to contribute to a championship contender this year, though he is as yet unsigned.

Their second round pick, Rees Goertzen, was a local guy from UVic, the first time Pacific have drafted from them. He was always a longshot to make the team, but I like to see CanPL clubs using second-round picks on local longshots so they get a genuine look in camp.

Signing neither is a bit of a deduction, but Pacific are likely to be a contender and minutes are going to be hard to come by. The main purpose of the draft is to get university players an opportunity in camp. Pacific made smart, high-upside selections, and did just that.

Projection: 2nd, but with every chance to win in the playoffs

I am very, very tempted to put them top but I think Forge are just too good, and talent tends to out over the course of a long season, even if Pacific will have the full benefit of their considerable home-field advantage this year. That shouldn’t be discounted. (And, come 2023, they should have a local rival.)

Mostly, I think the departures and the changeover in head coach and personnel — even if there is a great deal of continuity there, of course — might cost them those critical few points in the earlier part of the year. It’s worth noting that Pacific were one of the only teams able to have a pre-season in 2021, and they went 4-2-2 in the Winnipeg bubble, second only to the hosts. Then they lost six of eight to end the year.

Fitness is maybe a tiny bit of a concern here, especially since the travel for away games will cancel out a lot of the home-field benefit. There are enough new players — and enough depth — to cover for all but the worst eventualities, so I’m not too worried about it, but yeah. Finishing high is going to be important to get the final (and potentially the first leg of the semis) at home. At Starlight Stadium, I’d give Pacific an edge over almost anyone.

The only other worry I have is #9. Diaz is as durable as he is unconventional. But if he gets hurt or just goes cold, Pacific have a bunch of teenagers and a 5’7″ Cape Verdean who scored one goal last year. Pacific can probably afford to miss Campbell’s goals, actually — they had a whopping 47 last year — but I don’t know if they can lose Campbell’s ability to break games open, especially on the counter.

Everyone is going to have to give just that little bit more. That’s hard, but players will do it for the right coach.

We’ll see if James Merriman has that same pull.

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: York United

A variety of Jim Brennans.

 

Last year, almost everyone picked York to finish last, and instead the squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season.

This resulted in one of the single dumbest social media posts in CanPL history, made singularly Torontonian by ripping off something New York did better. I wasn’t able to do my year-end rewards last year, but fear not: the Yorky Award for Worst Social Media Post of the Year will forever immortalize the moment.

I actually don’t begrudge the club gloating a little bit after making the playoffs–just making the playoffs, mind, only to go out in the first round. I mostly wish they’d focused said gloating on the players who got them there, rather than social media beefs, because York’s players were a lot of fun last year.

The reason I picked them last was because I just couldn’t see a way to take what was an extremely young, very untested roster and get anywhere in a pandemic-altered season full of challenges. I was wrong. So were a lot of people.

That Jimmy Brennan pulled it off is a miracle. It should have cemented him in the top tier of CanPL coaches, a Canadian coaching prospect fresh off his UEFA Pro course on the up-and-up.

Instead, York fired him.

It’s a very York move. And we’ll get to Martin Nash in a minute, who is by no means a bad coaching prospect himself. Brennan will land on his feet somewhere, anyway.

But what if…

Introducing the iYork, innovation x soccer, this year at E3.

…getting fans back in the stands was the key to club culture?

What if… what the club really needs comes more from building clear on-field continuity and results, rather than headlines?

It’s still on-track. York have a product that should be marketable. This summer is going to be all about selling young Canadian up-and-comers to soccer curious casual fans. Only York could screw this up.

To my eye, Brennan had consistently overachieved given the patchwork rosters he’s had through three years. Had he had been responsible for building the bulk of those rosters, I could see moving on, but  Brennan hasn’t been made international roster moves since 2019. This is now Angus McNab’s team.

Can he stick with it? He’s mostly kept Brennan’s team intact, minus Brennan, with its nice mix of raw prospectage, cast-offs-turned-good, and maybe slightly overpaid veterans that actually gave Forge a very creditable hour in the semi-finals.

He’s also chucked a few of the previously-much-heralded international signings, namely Julian Ulbricht and Alvaro Rivero, though Ulbricht was part of a very complex German swapperoo with Edmonton in which York rescued Tomas Warschewski then sent him right back to Clarke on loan. Rivero could be a frustrating player — often better laterally than he was vertically — but he was also the team’s joint top scorer, and I’m not sure they’ve replaced him.

Lowell Wright, who tied Rivero with six goals, is probably the answer to that question. He’s got all the tools to be an absolutely dominant striker, but he’s still very raw. You could see Brennan coaching him up. Nobody is going to be surprised by him this year, though.

(Added Apr. 6, 2022: They have just signed De Ro’s kid, Osaze De Rosario. It’s less of a gimmick than it seems — he’s scored some pre-season goals with MLS teams and played briefly in Ukraine last year.)

Brennan’s teams have been consistently good in midfield, too, even while they struggled with defensive mistakes and finishing, things no coach can control. Cédric Toussaint was one of the revelations of the year in 2021, bossing the midfield as a 19-year-old, and York locked him up through 2024. I’ve been raving about Isaiah Johnston since he came to Cape Breton, and both he and Max Ferrari are back long-term, too. Brennan turned Noah Verhoeven, who could barely get a minute in Victoria, into a 2,000-minute iron man.

There are some smart moves here, sensible moves, real moves–the kind that don’t always work out and which don’t get headlines, but which can build success.

Add to these veteran Canadians like Dom Zator, Roger Thompson, Diya Abzi, and Michael Petrasso and you get a team that no one is going to pick to finish last this year, not even me. There are some questions in goal now Nate Ingham is gone, but for what it’s worth, I rate Niko Giantsopoulos, as both pod-cast co-host and goalkeeper.

Development is rarely linear, though. This is where Martin Nash comes in.

Nash is about as sure a thing as you can get for a coach who doesn’t actually have any head coaching experience. I feel, though, like he’s been a head coach ever since his days with Whitecaps in USL. Even with Cavalry, as Tommy Wheeldon’s right-hand man, he was always the steady, calm voice, very instructive on the sideline, keeping the young players focused. He’s a lot like Brennan in that, in fact.

It’s a culture change, though. Every manager is a little bit different, and there is a gap between being The Guy and having been The Other Guy, who players can talk to a bit more freely. York’s previous assistant coaches, Carmine Isacco and Paul Stalteri — both vastly experienced in their own rights — have likewise moved on.

McNab has been suggesting he wants the club to qualify for CONCACAF, something which is actually all but impossible for a CanPL team in 2022 because of the continental reformatting1There’s no CONCACAF League any more, basically. There’ll be an expanded CONCACAF Champions League, but that doesn’t kick in until 2024, and due to the way the regional calendar works, Canada misses out on the League berth this year. To qualify for continental play, York would have to win the Voyageur’s Cup. It would be crazy fun if they could do that by beating Toronto FC and its newest Italian superstar, but that’s not the way to bet.. GMs have been known to set unrealistic expectations, but I’d suggest McNab’s seat might be hotter than Nash’s, so we’ll see how much of his expectation is smoke and how much is fire.

Either way, Nash has a job ahead of him.

Draft Grade: B

York did alright this year, and Martin Nash set down a no-nonsense approach with his picks, taking the USPORTs rookie of the year in Christian Rossi and a local prospect in Soji Olatoye.

Both have some promise, but both are projects. Olatoye is older than Lowell Wright, and of a winger, but is similarly difficult to defend in channels. Rossi is a playmaker who has a lot of growing to do.

Given York are slammed right against the 23-man main roster limit, there’s little chance these guys sign. There are developmental slots they could use, particularly on Olatoye (who’s nearby), but Rossi’s probably looking at a longer time-line to pro soccer anyway.

Projection: 6th

I don’t believe in linear development. Nobody does.

Points of data make beautiful lines….

…but that’s not football. York may well be a lot better this year, they may possess the ball better and build more dangerous attacks, even — these are good things. They could do all this and still finish below last year’s team because a lot of football, especially at this level, is execution, and young players rarely execute consistently, especially when expectations are high.

If McNab’s latest crop of no-name South Americans with limited professional minutes and great data manage to make a bigger impact than previous attempts in the same mold, I’d revise my projection up and maybe even tolerate some limited gloating. The club did a smart thing last year by loaning Lisandro Cabrera and William Wallace out to keep them under contract during the pandemic restrictions, and more CanPL clubs should explore those kinds of partnerships, but it was a situation the club should never have put itself in if it had planned ahead — the pandemic was in full swing when they signed those guys. Meanwhile, Sebastian Gutierrez, whom they did eventually get in the country, managed… 1g/0a, and wasn’t starting by the end of the season.

When Brennan was fired, McNab talked a lot about his what he’d done for the club, but also talked a lot about the underlying numbers, as is his wont. Brennan is a smart guy. He can read an Excel sheet, I guarantee it. But he kept dropping guys like Gabby Vasconcelos and Gutierrez because they wouldn’t defend. It’s simple enough. Brennan wasn’t a McNab hire, and it seems likely McNab wanted a coach who would play his guys. Oldest song in the soccer manager merry-go-round, that.

If it works, hey, it works. I won’t knock success. I’m just not sure I call fourth-place success. Others may disagree.

And if it doesn’t, and McNab still isn’t satisfied with the ups and downs of Canadian soccer, he might consider sacking himself, preferably via promo video posted directly to TikTok.

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: Forge FC

 

I’m really sorry, Forge fans, this is going to be a short preview because the team is too good to write anything about.

Sure, we could warble through all the usual clichés about revenge for the final and the like, but Kyle Bekker is already doing that, and even his heart doesn’t seem in it.

So we’ll take a quick look through the roster and then you’ll have to indulge me on a bit of a wander. You read this blog, it’s a risk.

But first, yeah, Forge are very, very good again. This is no surprise at this point. Occasionally, usually on Reddit, you’ll see some conspiracy theory about how the league helps Forge, LA Galaxy style — I always take these as a sign CanPL has made it.

In truth, it’s not actually so complicated how Forge get all these guys under the cap: 1.) Players want to play for Bobby Smyrniotis because Bobby has a proven track record making players better, and 2.) Players want to play for a winning team, and see 1. Put the two together, and Bobby usually has a winning team. We could end the preview here.

Now, they didn’t win last year, and they often start slow so don’t be too surprised if Forge drop a couple points the next few weeks while figuring out exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing, but they ended up with a whopping 50 points last year despite a wonky Winnipeg bubble tournament. They’ll be fine.

This is despite turning over a decent number of players each year, whether for cap reasons or performance reasons.1Forge have signed just as many busts as anybody else — no one’s perfect when it comes to recruitment. Bertrand Owundi? Quillan Roberts? Emery Welshman’s first stint (and I don’t think his second has been great either)? Maybe Paolo Sabak ought to count, too. Every year, they reload. It helps that the GTA is a talent gold mine, and Forge can save a bit of money on housing, too, but this year they started luring players from out west as well.

Terran Campbell and Alessandro Hojabrpour are big gets. Both have long futures, either as centre-pieces with Forge or to be sold on elsewhere via Bobby’s extensive connections.

Hojabrpour, in particular, could be big in Hamilton. Campbell will score some goals, to be sure, but Kyle Bekker is 31 now (though he still looks like a kid in third-year Engineering), and while he’s got a few years left for sure, not even an ageless ninja lasts forever.

Forge FC Kyle Bekker practicing ninja movie poses.

The odd game that Bekker doesn’t play for Forge, they look noticeably worse. He covers huge amounts of the field, mostly with sheer smarts more so than particularly elite athleticism. If you’re coaching a young player, show him tape of Kyle Bekker because he always knows exactly where to go. He keeps the ball moving. He angles his body to open up forward passes. He even has that sixth sense of where and when to be when the ball’s bouncing in the box.

Alessandro Hojabrpour passing a ball in training.

Hojabrpour does a lot of the same things, and he’s 22. Like Bekker, he started his career as more of a pure attacking midfielder, a “#10” in the parlance. Like Bekker, he’s spent the first part of his professional career transitioning to playing a deeper role — he was sometimes even a #6 for Pacific, sitting deep and linking play. Defensively, he still has some growing to do, but it took Bekker until he was about 26 to make the same transition, so time is on Hojabrpour’s side.

And as cover for both, Forge brought Abou Sissoko back from Indy XI, where he was mostly a sub. I’ll admit I’m a bit salty about this one — I get it, Pacific fans — but this is what happens when players want to push themselves. Sissoko isn’t quite as savvy as Bekker, but he makes very good decisions when pressing and his passing has as much bite as his tackling.

I suspect the reason he didn’t stick in Indy is that he’s 26, and won’t get much better, so has limited upside for a higher-level club. This is the down-side of the college/university route. We know what he is in CanPL — he forced his way onto Wanderers in 2020 as a draft pick (ironically after Forge drafted and released him in 2019) and was a big part of why they made the final.

He’s going to have to fight for minutes at Forge, too. He mostly replaces Elimane Cissé, who also had to fight for minutes and eventually stopped winning them. When you’ve got both Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and Kyle Bekker written into the eleven in pen, there aren’t many to fight for.

Forge have slowly started to trust USPORTs players more, signing Gabriel Pianelli-Balison, who was very impressive at nationals way, way back in 2019, before the pandemic. Bobby obviously rates NCAA very highly — he’s placed a lot of Sigma grads in good programs over the years and has consistently signed players from same.2Not actually all that successfully, mind. He got Garven Metusala last year in the draft, though, and he turned into the kind of versatile, athletic, and skilled defender Smyrniotis likes. Pianelli is much the same. That makes up for the loss of Dejan Jakovic, who was more than a year too old.

You might notice the theme here is development. Forge signed guys like Jakovic and Ashtone Morgan as veteran leaders, but the Smyrniotis brothers are both long-time development guys, and the club reflects their ethos. Since developmental picks were introduced in 2021(ish), Forge have been very good about using them to move young guys through their system, then out again, usually to NCAA, which is why whenever you look at their roster-tracker3Big shout-out, by the way, to Marty Thompson and Charlie O’Connor-Clarke who started doing that back in the first off-season when clubs were much less timely with signing announcements, keeping it updated, and then linking it in every post they wrote during the off-season. Small things like this stick around, do a lot more than flashy press releases to grow the league, and never get the credit deserved. Without that roster-tracker, writing and researching these previews would be impossible, and I’d probably have given up covering the league. there are so many young guys who’ve barely played being released each year.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s a long-term strategy. The idea is to bring a teenager in, establish what the player needs to work on, help him set goals, then connect him to an environment where he can work on those things for a good period of time, with good coaching.

Slowly, more and more Canadian clubs are learning to do this. Some have been doing so for a long time, but don’t get much attention for it — clubs like Highlanders, TSS Rovers, Longueil, Vaughan, and a whole pile more.

It’s fun to rank CanPL teams based on the strength of the first-team squad (or our hopes for that strength, anyway), but these clubs are the “biggest” in Canada, especially when they’re fully part of the local youth scene from U-Littles on up. The ideal is to have a team like Forge be the end of that pipeline, its roster built from a combination of promising not-quite-there-yets from within its own youth ranks, first-teamers fighting for minutes, and veterans being trained as coaches to develop players themselves.

It’ll be a while before CanPL gets there. The MLS sides are still working on it, and there are intricacies to the structure where some teams won’t integrate as fully, and that’s fine. It’s a complicated thing to build.

The best place for this in Canada, right now, is Division 3. There is way, way too much gobbledy-gook in Canada Soccer Business’s League 1 Canada release to be in any way intelligible4Apparently, developing competent writers is a long-term thing, too., but it’s basically about building exactly this kind of system, and Dave Clanachan deserves some credit for it even if it’s been happening since before he had his first double-double at CanPL HQ. The D3 clubs, most of which are either existing clubs or amalgamations therof, are why Canada just qualified for the World Cup.

The new national level has to be careful here, but people like Bobby Smyrniotis and Forge — which is almost-but-not-quite an extension of the Sigma academy5The academy set-ups work slightly differently to the full youth pipeline, but that’s another post. –have been among those working on this through their entire careers, and as with everything else, the rest of the league can learn a lot from them.

Draft Grade: A

Every year, I say the same thing about Forge’s draft, that being that there’s a way to go about a draft you don’t particularly rate, and every year I hand out top spot to Bobby Smyrniotis as a result.

The rest of the league could learn a lot from this, too. There are legitimate arguments to be made about how deep the talent pool in USPORTs actually is — it’s definitely uneven, I’ll tell you that. And Forge don’t always sign their picks, which is fine. The idea is to get them into camp, release them, almost lose a final because of this decision, and then sign them back from Indianapolis. It’s all part of a strategy, trust me.

Forge did sign Pianelli-Balison this year, which is 95% why they got the “A” grade, because he’s really good, then punted on the second pick, as usual, taking a Sigma guy in Mohamed Alshakman from the very, very unheralded McMaster program.

I give them the other 5% for local community building, which is absolutely part of this draft. Forge hadn’t actually drafted anyone directly from Sigma before, and doing so is how you show prospective youth players that you’re willing to hold up your end of the development bargain.

See, academies have had this figured out for years. It’s about trust.

Projection: 1st

I just can’t pick a weakness on this team. I really, really tried.

Closest I got was Mo Babouli’s departure, but while he had his usual moments of incomprehensible brilliance, he was never all that consistent, and he’s now 33. He’ll play a year or two in Qatar, then hopefully end up coaching somewhere. We need more creative guys in coaching.

Terran Campbell isn’t very consistent, either, but I think his flexibility gives Bobby more options in transition, which Forge need whenever they pass the ball a bit too much, which is pretty much every second half they’ve ever played.

If Campbell goes cold, Emery Welshman is dependable enough. Borges is your playmaker, and Chris Nanco and Omar Browne are veterans who provide pace and inversion off the wings, just as Forge draw it up.

Thirty-nine goals scored. Only twenty-nine against. Fifty points won’t hold up forever as the CanPL points record, but it does right now — a full four wins better than Cavalry in 2019, last time we had a full season.

And I think this year’s Forge team is actually better, on paper.

That’s it. Preview done.6Sorry, Forge fans. And, if you’re particularly eagle-eyed, you’ll notice I never even wrote a Forge preview last year….

 

 

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2022 CanPL Preview: Valour FC

 

Let’s start by acknowledging, as I do every year, that building a team in Winnipeg is not easy. For starters, it’s Winnipeg. It has a passionate soccer community, but it’s small. It has a lot of mosquitoes. It does not scream joga bonito.

The Phil dos Santos era hasn’t fully begun yet, and fair warning I’ve seen almost none of it, so do take this preview with the grain of salt you should take all this blog’s Valour previews. He mostly kept the basic identity and structure Rob Gale had built last year, which was sound enough, and anyway the club was in a playoff hunt. There was a typical new coach bump, but they ultimately missed.

It’s funny to see people so bullish on this Valour group, because it’s basically last year’s Valour group, minus the over-paid, under-performing uber-veterans. I think it’s fair to say Rob Gale’s struggles recruiting international players cost him the Valour job. I still don’t quite know what ownership there expected, and despite all the grief Gale got for signing 34-year-old José Galan in 2019, he stuck around and wore Winnipeg and CanPL on his sleeve for three years. It was the later, sexier signings — made with the help of 21st Club — which didn’t pan out.

I expected a lot more changes this winter. Instead, perhaps understandably, they’ve doubled down on a lot of the loanees who pretty much saved the season last year. At times, they were even carrying Valour to the top of the table.

Jonathan Sirois, Sean Rea, and Rocco Romeo are all back. The latter is permanent, which is useful because I can see CF Montreal wishing they had the other two in the summer. Another Montreal loanee, Matthew Catavolo, replaces Cristal loanee Jared Ulloa, who’s been kept in Peru this time, on loan at Cusco in the second tier. Catavolo’s a Canadian U20, so that may even be an upgrade in attacking midfield. Rodrigo Reyes also returns to Guadalajara.

A lot of that early success was obviously illusory, a product of playing a home tournament, and as is often the way with young players, they struggled through stretches. Still, it’s a solid defensive group will suit how dos Santos is likely to play. Andrew Jean-Baptiste remains one of the best centre-backs in the league if he can stay healthy and, with Galan having moved on (he’s in Gibraltar now; guy’s a true journeyman), is very much the team’s spiritual leader. Jean-Baptiste is coming off another major injury, though, so time will tell.

I expected a lot more arrivals. Most are guys Gale drafted. Yuba Rayane Yesli signed a year after Gale drafted him, and former Carleton draftee Tony Mikhael will be joined by current Carleton not-draftee-after-all Matteo di Brienne.

Phil dos Santos doesn’t actually have any great deal more head coaching experience than Gale, but he was technical director for Ottawa Fury in the years when they were a well-built, well-run team, and he’s always been a right-hand for his brother Marc. The dos Santos brothers have a pretty good network and a knack for getting more results out of a lot less.

Jonathan Esparza fits the bill of a dos Santos signing, a left-back from USL1, and Valour have had some success with that kind of player. Jose Daniel Ascanio is the kind of international signing Valour have had less success with, a younger Colombian with only spot minutes for a yo-yo team in a league that’s plummeted in quality due to the drug war.

I’m a bit surprised they let Keven Aleman walk but equally surprised another CanPL team coughed up the money he was likely to want. They might miss Masta Kacher more, who was sent as a get-well-soon gift to Edmonton, but I’m still waiting for him to rediscover his USL form, which would have to start with his staying healthy.

They only have 20 guys signed, so moves could still be coming, and it’s not a bad group as it stands, either — not so bad Gale deserved to be fired for building it.

Draft Grade: A-

Neither did Phil depart from Gale’s draft strategy — playing it a bit safe, maybe, but generally snagging some prospective talent.

They signed Jacob Carlos, who’s had experience in the Portuguese third flight, and he’s exactly the kind of guy you can find in the university system if you’re willing to take a chance on a guy who got passed over by the higher-level Canadian system.

Raine Lyn was a bit of a miss, in my view, but I have no problem with CanPL clubs taking a flyer on a good mid-tier university player. Here’s what I wrote about the pick on the liveblog:

Projection: 4th
Moses Dyer, pointing at Moses Dyer. (Photo via CanPL.)

There’s enough about this group, when you factor in the loanees, and veterans like Daryl Fordyce, to pull this off.

Fordyce is now the team’s sole mid-30s veteran, and while he’s never been exactly good, I’ve been impressed by his sheer versatility; he’s spent a lot of time playing as, functionally, a deep-lying playmaker — think a false nine who just doesn’t ever get forward, because he can’t run anymore. But it works. Fordyce is savvy about where he puts himself and he’s helped Valour advance the ball out of the back to guys up front.

Austin Ricci has finally run out of chances, so the scoring will mostly fall on NCAA product — and 2021 breakout player — Will Akio. He put up 8g/3a last year, and probably needs more if he’s going to be the main man, but he’s got a lot of the tools to succeed in this league: fast, strong, skilled enough to be quick and mostly accurate around the box.

Likewise, Moses Dyer put up nine last year, a career high for him. I’m less sure he can put up more than ten, but he creates as well, and complements Akio nicely.

There’s not a lot of depth, and there’s definitely no over-hyped, over-ripe semi-star on his last tour. I think that will hurt — the best teams in this league have a difference maker in attack, either domestic or international, and Valour don’t.

They have a lot of balance, though. I really like that they’ve committed to the young Canadians, hanging onto guys like Mikhael, Federico Pena, Diego Gutierrez, and even more unheralded veterans like Brett Levis and Andy Baquero. None of those guys will win you a game on their own, but they won’t lose you one, either. That’s the dos Santos philosophy.

They’re also all guys Rob Gale found and developed. I have nothing particularly against Phil, but for once with Valour, it feels like all this group really needs is a little bit of self-belief, someone to push the underdog narrative and find a reason they can win every game.

Maybe Phil can do that. I’m curious what his style will be. Maybe Gale wouldn’t have got the balance right, reaching for some bigger name.

But maybe the rebuild is moving into its pay-off phase. Building a club in Winnipeg is going to take time. Success looks, I think, a lot like success in Ottawa could have looked for the Fury. The Fury did not stick with what the dos Santos brothers were building, and the rest is history.

 

 

 

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About Dylan Matthias 205 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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