The inaugural Canadian Premier League season preview

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Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

At long last, Canada has a professional soccer league.

In six days, a team from Halifax will play in Victoria. Twenty-five thousand fans are expected the day prior for the league’s inaugural match. For a generation, the beginning and end of every discussion in Canadian soccer has been the need for a league.

Without a place for young Canadian players to play, our country hasn’t a chance of competing for a spot at the World Cup. Much of it is cultural, too: there are fans across this country who love the sport, who have followed local soccer in all its glory for years, and who want to make these new teams a part of their neighbourhoods like teams the world over.

At first, it will be modest. There will be highs, there will be lows. Throughout it all, we can, should, and will remember that we have a league. In Year One, that will be the main thing.

Inside the lines

Pitch level at the Wanderer's Grounds at night.
The Wanderer’s Grounds in downtown Halifax.

This week, the hoopla around the field is, predictably, understandably, overshadowing the actual football being played on the field.

For the remaining 24 weeks of the Canadian Premier League season, it’s about crowning the first Canadian champion.1If you’re new in these parts, spare a moment to read about the Voyageur’s Cup. CanPL teams will play for it, along with Ottawa and the three MLS sides, but it predates just about everything else in Canadian soccer. Bought and controlled by the Canadian national team supporters, it has long been awarded to whichever Canadian club team could post the best record in its respective league. Since 2008, the Canadian Soccer Association has held a cup tournament to award the trophy, but it is, in many ways, the true Canadian title even now it has some competition.

There will be those more capable of writing paeans to the league’s importance. I’ve only seriously followed soccer since 2007, when Danny Dichio did a certain thing on national TV. For me, there will be a circularity to the first club goal scored on CBC for almost a decade. But the rest of this post is about the results on the field.

Let’s not discount the importance of the soccer, either. It is important that the Canadian Premier League operate as a legitimate top-flight. It is important, if curious fans are to stick around, that the play be competitive. It will not be European soccer; it will not be played in front of hundreds of thousands every week–but a team will win the inaugural Canadian league title for its city. Supporters will sing. It will, by every indicator I can see, be competitive in a very Canadian way.

Nobody is coming out just to watch Canadian football growing. They are coming out as fans do around the world: to watch a team win.

So: which team will win the inaugural Canadian Premier League title?

The seven Canadian Premier League managers, plus Alex Bunbury.
The seven Canadian Premier League managers, plus Alex Bunbury.

We don’t know. Nobody knows. This is important to acknowledge. There are very few cases of leagues launching from scratch. We have, effectively, seven expansion teams, each with different connections and ideas within the world of soccer. We don’t even know what the trophy looks like yet.

Each manager–from newcover Michael Silberbauer on the west coast to Stephen Hart, a veteran of Canadian heartbreak–has had to make something of a guess as to what this league will look like in its first season. It’s not just that these rosters will set the direction and definition of this league’s play, it’s also part of the game of measuring up. Of assessing Canadian talent, often young Canadian talent, and beginning the project of competing on the world stage in the world’s game.

This entire preview is composed based mostly on how teams look on paper because, as of this writing, the entire league exists on paper. Come Saturday, that changes, but until then…. We can still learn a lot just looking at the eclectic playting backgrounds and histories that make up teams’ rosters. I’ve spent roughly the past month looking up just about every player in this league, reading histories, finding stats, and trying to figure out just how to handicap this league.

How does Canada stack up?

Comparing leagues around the world is a fool’s game. FIFA rankings and continental coefficients2If you don’t know what these are, save yourself the trouble and don’t ask. are easily skewed. The only real way is to look at club wage bills, but that doesn’t work in an inaugural league, much less one that will operate, as CanPL will, at the lower end of professional compensation, at least at first.

So let’s instead look at where CanPL players have come from3Methodology: I’m going by my own estimation–it’s my blog, tough luck–based more on where a player has played the majority of his recent career. At the lower levels of football, players jump around a lot–just because a guy played a season in League 1 Ontario doesn’t mean he’s really a L1O player.:

Direct from MLS: 6 Mostly for Forge, and mostly via Montreal Impact. Players like David Choiniere, Michael Petrasso, and Quillan Roberts. It’s not surprising established MLSers, guaranteed at least $70K/year, didn’t rush to CanPL. Most of those who did were struggling for minutes on teams without USL affiliates.
On loan from MLS: 3 One is an emergency signing (Blake Smith), and two (Smith and Emery Welshman) are on loan from FC Cincinatti. This was expected to be a much larger source of talent, and may become such when the league’s level of play is better established.
MLS academy/youth system: 14 There’s a sizable crop of mostly young Canadians coming directly from the Whitecaps Residency, Impact Academy, and TFC III. These players mostly make up the depth on each roster, and all will benefit from regular minutes. CanPL teams must give 1000 minutes/season to U21 players.
USL/NASL (American 2nd div.): 21 Not including players who were already with FC Edmonton. Lots of ex-MLS draft picks or academy players who had forged careers. This is the main source of CanPL players, and many should be consistent starters.
NCAA: 4 Only two players–Forge’s Marcel Zajac and Halifax’s Tomasz Skublak–left NCAA programs to sign with CanPL, but both Daniel Krutzen and Alex De Carolis (same clubs, respectively) have recently left the American college system. NCAA players used to make up the bottom end of MLS rosters, and these players should compete for time in CanPL.
USPORTS: 0 Every USPORTS player signed has also played either PDL or the Canadian equivalent.4Don’t @ me about Schaale and Bona. Schaale played with Victoria Highlanders and Bona with CS Longueil in PLSQ. N/A.
PDL/Lower US: 17 Mostly from Calgary Foothills, but Wanderers have three in Schaale, Mo Korouma, and open triallist Kodai Iida. Could be a bit of a jump–this is one of my big questions about Cavalry.
Canadian semi-pro L1O/PLSQ: 18 It would be higher if you counted every player who’s passed through at some point–with that, I believe it’s just over 30. The Ontario squads in particular have looked locally, but there are alumni all over. Expect mostly depth, but the possibility for a couple diamonds.
Local amateur/CCAA: 5 A keeper, three young kids, two vets, and a futsal player: Christian Oxner5Yeah, he played for Saint Mary’s, but he was signed way before any of the other USPORTS picks and it seems fair to say he was on Hart’s radar for a while. (Wanderers via Atlantic Selects), Scott Firth (Wanderers), Victor Loturi (Cavalry), David Doe out of NAIT, Ryan McCurdy out of VIU (Pacific), Kouame Ouattara (Wanderers), and Emilio Estevez. Realistically, this is a big jump–but it’s great to see these players get a chance, and the young ones could develop nicely.
European 1st/2nd: 5 This is a very good number for CanPL, and includes the Croatian second division (Josip Golubar), Greek second division (Dominique Malonga), Swedish first (Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson), and Scottish second (Luca Gasparotto, Marcus Haber). These players should be stars for their teams, though there are questions (age, consistency) about most of them, as is to be expected in a new league.
European lower/regional/semi-pro: 19 Long a home for Canadian ex-pats, but CanPL clubs haven’t been shy about sourcing international talent from Europe’s regional leagues, mainly in Sweden, Germany, and Belgium. There’s a lot of variance here, and a lot of reclamation projects. This is why we needed our own league so badly, and many of these players could thrive at home.
Latin America: 9 Entirely down to Halifax and Winnipeg. Playing experiences vary, but almost all were on top-flight teams. I’m surprised more Canadian teams haven’t sourced talent from mid-tier CONCACAF and CONMEBOL leagues–in many cases, we can compete better on salary and facilities.
Asia and Africa: 7 An eclectic collection, including players like Stephen Hoyle, Wataru Murofushi, and long-time Canada vet Issey Nakajima-Farran. Actually surprisingly high given the relative level of play in many AFC/CAF leagues. Often not a bad comparable to what CanPL will be in Year One, though.

That breakdown paints a picture of a workmanlike, physical league with ability and ambition to grow. Very Canadian, in other words.

A few things I’ve been surprised by:

Lack of players from CONCACAF: Only Wanderers signed players directly from another CONCACAF nation. Considering CanPL teams will be competing in CONCACAF later this year, this is odd. There are players from all over CONCACAF playing in USL, and while CanPL is right to ensure strict quotas for young Canadians, making our league a destination for regional talent can only help. Stephen Hart gets points from me for recruiting via his contacts.

Internationals from European lower leagues: On the flipside, I was surprised to see so many journeymen sign as internationals. CanPL teams are limited to seven, with five on the field at any time, so I expected internationals to be impact players. In reality, it’s more of a mix, which is understandable given CanPL is a first-year league. More experienced mercenary type players may be more willing to commit once the league is proven.

Relative youth: I’m thrilled to see so many prospects get repatriated–and, as we’ll see below, given opportunities in key positions. This won’t always work, but it beats another Canadian kid sitting on the bench in an obscure league where he can never be seen by the national team. There’s no way to know what we have–and have long overlooked–without giving kids a chance to play.

The CONCACAF League trophy
The CONCACAF League trophy, which one of Forge, Valour, or Edmonton could win this year (though it’s unlikely).

If you watch any CONCACAF soccer, you can likely look at that talent breakdown and compare this league reasonably favourably to most domestic leagues around our region. Lest that seem like damnation by faint praise, consider that we routinely lose out in World Cup qualifying to the likes of El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago, and Honduras. All these countries have healthy domestic leagues.

There will be no catching the big two leagues–Liga MX and MLS–for some time6There is every chance those two leagues form a regional superleague before CanPL gets close to what the average Mexican or even American team spends.. Costa Rica’s league, too, is quite strong–if CanPL sides can start luring out-of-favour players from the likes of Saprissa, CD Alajeulense, and Herediano, take that as a very, very good sign for this league.

Come July, we’ll start to see CanPL sides in the CONCACAF League against the top teams from El Salvador, Honduras, T&T, and Panama. I’m looking forward to it immensely.


Which brings us rather nicely to the predictions phase of the preview. I’m going to start weirdly specific and get broader as we approach the climax. Team-by-team breakdowns follow if you haven’t skipped to them already, you rascals.

CanPL team that qualifies for CONCACAF League:

Thanks to a CSA faux pas, only Forge, Valour, and Edmonton are eligible. The entrant will be the team with the most points from games involving those teams, which is just beyond fiddly.

My heart wants it to be Edmonton, because the Eddies deserve it for having to constantly play MLS teams in the early rounds of the Voyageurs Cup, Canada’s other entryway to regional competition.

But my head says it’ll be Forge.

Best story for the league in Year One:

Attendances. So far, signs are very good, particularly in Halifax and Hamilton. Jury’s slightly out on a couple markets but it looks decent across the board. Plus, the league has mostly got it right with smaller venues that will make for impressive TV viewing.

What about on-field stuff, remember?

Some Canadian teenager you’ve never heard of scores a pile of goals, including a derby winner at some point. Names to keep an eye on: David Doe (Edmonton), Jose Hernandez (Pacific), and Tyler Attardo (Valour).

Nascent league’s biggest mistake:

Assuming it’s still to come and not everything to do with the gorramn mascots this week?

Alright, biggest challenge then?

Dealing with supporters. I’m thrilled with how the supporters’ culture has developed around this league, but at some point some individual is going to do something silly and it’ll be a test of both the groups and the league in how they respond. Fortunately, the league has Paul Beirne, who oversaw many of the positives around Toronto’s culture and many of the supporter’s groups are led by experienced fans who know what they’re doing.

Still, small stadiums, many with beer gardens. Seriously, people, do not throw things on the field.

First player to get a red card:

Assuming it’s for a tackle, Joseph di Chiara, Chakib Hocine, or Luca Gasparotto. All three are hard as nails and will make their teams very hard to play against.

Best rivalry we’ve never had before:

There are some positive signs around Halifax-Pacific, which this blog will do much to stoke, I’m sure. But I honestly think Forge-York will be better. Not just because of the geography, but because it’s a fascinating tactical match-up and both teams should be good.

I think “Al Clasico” (ugh) is over-rated and there’s been some early bad blood between York and Cavalry7By the end of the season, it would not surprise me if there is bad blood between York and everybody, though., so keep an eye on that one.

Okay, let’s get serious: top goalscorer?

Luis Alberto Perea, Halifax. The guy tore apart the Salvadoran top flight last year, scoring 15 in 18 in what should be a roughly similar league. Plus, he’s playing with a playmaker who knows him and who has set him up before.

Other contenders are Michael Cox, Emery Welshman, or Dominique Malonga.

The Actual Predictions

CanPL uses the split season format found all over the western hemisphere. The winner of the 10-game spring season will play the winner of the much longer fall season–sadly, no “liguilla” yet. If the same team wins both seasons, the team with the next-most cumulative points qualifies for October’s grand final.

The playoff system needs some work, ya?

Spring Summer
1. Forge 1. Cavalry
2. Halifax 2. Halifax
3. Cavalry 3. Forge
4. York 4. Valour
5. Valour 5. York
6. Edmonton 6. Edmonton
7. Pacific 7. Pacific

Teams will take some time to find their feet, which I’ve factored in. Familiarity helps Halifax and Calgary, in particular.

Forge are favoured by many, but they also lack much in the way of flexibility, at least on paper, and will get found out over four or five games against each team. I’m also assuming they win the CONCACAF spot and have to deal with all of that–mostly, travel.

Plus, I just don’t want the awkwardness of Forge winning both seasons but losing a slug-fest final to one of the more “pragmatic” teams.

Behind them, there are four–even five–teams that could all be fairly solid. Each has questions–every team has questions–but each has a lot going for it. I rate Halifax higher than most not because this blog is Halifax-centric but because Stephen Hart has built a deep, balanced squad full of CONCACAF talent that will be hard to play against. Wanderers have relatively few true stars, but factor in an intimidating and far-flung home advantage and they’ll be tough to take points from.

Cavalry have some excellent signings, York have a good plan with the pieces to execute, and even Valour could surprise, although I have them lower than many people due to some really serious tactical questions.

Both Edmonton and Pacific could struggle. Edmonton have become a lot more resolute with the late signing of Amer Didic, but I still don’t know where the goals come from and they’ve plodded through preseason matches. Pacific simply look overmatched, even unprepared, for the league–they only have 19 players signed, play their first preseason match today, and lack experience and depth in almost every position.

For more on each team, read on, or jump to your favourite (or rival):

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

Promoted: Cavalry FC make the jump

Spruce Meadows show jumping--new home of CanPL side Cavalry FC.

In a brand new league, Calgary’s Cavalry FC will be, in effect, a promoted team.

Calgary Foothills rolled to the PDL championship in 2018, led by Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Nik Ledgerwood, and a host of other talent that immediately made it’s way to Cavalry’s roster.

Familiarity is both Cavalry’s biggest advantage in the coming Canadian Premier League season and perhaps its biggest question mark. Foothills were very good last year, and were built unlike most other PDL teams with lots of veterans and high-end talent auditioning for a chance in CanPL, but it was still a PDL team.

Here’s Nico Pasquotti’s title-winning goal in the PDL final:

Pasquotti picks it up out wide, almost in the corner. There is nobody near him. He cuts back across the left-back, who is yards away from him. The centre-back doesn’t close him down. He takes three touches and then absolutely smashes a belter across the keeper into the top corner.

This is a very PDL goal. I see a lot of similar goals in USPORTs. In CanPL, that time out wide won’t exist. Neither will time for three touches in the box. Later in that video, you’ll see Pasquotti cut inside and hold the ball, beating two or three defenders with his dribbling. In CanPL, that’s a turnover and a counter-attack the other way.

Amongst all the chatter of building teams from scratch in this league, Cavalry have kept pretty quiet. They’ve added players with solid experience on mid-tier USL and NASL teams to keep the team above water if and when things get rocky. This is smart shopping by Wheeldon Jr., very much the game plan of a manager seeking to make sure his team doesn’t get relegated right back down a league–the dreaded “yo-yo” team.

Cavalry won’t have to worry about that, as there’s no relegation (yet) in CanPL. They’ve bet hard on guys who know each other and are proven both in mentality and in Wheeldon’s system. That’s a huge advantage over other teams, even if Cavalry have been a touch more conservative in talent acquisition, at least outside of Calgary-South.

Key Players

Nik Ledgerwood, various

There was no surprise at all when Cavalry announced the long-time Canadian international as its first-ever signing. He’d been with Foothills last year and FC Edmonton the year before that1This somehow doesn’t get mentioned much in all that nonsense about the Alberta rivalry. and is effectively a player-coach, especially because he’s struggled to stay healthy the past couple seasons.

His résumé is as good as anyone’s in CanPL: a career made as a true–and often valuable–journeyman in Germany’s second and third divisions. He’s never the flashiest player, sometimes bordering on outright frustrating in attack, but always redeemed by incredible work ethic in defense. His real asset is his positional flexibility–traditionally a right-back, Ledgerwood can play pretty much anywhere in midfield when necessary.

He’ll be Cavalry’s captain, and his mentorship and organizational leadership amongst the younger players will be critical. He is another guy who has seen it all in CONCACAF. At 34, they need him to stay healthier than he has been–he managed 20 odd games in 2017 and only seven last year, although PDL has a short season. He’s played mostly in defensive midfield for Cavalry in pre-season, but I’d expect him to play some right-back and maybe even centre-back at times.

Jordan Brown, forward

When I wrote above that Cavalry have been conservative in their out-of-town signings, I didn’t necessarily mean they hadn’t been ambitious. I mostly meant they’d signed Jordan Brown.

Brown’s got press because he played for England’s U17 team a couple times. You hear the lions roar and all that. He also came up through Arsenal’s academy and West Ham’s youth teams, both of which are good systems. He played alright for West Ham’s reserve teams as a teenager, but after that the story changes.

After a decent 2013, he stopped scoring. In 2015, get gets loaned to… Chelmsford City in the National League South–the sixth division, basically. He does not play. West Ham recall him, play him in the youth teams for a while longer, then release him2Yes, he made an appearance in the Europa League. But it was 10 minutes at the end of a tie for which they’d qualified only via Fair Play, in which the BBC questioned whether West Ham even wanted to be there–Slaven Bilic was suspended and handed the reins to his academy director. Interesting Canadian connection: this game was also Doneil Henry’s debut for West Ham.. He moves to Hannover II in the German fourth division, plays mostly off the bench, and puts up six goals in 26 games, followed by three in 14, and is released last summer. He signs in the Czech second division, plays 54 minutes across four games, and gets cut. Hear them roar.

I bring this up not to harp on Brown but to illustrate that CanPL is, as much as it’s anything yet, a league of second–and even third, fourth, and fifth–chances. This is not an uncommon career path for a prospect in world football, even one with U17 experience for a good national team. If Brown can resuscitate his career, he gives Cavalry another strong centre forward who can score goals playing off the shoulder. He’s been starting in preseason, and he’s still young enough that he could yet realize some of that potential. It’s fair to ask if he’s good use of an international slot, though.

Dominique Malonga, striker

Malonga is who should be getting the headlines Brown has had. He’s the only player in CanPL with Serie A experience! He grew up in Torino’s academy and also spent time in Monaco’s system in the mid-aughts. Despite scoring, he never quite caught on with Torino but made a home for himself with Cesena, getting them promoted to Serie A.

He’s been more prolific in second divisions than firsts–another of those veterans who excel at getting teams promoted–and his best spell came in the Scottish championship with Hibernian. They lost the promotion play-off, though, and since then he’s struggled a bit for playing time, and comes to CanPL via the second flights in Switzerland and Greece.

At 30, he may be slowing down a bit. Malonga is a physical, opportunistic target man. He’ll bang in weird goals, poacher’s goals, and finish off the odd throughball. Plus, he has quick feet and is apparently good at taking free kicks. He’s been taking Cavalry’s penalties so far in preseason.

It’s probably slightly unfair to compare him to Marcus Haber, because his numbers are way better, but he’s that kind of player. There’s always a bit of a question about when the downturn will come with ageing target men, but it’s likely Malonga can be quite productive for Cavalry, especially given the physicality of both his new team and his new league. He hasn’t played a whole lot in the past two and half years, though, so it may take some time for him to get up to speed, and he’s looked a tad slow in what I’ve seen of him in preseason.

Tactics and positional depth

Cavalry have a really good spine. Probably the best in CanPL. I didn’t mention him above, but Mason Trafford will be key for them–an experienced NASL player–although they need to keep him healthy, too, because the depth at centre-back behind him is entirely PDL guys, and even then there’s not a lot of them.

I quite rate Dom Zator, who’s a former Whitecaps player with experience in USPORTs for a typically good Calgary program, and he has several years with Foothills to boot. He actually captained their 2018 team, so I expect him to start alongside Trafford.

Main stand at Woodwarde Road.
Woodwarde Road, home of Dulwich Hamlet FC, a classic English ground.

Fullback is even weaker. Nathan Mavila has been starting in preseason, and represents another English prospect with a really dubious résumé–he’s played mostly for Dulwich Hamlet FC in that same National League South after a similar stint in West Ham’s reserve set-up. On the right, another ex-Whitecaps Residency/Foothills alumnus in Chris Serban is really the only right-back on the roster, though once again I’d expect Ledgerwood to spend some time there.

The difficulty if Ledgerwood does play right-back is it makes him less able to organize across the field and, frankly, he’s never been the best going forward. It would also ask him to do a lot more running. Instead, I’d expect Cavalry to keep the back four fairly compact and let the creative players further up the field create space.

In midfield, Wheeldon Jr. will have a lot more choice. Mauro Eustaquio isn’t his brother (though he, too, has had a serious knee injury) but he does have decent experience in NASL and USL, which puts him on par with a lot of starters in this league. Julian Büscher is another guy I could have put in the key players list–a former first-round pick in MLS who played 27 times for (an admittedly very bad) D.C. United team. Plus, he has German U-18 experience. He’s an industrious playmaker who should fit the workmanlike squad Wheeldon has built.

Sergio Camargo, Carlos Patino, and Dean Northover are all solid Foothills players who shouldn’t be expected to do too much but who could very much push the starters. Camargo, in particular–he has ample USL experience with TFC II and while that team was very bad, he was often quietly effective linking defence to attack.

Eli Adekugbe was once, like his brother Sam, one of Canada’s better prospects. A bad knee injury set him back a year or two and he left the Whitecaps system, ending up at Foothills where he was a key player last year. Assuming he can regain his bravery, he could actually be one of the better defensive mids in the league, with lots of room still to develop.

I’m a little unsure what Cavalry will do out wide. From what I can judge from limited preseason highlights, they’ve played a lot through the middle, which makes sense given their talent. They did just sign Honduran winger José Escalante, though his time in USL was less-than-stellar. Ex-TFC II and West Ham (see a pattern here?) prospect Malyk Hamilton could figure on the left, but though much was expected of him for TFC II last year, he didn’t deliver and only played four times, often looking lost playing against men. He’s still young, though.

Oliver Minatel could play off the left side, too, or as a second striker with Malonga. He was a solid player for Marc Dos Santos’ Ottawa Fury side, and provides a bit of creativity and flair. His time in USL is a tad checkered, and he spent 2018 in Australia.

You can see the skill and experience Cavalry have through the team. There are a lot of ways Wheeldon could go with this group, which is a really good thing–the CanPL season is short and intense, teams will play each other a lot, and having a Plan B, C, or D is a very good idea.

What I think will tie any of those plans together is a workmanlike, dare I say Calgarian approach to the game. It starts with Ledgerwood, but every player on this team is capable of tracking back, hounding opponents for the ball, and outmuscling defenders to fashion a chance. Whatever its level overall, CanPL is likely to retain some of the physical flavour of North American soccer, and Cavalry are built like a North American team.

Projections: 3rd (Spring); 1st (Fall)

Cavalry are one of a handful of teams I can see hanging around. They’re slightly below Forge’s level but have enough talent to make a run if things go right, and they could be one of the more consistent teams assuming everyone stays healthy. In the spring, I think the adjustment from PDL sees them lose a couple winnable games, costing them points in a tight race for second. In the fall, assuming the side coalesces (and I think it will), they could easily win it.

A lot relies on Malonga up front and the backline is worryingly thin, but there’s enough flexibility in midfield to give Wheeldon Jr. options if he needs them.

I’m a bit unsure how they’ll line up. Foothills were mostly a 4-3-3 team; Cavalry have been mostly 4-4-2 in preseason, so that’s what I’m going with.

You see what I mean about that backline? There’s nobody else. Carducci is going to get a chance to prove he’s as good as a lot of people think.

They haven’t conceded much in preseason, though.

I’d tinker a bit to try and get Adekugbe on the field so Ledgerwood doesn’t have to cover too much field. I think there’s every chance we see this come opening day:

Eustaquio could start, too. The hole in attacking midfield is less of an issue given Büscher’s ability to link play and provide throughballs, as well as Minatel cutting inside. Malonga can hold the ball up a bit, too.

I’d remain very worried about that defense, but at least having two defensive midfielders in front of them gives the fullbacks some cover.

There’s ample experience and (mostly) ample depth. If some of that experience gets hurt–particularly Mason Trafford–Cavalry could end up relying on prospects to take the next step quickly. I think they’ll manage, and it helps that they have the easiest travel schedule in the league. But if anyone should have half an eye on what happened to Marcel de Jong and Pacific, it’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

Invert the Pyramid: FC Edmonton and formational foundations

Inverted pyramid architecture from Eastern Europe.

I have no idea how Edmonton is going to line up come April 28th. I could honestly see a 2-3-5. Invert the pyramid!

No, seriously. (Not really.) If you haven’t, read Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Inverting the Pyramid, which is fascinating both tactically and historically. To wit: in the 1970s and 80s, “modern” football teams slowly moved away from using large numbers of attacking players and started using more defenders.

Of late, thanks to coaches like Pep Guardiola, it’s been slowly shifting back. Fullbacks today are more like wingers, and often start either much higher on the wings or tuck into central midfield positions, giving modern possession-based teams a look a lot like an old 70s line-up sheet when they have the ball–two centre-backs cycling possession, four or five attackers moving interchangeably, and a midfield mostly moving between lines.

If that’s the future, FC Edmonton are well-equipped to realize it. Good thing, too, since this is a team that’s going to be built heavily from young talent that should still be playing in ten years.

Jeff Paulus was Colin Miller’s assistant during the Eddies’ NASL days. Miller was perhaps more likely to trot a 1970s 2-3-5; thus far, Paulus has talked much more about attacking, fluid soccer, and the roster is as full of attackers as it is light on defensive depth.

FC Edmonton Academy group shot.
FC Edmonton created an academy in 2012, becoming just the fourth professional team in Canada to have an academy outside the MLS-adidas deal.

As the only Canadian Premier League team with an academy and also one of the smaller financial players, Edmonton are unlikely to try and compete with big signings and instead will try to develop within, as they always have done. Even their “big” signing last week, Amer Didic, has Edmonton academy connections. Where other teams have helped define the league by importing experienced professionals and repatriating Canadian stars, Edmonton will be setting its own bar developmentally. This is by far the club most likely to produce a star you’ve not heard of today.

Key Players

James Marcelin, somewhere in midfield

Marcelin is a long-time MLS and USL veteran and Haitian international. He’s getting on a bit in years and he joined up with the team late due to some visa problems, but by kick-off he should be good to go.

He’s mostly a defensive midfielder, though he likes to make late runs more than is typical of players in that position and he’s perhaps less of an anchor man than some d-mids. He’ll likely form a double-pivot of sorts with the equally-industrious (but younger) Son Yong-chan, or possibly with a converted defender like Ramon Soria, who might allow Marcelin to play higher.

Marcelin will have to provide the experience, though. The rest of the Edmonton midfield is relatively young and/or inexperienced. When things start getting wobbly, Marcelin will be the guy expected to steady the ship.

Ramon Soria, centre-back

Exactly where Soria will play is not clear. The ex-Fury man is a leader (and also a lawyer) who should, along with Kareem Moses, help anchor the back-line. Positionally, though, he raises some interesting questions: he’s either one of the strongest ball-playing CBs in the league or a solidly responsible left-back, and since the Eddies signed Amer Didic, there’s been talk of him playing in central midfield alongside Marcelin.

Whichever spot he doesn’t play will be filled by a player with limited professional experience, likely Jeannot Esua at LB or Mélé Temguia at centre-back. So far in preseason, it looks like Esua at LB, but it’s hard to know for sure what we’ll see on opening day. Whichever it is, Soria needs to mentor that younger player–and probably be ready to cover for a fair few mistakes.

David Doe, forward

A 19-year-old who’s spent time in Edmonton’s academy, Doe absolutely lit up the CCAA last fall, with 22 goals in 11 games. That is very, very good even if the Alberta conference is relatively weak. The NAIT Ooks are consistently good on a national level, though, so Doe playing that well for them as a teenager bodes very well.

There are other CCAA players in this league. I tend to think the jump in quality is going to be too high for most of them–it’s not that CCAA is bad so much as CanPL is just set up to be something completely different. Doe, though, should be on everyone’s list as a darkhorse youngster. He’s been in a professional system for a while with the academy and has even made an appearance in NASL on Edmonton’s way out in 2017.

Tactics and positional depth

FC Edmonton have some real question marks in goal. Dylon Powley has very little professional experience and was the Foothills back-up to his rival down the Queen Elizabeth Expressway, Marco Carducci. Connor James was one of the better goalkeepers in USPORTs, but he played in a weak Alberta end of Canada West where he faced relatively few shots, and his numbers against the better teams were not as good. If CanPL turns out to be a higher level, James could struggle. This won’t be as easy as posting clean sheets in big wins over MacEwan, Univ. of Lethbridge, and Mount Royal.

Kareem Moses should have right-back locked down, and could be one of the more effective if unspectacular fullbacks in the league. He’s not a technician but he gets forward and works hard, which will go a long way in Year 1. Long-time Eddie Allan Zebie gives Jeff Paulus a steady hand in depth, and could play at centre-back if required.

Mélé Temguia is one of many ex-Impact Academy players in this league, and played in the Australian National Soccer League last year with Halifax’s Zach Sukunda, where he was apparently a “revelation”. He’s a behemoth of a man, and will be useful just for that, plus he’s still only 23.

Amer Didic was a late signing1Thanks for making me rewrite large parts of this, Jeff. Thanks a lot. and the former Swope Park Rangers standout will be expected to lead Edmonton’s backline. He fills a big hole there, but it’s important to note he hasn’t played much in MLS. His best comparable is probably a player like Louis Béland-Goyette, a returning Canadian who didn’t catch on in MLS, but unlike the ex-Impact guys, Didic has already played three full seasons with Sporting KC’s reserves, and he’ll be comfortable at this level.

Jeannot Esua is more of a wildcard. He developed in Cameroon, made a trip to Orange County, didn’t stick there, and ended up back in Cameroon. It’s an odd career path, and he’s 22, so doesn’t have that many developmental years left. He hasn’t looked great in pre-season, but sometimes you can shield an athletic left-back. Edmonton have no depth at the position, though, aside from Soria.

There’s very little depth behind James Marcelin, either. Son, who’s an open triallist with a hit-or-miss record in Singapore, might start, while most of the other midfielders on the roster have a distinctly attacking bent, thus why this line-up starts to look more and more like a 2-3-5 with the two steady centre-backs. If Marcelin gets hurt, Edmonton are in a lot of trouble.

In attack, Ajay Khabra is a USPORTs pick, Edem Mortotsi is an academy grad, and Philippe Lincourt-Joseph is an ex-Impact Academy player with very little pro experience for a guy who’s 24.

Oumar Diouck will be considered the key playmaker but his résumé in Belgium is less than impressive. He’s twice been out-of-contract in the past three years, and the Belgian Second Division2Helpfully, also called the First Division B, but also the Proximus League. side he played for was pretty terrible. Most of his experience is in the semi-pro third tier. He had a more promising spell in Holland as a 21-year-old, putting up some numbers in the Eerste Divisie, but he hasn’t replicated that anywhere since, and he’s now 26.

Randy Edwini-Bonsu is a local hero who will do interesting things out wide. Tomi Ameobi is a bit the same–those two guys embody the old Eddies NASL teams that would throw everything, including sometimes their literal selves, at you in the hope something would happen. REB and Ameobi have made careers out of interesting things happening even when they didn’t outright mean them to, but both are getting to the age where that kind of game takes more of a toll.

The attack is rounded out by a couple 17-year-old academy grads with very rough edges and Ajeej Sarkaria, who also put up very good USPORTs numbers in the same not-so-great conference as James.

I still have some concerns about the spine of the team, but Didic’s late signing helps there, and he’s already played this year with San Antonio3Albeit, not especially well. so he should be match fit. I worry about depth and pace down the middle, though.

Preseason hasn’t been that kind to FC Edmonton, who have at least done the off-field solid of making highlights readily available, even for games they’ve lost. That’s a mature move for a club that knows its way around the professional scene A 2-0 loss to Cavalry and a 1-0 loss to Halifax suggest this iteration of FC Edmonton might struggle to score goals, even if Didic makes them more defensively sound.

The problem you get into when you have a lot of interchangeable attacking options is that, without a pretty strict tactical plan, too many attackers can get in each others’ way. You’ve got Marcelin making late runs, Son hounding the ball, guys like REB and Diouck who need time and space, Moses and Esua overlapping, plus Tomi Ameobi crashing into everything and everyone.

They should be exciting enough. The question I’ve seen so far is getting everything moving quickly enough. I like Paulus’ ideas about attacking football, but there’s some real prototyping may need to happen to prove it on the pitch, especially with a whole crew of young guys learning that tactical discipline.

I think Edmonton will be a lot better in a few years than they are right now.

Projection: 6th (Spring); 6th (Fall)

FC Edmonton player during match against Calgary U23s.
Edmonton will have one of the youngest teams in CanPL, giving the reins to academy players in key positions.

I can’t help but feel like this Edmonton side, aside from being a bit of a work in progress, might be tactically five or six years ahead of its time.

This winter, each head coach in CanPL had to make something of a guess about what the level of play in this league would be. FC Edmonton had the built-in advantage of a crop of players ready to go in the academy and a bunch of connections to former grads. It feels, though, like they’ve abdicated that hypothetical on the level of play to other teams, letting Forge, Valour, and York define separate styles while Edmonton builds within.

There’s off-field logic to this, but it means Edmonton are chasing the pack a bit in Year 1, and they risk being left further behind if the academy doesn’t produce stars right away. Year 1 is still important even if Edmonton are a “returning” team in the market. It’s also a team that historically struggled to draw fans. Winning would help. So would a young star, especially in attack.

I expect Edmonton to be difficult to play against, and there are ways I could compare this team to Halifax in the way both clubs have let other teams define the league’s style of play. Edmonton feel less reactive, though, and more progressive–there’s a style Jeff Paulus clearly wants, and he’ll get his boys there. There isn’t the kind of veteran savvy on this team to grind out results and frustrate other teams, however.

Line-ups become a bit more flexible with the addition of Didic. I would not put Soria in midfield–I would put him at left-back, where he’s played plenty often, and where he gives them a better option in possession with his excellent left foot. I’m not 100% sold on Son Yong-chan in midfield, but he’s defensively adept enough to let Marcelin get forward a bit.

There are options–Soria could push into midfield while Esua starts; Zebie could fill in if Temguia struggles or someone were to get hurt.

Diouck can play on the left but is right-footed and will cut in, which could be interesting, especially if Esua turns out to be better than I expect at providing danger from out wide.

Expect to see a lot of David Doe, Edem Mortotsi, Prince Amanda, and Marco Tsegaye rotating through those four broadly attacking options, and I’d expect the shape to flit between various hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-4-2s, all of which will be very possession based with lots of interesting supporting runs and lots of interesting opportunities for Edmonton’s opponents on the counter.

For fun…

…though it’s not actually a true 2-3-5. This is similar to how teams like Manchester City and Liverpool line up in practice–usually the line-up card says its a 4-3-3 but it’s not: the fullbacks pinch hard into midfield and/or attack like old-school wide midfielders while the d-mid drops deep to orchestrate.

This actually fits what Edmonton have remarkably well, and is kinda what I see when they talk about putting Soria in midfield. Marcelin likes to get forward–he’s more of a playmaker here, while Son slides wider to shuttle play. Moses does something similar on the right while Soria acts as the conductor, using his left foot to spread play and recycle possession. In Didic and Temguia, Edmonton have two centre-backs who can be both mop up long clearances and reset possession. Mortotsi’s role is really that of a second striker adept at breaking through the lines–which I’m not sure Mortotsi is, but that could be any of Edmonton’s stable of young attackers, while Ameobi is the centre-forward creating havoc in the box.

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

It’s Hammer Time: Is Forge stronger on paper or pitch?

MC Hammer.

I have to make fun of Forge somehow, though. They’re the consensus best team in the Canadian Premier League and, despite breaking from consensus just about everywhere else, I can’t here. They’re the best team.

On paper.

This whole exercise is on paper, so that’s hardly much of a qualifier. They have, in my mind, the best centre-forward in the league. Two of the best central midfielders. A promising if slightly unproven goalkeeper who scored against Jordan Pickford. A coach who has produced names like Cyle Larin, Richie Laryea, and Manjrekar James.

Well, not quite. The centre-forward is on loan. The central mids are both deep playmakers and there’s no #10. The backline is more utility than you might like. There is no run away best team in CanPL, not even Forge, and that’s a good thing.

A lot of the difference between best-case and worst-case will come down to execution. Tactical adjustments, injuries, and sheer dumb luck will play a role, particularly in a short season.

From the start, though, Forge FC have built the side well. It’s been necessary. They’re the league’s flagship team, owned by Bob Young, who more or less created the league. They’re also based in Hamilton, with not only an inter-city CanPL rivalry but a potential rivalry with Toronto FC. There will be competition both on and off the field.

There is a distinct Sigma FC flavour to Forge, which isn’t surprising given manager Bobby Smyrniotis ran the well-regarded private academy. He also coached the Sigma FC League 1 Ontario team to a second-place finish last summer, and several alumni have either made the jump to Forge or returned to Smyrniotis after some time outside the nest.

Key Players

Kyle Bekker, central midfielder
Forge FC Kyle Bekker practicing ninja movie poses.
Kyle Bekker, first-ever signing and Forge FC ninja.

As players have filled out rosters since last November’s first announcement, Bekker’s signing continues to set the tone for what this league should and will be: a quality Canadian player with a legitimate career outside the country who will now lead a team at home.

Toronto FC fans may remember Bekker less fondly, but freed from those early expectations, he’s developed into a tidy player capable of controlling play at any level below MLS. If CanPL is roughly on par with USL this year, Bekker should shine. He was a key player for both Marc Dos Santos’ SF Deltas and Colin Clarke’s North Carolina FC, and he’s reinvented his game from the naive attacking midfielder who debuted for TFC into a surprisingly gritty playmaker. He’s still got the distribution and vision but has coupled those with a much better understanding of what’s going on around him that allows him to control games.

He still has the hair, too.

Alexander Achinioti-Jonnson, central midfield

Achinioti-Jonsson has flown under the radar so far, but he could be one of the better defensive midfielders in this league. Two years ago, he was playing in the Swedish top flight with Helsingborgs as a 20-year-old, which is not insignificant.

Smyrniotis wants to play a 4-3-3, which makes Jonsson absolutely key–he could easily be the best defensive midfielder in CanPL. I could easily see him and Awuah forming a very good double pivot with Bekker given a freer role ahead.
His team were relegated from the Swedish second division last year, which explains why he’s here. He’s actually been relegated twice in his young career–he went down with Helsingborgs, too–but that makes him available for Forge’s gain. He put up very good numbers with IF Varnamo in the Superettan last year, and I’d expect that to be a higher-level league than CanPL, at least in year one.
Elimane Cissé, defensive midfielder/centre-back

This guy has a strange résumé. Actually, he’s a strange signing all around–Forge didn’t miss often but I think they may have here. Cissé’s expected to be a starter in defensive midfield behind Bekker and Achiniotti-Jonsson. Certainly, he fits the profile of a destroyer who can play behind guys like that–he’s fast and physical.

I question the level in the Senegalese second flight, though, which is where he’s played his whole career. He has one solitary call-up for Senegal, a 2-0 friendly loss against Mexico during one of their managerial merry-go-rounds. He also played for Senegalese youth teams, including at the U20 World Cup in 2015, where he was mostly a centre-back.

Exactly what’s happened between then and now is unclear. Kurt Larson suggested on one of the CanPL podcasts1Cissé comes up at about 3:35. that he was somewhat overlooked in Senegal, and hey, he’s seen more of him playing than I have. That doesn’t change the fact that Senegal is heavily scouted, particularly by French teams, and it’s odd for Cissé not to have had even so much as a look in a system there, at least as far as I can find.

Cissé’s playing as a centre-back, here, too, and you could see why the odd team might have passed on him given his size. The level of play in these clips is not reassuring, though. It’s hard to know exactly what CanPL will be, but in midfield you have players like Bekker and Achioniotti-Jonsson who can possess and Smyrniotis has been calling Cissé a midfielder. At the very least, Cissé adds something different. I’m not sure if I see a starter, though.

He could be an undiscovered gem. He could also have the same agent as more than half of Forge’s roster.

Tactics and Positional Depth

Quillan Roberts is finally–finally!–getting a chance to start in goal, and it’s for his hometown team. The perception has always been that he didn’t get much of a shot with Toronto FC or with LAFC, where he spent last year. In truth, he wasn’t that great for TFC II when he did play, but Q, as he’s affectionately known, has shown remarkable potential at times in his career, and he’s professional and determined enough to have earned this chance.

Jordan Pickford, he ain’t. At 24, and with years spent in professional set-ups, he’s actually one of the more experienced goalkeepers in the league. That may be as valuable as the highlight reel saves he’s always had a penchant for making, because the back-line ahead of him is perhaps the biggest question for Forge.

I actually quite like the mix of talent Smyrniotis has in defense. Most of it has a Sigma tie-in somewhere: Bertrand Owundi is a Sigma grad who had a miserable time with Minnesota in MLS while Monti Mohsen is an up-and-coming Canadian youth team prospect coming straight out of the academy. It’s a good sign for Forge and for CanPL if Sigma talent chooses to start here.

Dominic Samuel is probably the main man in the centre of defense, though he could switch out to the right as well. He played with Sigma in League 1 Ontario last year, but only because the Rochester Rhinos had gone extinct. He was one of the better players for a Rochester side that was always better on the field than off.

Johnny Grant alongside him is also a Sigma grad. He’s had a tougher time of it in his professional career, and missed all of last season with a knee injury. He’s been good for Guyana internationally, though.

Daniel Krutzen can play either left-back or the left side of a centre-back pairing, and the Genk academy product is a good distributor, which should fit into Smyrniotis’ possession plan. Most of his experience has come in NCAA after a rocky spell in USL.

Nobody seems to quite know what Kwame Awuah’s best position is, which has maybe held him back at times. He was highly-regarded as a draft pick for NYCFC, but never got much playing time under Patrick Vieira. He’ll probably play left-back with Forge but if Cissé doesn’t pan out, I like him as an athletic defensive midfielder alongside Achinioti-Jonsson.

There is no out-and-out #10 on the roster, although Tristan Borges is an intriguing prospect. Bekker could play up there if there’s need, but it’s not really his best role. There’s Guiliano Frano, a L1O player via Whitecaps 2, and David Choiniere, but Choiniere’s more of a winger or second striker.

Instead, I expect Forge to sit deeper and look to hit any of three speedy players up front. Emery Welshman is the main threat–he’s an okay hold-up guy but he’s absolutely lethal turning into either channel, using his elite strength to shield off defenders even though he’s not that tall. Chris Nanco and David Choiniere are both ambitious signings for Forge, and both should be a threat from the wider channels, although it’s worth noting neither scored much at the USL level.

Marcel Zajac left the NCAA–and a potential MLS draft ticket–to sign with Forge. He’s coming out of the well-known Akron set-up. It’s not the powerhouse it was under Caleb Porter, but it still regularly produces MLS talent. Plus, Zajac’s another Sigma grad, so Smyrniotis knows him. He’ll play somewhere up front to use his pace, albeit probably more off the bench, at least at first.

The main concern for Forge, tactically, is that I don’t see much of a plan B should the three main attackers not click. With only seven teams, CanPL sides will face either other up to six times, including the Voyageur’s Cup. Forge have a lot of attacking weapons, but only recently signed a striker over six feet tall, and Anthony Novak is a 25-year-old CCAA guy who put up good but not great numbers in League 1 Ontario last year.

If teams pressure Bekker and Achinioti-Jonsson, Forge could be forced to sit deeper and play long, lest they get caught turning the ball over. According to Achinioti-Jonsson, he’s “never been on a team wants to play out of the back as much as this team. If we’re under a tonne of pressure, we still want to play out of the back.”

That should trouble Forge fans. Smyrniotis is an excellent developmental coach, and his record in League 1 Ontario is good, but the inaugural Canadian season is likely to feature teams still settling in. His midfielders, in particular, are all coming from different backgrounds. Even if they all pan out, that lack of familiarity leads to turnovers, especially for teams that try to play out of the back too much. Combine with a high line, and you get goals against.

The high line is odd, too, with so many quick strikers on the roster. While Choiniere and Welshman are both decent poachers, neither is at his best going up against packed defenses. And runners like Nanco and Zajac need space to attack. If Forge push too high, not only do they invite turnovers, they compress the space their strikers have to run into.

That’s what I’ll be watching for in that first match. York 9 are set up solely to punish teams that play a high line. If Smyrniotis adapts, he’ll show that his Forge FC can make this league their own. If he’s dogmatic, the league’s heavy favourites could be in for a heavy loss.

Projection 1st (Spring); 3rd (Fall)

Before you celebrate:

I can’t quite explain the nagging worry I have with this team. I’ve tried, I guess, above. There’s something, though, not quite right. I mean, rationally, they look favourites to play in the grand final come October, even favourites to win it.

Oh, right. This is Canadian soccer. “Rational” doesn’t happen. Forge have built a roster almost entirely on Sigma grads and Canadian players. It’s a commendable model, and they’ve done a good job, even if the recruitment pool will need to widen a bit going forward. There’s a part of me, I guess, still doesn’t quite trust the Canadian player pool. Maybe I’ve seen one World Cup qualification campaign too many. Maybe I’ve seen too many academy prospects not cut it at TFC or Vancouver. “Big fish, small pond,” I think.

If Forge need motivation at some point this season–hey, it happens for winning teams–they might think of that.

In terms of line-up, this is what I’d guess for next weekend:

I would swap Awuah for Cissé at the first sign of trouble, but this is what I think we’ll see unless Krutzen has won a spot in preseason. I’m a bit unsure who Smyrniotis will play at right-back, too–it’s a bit of a tricky position for Forge–but a variety of players can do the job there, including Frano.

I worry they might try something like this, though, especially if they’re struggling to score.

That team could certainly keep a high line–Cissé is super aggressive–but teams can run through that too easily and you end up with five or six players all trying to operate in about 20 square yards of space. It’s too easy to shut down, especially once you’ve seen it two or three times, and Forge have no real plan B that I can see.

Come July, they’ll likely have to find a replacement for Emery Welshman. At the very least, he’ll miss time for the Gold Cup, having scored the goal that sent Guyana to its first ever. He’s also on loan from FC Cincinatti. He was very good for Alan Koch in USL last year, and was one of the only USL team players the MLS team signed. Currently, he’s third on the striker depth chart behind Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks. Adi is injured as frequently as he’s angling to leave and Mattocks is many things, but never a hold up guy who scores consistently. There is every chance Welshman is recalled at some point this season, which would be very bad news for Forge.

Forge are unlucky in that they open against the two teams essentially built to prey on the exact identity Smyrniotis has built. I could see them losing the inaugural match to York, and I could see them losing on the road to Wanderers. That puts Forge 0 – 2, which might do them for the spring season. Then CONCACAF commitments kick in with travel and all the rest….

Really? No. This team is too good, on paper, to get caught losing for too long.

The game isn’t played on paper, though.

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

Taste the Soup: Wanderers are CONCACAF North

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.

Halifax King of Donair on Pizza Corner.
The Pizza Corner institution sponsored Halifax City soccer club for a long time, and in the 90s was a force to be reckoned with nationally.

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.The US men's national team eliminated from World Cup 2018 after a loss to Trinidad & Tobago.

Key Players

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.

Privateers 1882 at the entrance to the centre stand.
Privateers 1882, the Halifax Wanderers supporters group.

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.

Hart's King of Donair team on Wickwire Field.
Hart’s King of Donair team on Wickwire Field. (via Sask. Soccer)

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.

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#hippychivas: Plaudits for Pacific home cooking, but whither the roster?

Issey's boat.

As of this writing, Pacific FC have 18 players signed. I’ve waited as long as I could to write this preview, expecting–hoping–they might add some names late. We’re now less than a week out from their first-ever match and the Vancouver Island side can just about make a bench, assuming Shun Takano or Tommy Gardner are actually signed.

This is all part of a philosophy, if not exactly a plan, for Pacific. Like Mexican giants Chivas de Guadalajara, who sign only Mexican-born players, Pacific have pretty well signed only British Columbian talent (with a couple asterisks for guys like Marcel de Jong, who’s from Newmarket but has played in Vancouver for the past two years).

On its own, this goal is kind of laudable. It represents, at the very least, a clear identity for the club. Combined with the right off-field developments, it could bear fruit in the long-term. The Lower Mainland region has always been rich in soccer culture and talent. Pacific could provide the opportunity for young local kids to prove themselves.

Pacific FC secondary logo.
One of the first things Pacific did was create a secondary logo. In year one. They still have fewer than 20 players signed.

Only those off-field developments haven’t happened. There’s been precious little fanfare about ticket sales and now it turns out the stadium–which would be one of the nicest venues in the league if it were downtown–is only half-built. On-field, the roster and already has a massive hole due to the injury to de Jong. The coaching staff is inexperienced, with limited developmental bona fides. The team seems like it employs more people in its social media office than it does in its playing squad.

All of it adds up to a team that doesn’t look like it was quite ready for the league.

They were slow, too, to announce a manager, eventually settling on the only foreign manager in CanPL, Michael Silberbauer, a former Danish international. I expected more foreign managers, to be honest, but I did not expect Pacific to be one of the teams, let alone the only one, looking abroad, given the oft-stated focus on local talent. Silberbauer is young, too–just 37–and this is his first time in charge of a club, having only retired a few years ago. He has one solitary year of assistant experience at FC Luzern in Switzerland, and only joined Pacific in January.

It seems likely that, until that point–and quite possibly after it as well–assistant coach James Merriman has had a guiding hand in Pacific’s roster build. I view them almost as co-coaches. Merriman provides the island tie, but also lacks significant experience, having briefly assisted Alan Koch at Simon Fraser in the NAIA before doing a stint with the Whitecaps U15 team. His main ties are to Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University, and many of Pacific’s signings have played for the 2017 CCAA champions.

There is likely to be a significant gap between CCAA and the CanPL. Even setting aside the tiny roster, this Pacific team feels more cobbled together from what came to hand than built with any particular identity. Silberbauer and Merriman will have to rely extensively on teenagers in key roles, CCAA players in others, and journeyman veterans to do most of the heavy lifting. Inexplicably, after bringing in a raft of trialists, including recent San Jose Earthquakes draftee Mamadi Camara, none were signed.

Pacific FC group shot on the beach in Tofino.
Pacific FC’s training camp on the beach in Tofino.

For the Isle, indeed. There is an island lifestyle, of sorts, that is laudably relaxed. Pacific embody that. This looks like a team built for a semi-pro Canadian start-up, a BC version of League 1 Ontario, not a national league. While I admire the intent behind that–and in time it could even pay off–I worry Pacific have created an expectation among fans and local supporters that this team is nowhere near meeting on the field in year one.

Key Players

Marcus Haber, striker

Many people are considering Marcus Haber this team’s main threat, even predicting golden boot seasons for him in the league. Haber has just once–barely–hit double-digit goal totals in a season, in 2015-16. In England’s League One. He is now 30, coming off a couple utterly barren years that have, sadly, been more often the norm than not.

I have nothing against Haber. Canadian fans owe him some gratitude for national team service during years it was not particularly hip to get called up. He shows up and he works reasonably hard when and where almost no one else would. Indeed, this tends to define his game: he trains well, he’s always willing and able to go, and he can, at least, occupy a defender.

Expecting him to carry the entire offensive load of a team is simply not fair to Haber. It is not what he does. Even with Vancouver, way back in USL, he was prone to long, long dry spells. To quote Ben Massey, who has seen far more of Haber than I have over the years:

Is Haber really an underrated, useful striker who’ll rip up CanPL like a lankier Bradley Wright-Phillips?

He is not. The numbers don’t lie. Every two years Marcus Haber scores enough to look like a professional striker, and the odd years are so bad that you understand why Dale Mitchell used him as a centreback. (

I’m not saying Haber is necessarily a bad signing in CanPL. This is a league for Canadian players who could use some belief, and Pacific could certainly use his experience. I think he’ll even score goals–just not enough to float Pacific on his own. The best way to use him is probably as a poacher–if you can get him service, there’s at least some chance Haber can convert it. He is wholly reliant on that service, though–he won’t give you a lot of pure hold-up play or any danger in channels.

Ben Fisk, winger

Fisk may well be tasked with providing most of the service to Haber, especially given Issey Nakajima-Farran is 34 and was never exactly fast. Fisk is more of a pure winger who can run and cross. which he’s done relatively effectively in NASL and USL before.

He spent last year in Ireland where he was mostly a substitute for Derry City. Prior to that, he was part of the FC Edmonton team hanging around as NASL began to implode. He played a season in Spain, and scored four times, and was quite good as a sub for Charleston back when they were a force to be reckoned with in USL.

Another BC local, Fisk was a highly-rated in Vancouver’s system before becoming something of a journeyman. He’s still only 26 and has produced more or less wherever he’s been, often for not-great teams, which may explain why he’s never caught a shinier eye. He should be good for Pacific–they’re going to need him to be. This feels like his level and he has good fundamentals.

Hendrik Starostzik, central defender

Pacific really need Starostzik to be good. They need him to be the lock-down general at the back, because there is no depth behind him and no real defensive midfielder ahead of him.

The main point working in his favour is that he spent two solid enough years with Stuttgarter Kickers in the German third division. It’s not the top of world football, but it is a professional league in a major European country. He started and played well, even getting a quick look from Dynamo Dresden in the second division before being sent back to the third flight.

That’s probably roughly his level, which correlates well enough with CanPL that he should be a solid enough starter. He’s tall and athletic, a typical German centre-back, and he’ll likely be tasked with moving the ball out of the back a fair bit. It’s his first time playing outside Germany and his family won’t be with him until the summer, so it’s imperative Pacific help him adjust so he can be steady from the start.

Starostzik doesn’t speak much English. Fortunately, Lukas MacNaughton, his centre-back partner, speaks German. If either of those two go out, I’m not sure how the organizational side of the defense will fare. Language is a big part of settling at clubs. It might be fair to give Starostzik a little bit of time, but given Pacific’s lack of depth, it’s not clear they’ll be able to.

Tactics and Positional Depth

That article I linked reveals a terrifying hint about Pacific’s tactical identity, in which Starostzik says, “we are centre-backs who want to play with the ball. We can defend high and this is the style which the trainer wants to play, so I think this is a good duo.”

That may be true for the centre-backs, but the rest of Pacific’s team lacks the speed and ruggedness to press in critical areas, central midfield in particular. Neither Haber nor Issey are players who defend a lot from the front, which is fairly important in a high-line system, because if teams can set up in midfield they can play balls over the top and into space. There are a lot of CanPL teams that are set up to do just that.

It’s particularly odd because Pacific have two of the better attacking fullbacks in the league, in Blake Smith and Kadin Chung. Smith is de Jong’s replacement, on loan from FC Cincinatti1The Alan Koch connection is proving fruitful for CanPL.. You may remember him from occasional Montreal Impact substitute appearances. He’s not going to post de Jong’s highlight reel but he’s younger and reliable as a runner out wide. Chung was Alphonso Davies’ partner with Whitecaps 2 before a failed trip to Europe. He’s the sort of young player who might have a coming out party this year.

If the fullbacks are high, it’s imperative for Pacific to have cover from a defensive midfielder. Unfortunately, they don’t have one. Alessandro Hojabrpour might be able to play there, as could Matthew Baldisimo, though both are very young and might be better suited to other positions.

Alessandro Hojabrpour passing a ball in training.
18-year-old Canadian midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour, fresh off a stint with Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s U19s.

Hojabrpour is an intriguing player–a regular with the Canadian U17 team, and just 18. He didn’t catch on during a stint with Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s U19 team. A lot of Canadian kids try their luck in Europe and find it’s a big adjustment in terms of professionalism. Pacific will be a good place for him to learn, as long as he’s not asked to do too much too soon.

Baldisimo came through the Whitecaps program and, like many promising Whitecaps youngsters, he struggled for minutes with Fresno last year. The rest of his USL experience came as a teenager with a very overmatched Whitecaps 2 side.

Further up the field, Pacific have better depth. Mostly it’s teenagers, but it’s here you can see a little of what Pacific might be trying to do as a developmentally-focused outfit. Jose Hernandez is probably the most intriguing of the bunch–a small but lethal striker who’s just 18 but has scored for fun in every youth division he’s played in. He deserves a chance to prove he can compete with men, and if Marcus Haber doesn’t score, Hernandez could become a bright spot for Pacific.

Terran Campbell and Noah Verhoeven are both former Whitecaps 2 wingers who will provide youthful vigour off the bench, especially if Issey can’t go 90 every game. Both are direct players, though Verhoeven has some skill cutting in as well. I wasn’t wildly impressed by him at USPORTs nationals, but the UBC player is just 19 and has drawn some positive reviews.

Tommy Gardner was good with TSS Rovers in PDL, and very good with UBC, though he sometimes struggles to stay healthy and/or out of card trouble. He’s a supremely tough and gritty player, very much a Canadian prototype, but with the sense and passing range to do a lot more from central midfield. It’s not entirely clear he’s signed yet, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s focusing a bit more on his university studies until at least mid-May.

Victor Blasco will probably start instead in midfield. He grew up in Barcelona’s academy, so there’s that, but he’s mostly been a CCAAer since then, only playing regularly with VIU after a stint with, you guessed it, Whitecaps 2. He put up pretty paltry numbers in USL, and it’s fair to ask how much he can contribute in a similar league. As a depth piece he’s solid, but like so many positions for Pacific, there’s nobody ahead of him on the chart.

Projections: 7th (Spring); 7th (Fall)

This team is not good enough, on the field, to compete in this league.

I admire what I think Pacific are trying to do, which is be the RSL of CanPL, a team that will develop within and source the local talent around it to compete. As an identity, it gives them a lot of solid branding to build around.

It feels like branding’s all there is right now, though, and it remains to be seen how it’ll stand up to the rigour of losing, and likely losing a lot. The best-case for Pacific is that one of the young kids turns out to be a phenom, opening up (welcome) questions of when and where he’d be sold on.

To be effective with that model, Pacific really need a developmental specialist in charge, a guy like Bobby Smyrniotis at Forge. That might be James Merriman. A lot of the local approach looks like his work, since this has been brewing longer than Silberbauer’s been on the ground here. But Merriman has to prove himself as a coach, too. CanPL ain’t CCAA, and at some level, professional soccer is about winning games.

There are, to be clear, good coaches in CCAA and USPORTs who absolutely deserve a chance, which is why I’m glad Pacific are trying this even if it doesn’t look likely to work out this year. Success this year is two to three youngsters who look like they belong as contributors next year.

There’s not much flexibility, so picking a line-up is relatively easy:

In the right situation, and with a couple performances from Haber and/or Issey, I can just about see this 11 keeping in touch with the rest of the league. The best approach here is to try and keep the ball without being too ambitious. Issey’s still a crafty player, and good at cutting in and seeing pockets of space. All three midfielders like to get forward on late runs. There are ways they could be dangerous on set pieces.

The key is avoid getting absolutely hammered on the counter–there’s just too much space in the hole ahead of the centre-backs, and even more if Chung or Smith push all the way forward. The lack of roster depth means far too much is asked of young players like Baldisimo and Hojabrpour, and if anyone (else) gets hurt, there’s nobody.

Marcel de Jong’s injury remains one of the saddest stories of this offseason, as he’d have given Pacific some flexibility and a steadying influence. Hopefully he can be influential from the sidelines, as it’s unlikely he’ll be back this year.

Big Fish: Winnipeg Valour FC’s ambitious plans

Diego Forlan for Uruguay.

Winnipeg are the team I could see going just about anywhere this year. Earlier in the offseason, I was quite high on them, thanks mainly to a sturdy centre-back pairing that should excel in what’s likely to be a physical Canadian Premier League.

Since then, we’ve had rumours of Diego Forlan, a whole pile of South American imports with ties to the Canadian youth national team set-ups, the departure of some of the same, Michael Petrasso, and a defender from an Indian second division I didn’t even realize existed.

I could almost talk myself into this working if it wasn’t for some really big questions hanging over how this team has lined up in pre-season. But hey, every CanPL team has question marks–the whole league is a kind of question mark. As I wrote in Edmonton’s preview, each coach has to make something of a guess at what the quality of the league will be like.

In that way, I applaud Valour’s ambition. One of the first three teams in, and thus competing for a CONCACAF League spot, they also have one of the larger stadiums in a market I think could be a tad tough–they need to be swinging for the fences.

Head coach Rob Gale’s main (some would say only) experience comes with the Canadian U17 and then U20 set-ups, and a large number of his signings–nearly all of them, in some way–connect back to those days. If you were a big believer in our run to the U17 World Cup (you may remember Quillan Roberts scoring on Jordan Pickford), you will like this team. If you were a big believer in our U20 run, which ended typically in CONCACAF qualifying, you will not.

Key Players

Josip Golubar, defensive midfielder
Josip Golubar player profile photo from HK Varazdin.
What you may not realize is that many Croatian footballers retire to the world of modern art.

Golubar is the crown jewel of Valour’s roster, by far the most experienced and a player who should be solidly capable in whatever CanPL ends up being.

He’s also 34, and has already played almost 1500 minutes this season, going back to fall 2018. There’s not a lot of d-mid depth on the roster, so managing Golubar physically is going to be critical, lest he end up hurt.

Fortunately, his résumé is the picture of reliability, and includes spells in the the top flights of both Slovenia and Croatia. He’s never been a star–often getting sold back to second division teams only to be reacquired when his previous clubs were relegated, making Golubar one of those steady players who make a career out of getting teams promoted.

Everything Rob Gale has talked about wanting to do tactically relies on Golubar. In possession, he needs to be a director, helping what is otherwise a very young midfield find the right passing option. Outside possession, expect him to drop deeper and take away space in front of the centre-backs, none of whom are the sort who’ll be excellent at defending space.

Valour really, really need him to stay healthy.

Jordan Murrell, centre back

Murrell is one of those players who Gale was familiar with from the Canadian youth set-up. His career started with TFC Academy, but through the machinations of MLS homegrown rules he ended up getting drafted by Real Salt Lake, despite some interest from other teams. He never caught on there, but has spent some quality time in USL.

He’s an athletic centre-back, and with Valour’s inaugural signing Skylar Thomas, gives Gale a tall, strong pairing. Murrell’s got better feet than Thomas, and though he’s still a physical-first player, his left foot will give them some options in the build-up.

This is the first team where he’s being counted on to be a leader, and he will need to be because Valour’s back line looks a tad slow on paper, plus it’s paper thin behind him. Murrell will need to be smart with his coverage to allow the outside backs to get forward as often as Gale wants them to.

Martín Arguiñarena, left-back

Speaking of which….

Arguiñarena is a solid signing for Valour, an experienced Argentinian fullback who’s played mostly in Uruguay. He’s very capable of getting forward, and has put up good offensive numbers in good offensive leagues.

His experience and decision-making in choosing when to go forward is going to be crucial, though, because nobody in the middle for Valour is especially pacy. If Arguiñarena is at the opponent’s by-line and his cross gets blocked, there’s going to be a huge amount of space behind him and in front of guys like Golubar and Thomas.

Valour are likely to be among the teams most susceptible to counter-attacks, but if Arguiñarena can put himself in smart positions to both support the attack and limit space on the break, he can limit a lot of the damage, particularly down the left side.

Tactics and positional depth

So far, so good, right?

You might notice I’ve written everything so far as if Valour will play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, built on the sturdy defense of Murrell and Thomas. Except that’s not what they’re doing.

Gale has been steadfastly using a back three in preseason and Valour have been getting routinely cooked in it, losing 2 – 0 to Forge in the only game we know about. Until recently, they didn’t even have a third bona fide CB on the roster, as Raphael Garcia (another youth national teamer and ex-Impact academy player) is a fullback.

Enter the Indian second division. Adam Mitter will likely start in a back three. He wasn’t even a consistent starter in India, and he’s been bouncing around the Southeast Asian leagues after coming out of Blackpool’s youth set-up. This is not a level that inspires confidence, and to top it all off, he’s an international signing.

Michael Petrasso, one of Valour’s marquee names, has been a right-back most often of late, but Gale’s talked about playing him centrally as a #8 with Golubar alone in defensive midfield, which is bold. Alongside Petrasso would be fellow former Impact player Louis Béland-Goyette, but he hasn’t played in almost two years thanks to the Impact closing FC Montreal, meaning USPORTs journeyman and former QPR prospect Dylan Carreiro could start.

In attacking midfield, Valour have a lot of intriguing young pieces but no real core playmaker, and I’d not be surprised if it’s actually a 3-4-3 from Gale, as they have a bit of depth out wide. None of the young players in midfield–Glenn Muenkat, Nicolas Galvis, Diego Gutierrez, Federico Pena–have much in the way of professional experience. Most have been Canadian youth teamers at some point, and that’s about it. Given the CSA has long struggled to identify talent at the youth level–this is part of why we have CanPL–this is a worry.

Everything in attack funnels towards Stephen Hoyle, an English striker who’s played primarily for Canterbury United in the New Zealand Premiership. Hoyle’s an affable guy in interviews and has good numbers in New Zealand, but I remain sceptical of the level there–Wellington Phoenix tend to hoover up most of the NZ internationals and even they’re a lower-tier A-League side. The A-League hasn’t grown like MLS has, and the lower divisions below it, while competitive, are probably slightly below USL-level, particularly in New Zealand. CanPL may well be a higher level.

Best-case for Hoyle is that he’s the kind of poacher who can score anywhere. He’s reasonably tall and quick, and likes a ball whipped in, which should give Valour a target for players like Galvis and Ali Musse (who was a depth player with Foothills) to find. Behind Hoyle, though, is only Calum Ferguson, a triallist with an intriguing résumé coming off a back injury, and 17-year-old Tyler Attardo.

If Valour can break quickly in transition and get Hoyle into space, they could be dangerous on the break, which might limit how easily teams can run into the space behind their attacking wingbacks. For all Gale’s talk of progressive soccer, I could see both Arguinarena and Petrasso playing as wide backs in a back five.

Valour’s line-up still feels like it’s waiting for Forlan, or someone who could tie the whole thing together in attacking midfield. There is promise here, and both Petrasso and Béland-Goyette shore up a midfield that had looked a little thin. Both should find a solid home in this league. With the right summer signing, I’d be much higher on this group for the fall season, but I’m slightly sceptical Gale can get that signing right.

Rob Gale coaching at a Canadian youth camp.
Rob Gale’s main experience is with the CSA and Manitoba Soccer.

Gale is as local a Winnipegger as you can get for a guy who grew up in England, having both played and coached in Winnipeg soccer. He also fits the traditional template of “experience adjacent to the English game” -> “provincial association technical director” -> “youth national team coach”.

There’s a certain amount of baggage associated with this path, but to be clear, I have no problem with Valour’s choice of manager. Gale does have his coaching qualifications, and his stint with the U17s, in particular, was very good. He hasn’t, however, coached any kind of professional men’s team before. Most of his pre-CSA coaching experience was with various pay-to-play academies running summer camps around the US and Canada.

He’s one of the better characters in this league, and I have a certain amount of faith in him getting the young guys to learn on the job. The international signings, though, are very much wait-and-see for me. If he adapts to coaching men quickly, and can hit a home run with a signing at some point, Valour become a much more threatening team.

Projections: 5th (Spring); 4th (Summer)

I just kept waiting for that playmaker who would coordinate the attack. Initially, I had Valour as part of a solid group of 3-4 teams who would be competitive behind Forge, mostly down to the solid back line, but since January I’ve dropped them down my own personal power rankings just because there’s such a big hole in this line up in attacking midfield.

Let’s look at how I think they’ll line up:

You can see why I’m a bit worried about that attack. You could swap in Pena or Gutierrez but, at least on paper, they all feel a bit too unproven.

I think there’s more than a bit of misdirection in the way Gale’s talked about his tactics. It makes no sense to play Petrasso centrally when that’s Béland-Goyette’s best position and Petrasso at right-back means Raphael Garcia can be more of a prospect than an every game starter.

Likely going off board, here’s how I’d line them up:

Give the fullbacks lots of room to attack, but let play build centrally rather than simply trying to cross for Hoyle every time. Muenkat’s a former TFC and Kaiserslautern youth player who could be interesting, though there’s still a huge question at #10.

Oh, there’s a pretty big question at goalkeeper, too. Tyson Farago is one of the least experienced keepers in a league of relatively inexperienced keepers. He has some potential (used to be part of the Eddies system) but hasn’t really tested himself anywhere–until now, anyway.

There’s a lot of promising young talent in this side, so they’re one of the groups could surprise with a diamond or two. In the right set-up, they could be quite hard to break down. I’m just not confident how often they’ll line up that way and, even if they do, I could see scoring being a consistent problem.

Put it all together and I don’t see more than the sum of parts–I see a team that won’t be the worst in CanPL but which hasn’t got enough about it to compete with the better rosters.

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC

Brennanball: York9 FC and the Canadian midfield whisperer

A variety of Jim Brennans.

Jimmy Brennan is many things to many people. Perhaps best known as Toronto FC’s first-ever signing and first-ever captain, he also got his managerial as an assistant to Mo Johnston start in TFC’s, shall we say, lesser years. Brennan actually coached one game, filling in for Ryan Nelsen. He won.

He worked with TFC Academy for a while, then left and had some quiet success with League 1 Ontario and Aurora FC.

If nothing else, there was always an effort and directness to Brennan’s game that’s quite obviously reflected in how he’s built his roster for the inaugural Canadian Premier League season.

Suffice it to say, York are not going to win style points. This is a team built to get it up to the strikers, win the second ball, and use their size to run past or through defenders. It is old-school football, the kind Brennan made a career playing in England’s lower leagues.

York9 are well-equipped to do that with the size of Simon Adjei and Michael Cox. There’s a second element–and more of a question–that could tie it all together for York, and that’s their midfield, with Kyle Porter, Joseph di Chiara, and Manny Aparicio–potentially one of the best in the league, if they can work together. We’ll look at all three in-depth below.

No team has bet as hard on reclamation projects as York. Up and down the roster are guys on second, third, fourth chances. For many, this may well be their last chance at professional football. Motivation? Or pressure? Take your pick.

Key Players

Kyle Porter, who knows?

York’s first signing and possible captain, Kyle Porter is now officially a journeyman. He’s well-known in Canadian soccer circles after stints with Vancouver and then Edmonton, but his career has taken a steady turn for the worse since leaving the Eddies, to the point where he may have been out of the game but for York’s November announcement.

Ben Massey has already written a terrific in-depth look at Porter’s career. Reading it, I can’t help but feel like Porter is just chronically unlucky. In 2008, he’d have been a great MLS depth player: never spectacular, but ever-reliable, positionally flexible, creative but defensively responsible. Instead, he got his MLS shot in 2013-14, just as MLS was starting to trend upwards fast. His best spell was in NASL at FC Edmonton, where he put up 12 goals in 2011-12, but he left to pursue MLS opportunities. By the time he was back in NASL, he was too late again, and the league was falling apart–his Atlanta Silverbacks folded the year after he joined them. He ends up in USL, struggling for minutes with a Tampa Bay team that’s one of the bigger markets auditioning for MLS.

You can’t help but feel he’s two years late to every party. In a CanPL rushed to launch in 2016 or 2017, Kyle Porter is a top star, good with the ball at his feet and a solid professional competitor. Now, he pales a little even in comparison to some of the signings since November. He’s not as flashy as guys like Juan Gutierrez. He doesn’t have the numbers of Julian Buescher. He doesn’t have Kyle Bekker’s hair.

Part of the trouble with Porter is it’s not clear any more what his best position is. He’s spent a lot of the past few years playing right-back, which I’d like to suggest is not it, though he is responsible defensively and capable enough when it comes to putting in a ball. For York, he’ll more likely reprise the attacking midfield role he had with Edmonton. His numbers in it were never spectacular, and he had a tendency to waffle into cul-de-sacs as often as he created something out of nothing, but he should be among the better chance creators in this league.

Whatever has gone wrong for him–be it bad luck or something else–if Brennan can get the most out of him he can give York some composure on the ball and an ability to play between lines. Porter fits a more direct system, too–he was best in Edmonton under Colin Miller–so he can provide those runs, potentially on the right in a 4-4-2. Very old-school, but quite possibly effective.

Joseph di Chiara, defensive midfielderJoseph di Chiara playing for Russian Premier League side Kyrlya Sovetov Samara.

Joseph di Chiara playing for Russian Premier League side Kyrlya Sovetov Samara.There are two players in CanPL who have played games in what I’d consider a strong European league. One of them is Joseph di Chiara1The other is Cavalry’s Dominique Malonga, who spent some time as a prospect in Serie A..

di Chiara also signed with York from the Lithuanian first division, where he played six games off the bench (and, in true di Chiara fashion, got sent off). Prior to that, he was in League 1 Ontario.

Not that long ago, he was one of Canada’s best prospects at defensive midfield. He was getting minutes at Krylya Sovetov, for god’s sake. Sovetov are a bit of a yo-yo team in Russia, but they’re mostly up and the Russian Premier League isn’t a bad league at all.

Then he effectively got sent to the Siberia of Eastern European football. He barely got on the pitch in Hungary. Then the Russian third division. The, uh, Kazakhstani league. And finally Lithuania.

The one constant has been the York region. He’s from York. Every time di Chiara’s career has been about over, he’s ended up back at Vaughan Azzurri in League 1 Ontario, and every time he’s managed to parlay it, via connections and sheer willpower, to another chance.

He is, arguably, still the fifth or sixth best d-mid in the Canada pool2It drops off quick after Piette, Kaye, and Atiba’s last hurrah.. For years, he’s been the hipster Voyageurs pick to come riding in to save the national team, and he has actually been called up a couple times, though he’s not capped at senior level. If Jim Brennan can unlock his potential, well, Jim Brennan for CMNT?

What he’ll give York is a solid base built on tough tackling, which is the kind of thing a team needs when it’s lumping long balls to pacy forwards. di Chiara is one of those d-mids whom opposing players try to avoid. He will, at some point this year, get sent off.

Manny Aparicio, somewhere in midfield

I hate having to write this, because I was once a big fan of Aparicio’s. He was the exact sort of player I wanted to see coming out of TFC’s academy: technical, creative, smart. Aparicio is these things. But there has, as yet, been no indication he is anything but those things.

In theory, Aparicio is a playmaker, the kind of player who sits in midfield and plays quick passes nobody else saw. Actually kind of an old-school role in the modern game, albeit not in quite the same way as, say, Michael Cox. Practically, soccer is a physical game, particularly at the lower professional levels, and Manny Aparicio isn’t a great runner, isn’t much for a tackle, and can’t beat defenders 1 v. 1.

Coming out of TFC Academy, he was signed to an MLS deal way too early and loaned to Wilmington in USL, where he couldn’t get off the bench. TFC gave him another year with TFC II, where he did absolutely nothing. Bear in mind, he’s a creative player–he should have assists, even the odd goal. My memory watching him is that he rarely found the ball. He often looked lost, even uninterested.

USL was unlikely to ever suit Aparicio’s qualities, so he ended up in Spain, where he played a few games in the third division before getting relegated. I can’t find anything that suggests he was involved offensively.

It worries me that York seem to be considering Aparicio a starter. It seems unlikely that he is, particularly in a league likely to be physical. However, there was a time Aparicio was considered a good prospect at Toronto FC, and a part of me still clings to the idea that he could be that old-school, tempo-setting #10. If he somehow reclaims that, he’d add a whole new dimension to York’s attack, a way to change games.

Tactics and Positional Depth

York’s two main threats will be Simon Ajdei and Michael Cox. Both have question marks about them, but both seem like the kind of strikers who will excel in what CanPL is likely to be.

Cox, in particular. He’s actually an ex-USPORTs guy, and knows Carmine Isacco that way. He’s one of a surprisingly large number of USPORTs players to parlay strong performances into a lower-level professional shot, and he had one memorable season with Orlando City B, and one two-month stretch in particular where he couldn’t stop scoring.

The caveat there is that the 2016 Orlando B team had guys like Pierre da Silva, Mikey Ambrose, and Tony Rocha feeding Cox the ball–all those guys either start or should start in MLS. Then it closed down, and Cox was left in the cold. He’s had trouble finding minutes since, though he was rated highly enough for two darlings of USL–Saint Louis and Nashville–to give hm a look.

There are a lot of strikers in MLS who get drafted who will never consistently make an MLS roster. They run channels well, compete for knock-downs and flick-ons, and get released into USL, where they often end up scoring quite a few goals. Cox is that kind of striker: big, fast, and difficult for defenders to mark physically.

A lot of teams in USL do what I think York will do: they launch the ball out of defense, a player like Cox battles for it, they flood numbers into midfield to win the second ball, and look to spring either an athletic winger or an athletic striker over the top. Often, it works. Like I said: old-school.

Ryan Telfer will be a big part of this, as he can drive down the left and take defenders one-on-one, cross, and even score goals coming in late on the weak side. Porter could be effective doing the same on the right.

Simon Adjei is, like Cox, big and fast. If he’s just that, he’ll score a few goals in this league. When I dug into him last year, though, he had a bit of playmaking about him–he has soft feet for a big man, and that may go some way to explaining 30 goals last year in the Swedish fourth division. 30 is a lot of goals anywhere–you can’t get that just by running in behind.

What typically happens when players put up those numbers is a higher-division team comes calling, and York apparently beat out Swedish second division sides for Adjei, no doubt helped by his having spent time in League 1 Ontario. Some players continue to score at higher levels. Many do not. CanPL will be a higher level than either L1O or the Swedish fourth division. If Adjei, who’s 25 and no prospect, has a higher ceiling, he could be amongst the league’s top scorers.

We’ve covered midfield above, where the only others are futsal player Emilio Estevez, who came in via the open trials, and Wataru Murofushi, who starred in Singapore before signing with York. Murofushi could be interesting, although the Singaporean league is pretty marginal. Basically, I expect York to bypass the midfield on the pitch as much as they have off of it.

There’s depth defensively, albeit quite a bit of it is untested. Luca Gasparotto is the keystone, and a player I’m fairly bullish about. He’s a bullish player, actually–the kind of CB you expect on a team like York, and he has good experience in Scotland for a 23-year-old. His partner is probably Roger Thompson, who played in the Swedish third division. Justin Springer has played in USPORTS and was decent in League 1 Ontario.

Steven Furlano is one of the more interesting defensive prospects in the league. He’s only 21, and played for TFC II as a teenager. USL was probably too much, too quickly for him–he’s since been very good for Alliance United in L1O, somehow putting up nine goals in 14 games. As a CB. I presume he is good in the air.

Fullback is a lot thinner. Diyeddine Abzi signed from A.S. Blainville, who nearly beat Ottawa in the Voyageur’s Cup last year, and got there thanks to a Abzi’s goal against L1O winners Oakville. He’s a very attacking left-back, possibly even viable as a left winger in this league should Ryan Telfer get hurt or recalled.

On the right, I’d guess we may see Furlano a bit. Otherwise, it’s either Springer or Morey Doner. Doner is a great story–he commuted to Aurora FC games from just outside Barrie–and Brennan knows him, plus he has some PDL experience. He’s probably not a starter, though. Daniel Gogarty, a USPORTs draftee, will see some time as well.

Goalkeeper is a real worry for York–why have one keeper with no professional experience when you can have three? They’re one of the only teams with three keepers in the league, but only Matt Silva has played beyond League 1 Ontario, and that’s using the term “played” broadly, as he barely got off the bench in Sweden.

I tend to think there’s likely to be good undiscovered shot-stoppers in Canada–we have lots of tall, athletic guys with reflexes from playing both hockey and soccer. The US has long produced decent goalkeepers for similar reasons. So I don’t have a problem with giving Silva or Colm Vance a chance. Vance was part of the very good York Lions team Carmine Isacco coached. Nathan Ingham was briefly in TFC’s system before playing in L1O. Hopefully one of the three, at least, stakes a claim to the starting job.

Projections: 4th (Spring); 5th (Fall)

York have enough about them to threaten teams–there’s something to be said for simple, effective football, especially in Year One of a new league–but they don’t really have the depth for plan B, and will be quick to run out of ideas against teams that can contain them physically. There’s a heavy League 1 Ontario bent to this roster. While that’s led to lots of nice stories about how many L1O guys have made the transition to CanPL, PLSQ has actually won the playoff both years it’s been going. There’s depth in those leagues, but CanPL is likely to be a higher level.

There are a whole pile of teams I could see going on a bit of a run, though, and York are one of those. If things fall right, or a rival stumbles, they could surprise. A lot will depend on how Brennan fares as a full-time coach. He was a bit of an odd hire, especially given he’s also a team vice-president. There were some wild rumours about York signings earlier in the offseason. Brennan has, wisely, navigated around those, and kept largely quiet during preseason, which is smart.

If York have new-age Brennan, the Brennan who’s been good in L1O, and knows what he’s got and how to work with it, York could even thrive. Top spot is not out of reach–it’s just across town. Best Brennan is bold in giving the reins to Luca Gasparotto, can develop Adzi and at least one other depth piece into a legitimate starter-quality player, and finds some way to get his midfield’s minds engaged–personally, I’d recommend a seance and potluck supper.

The risk, especially if TFC start to win games again, is the sillier side of league marketing. Brennan-the-VP has to avoid any “let’s sign an aging Italian” rumours ownership comes up with, and avoid any other weird backroom stuff–seriously, being both manager and VP is a recipe for awkward conflicts. Cliques form in the dressing room in part because a strange tactical system, like a 3-5-2, exposes too many of York’s weak depth pieces. His selections bias to the guys he knows from L1O and York look predictable, resorting to making a bad summer signing to fix it. The goalkeeping becomes a mess. But you could write such a paragraph about every manager in the league.

Barring weirdness, York will almost certainly look like this:

Get it to the strikers. Knock it down. Play it wide. Look for Telfer/Porter coming in at the back post. Repeat. Do what works.

I could also see this as a sensible alternative if York want to hold a little more possession:

I want Aparicio to boss that role, but I just don’t think it’s likely, and York end up with a hole in the middle of the park.

The table projection is lower than it would be if that backline didn’t scare me the second I look away.

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Top Cavalry FC FC Edmonton Forge FC Halifax Wanderers Pacific FC Valour FC York 9 FC
About Dylan Matthias 244 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.


  1. April 21, 2019 My game report on League 1 Ontario Oakville Blue Devils vs PLSQ A.S. Blainville exhibition game in Oakville. Includes interviews with coaches and players.

    Should also interest York 9 FC fans as they will play Blainville in the first round of the Voyageurs Cup. I have an interview with the Blainville coach talking about the Cup and Diyaeddine Abzi (the player from Blainville who signed for York 9).

    Also you can hear OBD coach Duncan Wilde praise their L1O Golden Boot winner Anthony Novak who just signed for Forge FC.

    Follow me on twitter at @RocketRobin01

  2. This is an impressive in depth article. CPL should hire you since you clearly know your stuff.

    Though I think predictions are a bit of a crapshoot, especially for the short spring season. We have seven expansion teams, the coach that can get his team to click together quickly could dominate early.

    I wonder if a few teams will make a last minute additions. Guys like Mo Babouli who are above League 1 level. And what is Pacific FC waiting for? They don’t have a full roster yet, lack of new signings, unless you count Stewie the Starfish mascot…

  3. The predictions are entirely a crapshoot. The benefit is in trying to figure out where teams are at and what the rough level of play will be, and maybe adjust expectations a touch, while allowing plenty of room for surprises.

    It’s important to define what success is, and what would exceed expectations, because that helps people who are new to the league, and new to CanSoc in general, better understand what we actually have here and why it’s important.

    Ex: I could be totally wrong about Pacific. But instead of setting up Marcus Haber as CanPL’s Mo Salah, only to be disappointed, go out to the field knowing he’s a loyal servant of the national team who deserves a chance to close out his career at home, and cheer him for that. If he puts up great numbers, even better!

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