The Merchant Sailor 2021 CanPL Season Preview

 

 

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After far too long an absence, Canadian club soccer is back.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that this is right across the board. The vast, vast majority of players in this country, from the under-8 grassroots to university players, haven’t kicked a ball in more than two years. I’m about to get back on the field for the first time in six months.1We’ve been lucky in Nova Scotia to get a couple of windows in the fall and winter where we could squeeze in a few games, and some of our higher level players have been able to train at least. But everyone’s going to be rusty, especially me. There’s going to be an AUS season in the fall.[mfm]September 11th at Wickwire Field; Saint Mary’s are away for the first weekend in Cape Breton. You had best be there.[/mfn] It’s good to be back.

All of this applies equally to the Canadian Premier League. The pandemic’s effects will be with us for a while. Teams’ inability to train this spring–in some cases, at all–is going to make for some scraggly soccer and probably a lot of injuries as the league does its best to resume something approaching a normal season.

The past two years has been a massive challenge. It was critical that our new league play some sort of season last year, even if the league took a bath on it financially. It’s even more important the league manage to return to home stadiums at some point this year–that is still uncertain, if looking more likely–in order to begin earning revenue again.

Staff and players saw wages furloughed during the pandemic, the league has lost talent on and off field, and given teams lost money in 2019 as well, you get an idea just how much we have been standing astride the abyss, even if that feels increasingly normal these days. That is the reality of soccer anywhere in the past two years, but all the while the clock is ticking on where this league needs to be.

Recapturing the Novelty

Supporters march to the Wanderers home opener.Back in April, the anniversary of the league’s first games and its first goal passed with very little fanfare. A few tweets went bump in the night. Unless you follow the teams pretty closely, you probably didn’t even notice. The only hoopla I got from Halifax Wanderers on April 28th was a press release about a new beer sponsor.

This is the scale of it. The inaugural season was fun, and slightly dreamy, but that energy has long since diminished into a kind of passionate ennui. There’s curiosity, sure, and the usual small-but-vocal crowd of deeper support, but we’re now three years into an eight-year runway and most teams have only played 35 games. The league is coming off a winter marked more by sniping between players and ownership than any anticipation or fanfare, a year in which the league has ignored players in favour of insular circling of the wagons and, all too often, accompanied by silence. Media covering the league outside Toronto have all but disappeared. Three years on, CanPL HQ still can’t seem to communicate with anyone–about start dates, roster rules, or player issues–not even the players themselves.

Now we have to cross some of these teetering bridges. It would have been balmy to have a spring full of storylines and goals and the general theatre of it all; instead we’ve had vaccination updates and lockdowns. People are miserable.

Don’t look down.

By the time we are back to what passes for “normal” in 2022, we will be four into this project and it will be too late to start again.

This is a fresh start for a league that needs it. After the past year, we all need it.

How Does This Thing Actually Work?
This is too empty.

The reality of starting in late June–the league couldn’t have started any later and still planned for a full season; even this may be pushing it–means starting in a bubble.

Winnipeg is an odd choice of location until you factor in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who own Valour FC as well, are hosting it out of IG Field. Some money will trade hands to make it look good, and there’ll be ancillary expenses, but otherwise the league gets in cheap. This is reality right now.

PEI was a lot of fun last year, and Wanderers are very keen to return there, especially with the U23s. That was a good thing, but IG Field does have better facilities and amenities, and the league has somewhat more control of things.

In Winnipeg, teams will play twice against teams from the other half of the country. Wanderers, along with the Ontario teams, will play Valour, Cavalry, Edmonton, and Pacific.

It’s a bizarre bit of scheduling that’s obviously intended to reduce the travel burden later in the season, which is important both financially and to minimize the effects on players who will be playing more or less every three days until October.

It’s hard to say if this benefits any particular team–my own guess is pretty much “no”, but Wanderers and Pacific will likely be grateful to avoid further cross-country trips, even if it’s a bit sad that fans won’t see certain teams in person this year.

Given travel is the single biggest expense for this league, part of me wonders if this season might serve as something of an experiment in regionalization. I doubt we’ll ever see this exact format again–that’s kind of the story of CanPL thus far–but it might be to the league’s benefit to try for some more creative scheduling to create fewer, longer road trips in future years.

This does mean the table, at least through the first month, will be essentially meaningless. Teams will play, we are told, a full 28 game season, but the second half of the schedule has yet to be released and it’s not clear if or when fans will be able to return to stadiums. Early August is the goal. That depends on public health restrictions. The league tried to get exemptions back in the early spring and largely failed. It is what it is.

The schedule and uncertainty, not to mention the inevitable injuries and rustiness, will likely take any sting out of the “tournament” in Winnipeg, but that’s fine: the tournament is really only there for us, the tiny number of superfans who will watch every game on our One Soccer subscriptions.

What we need to recognize, and what the league needs to recognize, is that we’re not the ones who matter. Everything is about getting back into stadiums and re-engaging the broader community. People need to be talking about this league again, and not just on Twitter.

If you are really desperate, I will of course be live-blogging every Wanderers game here, as well as some other games. Get requests in now.

Riding the Momentum
I need to see this banner again, urgently.

I get that this may seem like a downer preview. But 2019 really was a miracle, 2020 was a gift from the league, and if they can stick the landing, CanPL’s homecoming will be among the first sporting events in Canada to allow fans in numbers. It could, once again, be something pretty special.

I can barely imagine it, which tells you everything you need to know about the past two years.

If any players are reading this, looking for some motivation to put on the bulletin board; or you’re a passionate fan of, say, Pacific, and you hate-clicked to see me groan about your team’s midfield balance; or you’re in the league office and tired of me nagging about off-field stuff, then stop here and read this and this only:

People need something, anything, to cheer. We are going to be that perfect mix of nervous and vulnerable, a little bit unsure until the first goal goes in. Then everything will be back in the blink of an eye. There will be a million problems and a million distractions but we’ll remember this just like we remembered April 27, 2019. This season is going to hurt like no other and bring challenges like no other, but it will be the last, best opportunity to make it mean something, and make it permanent.

Do not take this league for granted.

 

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Wandering to Winnipeg: Wanderers 2021 Preview

It’s a bit hard to know what to say about Wanderers this year. I wrote a post specifically about their new U23 program last week and that might actually be the biggest off-season move the club has made, a significant investment in filling a big gap in the local player pathway.

Local players are going to be a big part of this team’s future, and in many ways already are: the team has yet again bet heavily on university talent and heavily on experience in PLSQ.

The difference in 2021 is that these additions are mostly depth additions to what is already a very, very good team.

Back in early 2020, just after the pandemic hit, I expected Wanderers’ rebuild to pay off in 2021, and to a certain extent that’s exactly what’s happened, except they made the 2020 final so really I was a good 10 months late.

Where do you actually rank a team that made the final last year and which was probably still a little bit half-baked?

Key Arrivals

There are a couple of key additions, one of which was actually made in 2020. Eriks Santos is now in the country and eligible to play, and should give Wanderers among the best and deepest centre-back charts in the league.1I say among the best only because Edmonton really do have a tonne of depth there as well. Santos was a Brazilian U15 and followed a somewhat similar path to Joao Morelli, with whom he was originally signed, playing in Georgia after leaving Internacional’s system.

His addition means Wanderers can finally play the back three Stephen Hart has wanted to use since early 2019. The club’s other big winter signings, York’s Morey Doner and former Fury and St. Louis FC man Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, are also hybrid full-backs, so expect a fair bit of fluidity.

Then there are the USPORTs additions, who it would be foolish to count out with this team. Pierre Lamothe was Abou Sissoko’s midfield partner at Montreal and is a bit more of an attacking playmaker. Kareem Sow was the guy who backed those two up as a rangy centre-back. Given Sissoko and Omar Kreim both transitioned pretty smoothly to CanPL, I’d back the rest of Pat Raimondo’s team to do so, too.

Two more PLSQ guys in Sam Salter and Stefan Karajovanovic, both tall forwards with some degree of flexibility, round out the signings. Flexibility is a real theme with this team, as we’ll see below.

Oh, and they inked Stephen Hart for three more years. He’s here as long as he wants to be, honestly.

Key Departures

It’s Aboubacar Sissoko, right? He was the break-out player for the league in 2020, another young, mostly overlooked Quebec prospect–so overlooked that he was passed over by both Forge and Vancouver, which I’m sure he used as ample motivation.

There are a couple ways to look at his departure. Obviously, it’s a loss for Wanderers, and they will miss his defensive bite for sure. But Sissoko’s emergence wasn’t a given–he more or less beat out the much more heralded Louis Béland-Goyette, who is also gone, for a spot alongside new captain Andre Rampersad, which gave Wanderers a rather defensive look in midfield, especially when all three of them played.

Sissoko more than earned a raise, and a starting spot. But tactically, he’s similar to Rampersad and not the deep playmaker Wanderers have needed more or less since day one, a role Béland-Goyette wasn’t up for. Gagnon-Laparé provides exactly that, and Sissoko would have been unlikely to play ahead of him Rampersad.

It was the right thing to do, both by the player and in terms of cap management, to let Sissoko move up a level and play, which is what he’s done. He’ll have to fight for time at Indy XI just as he would have at Wanderers. They’re a good USL side. But that’s what a player at his age, coming out of PLSQ, USPORTs, and now CanPL, needs.

Wanderers will also miss Alex De Carolis’ never-quit charisma and stamina up and down the left, and it was great to see him score one for Wanderers last year. He was one of the more under-rated fullbacks in the league, and if there’s any departure I think Wanderers might regret, it’s him.

Chrisnovic N’sa was not under-rated, nor truly a fullback, though his conversion there in 2020 did take a bit better than his 2019 conversion to defensive midfield. He’s gone home to York, where he’ll play with his brother Felix. He’s definitely a loss for Wanderers, too, but Morey Doner is a like-for-like replacement and may be the more consistent player, at least at this stage of N’sa’s career, even if N’sa’s ceiling is higher.

Key Players
Akeem Garcia, striker
(Photo by Trevor MacMillan via HFX Wanderers FC)

There’s nobody more important to Wanderers than the Trinidadian, who is without a doubt the most clinical finisher in the league. Every game, he’s good for two or three breaks in behind and he occupies a defender for pretty much the whole game because he’s constantly threatening to find the smallest smidge of space and can latch onto a broken play or long pass as easily as he opens a channel for a through-ball.

Just in the 2020 final alone, David Edgar had to put out several fires Garcia started–that he did is a testament to just how good Edgar was at reading the game, but he’s retired now, and Garcia’s pace causes even veteran defenders like him problems. It genuinely takes a team to defend him, and when Joao Morelli, Alex Marshall, and Alessandro Riggi are feeding him the ball, it’s a genuinely superb attack, if more about ruthless transition than possession and probing.

Joao Morelli, attacking midfield

That said, in Morelli, Wanderers also have one of the better #10s in the league. He faded in and out in his short first season, not helped by a lengthy fade out he earned for elbowing Joseph Di Chiara (we’ve all wanted to, Joao).

He’s not a pure possession playmaker–more a modern, hybrid attacking midfielder who can both pop up in space and finish plays off. Everything in the modern game has to be done at speed, but while Morelli can do that, he also has the skill to slow the game down when it’s better to wait, and the sense to know when to do which. He won a couple penalties on PEI and scored a couple from outside the box, all in a season where he had to adjust to a new country and new teammates. You get the sense he is going to really enjoy playing at Wanderers’ Grounds in front of 6,000 very loud fans.

He played a couple times in 2020 off the left and it… didn’t really work. I get the impetus to try that, and wouldn’t be totally shocked if Hart did so again just to mix things up, but Morelli is too good in half-spaces and not all that fast, which leaves him at a disadvantage out wide. He’s not likely to beat anyone outside. With more time, though, Wanderers might be able to hone the tactics so that his cutting inside is more effective and the overlapping run from the fullback or wingback becomes more of a dangerous option.

Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, defensive midfielder

As above, the task facing Gagnon-Laparé is substantial. It’s not entirely certain he’ll actually play in Sissoko’s position so much, but he is basically the midfield replacement for both him and Béland-Goyette. No pressure.

Gagnon-Laparé is quicker than your average playmaker–helps that he’s kinda-sorta a left-back–and more about finding quick passes and pockets to advance the ball rapidly. Think Kwame Awuah, who does much the same even though he’s primarily a left-back with Forge.

Moving the ball through that area of the pitch has always been a bit of a problem for Wanderers. Truth is, you can actually create transitions from out wide or from the middle, and some teams do both, so Gagnon-Laparé’s natural flexibility will give Hart options. What’s important is that the team not rely so much on Peter Schaale’s long diagonals and on pressure–both are effective strategies but a player like Gagnon-Laparé is how you control games. He’s got the pedigree: he’s played five games for Canada’s full senior team, and has almost 90 games in USL and NASL 2.0, mostly with Montreal’s now-shuttered reserve team but also with the now-shuttered St. Louis FC. Nabbing him as that side wound down was a very smart piece of business by Wanderers, showing some real savvy in turning the often bumpy North American lower league system to their advantage.

If he gets hurt, though, he might be the one player on this roster for whom there’s no natural, like-for-like replacement. Wanderers will be able to fall back on their pressing and staunch defensive shape, but to be a top team, they need Gagnon-Laparé to stay healthy and effective over the course of a full season.

Tactics & Positional Depth

It’s all about flexibility. In a league where you only have 23 players available–less if someone gets injured–having guys who can play multiple positions is almost essential.

That’s what Wanderers have done. Almost every single player on this team plays more than one spot competently. It makes projecting a line-up almost as hard as planning for them.

I don’t expect Wanderers tendency to press to change, but I would expect it to dial back a bit in anticipation of a long season–it was pretty clear the team was gassed even at the end of the PEI tournament last year, and it definitely cost them in the final.

Wanderers' Andre Rampersad sprinting with the ball on PEI.
Rampersad is the force that drives Wanderers’ midfield forward–now he needs to add goals. (Photo: Trevor MacMillan via HFX Wanderers FC)

From the off in 2019, Stephen Hart has complained about his team’s difficulty moving the ball from defense to attack. Peter Schaale remains one of the better progressive passers in the league, and Eriks Santos can do the same on the left, but it’s Gagnon-Laparé who really feels like Wanderers’ first capable linking piece. Wanderers fans have seen him up close–he played for Fury against Wanderers in the 2019 Voyageur’s Cup–and while he’s a strong presser, he’s an even better passer. If he can take over the transition phase, it would allow Andre Rampersad to do more attacking work higher up the pitch, something he’s quite good at (though he needs to finish more of those late runs into the box).

A lot of that system makes sense out of a 3-4-1-2, which Hart has also talked about from the get-go. It was never possible due to injuries or the lack of Eriks Santos last season. I’m still a bit unsure we’ll finally get there–Hart has always been a 4-4-1-1 man and I’ll believe a back three when I see it, live, at Wanderer’s Grounds.

The trick with the back three is you have to have three starting-calibre centre-backs, and a couple more for depth, and not a lot of CanPL teams have or can afford to have that, which is why positional flexibility is so important. Santos can be the left-sided partner to Peter Schaale at centre-back, and given you’d expect Haitian international Jems Geffrard to start after the Gold Cup, you start to see how a back three is viable.

You also need at least one left-footed centre-back on the roster, and Wanderers two in Santos and USPORTs star Kareem Sow. Sow can also play left-back though I think he’s best in the middle as a pure stopper. Wanderers fans are going to love watching him: he’s good on the ball but even better at breaking people who come near his box, something else Wanderers haven’t properly had but have needed since day one.

One of the challenges here is wing-backs–I’m not quite sure it really works, though Alessandro Riggi is a good enough two-way player to handle this, and Matteo Restrepo could play there, too.

More likely, I suspect, is that Santos takes over the ball-playing left-back role from De Carolis, with some help for Gagnon-Laparé on occasion–he’s as comfortable playing there, and you’re probably starting to realize this formation could be a 8-16-3 and it would probably still look roughly the same.

A full season of Joao Morelli, a healthy Alessandro Riggi, and a match fit Alex Marshall is legitimately scary and, with Akeem Garcia, one of the top front fours in the league–I actually rate Wanderers attack above Forge at this point just on sheer ruthlessness and ability to do much of what they do at pace. It was uncanny how quickly Morelli fit into CanPL last year–he didn’t mind the physicality at all (he dished as much or more of it than he received), he could drift around into space, and but for Javier Acuna he’s probably being talked about as the best #10 in the league.

What’s especially tantalizing, though, is that like Forge, Wanderers can now pretty much field a full, fairly dangerous second XI in almost every position. They will need that depth over the course of 28 games and the difficult travel, and also have to assume Jems Geffrard will miss much of the Winnipeg tournament on Gold Cup duty, which may mean I have to wait yet still for my back three.

Hart likes to rotate so we’ll never see this (unless the league sets up another dead-rubber match like they did with Wanderers – Pacific in 2020), but any one of these players can rotate through at pretty much any of the broad positions.

I’m a bit salty the club didn’t sign a fourth starting-calibre centre-back to really make this work, but given Santos and Doner can both play there, there’s plenty of depth.

Marcelo Polisi joins his brother Mateo in CanPL, albeit on the opposite coast, which should be fun when the two meet halfway in Winnipeg. Marcelo is basically another university player, out of Simon Fraser in NAIA this time, and a straightforward, stay-at-home-and-be-sensible-tonight-young-man defensive midfielder who can cover for Gagnon-Laparé or add some mettle late in a game. There’s also Scott Firth, still only 19 and back for a third season. He’d probably spend some time with the new U23 team were this a normal year, but I’ve actually quite liked what I’ve seen from him in his limited CanPL minutes–rarely flashy but he makes effective plays for the players around him. He struggled in that dead rubber against Pacific last year when he didn’t have as much talent around him, though.

Sam Salter’s an interesting piece, and not just because he’s named (I can only presume) after one of Halifax’ most famous streets. He played in NCAA in 2019, and would have played in PLSQ had the season not been cancelled. Wanderers have scouted him there, and when they say that, they tend to mean it. There’s some video on him and the first thing you notice is that he’s really quite amazingly lanky–Wanderers haven’t had that since the days of Skublak, but Salter can play on either wing as well, continuing with the theme of positions not really mattering.

If there’s a question mark, aside from the inevitable travel concerns, it might be at goalkeeper. Christian Oxner whiffed both goals in the 2020 final. I’ve watched him have bad games before in USPORTs and he’s not the kind of player to get stuck in a rut–I expect he’ll be back raring to go and Wanderers have bet on him now as they’re full-time starter.

I like this. The club does not have a good record signing veteran goalkeepers, so, like much of the league this winter, they’ve taken the welcome approach of adding a young, local back-up. Kieran Baskett is very well-known locally, and probably the best goalkeeping prospect in Atlantic Canada. He’s actually quite similar to Oxner in some ways: he’s good with his feet, acrobatic, and he went and won the starting job at William & Mary in 2019 as a rookie. I could actually see him pushing Oxner more than most of the younger back-ups around CanPL, which isn’t a bad thing, and Hart has shown he’ll go with a young ‘keeper if he’s got mettle.

Projection: 1st, but maybe not the playoff winner

The truth is, I don’t actually like predictions but I do them here because they’re often entertainingly wrong and you deserve a reward for slogging through these previews.

Wanderers are a deep team with high-end skill and balance at every position. There are ways this could go wrong if one of the signings doesn’t work out, or a key player gets injured, or the team’s interrupted pre-season hurts them, but those apply to pretty much every CanPL team.

Travel is always a caveat with Wanderers, but in this half-shortened half-Covidified year, it might be balanced out by Wanderers likely being among the first teams to get home fans back in August. Wanderers’ Grounds is going to be loud and, I suspect, mostly full, and those fans have never actually had a winning team to cheer for.

Some of my ranking Wanderers first is attrition for Forge and Cavalry, as well as the pandemic affecting pre-season. Wanderers have been able to train for three weeks before the Winnipeg tournament, and got a couple weeks together before Nova Scotia’s third lockdown as well. That’s not perfect, but it’s still better than a lot of teams got.

I’ll hedge my bets on the playoffs, whatever the format ends up being, because Wanderers will struggle a bit to press effectively throughout the season and, although this team’s got some experience now, they still have to prove they can cut out mistakes in big games.

But there’s too much skill and talent, even just on paper, not to put them first in the league. This is a team that took both Forge and Cavalry to the limit last year and is deeper, healthier, and better now that the rebuild is truly finished.

 

 

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Fall Back and Regroup: Cavalry 2021 Preview

Something one learns when one writes fantasy fiction: there’s actually quite a lot of tactics behind a good cavalry charge. Doubly so if you’re dealing with chariots.

Among other things, you need a good, flat battlefield where your cavalry can get up to speed. A place like Winnipeg, for instance.

The idea is to get through the initial charge and regroup, rather than get individual riders surrounded by lesser foes, where they’re vulnerable. A lot of thought goes into direction, changes of direction, and communication.

Once you’ve regrouped, you take stock of what you have and then you re-organize it all on the fly.

This metaphor, in Calgary.

This metaphor is getting belaboured now, you might say, like we’ve charged into a quagmire, but you’d also have to admit it beats the usual sports clichés about rebuilding and reloading, the actual distinction between which is a matter of semiotics that would make Tolkien blush. Read more good fantasy, is what I’m saying.

The point I’m trying to make is that Cavalry FC, the team, are doing this exact kind of organization on the fly, and it deserves more nuance than just “reload”.

The general and his mount.

Cavalry’s inaugural team was planned the way a veteran general would plan his charge. Tommy Wheeldon Jr., then coaching Calgary Foothills, built a pressing system engineered to prey on unfamiliar opponents. It wasn’t always “ninety minutes of hell,” though no good general would be opposed to that. It was full of precise, planned release points. He chose specific lynchpins to communicate his vision on the field–his brother, Jonathon Wheeldon, among them. And like any good general, he went down fighting when it didn’t quite work out.

Last summer, Cavalry were the picture of a defeated army, full of played-out veterans with lots of experience but never quite the glory. They were battered and broken and they eventually went down after one last rush into the second round.

It needed a rethink. A regroup. The touch of a proper evaluation and some precision drilling. And that is exactly what the Cavalry have done.

Key Arrivals

It’s a brand new group leading from the back, and it’s a lot younger.

Daan Klomp and Tom Field are the two biggest names, replacing Dom Zator and Nathan Mavila, more or less. Those are two pretty huge names departing, too, and it gives you a sense of both the scale and risk of this undertaking. A lot of people would have rated Zator and Mavila the best at their positions in the league.

There are other, less heralded changes at the back. Karifa Yao isn’t that well-known, but shouldn’t be overlooked. He’d have been in Canada’s U23 side but for circumstances around the pandemic, and is in Calgary on loan from CF Montreal. David Norman Jr., another CanU23 fresh off the failed Olympic qualifying bid, will also likely spend some time at the back. Both are different players–Yao is big and rangy, Norman more of a ball-mover–but both will know their roles and both can fill them well.

In midfield, you need guys who can win a knife fight1For the more astute among you, I am now mixing my sci-fi and fantasy metaphors. when the going gets tough, and that is absolutely Joe Di Chiara, who’s been doing that for years, but most recently at York. He takes some hits but he gives more than he gets, and is going to fit in perfectly in Cavalry’s midfield, particularly, I suspect, once they’re back at Spruce Meadows.

And then there’s your front-line. The big guys to push you through, and it’s here that Cavalry faltered first last year: Jordan Brown was often inventive but he put up only nine goals across 42 games with Cavalry, and that’s not enough to lead a line.

Arriving then, are Anthony Novak and Joe Mason, two proven forwards with vastly different styles who share a tendency for big goals in massive games. Neither is necessarily the most outright talented technician–both are quite comfortable scoring a goal the dirty way and letting someone else curl it in the top corner. Novak, though he overperforms his expected goals, is one of the smartest target men in the league with his movement into spaces that are difficult to defend, which is how he gets so many high-quality chances.

Richard Luca might be the guy scoring the pretty goals. He couldn’t get in the country last year but has arrived now. He’s a bit of an enigma, maybe a wingman or maybe a warlock in midfield. He’s had an absolute time of it in his career with visa issues, first in Mexico and now in Canada, and as such he’s a 23-year-old with a big reputation but relatively few games to actually show it. Cavalry will expect him to stay with the pack, however.

Finally, it’s nice to see Oliver Minatel patched up once again and back after that horrific leg break on PEI last year. If only the same were true for Cavalry’s other wounded veterans.

Key Departures

Nico Pasquotti is not back after his injury. Note that he publicly criticized the league this winter for leaving him out in the cold with his rehab, something Cavalry have now done several times with several different players.


It’s an utterly classless move. This team plays a high-octane style and that leads to injuries for the sake of our entertainment. They should do a better job tending their fallen, and it may be the league needs a father figure to explain the basic outlines of dignity and respect. Unfortunately, Dave Clanachan is too busy freezing out the player’s union to fill that job.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Cavalry remain a fairly deep team, but that depth has been torqued around in its shape. Perhaps understandably given the way 2020 unfolded, they are now much deeper, and more flexible, up front. There will be no need for Tofa Fakunle to suit up (not that it wasn’t tremendous fun when he almost scored).

Marco Carducci is back in goal, and remains the best goalkeeper in the league. Cavalry signed former Valour goalkeeper Tyson Farago as a back-up, which is fine even if the likely factor here is cap hit. Farago deserved more of a chance than he got in Winnipeg.

Speaking of which, they’ve recently signed another ex-Valour player in Ali Musse, who battled injuries in 2019. That gives us a good reason to look at how Cavalry will line up, because while Musse is primarily a winger, I could see him dropping deeper in Calgary, similar to how Jose Escalante is sometimes used. Musse is probably the Honduran’s back-up.

Cavalry played a 4-3-3 for much of 2020, but that was mostly because Robert Boskovic struggled and Mason Trafford was hurt.

I think Wheeldon Jr. will keep the 3-4-3, partly because it provides a bit more flexibility in how the team uses Tom Field. The Irish left-back, who has a similar profile to Mavila if slightly more experience, can get forward but is also able to play centre-back. Plus, dropping Escalante deeper takes advantage of his two-way defending while minimizing his lack of finish in the box.

Going to three at the back would minimize Mo Farsi’s defensive liabilities (he’s also a converted winger) and also give Norman Jr. some cover if/when he plays centre-back.

There are only three true centre-backs on the roster, and no true right-back unless you consider Farsi’s conversion complete. Daan Klomp can play either position so you could slide him over, but in either event, you’re relying heavily on Mason Trafford to stay healthy, something he’s never managed in CanPL.

Eli Adekugbe is already out for the year, which is a real shame because he came on in leaps and bounds last year. But he’s done his Achilles two years after doing his knee, and that’s a very tough break at this point in his career.

Nik Ledgerwood is going to have to play real minutes again, and there’s a very real time limit on how long that can continue while Cavalry remain a high-level team. More will be asked of Elliot Simmons, who had a quiet 2020, and Norman Jr. may now have to spot in central midfield, too.

Di Chiara is a tremendous add and should take some of the creative pressure off Sergio Camargo–Di Chiara scored three goals last year and was often York’s most creative player. He thrives in the direct, progressive game Cavalry play, too–maybe more so than Camargo.

Up front, Tommy can go with a forward two or three. If Jose Escalante does play out wide, I’d expect the two with Joe Mason and Anthony Novak working together and probably Richard Luca free behind them. But that set-up can also suit a front three with Luca off the left and Mason on the right in the channel. I expect we’ll see plenty of shifting between those two, and either way it’s threatening.

There’s a lot of depth in this team, too. The only real difficulty is going to be in central midfield if injuries hit again.
Projection: 2nd

I am tempted to call Cavalry’s regroup nearly perfect and put them first. They’ve recruited very, very well, they have one of the best coaches in the league, and they’re built specifically to succeed on the bumpy pitch at Spruce Meadows.2It’s been re-laid, but as long as they have show-jumping on it, it’s going to be a mess, and they’ll have show-jumping as long as they play at Spruce Meadows. They may actually get a reprieve this year since the pandemic will likely scupper the show-jumping season more so than the soccer season.

Like any military historian, I respect Wheeldon Jr.’s approach and the tactics are meticulous, the execution flawless. The Canadian Premier League can sometimes feel like it’s designed to be as grueling as possible. The travel, the weather, the pitches, the physicality. In so many ways, Cavalry are built for that, but it’s also just defeated them each and every year.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs, “MacDonnell on the Heights,” in which a general scales the heights only to fall just short again and again before the end.

Cavalry lost the 2019 final because they ran out of strength at the end of a long campaign. They lost in 2020 because they ran out of warm bodies after playing every three days. It is almost a tradition now; in one more year, it will be, and Cavalry have yet again assembled a team that is full of mettle and medals but perhaps a touch injury-prone.

This season is going to be unforgiving. It’s eight games in a month in Winnipeg, in the heat and bugs, every three days. That pace can only continue as the league tries to squeeze 20 more games in between August and the end of respectable soccer weather in October. Add the travel and the snow and the rest of it and you can only imagine the hell this is going to be.

Plus nobody gets every signing right, even Cavalry. Daan Klomp is a very promising prospect but he’s 22 and will be asked to lead a line through nearly every game. If he becomes the 2021 version of Robert Boskovic, or even if he needs a couple of months to find his feet, there is less depth to cover.

If, in that scenario, Trafford were to get hurt again, Cavalry are looking at a back-line of Yao-Norman-Field, which while not bad, is not championship calibre.

Then you have Novak, Di Chiara, Mason, Camargo, and Ledgerwood, all of whom are key players for this Cavalry side and all of whom are varying degree of injury-prone. In a normal season, with a game roughly every week and some breaks, I think they could just about do it. That core is the best in the league, a wrecking ball with skill, and everything you want in a cavalry charge up the standings.

In 2021? In the mud and blood? They are not all going to make it. It is the reality of Canadian soccer and it is the cruelty of time and history that we don’t remember those who falter.

 

 

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No More Novak: Forge 2021 Preview

Fair warning: a lot of this post is going to be about Anthony Novak’s brain.

We’re not as interested in his feet unless he scores goals like the one he did in last year’s season opener.

But even those ones he gets with his brain because Novak is one of the smartest forwards in this league. He’s not an advanced-stats darling–his eight goals are more than anyone expected, for a variety of reasons. With Novak, though, his goals come from hard work–not so much the gritty, third-line, Canadian depth player kind of hard work, but the smart, efficient, and slightly German kind that uses quick movement in and around the box to drag defenders around so that, when the ball comes in, the striker is there for something like this.

He creates this by posting up to Dom Zator, then spinning away. It’s elite reaction and movement, and those get you goals.

His move from Forge to Calgary was, for me, the biggest move of the off-season and not just because I’ve admittedly become something of an Anthony Novak fan since this league kicked off in 2019. And hey, he’s an ex-League 1 Ontario guy who’s scored eight goals for Forge so far, including a huge one against Limeño in CONCACAF League. I did an actual double-take when I saw the news he’d left Hamilton.

This isn’t just a Novak preview (good idea, though–we’ll put it in the queue for next year!) so we’ll save the rest of my rhapsodizing about him for the always-enjoyable Key Departures section.

Forge are still a good team, yeah yeah yeah. But no Novak. (Sorry, this is going to be really hard for me.) They still have Mo Babouli, whom I also quite like, but who very much fits into Bobby Smyrniotis’ trademark possession style.

At times, half-convince myself that a lot of what Forge does is designed in part to stick it to Toronto FC. It’s no secret there’s not a lot of love between Bobby’s Sigma academy and TFC’s academy–I can’t pretend to be knowledgeable about the backroom politics of the Toronto soccer scene, but it’s not exactly hard to see when every top Sigma prospect ends up in NCAA and then, say, Orlando.1Both Richie Laryea and Cyle Larin went this route.

Former TFC coach Greg Vanney had a fascinating quote back in April, talking about how he didn’t think Richie Laryea would want to play at TFC. Vanney always chooses his words extremely carefully–that “want” is telling, especially given Laryea was almost out of football at the time TFC signed him. I don’t know how much you can read into that alone, but it’s something. In any event, Richie’s obviously done okay with himself, as has Bobby Smyrniotis.

Then Bobby goes and signs a guy like Omar Browne who’s main accolade is he stuck it to TFC really bad one time and, yeah, there’s definitely something there. Plus you had the whole thing around the Voyageur’s Cup final that’s yet to be played, and the rivalry is definitely on.

Forge’s ambition, at this point, is definitely in that tier anyway. This is a club that’s had a huge amount of success already and very much wants to find those bigger stages in CONCACAF. They’re well on their way again this year, drawn against CD F.A.S in the League already (by no means an easy opponent). Win that and they’ll face Browne’s Independiente, that team that knocked out TFC one time.2Browne can’t play in that game, as he’s on loan. Win that, and one more, and they’re in CONCACAF Champions League and, one day, this team will get a game against TFC that means something.

Oh yeah, they play in CanPL, too. About that.

Bobby when hes on his way to scout a TFC player. (Photo: CanPL.ca, but look close, they did some really fun Photoshop….)
Key Arrivals

Forge, as is typical, made very few changes this winter, no doubt in part because they were always waiting for that cup match that never came.

The changes they do make, they tend to tell no one about. This is also typical.

But the one everyone knows about is Tristan Borges, CanPL’s dewy-eyed starlet, who was bought by OHL (the one in Belgium, not Sarnia) in 2019, is back. As is also fairly typical, he’s been loaned to Forge for the 2021 season to get minutes and continue developing in a league that’s familiar to him.

It’s tempting to read into this more than there actually is. This isn’t a set-back for Borges. It’s common for young players not to play much in Europe’s top leagues, so rather than bury him in the reserves, OHL sent Borges out on loan. Helpfully, CanPL plays a summer season, and if Borges can put up numbers this year, he’ll be coming back to Belgium in November, in form, with a much better chance to break into the first team.

Borges is not yet a complete player. Smyrniotis played him on the wing most of 2019 because Borges was a liability defensively and also needed that little bit of extra space to operate in. By the 2019 final, he was playing inside more often. With Paolo Sabak still around, I’d actually expect Borges to go back out wide, which may be his best spot anyway.

The other additions, aside from Browne, are more about depth for the CONCACAF League run. Joshua Navarro, for instance, has minutes in the  quite-good Costa Rican league, albeit mostly as a sub. Kosi Nwanfornsu is a striker who’s mostly played in NCAA and what used to be called PDL but is now USL2, and is probably both a Marcel Zajac replacement and depth for the Winnipeg tournament stage of the season.

Do keep an eye on Garven Metusala. He’s Forge’s first USPORTs signing in a long while, can play across the back-line, and was one of the most intriguing players in the draft. He’s probably mostly depth as well, but could turn into more, as those USPORTs picks often do (just not usually with Forge, eh?).

Dejan Jakovic is in as David Edgar’s replacement, but I actually think he may be depth as well. We’ll get to that situation in a minute.

Key Departures

Edgar retired last year, somewhat in the middle of the CONCACAF League run.

He’s one of those players CanPL teams are built around, steady if rarely recognized Canadians who have played the game at reasonable levels over the years and can teach it to the youngsters who make up the bulk of rosters in this league.

Edgar did all of that and then some for Forge. When he first arrived back in June 2019, Forge’s defense was leaky enough that it was seriously costing them credibility–what was supposed to have been the marquee team in CanPL, owned by Bob Young, was faltering. Edgar patched it up.

He did it by organizing, mainly. It’s one of those things in soccer that’s very hard to quantify, but basically, Forge had a promising, young, ball-playing centre-back in Daniel Krutzen and Edgar yelled at him a lot to stay in position. Krutzen improved, and now the reins are being passed over to him. It’s not super advanced or technological; more like father-son, rite-of-passage stuff.

But Edgar’s departure leaves a massive hole, just because Krutzen was starting so Forge still need another body back there. That will likely be Jakovic, as often as possible, and Dom Samuel the rest of the time.

There are other departures, aside from Novak, who I am resisting the urge to talk further about. Marcel Zajac is gone after not really doing much for Forge over two years. So is Kadell Thomas, who had some flashy moments but not a lot of consistent tactical nous. They were both Sigma guys Bobby kept loyally until it was no longer realistic to do so.

Klaidi Cela retired, which is a real pity because he showed really well when he played, but he had injury trouble that probably wasn’t worth it given what he was getting paid. Veteran depth piece Jordan Dunstan is gone, too.

Last year’s USPORTs pick, Gabriel Balbinotti, is gone, too. I’d put money on Forge regretting that one in the near future, much as they did letting Abou Sissoko walk.

Key Players
Dejan Jakovic, centre-back

Jakovic is the steady, Canadian veteran brought in to teach Krutzen the finer ways of the Force, as well as put out any fires caused by the Belgian stepping way out to make an audacious pass.

There are a couple critical differences, though: first, Jakovic has never been as vocal a leader as Edgar. I think he does bring a lot of calmness and level-headedness to a team–some of this stuff is so intangible it can be communicated without even speaking, like in a séance. I really think this is the year Krutzen has to take over the organizing duties, vocally if not spiritually.

Second is that Jakovic hasn’t been a starter since 2015, when he was still playing in Japan. He’s actually two years older than Edgar, and has been playing with LAFC as a kind of depth sorcerer there, too, although he was forced into quite a lot of action last year due to injuries and absences ahead of him. Unfortunately, LAFC’s defense was not great, either.

It’s a real question how much more Jakovic has in the tank. He’s not played more than 1,200 minutes–about half a CanPL season–since 2014. The bet here is that “depth player in the J-League and MLS” will, combined with being a wise old mentor figure, translate into a good signing.

I think it probably will. Jakovic is a smart player who can conserve energy when he has to, and he’s always been a better-than-average player with the ball, which fits Forge’s system. Forge have a #3 centre-back in Dom Samuel to spell him off.

I’m a little worried about CanPL playoffs and CONCACAF League games, though. They’re going to have to choose Jakovic’s minutes, or else rely on Kyle Bekker’s ninja powers to make up for it.

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

I’m not sure we’ve actually seen the best from Bekker yet in this league, and he’s probably still been one of the top players in CanPL over the past two years.

He’s had to do a lot of work in attack, more than is probably ideal for him. Bekker’s slowly become a very good deep playmaker3Deep in other ways, too. and is best when he can just cycle Forge’s attack from deep and create the long spells of possession that are pretty rare but very welcome in CanPL.

In 2019, roster construction meant he had to do a bit more. Last summer, Paolo Sabak struggled to find his feet in the league and Bekker had to spend a lot of time outside the box. He’s always had those late runs, and scored a couple on PEI, as is his wont.

But I think this year might be the year he gets to go Pure Bekker. Sabak is a year more comfortable, Borges is back and should be better at playing inside if need be, and Forge have added some extra midfield depth in Navarro. With Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson beside him and Bekker finally free as a bird, Forge may finally have the perfect ideal of a midfield.

Mo Babouli, false nine

Babouli has had one hell of a career, first in CCAA, then catching on fire with TFC, then getting unceremoniously released by same, playing in Aleppo, Syria, and finally playing Major Indoor Soccer League in Mississauga.

He wasn’t, I don’t think, super effective on PEI. He certainly wasn’t super fit. But what Babouli can do isn’t really about pace, power, or strength like the vast majority of strikers in this league. He set up a solid handful of goals last year by drifting, dropping, and flicking–all those vaguely dodgy soccer moves that do, for real, have tactical meaning. Babouli operates between lines, a free agent, and when it works he sends wingers like Chris Nanco, David Choiniere, or Tristan Borges, into positions where they can’t miss.

Babouli with Borges is going to be very fun this summer.

But it is all on Babouli now. He rotated with Novak last summer, although by the end of the tournament Bobby pretty clearly had a preference. The past several years, in his case, have provided unique challenges to staying fit. There is no longer a solid B option behind him, or anyone to throw on when a goal is needed. Babouli simply must provide that himself, for ninety minutes, every game.

I’m not sure he has ever done that in his career.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Have I mentioned Anthony Novak recently?

One of the great conundrums around Forge through two years has been that they’re fundamentally a different team when Novak’s out there. Go watch their third-ever match against Pacific, Forge’s first win, and see. Or just about any of the CONCACAF games. There’s a reason he went from a projected depth piece to drinking off the shield.

This is why I brought up Bobby’s ambitions and loyalties before. Forge are among the most well-drilled team in CanPL, with a clear system and a clear commitment to their coach’s fundamentals and ideals. So goes Bobby, so goes Forge.

I think Novak’s departure is primarily about money and/or a desire from Novak for something new, but it is also a re-commitment to those fundamental values and a move away from a player who deliberately broke them.

From the first word I wrote about Forge, they’ve been, for me, a push-pull between those values and what can actually work in a league like CanPL, where some of the players are paid less than $20,000/year.

The truth is, there are times you need a player like Novak, evenn one without Novak’s intelligent movement, just to lump the ball towards him so he can hold it up and give everyone a breath.

Without him, and with Babouli, it’s a very different look. An inventive one, a bold one, an exciting one for Canadian soccer, and if Bobby can get this working in CONCACAF–I’m fairly confident he can–it’ll be worth more words than Novak’s noggin, that’s for sure.

It looks a bit like this:

It’s a 4-3-3. This is one of the “fundamentals”. Every manager who ever utters the word will play a 4-3-3. It just is.

Babouli’s a false nine. In this set-up, you need the wingers to attack from wide positions, either beating the fullbacks inside or driving back in from the byline, crossing for a late runner. Chris Nanco and David Choiniere need to finish more than they have to make up for Novak’s eight goals.

In midfield, if Babouli drops deep, it raises questions for Paolo Sabak, who’s not necessarily that comfortable making deep runs into the penalty area. Even last year, there were times he was crowded out by his own team, especially when Babouli played.

Bekker, too, has to stay deep, maybe even beside Sabak. There are different variants Forge could play to re-arrange the midfield a tad–that may have to through fixture congestion alone. I don’t think they have the centre-backs for a back three, but I could be wrong.

I don’t think Bobby’s ever played a true back three for any length of time, though.

This is still a tremendously talented roster. Forge are two-deep at most positions. I haven’t even mentioned guys like Max Tissot or Elimane Cissé, both of whom would probably start on most CanPL clubs. Kwame Awuah might be the best left-back in the league.

There are questions at right-back if Johnny Grant’s hamstrings let him down again, though we could see Tissot or Samuel there. In goal, Baj Maan looked very fragile when forced to play last year and while Triston Henry has been a tremendous success story, he’s prone to the odd mistake in big games.

But the real adventure is going to be up front, where it is all or nothing on Babouli as a false nine.

Projection: 3rd

Forge are very much in the top group of this league, absolutely. The top three teams, with maybe Pacific as an outside fourth, are very close. Forge could very well win it all again, especially if they’re healthy and in form when the playoffs roll around. In an one-off, I rate Bobby Smyrniotis’ coaching above almost anyone else.

But I think the loss of Novak is a substantial blow. Forge can, at times, play absolutely gorgeous football, but in those big games against Cavalry or CONCACAF4It does sometimes feel like you’re playing CONCACAF itself, doesn’t it?, it was always Novak popping up in the box to score the biggest goals at the biggest moments.

Then there’s Edgar, who would still reliably bail Forge out two or three times each game. They did manage to keep him healthy and will have to work the same magic with Jakovic, but even then I’m not sure Jakovic has the pace to sweep up the through-balls that can sometimes give Forge trouble.

There’s CONCACAF, plus the travel, all in a year when Forge have been unable to have a proper pre-season, to the club’s great frustration. I also think, when it counts, Forge may actually put more importance on the CONCACAF League than CanPL this year–the CONCACAF format is changing yet again5Seriously, Vic, I know you need to get the Caribbean teams more games and I actually agree that’s important, and it benefits Canada, too, but at some point you’ve got to let a format live a little, y’know? after this year, and it will give CanPL’s winner a much, much more difficult path. This might be Forge’s best chance to win.

And finally, there’s the commitment to ideals, to fundamentals, to one way of playing above all else. I have mixed feelings on this; there’s a degree of principle and personal preference in it, Bobby’s the manager, and I’m not. In a league like CanPL, though, through 28 games in the heat and on highly variable playing surfaces, an occasional bit of pragmatism can be crucial.

That pragmatism was Anthony Novak, and he’s now in Calgary.

 

 

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Surfing the Hype Wave: Pacific 2021 Preview

Pacific have the best attack in the league. No expense has been spared in creating this grand system to rule the stars of Canadian soccer. It is a terrifying sight to behold.

I wouldn’t want to be coaching a defense against their front four, firing on all cylinders. They are fast, fluid, and fun. But we have come into highly secret intelligence that, if you can get behind their midfield, you can exploit their weak point. A single attacker could bring the whole thing down.

Ironically, as Pacific have built that attack, they’ve also quietly moved on from the previous big Narrative, that Pacific were going all-in on playing the kids.

You could sort of see it coming on PEI last summer. Noah Verhoeven couldn’t get consistent minutes. Neither could Zach Verhoven, at least not at right wing, his preferred spot. It’s not total–Pacific still have a fairly young roster, and I’ll tell you lots below about how important 20-year-old Highlanders product Sean Young is to making it all work–but it’s a bizarre and fairly abrupt departure from the original mantra of playing local players. Michael Silberbauer should sue for wrongful dismissal.

Remember “For the Isle”? A good reminder that mottos matter a lot less than winning.

Now, Pacific under Pa-Modou Kah were definitely a better team in 2020, but they were also unbalanced, undone by difficulty finishing off some lovely moves and by a glaring tendency to get ripped apart through the middle on counter-attacks. Sound a bit like Silberbauer’s team? Sound a bit like York? Speaking of which, Pacific’s biggest offseason move was bringing in York’s Manny Aparicio, another transition phase maestro you need to carry a bit defensively. There is still no true defensive midfielder. They are still precipitously thin at centre-back.

Silberbauer may or may not have been a total misery, but his Pacific played so defensively because he had to, and he massively overachieved given what that roster looked like in 2019. Kah has built a very fun, very attacking group and has not overachieved in the slightest–but Pacific 2020 gave up a ridiculous six penalties in seven games, limped into the second round via a last-minute goal and, once there, scored one goal against the top teams in CanPL before getting eliminated.1Yeah, they put five past Wanderers in a game that didn’t matter against Halifax’s B-team. They were already eliminated by that point.

That’s not going to cut it, not with expectations the way they are. Pacific have discovered some serious ambition, led by the charismatic Kah, and the league’s been hyping them up again much like it did York[insert branding here] before the Potato Cup. What I can tell you is that Pacific will be fun to watch and almost impossible to defend against. I am more or less sure they’ll be among the top teams, but in the biggest games, I am absolutely certain that the defense they’ve kept together from year one is not going to get the job done.

Key Arrivals

Aparicio is really the only big one, and Pacific largely kept their group from 2020 together, which I can’t really argue with.

Figuring out where to play Aparicio is going to be fun, though. Kah slid between a few different variants of a 4-2-3-1 in 2020, and indeed there were times he really needed a string-pulling #10 to unlock spaces in the final third. Aparicio can do that.

But Pacific also signed the rather intriguing former Northern Irish U19 Ollie Bassett, who wears #10, but in that home countries trademark way that, say, Wayne Rooney wore it: that is, a creator but also a finisher the box, usually more as a second striker off a big target man. Kah used this set-up a fair bit in 2020, too, often with Verhoeven as the fox-in-the-box.

I tend to think that kind of #10 is also Alejandro Diaz’s best role. And you’ve got Terran Campbell who still actually leads Pacific in scoring even if he had a forgettable 2020 and was mostly dropped by Kah, at least when it came to starting games.

On top of all of this talent, Pacific also added Cape Verdean Gianni do Santos who plays… on the right, primarily! You start to see what I mean about forcing out the local kids? Campbell, one of the biggest local names coming out of Whitecaps 2, is now third on the depth chart at what I think is his best position.

But man, is that attack ever stacked.

Key Departures

Let’s talk about left-back.

Pacific didn’t actually have that many departures, and most of the ones they did have were injury enforced. First, Marcel de Jong–who had actually been gearing up for another last year–got hurt early in pre-season, and called time on a tremendous career. Then Pacific signed Duran Lee only to lose him shortly after to a season-ending Achilles injury.

Lee was already a bit of a gamble at left-back, as he’s on his third club in three years, though I do think he still has some of the potential he showed in flashes at Wanderers’ Grounds in 2019. Hopefully he can make it back–he’s still young and didn’t get much of a shot in Edmonton last year.

I tend to think Pacific are going to miss Zach Verhoven, too, not least because he did some spot duty for them at both fullback spots and now Pacific’s back-up left-back is a 19-year-old Chris Lee with very, very little experience of any kind beyond youth ball.

Given both Verhoeven and Verhoven remain in CanPL, we’ll get an idea in very short order whether or not Pacific made a mistake sailing on from two good, young, local players.

Key Players
Marco Bustos, one-footed right-winger

The more experienced defenders in this league are beginning to work out Marco Bustos’ one, great weakness: he has absolutely no right foot. Like, not even for standing on–it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall down in a stiff easterly breeze. Actually, come to think of it, some veteran defenders in this league might tell you he falls down at a slight gust in any direction (though only blowing towards the opponent’s net, funny that).

That this doesn’t really get mentioned is, again, a by-product of the league’s incessant desire to hype the positive and ignore the downside, which is too bad because some of the greatest stories in a league like CanPL, for me, lie in watching young players get better and learn their own strengths and weaknesses.

I think Bustos actually took a step in that direction last year, too. He’s still not a complete player and probably never will be. Perhaps he doesn’t need to be. He’s certainly a threat against any team off that right side, and I think if Pacific can offer him better options when he cuts in–I’m looking particularly at runs in the box here–Bustos’ natural tendency to, shall we say, self-belief can be rounded out.

He’s always going to draw a defender, maybe two. Merely having a lot of attacking bodies does not a functional attack make. Pacific and Pa-Modou Kah have to find a way to make sure that Bustos’ runs open up options more frequently, either through better off-the-ball movement or by having Bustos release the ball a touch or two earlier.

If I was him, I’d have spent the winter watching tape of Javier Acuna.

Terran Campbell, running forward

Campbell is one of the players who can make those runs for Bustos to find. And Pacific need him to: there’s actually no true #9 on this roster.

Even Campbell himself is kind of a converted right-winger. One of the challenges of his career thus far is no one can quite work out whether he’s an attacking winger or the kind of striker who harries defenses with very direct running–think Tesho Akindele here, for another Canadian example.2Sometimes these players get called “defensive forwards”, which always seems to me like damnation by faint praise.

He scored 11 goals for Pacific in 2019, only missing the league’s golden boot by a couple, and he didn’t always take penalties. He did most of that as a centre forward, so even if I kind of think he might be best as a direct wide attacker, in the system Pacific want to play under Kah, I think you need him as a high-energy #9 who can push the backline back and open the pockets Bustos and Aparicio want to turn into designer living rooms.

But Kah pretty clearly preferred Diaz in 2020, who’s a bit more of a hybrid, and will check back into those same pockets on occasion. He can occupy a defender to be sure, but he’s not high-energy enough to create havoc and space. I’ve spent the lead-up to the 2021 season rewatching the first round of the PEI tournament, and the picture that sticks in my mind for Pacific is Bustos cutting in against a packed box and losing the ball (often to a devastating counter the other way).

If Campbell can’t change that in 2021, I’m not sure Pacific have a player who can. And if Pacific can’t change that, they’re not going to unlock the better defenses in CanPL.

Sean Young, holding midfield

We’ll get into exactly how Kah will deploy Manny Aparicio in a moment, but however he does, Young is going to be key, much as he was in 2020.

Young is very young, only 20, and as a former Victoria Highlander, represents one of the last truly local players on Pacific. He didn’t start the 2020 tournament, but by the end of it, he was pretty much a regular beside Jamar Dixon, and for good reason.

He’s not flashy, and I thought about putting Dixon here, but Dixon often played more like a #8 for Pacific, and struggled in 2-v-1s when Pacific lost the ball upfield. Once Young came in, usually as the defensive half of a double-pivot with Dixon, things stabilized a lot.

If Aparicio starts in midfield–which I think he very well could given it’s a.) his best position, and b.) Pacific’s other attacking options–then whichever midfielder starts alongside him has to be able to read space in 2-v-1s extremely well. I actually think that might be Young as opposed to Dixon–there are other things Dixon absolutely gives you in terms of field coverage and attacking support, but as we’re about to see, what Pacific really need is that player who holds back, doesn’t make a mistake, and can recycle the ball mistake-free.

Tactics & Positional Depth

This is a still from Pacific’s first-round game against Forge, just after Pacific lost the ball in the attack.

Gabriel Balbinotti is just tucked behind Dixon there, and neither centre-back steps to stop him.

Bobby Smyrniotis, always savvy, abandoned his team’s typically slower build-out against Pacific and by-passed their re-press by having his defenders dink the ball over it into this part of midfield. Once that happened, because Pacific reliably send both of their extremely attacking fullbacks forward, they were left with just the centre-backs and Dixon until at least one of the fullbacks could recover.

This move ended with Gabriel Balbinotti missing a sitter off a 4-v-3 rush. Pacific had been attacking with seven guys before Diaz turned the ball over on a sloppy pass into the box.

Part of the reason it’s so dangerous is that while Lukas MacNaughton and Thomas Meilleur-Giguere have strengths as a centre-back combo, defending in space is not one of them. Dixon commits the foul here because neither of them is ever going to be able to step to Cissé and shuttle this attack into a less dangerous spot. It’s risk a yellow here or risk a penalty/red later in the move.

Here’s another still from Pacific’s game against Ottawa.

You could set up for hours in that space.

This one’s partly down to Acuna, who drifts into that pocket behind the fullback and then uses it to spin Dixon and create a 3-on-3 that eventually leads to Fisk missing a glorious chance.

Malcolm Shaw is not Messi, but he’s got hours here while Ben Fisk makes the supporting run, because nobody else is even close to getting back to help. Fisk somehow misses this chance, but Pacific went on to lose the game.

Pacific have never had any depth whatsoever at centre-back and it has cost them each and every season. Sometimes each and every game. Behind MacNaughton and TMG, there is only Abdou Samake, who only played three times on PEI, looked well out of his depth each time, and gave away a penalty to fit in with tradition.

On a top team, I think MacNaughton is one of the best #3 centre-backs in the league, but he struggles to lead the line. Meilleur-Giguere is coming off a MCL injury sustained before the Olympic qualifiers in March and you watch him defending York’s Alvaro Rivero here (on York’s only open play goal in 2020) and, yeah, Pacific’s defensive problems are not going away. You can probably make this combo work, but not with a team that attacks with as many players as Pacific do.

Goalkeeper was a battle throughout 2020, too. Neither Nolan Wirth nor Callum Irving staked a strong claim over the other–both had moments of madness and glory. Both are back, which is probably fine, but at some point one of them needs to give Pacific fans a sense of certainty back there.

I really like Jordan Haynes–he’s another USPORTs star with a great story, and he’ll always do a job for you and do it at 100% effort–but he’s not a top-half left-back in CanPL, especially when asked to defend in 2-v-1s. The one silver lining here is that he’s a more defensive option, and if Pacific can develop cohesion between him and Meilleur-Giguere, they might be able to shift some of the attacking balance to the right and make sure Haynes is back to help out on those counters. He didn’t play enough in 2020 to build a system around his strengths, but he’s likely to have to play 20+ games in 2021.

Pacific picked up Kunle Dada-Luke from Ottawa, who’s still a good prospect even if he didn’t play in 2020. It’s probably wise to regard him as a fullback, albeit a very attacking one, and with Kadin Chung, Pacific are two deep with very attacking right-backs who will happily go to the by-line when Bustos cuts in.

This is how I do it. The issue here is the same issues persist, but Pacific will be absolutely lethal on free-kicks.

It’s hard to know exactly how Kah will line up in 2021. There are subtle differences between the looks he used in 20203And no, I’m not talking about his sartorial looks, which are altogether much more convincing than Pacific’s tactical balance. I was a particular fan of the violently purple Pacific FC snood used as a mask. that will be more apparent when Aparicio plays because while Aparicio isn’t necessarily awful defensively, it’s not his strength and with Bustos and Diaz also out there, you have a lot of guys who aren’t doing much after the counter-press.

The thing with Aparicio is that he’s not quite cutting enough in his passing or movement to be a true #10, and he’s not defensively sound enough without the ball to be a #8. I have a suspicion this is partly why he’s no longer in York, because while Jim Brennan’s team were always terrific in transition, Aparicio often struggled to find runs in the box.

Between him and Bustos, the final pass should be less of a problem, but I have a hard time looking at Ollie Bassett and thinking he won’t play a fair bit, which does push Aparicio deeper and pushes Pacific into something closer to a 4-2-2-2.

I really think the approach here is to attack with 6+ guys and try and win games 5-3. If the league wants to hype that, fine by me.

There are ways you can make this work, for sure. For one, Bassett’s an interesting signing, albeit possibly in the same way a Valour signing is “interesting” before getting summarily released in June. Like many Valour signings, Bassett has played primarily in New Zealand, but he actually put up better numbers there than Moses Dyer. I feel like we have enough evidence now that the New Zealand league, which is partially amateur, is slightly below CanPL. My knock with these signings is you can find interesting forwards who can run at a man playing amateur ball all across Canada. Bassett needs to add a degree of cutting movement off the ball or he won’t start in this group.

Pacific are also oddly thin at left-wing, where there’s really only Victor Blasco, something of an old reliable stand-by now that we’re into season three. He doesn’t finish well enough to score more than a handful of goals, nor is his running really inventive enough to carve out chances he doesn’t have to grasp at. I can’t help but think that he’d be tremendous weapon to bring off the bench late in games, where his tremendous work-rate and general defensive responsibility would help balance Pacific’s champagne-glass attack.

You could see dos Santos or even Campbell playing on the left, too. There really are a lot of ways Kah could shake this line-up around, and over the course of the full 28-game season that’s probably a good option to have, since teams will begin to figure each other out.

Projection: 4th

The thing about a 28-game season, though (aside from “thank goodness”) is there are going to be injuries. Especially when teams are playing every three days.

It’s Pacific’s depth where I just can’t find answers, at least compared to the deeper teams in the league. I don’t want to say they’ve been lucky with injuries–not given what de Jong and Duran Lee have gone through–but they haven’t lost players en masse, either, the way, say, Cavalry did in 2020 or Wanderers did in 2019.

If that happens, the attack can sustain it, I think. That’s what’s so exciting about this Pacific team. The defense cannot.

Remember that Pacific were out in the first round on PEI but for a goal five minutes from time. Had they missed the second round, nobody’s talking about them as favourites this year. They found a way.

I mean, is this not the ever-elusive “sporty, yet stylish”?

If nothing else, I think that is what Pa-Modou Kah brought to his team that Michael Silberbauer did not, whatever else might be true about approaches, tactics, and choice of dresswear.

Pacific absolutely have the attacking firepower to compete right there with the top of the league. I really do think Kah will find a way to get the various pieces in this attack to work. They will score goals aplenty. That might be enough to push them a good long way, maybe higher than fourth, maybe even to a playoff final, far enough the defense doesn’t matter.

But if they can’t defend in space, it’ll be a frustrating season. I’m not sure exactly how much that will cost them–in 2019 it was points, in 2020 it was penalties, and I’m not sure which I’d pick–but it will cost them, and that will be the difference between Pacific in the final and Pacific riding the hype wave into fourth and not quite living up to it.

If they bomb the way York did last year, I suspect Manny Aparicio will be looking for another club along with most of the core Pacific has built.

 

 

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

 

Sophomore Year: Ottleti 2021 Preview

Atlético Ottawa only had seven games in their first-ever season, so it seems fair to consider the coming 2021 season something of a second first season. It’s a bit that way for the league as a whole, after all.

Not that Ottleti were bad in 2020. They finished tied with Valour for sixth, below Winnipeg thanks only to coughing up four goals against them. There were more than a few bumps like that, but CanPL’s only expansion team so far also played fun, free-flowing football, mostly built around the league’s best player in Mexican Javier Acuna.

That style is likely going to change, not least because Acuna is gone. Instead, Ottawa have pivoted to a much more conventional expansion build, and a smart one, around a pile of lesser-known Canadians with something to prove. It is not going to be sexy, but as constructed, this team should be better.

They will, at some point this fall, play in front of fans for the first time. Until that happens, Ottawa are playing with house money. They’re the only team that’s been able to put together a full pre-season ahead of this pandemic-contorted tournament, and have had to a chance to try a few things in games against lower-level teams in Spain. They will be coming in more fit than most teams, with some familiarity pre-built, and should roll up some points early, at least.

This is still a project. The most loyal fans in Ottawa will have watched last year online, but they’ve also watched a lot of Fury teams over the years, and those teams have tended to draw best when they were winning. That is where Ottawa needs to get to.

It won’t happen overnight, and nobody is under any illusions that Ottawa will be good in 2021, either. But this team was always going to have to develop an identity beyond Acuna, and beyond any imports parent club Atlético Madrid might send on loan (of which there have been very few, so far, likely due to the pandemic).

It is really quite astoundingly rotten luck for a club to begin life in the midst of Covid-19. The challenges for year two, to my view, are mostly off-field: ride the wave of re-opening to a solid initial fan-base, win some games, and build on that.

A gritty team full of long-in-the-tooth Canucks can do that.

At 33, Jordan Webb is a veteran of the Singaporean league and the perfect signing for an expansion team. (Photo: Matt Zambonin via Atlético Ottawa)
Key Arrivals

It was predictable enough that Ottawa would move on from most of the year one team. A good chunk of them were, after all, signed days before the PEI tournament began, halfway to emergency fill-ins who will always have the distinction of being Ottleti’s inaugural side.

The only real pattern to this winter’s signings was each leaking, usually in hilarious fashion, well before being announced. Drew Beckie showed up wearing an Ottleti kit in a Saskatchewan expansion video. Ryan Telfer announced his arrival himself months before the club got around to it. Chris Mannella leaked on a roster aggregator site.

Many of these are intra-league moves typical of an expansion team as Ottawa seek to build a solid core out of players who deserve a bit more faith. Goalkeeper Dylon Powley and winger Zach Verhoven definitely fit that bill, and both Telfer and Mannella are cast-offs from whatever York is trying to accomplish this winter. Both, I think, have more to give.

There have been a couple of late loanees from Atlético Madrid–in keeping with tradition, arriving after I’d already written most of this preview. Alberto Soto is the most highly-rated, but it’s worth noting that a.) he’ll likely have to quarantine before playing, and b.) he’s still played mostly youth ball, albeit at a very high level, with his professional minutes coming in Spain’s fourth division.

Miguel Acosta and Rafael Nunez are also byproducts of Atlético, or at least its scouting network. Of the three, only Acosta is likely to start, though Soto might be an intriguing option in games where Ottawa want to play on the front foot.

We’ll likely see more of those moves when the pandemic is over, but Ottawa were always going to need to find proven Canadians first, and that’s what they’ve done.

I do like that Ottawa managed to retain 2020 contributors like Milo Kapor, Ben McKendry, and Brandon John. Those guys now have an idea what this team wants to be and what level it will need to achieve. Ottawa also got key internationals Tevin Shaw and Oseh Bernardinho into the country. It’s actually a pretty established, experienced group.

Key Departures

Acuna went back to Liga MX after getting an offer from Necaxa, which is par for the course with journeyman players. Even if he was only in the league for a month, he still left a substantial impression on it, both in terms of skill–we are a ways off having regulars in CanPL who can pass like he did–but also commitment. He came into a new league, played on turf in PEI every three days, and carried an expansion team on his back. He set a level every international arrival should aspire to.

Also gone are guys like Ben Fisk, Ajay Khabra, Malyk Hamilton and Mo Kourouma, all of whom showed flashes in 2020 but in the end didn’t set any level anyone could aspire to, at least not consistently. Of them, the only one I wish Ottawa had kept is Kourouma, who did after all score the team’s first-ever goal.

There’s no replacement #10, and there’s no replacing a player like Acuna in this league. Sensibly, Ottawa haven’t swung for the fences with some academy kid from a big-name club using 21st Club. Instead, they’ve built a front six that’s workmanlike, physical, and Canadian.

Key Players
Ryan Telfer, left-wing

Telfer was supposed to be one of the biggest players in CanPL. Initially on loan from TFC, then signed outright by York9 in 2020, he hasn’t been anywhere near as impactful as hoped.

He broke out in OUA, then had a good year with TFC II, which got him signed to the first-team. He scored that winning goal against Orlando, and also the first goal in CanPL history. But he’s only managed nine more with York, across nearly 40 games–by no means bad, but never the pure goalscoring threat from the wing York needed him to be.

This is a big season for Telfer, who replaces Fisk on the left, but who’ll have to fight with Bernardinho for minutes. I tend to think York mis-ued him a bit, and that he’ll be more suited to the wide forward role I expect he’ll play more of for Mista this year. Ottawa need him to put up six or seven goals, though, and be the kind of threat with his direct running that he wasn’t often enough in York. Too often, Telfer settles for a low-percentage final ball, or ends up off-balance attacking the box. One-on-one, though, he’s still a dangerous attacker in CanPL.

I wrote a very similar blurb for Fisk in last year’s preview, and his career is probably over now.

Viti Martinez, central midfielder

I put Viti here last year, too. Expansion teams are always a bit of an extended try-out, and Viti, a player from Spain’s lower leagues, stuck.

His role behind Acuna was a bit different than what he’ll be asked to do this year, where he’ll have to pick up the considerable playmaking slack from the Mexican’s departure.

It’s a big task facing him, but one he’s suited for. Martinez is really more of a free #8, but he scored a huge goal for Ottawa last year and was dangerous on multiple occasions.

He’s also been playing all winter, mostly off the bench, with Alavés B in Spain. It’s not a terribly high level compared to some CanPL players who’ve gone on loan this winter, but he has played and a whole lot of this league is pushing a year without a game.

Tevin Shaw, defensive mid

Shaw is perhaps the best player who couldn’t get in the country last year due to border restrictions. He’s a Jamaican international with six caps, CONCACAF Champions League experience, and real minutes in the Jamaican Premier League.

We haven’t seen him yet, so it’s obviously tough to pin exactly how he’ll factor, but 2020 Ottleti with Shaw aren’t giving up twelve goals and aren’t finishing on eight points. Given how close the standings ended up, it’s quite possible 2020 Ottleti with Shaw are in the second round.

Even if not, one of the key problems for Mista to solve was a tendency for his team to get pulled apart in the defensive third, especially in transition. Shaw, who sits in midfield, breaks up play, and distributes quickly, will help mightily with that, and could also be key to advancing Ottawa up-field on counter-attacks. Which as we’ll see….

Tactics & Positional Depth

…Ottawa are going to be all about getting the ball forward fast and then letting big wide forwards bully opposing defenders. This is going to be such an unsexy team compared to last year.

That’s not a knock. Last year was “pass it to Acuna and see what happens”. More often than not, despite Acuna’s vision and passing range, not much happened because Ottleti were way too passive, waiting for something to happen rather than creating it themselves. Every so often, Acuna just got fed up and tried something himself. Some of the time, it worked, and that was Ottleti.

I doubt there’ll be any passivity from this group, particularly in attack, which is a who’s who of workmanlike producers from lower league football. There’s a fair bit of Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC approach in Ottawa’s roster, a system that is almost always competitive, often on the cheap, by pressing in smart places and going direct to three strong, fast wide players as soon as possible.

In Jordan Webb, Shawn-Claude Lawson, and Brian Wright, Ottawa have three Canadian forwards you’ve probably never heard of, all of whom have put up real numbers at their previous clubs in, respectively, Singapore, Detroit, and Birmingham.1Wright may be the most familiar, a New England Revolution draft pick who never really caught on. I always end up confusing him with Brian White, who’s just joined Vancouver. White, who’s American, is the more proven player, but Wright likely has more to give at a level that’s not MLS. Throw in Telfer and returnee Malcolm Shaw and you have a group that’s got well over 300 professional games and about 150 goals between them.

(Webb also has the best personal website in CanPL. Somebody at league office should pay him to re-design the league website. I am entirely OK if CanPL.ca changes its motto to “Born. Breed. Superstar.”)

You can line those guys up in a bunch of different ways, but behind them, Ottawa also have three more defensive midfielders, so I’d put a fair bit on three direct forwards up front. Wright probably edges Lawson to the #9 job, but Lawson had 51 goals for Detroit in NISA and NASL, and I’d imagine Mista will go with whomever is scoring.

This is a solid CanPL line-up, with some flexibility if Mista wants to tweak either the midfield or front line.

That midfield is, I’d argue, one of the better three-man units in CanPL. Mannella was injured for the most of the 2020 tournament2In these parts, we refer to it as the Potato Cup., so essentially joins Ottleti having last played for Ottawa Fury, which is a nice little loop.

Mannella can certainly get forward, but is primarily a #8. So is Viti, though I’d expect him to push slightly higher, maybe even into more of a 4-2-3-1 if Bernardinho plays on the left and inverts to help in possession.

In poaching Zach Verhoven from Pacific, Ottawa have both an excellent depth piece up front and probably a back-up full-back.

(I’m not going to re-do the graphic for Soto alone, but it’s safe to assume he’d replace Viti here, and he gives Ottawa some flexibility and depth. Nunez, who’s just 19, is a fairly straight swap with Verhoven.)

Defense is going to be the big question. There’s decent depth everywhere else, but in the backline it’d come down to young Montreal loanee Keesean Ferdinand, and there’s still no depth behind right-back Miguel Acosta or marauding left-back Vashon Neufville.

Misfires, especially at fullback, cost Ottawa dearly in 2020. They were far too easy to play through, especially in channels, where the team’s rotations looked, well, like an expansion team’s. Malyk Hamilton is off to his sixth club in six years for a reason and Jarred Phillips couldn’t make the jump to CanPL. The centre-back pairing of Milovan Kapor and Brandon John was better than expected but still awfully mistake prone.

That pairing remains an option, but is supplemented by another veteran Canadian in Drew Beckie (yes, Janine’s brother). He had a scary heart problem a few years ago but has been playing in USL pretty steadily, and is actually another connection not just to the Fury, but to the last time the Fury were good. He could start at right-back, but I think is more likely to displace Brandon John. John’s a solid #3 centre-back in this league, but not a starter.

In Neufville, Ottawa have one of the best attacking left-backs in the league, so they’re not going to be short on attacking options if and when they want to throw numbers up. The biggest thing for Neufville to learn this year–he’s still quite a young player–is when to stay back so he’s not caught by turnovers. Milo Kapor does not have the pace to put out those fires in the left channel and Neufville’s discipline on counter-attacks was not great at times last year.

When he gets forward, though, he’s one of the best left-backs in the league at attacking the box.

Projection: 5th

I think this team is going to be better than a lot of people think.

The system is simple but effective and Ottawa have signed pieces that make sense within it. There will be limited temptation to tinker. They drafted well back in January and, if they sign Chris Malekos and Reggie Laryea, are five deep at centre-back with lots of flexibility.3As of this writing, they haven’t signed them yet. Or, to put this is Ottleti terms, the signings haven’t leaked yet. They have precisely two spots open and will need every bit of depth they can get. Not signing them would be a strange decision, especially given both are decent prospects and Malekos is local. The Merchant Sailor Last-Minute Update™: It looks like Ottawa are going to make a strange decision and not sign them. That is bold given the team’s lack of depth at centre-back, and defensive struggles.

It is, as mentioned, not going to be sexy. They will likely have to outwork teams and outlast teams, and if the defense is as leaky as last year, this projection is going to look very silly, but I mostly rate Drew Beckie and Tevin Shaw to help patch that up.

Maybe I’m being a bit favourable because I like that this team has, thus far, been heavily Canadian even though it’s foreign-owned. In giving guys like Telfer, Wright, and Lawson a different kind of chance, Ottleti are serving Canadian soccer in a real way.

That’s worth cheering for. I know there’s some ambivalence in Ottawa, after the long, weird start to Ottleti’s life as a club. It may take a bit to come together, but once they get home they should get some additional energy and workhorse players often thrive on that. Even in 2020, they gave good teams a good run, and if things go well, they’ll give good teams a run for a playoff spot this year.

 

 

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

 

Valour FC, Brought To You By ITV: Valour 2021 Preview

I kind of love how Rob Gale builds his team. It’s with nothing bu 100% effort and belief. Every guy is the next big thing, and about 80% of the guys he hypes will be unceremoniously released after being complete busts, but damn if it isn’t the most entertaining show in Canadian soccer.

There’s always someone new just as there’s always someone on the outs. Someone’s always in trouble with the (immigration) law1Valour rather set the pattern for the Covid era by having Nestor Navia fail to get a visa all the way back in early 2019. and there are always rumours of sordid affairs flying around.

As usual, this season is much the same, but with a few new wrinkles and a couple twists nobody saw coming. Federico Pena is back in a new position! Remember Amir Soto, the guy nobody had ever heard of? Jared Ulloa, who nobody had ever heard of, either, but who is Canadian, has been popular with advance viewers–what’s not to like about an 18-year-old Canuck who’s never played a professional game coming in on loan from Peru? I have absolutely no idea what will happen, but I’m eager to find out!

The show was legitimately better in 2020 after a rocky inaugural season, credit where due to the writers’ room. They did this mostly by inverting the 2019 problem–always a creative solution–and 2020 Valour could not build an attack if the plot depended on it. They were tough at the back, though–no more 0-8s, lots of 0-2s.

I’d posit that a lot of that defensive improvement was a bit of an illusion, in that it came from a pair of cameos in Julian Dunn and James Pantemis who are now back in primetime on MLS. Gale played a very defensive 4-4-1-1, often with two fullbacks–Brett Levis and Fraser Aird–as his wingmen. Austin Ricci, who really is a winger, played #9 for a few episodes, which is why Valour only scored one goal from open play in 2020, and that was from Dylan Carreiro, who left town in the night this past winter.

But there are signs of hope! Andrew Jean-Baptiste is back, as is Arnold Bouka Moutou2Eventually–he’s apparently stuck somewhere, presumably in quarantine. and whatever is left of his hamstring. Kéven Aleman didn’t show up in Edmonton but we’ll see how he likes Winnipeg.

Gale’s even had a bit of an adventure in Central America in the off-season. It’s something he’s done before and something I wish more CanPL coaches would try, even if border restrictions in the age of Covid meant that neither Nestor Monge nor Valour’s latest man of mystery at centre forward, Ronny Maza, made it into the country. In the case of Monge, it’s a real pity as the Costa Rican international would have been a marquee star in this league.

Let’s be clear, this is the best in a long, long line of excellent expressions Rob Gale has produced. A snowed-under IG Field in the background is an especially nice touch.

I can’t fault Gale’s ambition. I love that he talks his guys up in pre-season, as he’s been doing recently with Ulloa and was doing with Maza before that fell apart. Among the CanPL coaches, Gale can actually be one of the most critical of his own team in post-match pressers. He’s never dishonest. It’s just it can be tough to play with that kind of constant drama, always an underdog story, always a chip on the shoulder. It can work for some guys, but now Valour are hosting a mini-tournament and need some results to prove that 2020’s ideas weren’t just a flash in the pan.

Key Arrivals

Well, we did some of them above, but a weekly series never sleeps, Valour still have two roster spots open, and Gale does like to bring on an aging star or two mid-season.

I was really hoping to see Monge, who’s not flashy but would have had a chance to be the rock in Valour’s midfield that he was in Saprissa’s. As a result of his exit, Valour really, really lack a creative force. Aleman, who actually played with Monge in Costa Rica, is going to have to produce way more than he did for Edmonton in 2020.

Gale often drafts well (I’ve consistently rated him highly in my draft pieces) and did again this year, signing a USPORTs player for the first time since Dylan Carreiro. Tony Mikhael, who was recently called up by Lebanon’s U22 side, is a ball-playing centre-back who was quietly a very steady prospect at Carleton alongside Christopher Malekos. Gale did well there.

CanPL kids, Reyes’ level of suit is what you aspire to one day. If you don’t have one, ask your uncle in Guadalajara. He does.

It’s a young back-line in general with Soto and Rodrigo Reyes behind injury-prone veteran Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Reyes is a loanee from Chivas de Guadalajara, which represents a promising partnership even if they have a spotty history with North American affiliates. I do like that Valour are building connections in Central America, though, and Reyes, while young, captained Chivas’ U20 side, which is no small thing.

There’s Rafael Galhardo, too. Announced only recently, he’s still in quarantine in Toronto but will arrive eventually. I’ll believe it when I see him live to make sure he’s not Raphael Garcia in a suit, but if and when we do meet him, Galhardo has a serious résumé and is another very ambitious signing, if a slightly odd one given he’s at least primarily a right-back3Rob Gale has said he may play as a #10, but Rob Gale says a lot of things.. Valour now have a lot of their cap tied up in two fullbacks, which is a very creative approach to cap management.

Even if Galhardo plays in midfield eventually, what this team desperately needs is a centre forward. It looks like Ricci will get another shot (no problem there, though I still think he’s a winger), William Akio is coming out of NCAA where he put up some good numbers with Rio Grande Valley while also playing with Foothills in Calgary. The caveat with him is that WAC is a very new soccer conference with some weaker teams, but I like that Valour are going back to giving Prairie kids a shot.

Mind you, they still haven’t signed Caelann Budhoo. I assume they’re saving him for the big finale.

Key Departures

When he first signed, I didn’t anticipate dedicating several paragraphs to Dylan Carreiro, but here we are. He’s earned it through his nearly 30 matches in CanPL.

From the start, he’s been one of Valour’s most creative, if steady, midfielders. He scored the pick of their goals on PEI, a gorgeous curler against Ottawa, their only from open play, and set up a pile of their others off set-pieces. Neither did he ever take a shift off defensively.

I can’t actually believe the club let him walk. Now, technically, he retired, but he intimated pretty clearly over the winter that it was about money and about players not feeling heard. We know CanPL teams spend considerably more on some internationals–look at Bouka Moutou and Galhardo–and that leaves capable domestics with better options outside of soccer. I will be surprised if those two big-name fullbacks play more than thirty games combined for Valour, and neither will bring the creativity in the middle that Valour so desperately need (though I suspect, as below, that the intent is to attack from wide positions).

Either way, Carreiro is gone. Also gone are Raphael Garcia and Diego Gutierrez, two more young Canadians who could play either fullback or midfield.

Solomon Antwi of Glow Lamp Academy is gone, which is not surprising, though I did think he showed some attacking industry on PEI even if he had all the finesse of a Salford row-house. He barely got a look-in, really.

Shaan Hundal is now in Fort Lauderdale with Inter Miami’s B team, where he is scoring for fun, probably because he has guys like Matias Pellegrini feeding him the ball. That has always been the book on Hundal–he’s a pure poacher, and exactly what Valour need, except he really was pretty miserable for them in 2020. They so rarely managed to create anything dangerous in attack that he could get on the end of. I get why they moved on, but it’s CanPL’s loss.

Key Players
This is how everyone should aspire to hold a soccer ball. We can learn much from Galan in Canada.
José Galan, midfield

Galan adores playing in Winnipeg and is a great ambassador for the league and city, and a great leader for the team.

He’s usually Valour’s best hope of moving the ball forward, too, and his passing range is pretty good for this league. What he can’t do is cover for any turnovers, but that’s more a by-product of Valour’s lack of options ahead of him and he has Raph Ohin next to him to take care of that. That midfield combo is a big reason Valour improved so much defensively in 2020.

He’s not quite a replacement for Monge, not at this stage of his career, which is a pity because the two of them together would have been interesting, too. You can’t blame that on Galan and you absolutely can blame it on Covid and the overall difficulty in signing a replacement for Monge, but without a doubt a lot will fall on his shoulders this year and he’ll need to stay healthy in what will be, bizarrely, his first full season in CanPL.

Masta Kacher, left wing

Kacher was one of the brightest attackers for Valour in 2020, and his injury midway through the PEI tournament really scuppered a lot of their attacking identity.

He was coming off an injury-plagued 2019, too, and this is going to be one of the biggest challenges overall for Valour in 2021. If Kacher stays healthy, however, I think he’s one of the better left-wingers in the league, as indeed he was a legit prospect in USL, too. He can attack off both feet and makes good decisions in and around the box, plus had the technique to score a beauty of a goal, one of the real moments for Valour last year.

I like those kind of goals and would like to see more of them from Valour, please.

Raphael Ohin, defensive midfield

Ohin is quietly one of the better midfielders in CanPL–until he goes into a tackle, and then he’s anything but quiet.

He’s one of the players I think will benefit most from playing in front of fans. He emerged a bit later in 2019, and was a bit more raw, and so because of Covid, really hasn’t had the opportunity to boss a midfield in front of Red River Rising yet. They will appreciate it.

PEI was big for Ohin. Nobody has played many games lately, but partly through injuries and partly through form, Ohin had the chance to lock down a starting spot in 2020 and really kicked on from the rugged but rash player he could be in 2019. He’s not super young, but he is a local Winnipegger making good on an opportunity, and that’s something Valour need to do more of. He absolutely went to the limit for his hometown team last year, too.

I don’t know if there’s a model for a club in Winnipeg that doesn’t involve at least some development of young, local players. I don’t know if there’s a model in CanPL that doesn’t involve that, to be honest. You can’t recruit your way through, certainly not in Winnipeg and certainly not with a former CSA youth coach in charge. Too often, this club has tried young guys and given up on them. Ohin is the one they’ve stuck with, and he’s paid off.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Remember 2019 Valour? In the defense-optional 3-4-3?

They were more inconsistent than actually bad, and they were all kinds of fun. When I wrote in the main preview that teams need to take advantage of the return of fans, I think a lot about Valour.

In 2020, Valour were consistent but pretty hard to watch. That can be a step along the way, and injuries were definitely part of it, but the way the roster is built strongly suggests the defense-first approach is here to stay. It’s reminiscent of a coach trying to save his job, which Gale still may well be.

The lack of any pure playmaker is telling, as is the addition of a highly-skilled fullback like Galhardo, if and when he does play. Fraser Aird is gone, but both players show how Valour approached play: build out through the fullbacks and then the wide midfielders–sometimes inverting, to slightly hilarious effect–culminating in a cross into the box.

The obvious problem here is that Austin Ricci is 5’8″ and basically a winger who even then doesn’t really score instinctively. He’s played 17 games between York and Valour and has put up no goals and only one assist. There are parts of his game I like, particularly his ability to get defenders off balance with his pace, but he’s not getting on the end of your crosses under any circumstances.

Akio, who’s 5’9″ and also primarily a winger, also seems an odd choice to play there, too. Valour really need someone like Daryl Fordyce. Fortunately, they do have Fordyce. Unfortunately, he has one goal in the past four years, which he scored off the rebound of his own missed penalty last year. He’s 34 now and his legs were so far gone on PEI that he mostly played as a midfielder. I cannot imagine he’s going to hold up better in Prairie heat over a 28 game season. If he knocks in a couple goals, that’d be a fitting end to a storied Canadian career for the Irishman, but he can’t be your top guy anymore.

So, yeah, there’s something a bit patchwork about this Valour team. You can see where Maza–who it’s worth noting is also small–would have gone. You can sort of see, in moving out Aird and adding the more technical Galhardo, eventually, that Valour want more of that attack to originate from wingers or even wingbacks running at the opposing defence, rather than an aimless cross. Something like this:

It’s really a very old-school 4-5-1. When it works, it’s about hitting on the break with fast, direct wingers. It can work in CanPL, if the talent is there.

Arnold Bouka Moutou played about sixty minutes combined on PEI, and that was the only time you could sort of see this happening. I cannot imagine how he is going to manage a 28-game season. Realistically, he just isn’t. He’s also not available yet.

Brett Levis isn’t as comfortable going forward, but can provide some of that from the left, especially if he can continue his promising partnership with Kacher. He was also injured on PEI, however.

Some of that injury crisis was bad luck, and no doubt caused by the long lay-off, Valour won’t be in a much better situation this summer, either. The thing is, you can look at PEI as a bit of a test run for what this summer is going to be: a short, high-intensity season on turf, whereas this year is going to be a short, high-intensity season on turf, in the heat, followed by more of the same, mostly, just with more travel. Guys who did not make it through last year are unlikely to fare better this year, unfortunately. It’s honestly not a great look that the league is set up this way, given the increasing demands on players, but it is what it is in the current climate.

Neither is there a great deal of depth at centre-back. If Jean-Baptiste goes down (again), there’s no one over the age of 22, and more starkly, no one who has played more than a handful of professional minutes. Amir Soto, who’s barely played in the not-that-great Panamanian league, is really a complete unknown.

There’s better depth out wide–quite a bit of it, even–which will allow Gale to chop and change much as he did last year, when it was kind of a carousel trying to find pieces that were, first and foremost, healthy and then, if possible, dangerous.

Kacher is key, obviously. Federico Pena developed a bit in 2020 and should help. There’s Moses Dyer, the former New Zealand U20 who will run at guys and compete in the air but didn’t really show much beyond what you can find in your average Canadian men’s league. Jared Ulloa is interesting, but Rob Gale’s hype should be tempered by the fact he’s 18.

Kéven Aléman is going to have to tie a lot of this together, filling the #10 role Carreiro filled last year. In some ways, he’s a similar player, and I think he’s actually best as a linking playmaker rather than someone tasked with advancing the ball every time. He spent a good portion of his time in Costa Rica transitioning to playing as a shuttling #8. I’d almost rather see him in a three-man midfield with Ohin and Galan, and the wingers further forward.

You can see why Gale might try Galhardo higher up, and this XI is getting closer, but there’s a lot of unproven pieces.

Oh, and goalkeeper is always an adventure in Winnipeg. Matt Silva, who came out of League 1 Ontario but barely played at York, is now the starter, though I wouldn’t be surprised at all if 19-year-old Jonathan Sirois gets a shot. He’s considered a fairly promising prospect in Montreal, much as Pantemis was. If Valour struggle, I suspect they may pivot to something of a youth project while they wait for a rebuild when the border re-opens.

Projection: 6th

Part of me is higher on this team than I was on last year’s, so this projection is a bit odd, I realize. There are bright spots, and you can almost see how guys like Kacher, Aleman, and Ohin would fit as solid pieces into a core that otherwise doesn’t exist.

But everyone above them has gotten better, and Valour has mostly remained as they were last year: a mediocre side that was better defensively but inept in attack.

I’ve often thought what Valour, as a club, really need to do is just put up their hands, acknowledge, “hey, we did not get the initial build right,” and press the big red button. But then, to an extent, that’s exactly what they did in changing tactics and personnel fairly radically, only to get caught out by the pandemic. It’s very tough timing.

I could see Valour going hyper-local and focusing on development–they’d be bad but it’d be fun–only they cut all the young players after 2019, and the rest of them after 2020. They could try to establish a Prairie-wide4Hell, throw in Northern Ontario, too–Thunder Bay is closer to Winnipeg than Toronto, and has quite an active soccer community. team to drum up interest and unearth talent in a part of the country that gets ignored in soccer. Or sign more USPORTs players, as Wanderers have done–there were several good Prairie kids in the draft this year, and Valour invited a few to camp, but yet again passed on them, even in a year where getting foreign players in has been a challenge.

It’s hard to look at this team and figure out what it actually needs, aside from maybe a new showrunner. Running with more mid-30s veterans like Bouka Moutou, Fordyce, and Galan amounts to throwing in a bad plot device to extend the inevitable, and follows on signing guys like Michele Paolucci and Josip Golubar in much the same way.

In Andrew Jean-Baptiste and, potentially, Rafael Galhardo, I can sort of see the beginnings of a couple key pieces–both are in their late 20s, bring experience, and Jean-Baptiste has clearly helped change the culture at the club. But beyond that? There’s some depth, and maybe Gale stumbles onto something that works like a Hollywood writer inspired by the faint smell of pepperoni lingering in the writer’s room long after everyone else has gone home. Maybe they use home turf to vault up the table before the travel kicks in.5Valour are among the teams most hard done by the unbalanced schedule–to an extent, all the western teams are, since the distances are so much greater. But where Cavalry and Edmonton are a short bus ride apart, and an hour flight from Pacific, Valour have to cross half the country to play twice in Victoria. At least Gale will avoid the Atlantica Hotel this year. It’ll still be there next year, Rob, don’t worry.

A best-case for Valour this year might have been a shortened season, but what they really need is to find a way to stir up local Winnipeg soccer fans the way Pacific and Wanderers have on either coast. Otherwise, the defining image of Covid sports–the cavernous, empty, echoing stadium–is going to define Valour’s existence, and relegate the club to a vehicle to fill Bombers’ off-weeks at IG Field.

No team needs to take the opportunity in a 2021 season more than Valour. If they can use that to motivate themselves, and build a solid and deep core around the flashier veterans, they could well exceed my expectations, and I’d be happy to see how it all unfolds.

After all, it’s a long season and there could well be more twists ahead yet.

 

 

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

 

Ten Years On: FC Edmonton 2021 Preview

I was surprised when Jeff Paulus stepped down, until I thought about it for a few minutes.

Paulus is one of the most stand-up guys in Canadian soccer. He was always going to take responsibility first, even if little that happened last season, at least in my view, was his fault. That doesn’t matter. The buck stops with him.

I’ve met all the coaches in CanPL (save Pa-Modou Kah) at press conferences in Halifax, and Paulus was a former navy man through and through: he’s candid, perceptive, well-spoken, unafraid to answer hard questions. I do not think we have seen the last of him in Canadian soccer.

Whether Edmonton needed a new voice or not is tough to say without being in the room. To me, it looked like 2020 was more about Amer Didic being cleated by Kyle Bekker, about Kéven Aleman yelling at young prospects, about inaugural captain Chris Kooy’s tragic passing.

Paulus took all that on his shoulders. This was a team he’d coached to third overall in 2019. It had problems, even many of them, but last place in 2020 is  on the players.

Most of them are still around, even as Alan Koch and Eric Newendorp usher in a new regime as coach and GM, respectively–Paulus had been doing both.

Newendorp is kind of fascinating in his own right: he’s an American baseball guy from Oklahoma whose main involvement with soccer was with Rayo OKC, a club to which the words “ill-fated” don’t do justice. I doubt Newendorp ever wants to hear the word Rayo ever again, and Eddies games against Ottawa could be interesting because I wouldn’t blame him if he harboured a grudge against the entire city of Madrid, and not just the Vallecas neighbourhood.

The thing is, FC Edmonton is in a challenging spot off the field right now. What this club needs more than anything–and what Newendorp promised upon being hired–is to win. Enter Alan Koch, and your 2021 Eddies.

I have a theory with Alan Koch, which is that he doesn’t (yet) know all that much about CanPL and is basically running FC Edmonton like a low-budget USL team.

Given Koch’s success with a (not so low-budget) USL team, this isn’t a bad strategy. He led FC Cincinnati to a US Open Cup semi-final, and nearly beyond. Before that, he coached with Whitecaps Residency and with Simon Fraser, and neither program does a lot of the pan-Canadian unearthing of talent that falls within the purview of a Canadian Premier League side.

This working theory is how you get Kyle Porter, who a few more than a few years ago was a decently average USL player. He has since declined, first with Atlanta Silverbacks and then with Tampa in USL, more recently with York, where he’s been little more than an occasional starter, and rarely impactful even then.

On the other hand, Porter’s a well-spoken and composed veteran presence in a team that needed one. Whatever he can provide on the pitch, he will provide it with professionalism and dedication. He’s never been anything but.

It’s also how you get Fraser Aird, who is not necessarily as professional, and here things get a bit more worrying. Aird is coming over from Valour, where he had more cards than assists, which isn’t unheard of for him, but the former Rangers prospect has now been released by a Scottish League Two side and Valour in the past 18 months. But he was briefly a Whitecap and was in the Canadian pool for a while in the middle of last decade, so Koch knows about him and here we are.

Both Aird and Porter are basically serviceable wide midfielders–Porter’s a touch more flexible–who will be defensively responsible and offensively abject. If that tells us anything about Koch’s tactics, are they any different from Paulus’ tactics? Or Colin Miller’s? Edmonton have too often settled for a 4-4-2 with defensive wingers and a big guy up front. It’s got them a woeful offensive record in multiple leagues for the better part of the past ten years, and they were at times almost unwatchable in 2020.1I just did a rewatch of the PEI tournament, mostly while working out. Edmonton’s games are genuinely hard to get through.

2021 is the club’s ten-year anniversary, not that you’d know it.2It’s nine seasons played, so given Covid-19 and such, we may see more hullabaloo for the 2022 season. I hope so, anyway. When fans eventually return in August, it would be great if the Eddies, for the first time in years, were an exciting, winning team.

Instead, a week before the season starts, key players are choosing to retire and, while there are some interesting additions, much hinges on Koch being able to bring the same workmanlike efficacy to Edmonton as he did Cincinnati.

It did work for him there, at least until MLS came along.

We have a rule here at The Merchant Sailor: every FC Edmonton post must include the team’s real mascot.
Key Arrivals

There are fewer arrivals than you might have thought, given the change in management this winter. That may be a by-product of Covid-19–certainly, Raul Tito has been unable to make it into the country again, and has now been released–but I suspect it’s also a by-product of the lack of contacts this club has outside of the local scene, an area where Newendorp has a lot of work ahead.

They did draft better this year, though Newendorp (Koch wasn’t hired yet) stayed with the tried-and-tested rather than unearthing anyone less known when drafting Tommy Gardner and Jackson Farmer. Farmer, who’s been bouncing around since the open trials, still hasn’t managed to wrangle a contract. Gardner, who does have some promise if he can stay healthy and motivated, has, and adds depth in midfield.

Hunter Gorskie is a big-ish add, too, and another with ample USL experience. Along with Didic, Mélé Temguia, and Ramon Soria, Edmonton have tremendous depth on the back-line, and whatever happens with their attack, they ought to be able to defend their way to some points. That worked okay in 2019, but I think the league’s level is higher now.

Koch salvaged Paris Gee, a little-known Canadian, from the St. Louis FC firesale. He can play fullback or in midfield, and more or less replaces former open trialist Son Yong-chan. (That we’re still talking about open trialists with Edmonton is, I might posit, part of the recruitment problem.3It was a fun marketing fling, and produced a surprising number of players who were helpful in bolstering out the rosters in the first year. A couple, like Kodai Iida and Emilio Estevez, went on to better things, and that’s great.)

The biggest and best addition, however, is Shamit Shome from CF Montreal. I’m surprised again, this time that Montreal let him walk. He will be a very, very good player in CanPL–exactly how he’ll be used is a mystery for later–but he’s the sort of young, Canadian piece Edmonton can build around for as long as he wants to be here.

There are a few intriguing forwards, too–Tomas Warschewski, Beto Avila, and attacking midfielder Tomas Giraldo–who I’ll get to below so we can get on with the departures.

Key Departures

A couple of the veteran guys are gone: Tomi Ameobi leaves with only four goals in 29 games for Edmonton in the CanPL era, which was nowhere near good enough. Kareem Moses, who had some run-ins with Jeff Paulus but always stuck around and did a job, has also moved on.

Gone, too, are a whole pile of underwhelming recruits from 2020 who did not do anything like a job. I pin a lot of Edmonton’s Island Games performance on these guys–on a young team, you need the newcomers to show up. Erik Zetterberg didn’t. Neither did Kéven Aleman. Hanson Boakai got a second chance and delivered more or less the same thing he always has: intriguing runs with little end product. This is a team that has been far, far too willing to give second and even third chances to any player from Edmonton. Even Shome is a former Eddie. It’s a noble touch, but far too many of those players haven’t worked out, weren’t likely to, and seemed to take playing in CanPL as a bit of a walk in the park.

A lot of local youth departed this winter, too. That does happen in football, but you hate to see a player like Chance Carter–a legit prospect in this league–choosing to retire mere days before the season to pursue opportunities that will, presumably, pay him more. This is a challenge for the league as a whole, not just Edmonton, but a club that prides itself on its academy is going to have to lead the way in finding solutions to it.

Key Players
Tomas Warschewski, advanced forward

This spot could–maybe should, given how the side relies on him–belong to Easton Ongaro. But through two seasons, we more or less know what Ongaro is. He’ll score goals, but he’s often hung out to dry up front with no support. It’s hard to over-state how little movement there was in that attack last year.

Warschewski is a German youth prospect who comes from a smaller club in Preussen Munster in the third flight, and as such flew under the radar a bit until the German U19 program called him up. He’s scored in the European U19 Championship (against England, so you know he’s got quality) and apparently drew interest from Bundesliga sides, though a move never materialized.

Part of the reason for that might be that his numbers with Munster were never knock-your-socks-off, which is what the top-flight clubs look for. He has scored in youth leagues and can play wide as well, but I really want to see him in a partnership with Ongaro where his mobility and physicality can provide support for the behemoth Canadian.

Ongaro’s a funny player. He’s 6’8″, so obviously a force in the air, but he’s also got soft feet and sometimes plays around big physical battles a bit–not so much avoiding them as playing less directly than you’d expect him to, and instead dropping off the line a fair bit, receiving the ball and distributing, almost like a #10. He needs someone to distribute to.

Koch often used Fanendo Adi this way at Cincinatti, as a kind of technical focal point in attack. Granted, Adi could be mercurial, but the bones of the idea are good, and Ongaro has the tools to pull those strings and the work ethic to do it consistently.

German players often develop a bit later, and Warschewski is another 23-year-old, league-mandated international looking to establish himself as a pro. If CanPL is going to give those players an opportunity ahead of Canadian players, I want to see them help make the Canadians around them better.

Shamit Shome, central midfielder

Everything in Edmonton this year hinges on Shome. He is the only creative player in this midfield now that Raul Tito is gone, and he is going to have to do the bulk of the dirty work in a team that probably isn’t going to have the ball a lot.

This suits him, and he suits how Alan Koch teams typically play. Shome is industrious–you can tell he came out of Edmonton’s academy–but is also, in my view, one of the best Canadian prospects when it comes to hitting a line-splitting pass.

The one challenge here is he’s not really a true attacking midfielder. Edmonton do not have that. Shome’s an #8, better in pockets and on the half-turn than, frankly, pretty much every midfielder in CanPL save maybe Kyle Bekker or Andre Rampersad (who is also very, very good at this, and a similar kind of player to Shome). Shome is up there with Ralph Priso and Liam Fraser, both of whom are (more or less) in MLS.

Shome could play his way back into that league (in which case Edmonton need to get a good fee out of it). He could also be the bedrock for FC Edmonton for years to come.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Particularly in Cincinnati, Koch specialized in getting a lot out of guys who, on paper, didn’t always look like that much. Andrew Wiedeman was a star for that team, remember.

They were even occasionally entertaining while doing it, albeit usually in a fast, direct way. I don’t think that’s a bad omen for a team in Edmonton, and if they can model things a bit on FC Cincinnati, maybe minus the endless rotation of bad Dutch managers,4Shoulda never fired Koch, guys. that would be great. I’d love to see a workmanlike, likeable Eddies group play a few games in Fort Mac, for instance.

 

That probably means a 4-4-2, with the strike partnership built around Ongaro as explained above. It could be Beto Avila or Tomas Warschewski or someone else; either way, it’s key.

Behind that, it’s a pretty defensive group. Before Tito’s visa problems, you could see a kind of unbalaned midfield with Porter as a defensive, pressing pivot and Tito as your creator off the left. The Peruvian’s departure means Shome is going to have to do a huge amount of work.

Koch may have to tweak things there to get a proper playmaker on the field at some point. Antony Caceres is an intriguing, academy-produced option there–he’s mostly a left-sided player, so you could pencil him in for Tito.

Jeannot Esua is not the kind of fullback who puts in a great cross, but his engine is unmatched and Edmonton are going to need him to provide that width all season long. They have to do better about giving him support, though: Esua’s decision-making has gotten a lot better over the past two years but his technical ability is below-average and he can’t be asked to attack the box one-on-one as often as he was in 2020.

On the left, it’ll probably be Paris Gee, who can also get forward, while Ramon Soria slides into midfield as a deep-lying distributor to allow Shome to get further forward and take risks. Both are solid options and could swap if the situation demands it, though at 32, Soria might be best sheltered from too much running given the schedule ahead.

Sharly Mabussi is getting a lot of press for a guy who’s coming in from the French fourth division. There were a bunch of open trialists from that level of league, and very few stuck. He did get some spot minutes as Stade Lavallois were getting relegated one year, but yeah, he’s a guy who has to prove he belongs in this league first.

There are enough pieces, particularly at centre-back, for Koch to play around with a back three if he wants, or potentially some sort of diamond in midfield, which we haven’t seen often in CanPL thus far.

 

This is still workmanlike, but all of those guys in midfield can cover ground, which you need to be able to do in a diamond. Gee, a converted midfielder, would be particularly interesting if he’s allowed to support possession further forward, and the extra defensive cover might ease Amer Didic’s workload and also allow some of the younger players–Gardner, Montreal loanee Tomas Giraldo, or even Marcus Velado-Tsegaye.

Velado-Tsegaye, who missed most of 2020 with injuries and most of 2019 with high school, still managed to score one of the goals of the tournament last year. He’s still raw, and he needs this season to be a big one where he can pile up some serious miles. I think he’ll benefit from the reps and if Koch is brave, he’ll start him on the left from day one and let his veteran defenders absorb any defensive mistakes the youngster makes.

Projection: 7th

This is very much a rebuild. But for the pandemic, there might have been some more signings, but the reality of the league right now means Edmonton will be running light at least for the first while. This should be an anniversary year for the club; instead it’s going to be a season where, once more, fans will have to content themselves to getting excited about young players.

There’s a certain beauty in that. It is in no way out of line with the club’s philosophy or the approach taken from day one ten years ago. More than any other club in the league, at least as yet, FC Edmonton’s entire existence is about funneling unnoticed local talent up the pipeline.

That is always going to exist in a precarious balance with winning. I don’t have any problem at all with an FC Edmonton that’s a bottom-of-the-table CanPL team that produces real prospects.

How long can that last, however, given the landscape in Canadian soccer? We can’t take this team and its academy for granted any more than we can take the league for granted; it’s easy to sit and tweet or blog about how Canadian soccer needs to be academy-based, providing equal opportunity accessibility to players for as a long as possible. It is harder to actually build and run that kind of set-up, let alone get average sports fans to come watch it. The lower levels of North American soccer, from Mexico to the US to Canada, are littered with ambitions and the ruins of same.

In Eric Newendorp and Alan Koch, the Fath brothers have two guys who understand these challenges, and have lived them. Neither’s record is spotless. You don’t get those at this level of soccer. It’s about taking that experience and building something larger. There’s the germination of a decent team here, far from grown, but not dead, either, even after ten years.

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

 

Big Data: York Whatever 2021 Preview

There was something about York’s new branding that felt a bit like a new iYork. Sure, it probably has some nice quality-of-life features, the problem with exploding batteries has been fixed, and it’s got a bigger screen. It will, you are promised, open amazing new horizons—when it arrives. But your Sebastian Gutierrez is stuck in a box on a container ship and your William Wallace is waiting on a chip that’s only made in Taiwan, and by the time you actually get your new team, it’s going to be 2022 and everyone, including you, will have moved on to an even newer, even snazzier gizmo.

The funniest thing is that, in branding terms, York9 was actually pretty effective. It was, if nothing else, distinctive. Memorable. They had reasonably great inaugural kits and a bizarre alien motif. It was corky but in technical branding terms, it was really quite good at catching your eye.

York doesn’t really need a new logo or slicker presentation, though. It needs a soccer team, and a reason to watch said soccer team. Most of the rest is as much marketing these days: hopeful the superficial sales zazz will paper over the lack of any real substance, or any real value proposition.

The new logo is bland, but it doesn’t really matter. York’s problems have been on the field.

Or rather, it was the field itself. York Lions Stadium has been refurbished and, crucially, widened. The club will get another shot at a home opener without a lightning delay. The club has finally moved on from trying to have five captains.1Seriously, weird stuff like that hinders community outreach, especially in a soccer-savvy area like York or Vaughan. You want the captain to be a player kids want to come see–a Kyle Bekker or a Peter Schaale. This is progress.

But will anyone come? Does anyone care? Is talking about community just a buzzword when your President & GM, who is publicly hawking all this fizzle, isn’t even based in Canada?

We are told, repeatedly, that York has a plan, data-driven to the nine stripes, that everything is going to be just perfect as long as we trust the guy in charge who’s hip with the times, loves Scottish football (don’t we all right now?), and has great beard hygiene. It’s all risky without being unsafe, big without being brave, and everything the club has done this winter that matters has gone splat.

Key Arrivals

Even before having trouble getting almost all their big signings into the country, I was a bit confuddled as to what York were doing. It would really be more appropriate to do the departures section first, because the core of the team is very much gone, as are most of those signed to replace them.

There were early additions that suggested York wanted to bolster the backline. Dom Zator and Chrisno N’sa made intra-league moves to Toronto, in N’sa’s case, reuniting with his brother Félix, which is a nice story. Those moves made some sense, especially given Luca Gasparotto retired to take up hedge-trimming (yes, really).

York’s defending had never been great through its two years–Nate Ingham was regularly one of the busiest goalkeeper, and I remember Jim Brennan being visibly frustrated with his back four-but-sometimes-three in 2019. I can understand tinkering there and the additions make sense.

The latest crop of South American youngsters, out of big-name academies but without much int he way of professional experience, do not.

First, it’s not like we all thought, in December, that the border was going to suddenly re-open. I’m considerably less sympathetic this year to teams that didn’t plan around that in their signings. It’s a challenge, sure, but why release most of your midfield and rely on visas to replace it?

Even then, York’s record on South Americans is not great. You’ll recall Rodrigo Gattas. You’ll recall last year’s much-hyped star Gabriel Vasconcelos. Here’s what I wrote last year: sound familiar?

The league’s most hyped team–coincidentally, I’m sure, underperforming in the league’s biggest media market–has had a bit of a problem getting some of those big-name signings into the country due to Covid-19 border restrictions, which is a pity because some of them (not all of them) look promising.

A cynic might say last year’s Big Thing was a bit bullshit.

Shopping in Brazil and Argentina doesn’t make sense for CanPL teams, and even the smaller countries are scouted pretty heavily. Any player with real potential in an Argentinian or Brazilian academy gets gobbled up either by a byzantine agency set-up or a European team. At 22 and 23, we’re not getting players with growth potential we can sell on–that’s hopeful thinking driven by buzz, not reality. You can find academy wash-outs with a bit of skill in any county, including Canada.

Now, because Vasconcelos was such a bust in 2020, teenagers like Ijah Halley, Ferrari, and Right got real minutes. Wright scored and Ferrari set a couple up. Jim Brennan rewarded them with more minutes, and they were pretty good if pretty raw. I like this. I like that Brennan will go to Canadian teenagers at the drop of a hat. If that’s the Big Thing, I guess I’ll buy in. Worst that can happen is I lose some Bitcoin.

Key Departures

Of course, the real departures here are Lisandro Cabrera, William Wallace, Sebastian Gutierrez, and Matias Hernandez. Cabrera and Hernandez are out on loan, and York can retain Wallace and Gutierrez off-roster if they can afford to pay them and can convince them to sit around not playing for nine more months.

Any XI you penciled together back in May had those four as a big part of what York were doing, especially in the centre of the park.

They were supposed to replace most of what had been, in my view, one of the best midfields in the league. Chris Mannella, who barely played for York because of injury last summer, is now in Ottawa. So is Ryan Telfer. Joe Di Chiara is now a big piece of Cavalry’s midfield. Manny Aparicio is getting hyped up in Victoria. Morey Doner is now Halifax’s starting right-back.

None of these guys are washing out of the league. York just decided to move on. It does happen, in this sport.

Now it’s over to a bunch of kids, some already in the system and some signed with what feels like a degree of desperation. But it is the middle of a pandemic–out of desperation can come inspiration, or some other catchy slogan you can always use to sell the next Big Thing.

I’m all for second chances, but that’s what Terique Mohamed and Jordan Faria are at this point. Oswaldo Ramirez is kind of a fun story if only because he’s essentially a USPORTs player, just from the Mexican system instead.2Like in Canada, Central American universities do a lot of developmental work, especially outside of the big clubs (many of which actually have links to or history as university teams). I’ve always thought there’s a lot we could learn from that system, especially when it comes to scouting smaller centres, like Chiapas, where Ramirez played. Gerard Lavergne looks mostly like a favour to Atletico Pantoja, who have taken a bunch of York players on loan, but of all of these guys, Lavergne might be the most likely to start given York’s issues in central midfield.

Noah Verhoeven is an interesting addition if he can find some consistency beyond what he showed out west. He, too, is probably on his last chance at this level after catching some eyes way back in the league’s first weeks. Julian Ulbricht is another young international who’s been playing mostly off the bench in the German fourth flight. Ryan Lindsay is a 19-year-old centre-back with only a handful of pro minutes.

These guys are kids. It’s never entirely a bad idea to play the kids, but let’s do them the favour of keeping expectations in check. They don’t deserve to be up on stage with McNab alongside the robotic dog and flying car.

Key Players
Dom Zator, centre-back/right-back

It’s a big season for Zator.

He was a break-out star in Calgary, but he had Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s system around him and Jonathon Wheeldon, who’s criminally underrated around the league, beside him.

I’m curious to see how the former Whitecaps prospect does outside Calgary. Zator’s one of the CanPLers most likely to get a national team call-up, but he struggled a bit on his loan spell this winter and will be adapting to a new group in York, a group in which he’s likely to have to put out a lot of fires. If he passes this test, he can definitely handle a murky World Cup Qualifying night in CONCACAF.

Chrisno N’sa, centre-back/right-back

A lot will be expected of Chrisnovic N’sa, too, who broke out last year with Wanderers and is essentially a like-for-like swap with Doner. N’sa can be raw, but his ceiling is high.

N’sa is a player who has improved in this league. He started 2019 as a centre-back and ended it as a d-mid before getting moved to right-back in 2020, where he was much better. It’s not super obvious that he’s better than Morey Doner, but his ceiling might be higher.

I still think he might be better long-term as a centre-back. He has elite speed and strength, and reasonable size and bite. He’s by no means bad going forward, but more about industry than carving out chances himself, and I think if Brennan can get him to figure out where to play his first pass, he’ll slowly become one of the league’s better all-around defenders.

Alvaro Rivero, striker

Rivero is really the only semi-experienced goalscorer on York, and scored their only goal from open play last year.

I think he’ll end up playing a fair bit beside Lowell Wright, and I’m quite curious to see how that looks. Rivero’s movement is very Spanish: he can go direct, but he also does a lot of running into and out of spaces laterally. York struggled to see those runs in 2020–Vasconcelos had a similar problem.

I suspect that’s partly why Manny Aparicio is now several thousand kilometres away, and why York don’t really have an out-and-out playmaker in this new set-up. If they can find Rivero with more direct play, he’s got the technical ability to score some beautiful goals, like the one he put past Pacific last summer.

This goal, which is barely from open play–it’s a long ball off a goal-kick–should both terrify and excite Pacific fans, by the way. Manny Aparicio (!) beats Lukas MacNaughton (!!) to a header, and Meilleur-Giguere watches the ball fly into the top corner. But Rivero’s run is excellent.
Tactics & Positional Depth

Almost everything is riding on improvement from within.

On the bright side, I do think many of the club’s younger players–guys like Ijah Halley, Isaiah Johnston, and even Montreal loanee Cedric Toussaint, on top of Wright and Ferrari–can improve, and likely will this year. Minutes matter.

But York’s track record with young players isn’t that much better than their track record with South American imports. Austin Ricci barely got a look. Neither did Stephen Furlano or Emmanuel Zambazis. Dan Gogarty was let go halfway through 2019. All of those guys were a bit older, and mostly came out of TFC’s system, but York had the chance to be a young team the first go-round and mostly decided not to.

Now we’ve cycled back around, as trends tend to do.

With Petrasso and Diyaeddine Abzi, York do have two high-quality, experienced wide players who can play as either two-way wingers or wingbacks in something like this:

York probably have four of the better fullbacks in CanPL. How you get them on the field together is tricky.

I actually think that’s a pretty strong XI, but you can see the holes in midfield left by the South American exodus pretty clearly.

Petrasso’s been terrific while on loan in England, and York need him to stay healthy if this team is going to be at all competitive. Were he to get hurt, though, you do have Ferrari or Ijah Halley there, so there is depth in the wide positions.

There is something to like about going all-in on the kids. I’d even kind of applaud it (I did for Ottawa last year) but for the scattershot approach–you’ve got some spots where York are asking a lot of teenagers to take a big step up and others, like in defense, where they might not play as much at all.

I’d like to see Isaiah Johnston, briefly a Cape Breton Caper, get more time than he did in 2020. He’s a Patrick Vieira-esque midfielder who can link attack without even looking like he’s trying, and if he, Ferrari, and Wright were to click at the pro level all at once, York might suddenly become a lot more tantalizing, never mind who’s not here.

It’s also possible Brennan could radically shift how the team lines up and plays, or even try something very defensive a la Valour 2020,  but looking at the broad strokes of the youngsters, I actually kind of doubt it. There’s still a lot of skill–it’s just way, way less proven at this level.

Brennan’s used a 3-5-2 before, and I like the idea of Wright as a direct option with Rivero as a second striker. The midfield, however, is still dicey.

I’d kind of like to see York just throw caution to the winds, let the kids run, and lose a fair number of games 4-3. I don’t think that’ll happen, but I do wonder if that might actually be the best thing for the club this year. 4-3 losses are a lot more fun to watch than 1-0 losses. York haven’t been able to train much at all, it’s going to be a long, weird season, and expectations are low. Why not?

Projection: 8th

Generally, if you press the Big Red Button, you want some idea what you’re doing. And generally, you don’t want your plan to be a spin from the Magical Mystery Box that is 21st Club.

Even if the South Americans had made it in, York had gone from one of the most talented teams on paper to a team of unknowns, all off a tiny sample of games in 2020 in which they were almost comically unlucky in front of goal.

Which brings us back to that wonderful data we must never, under any circumstances, be allowed to see. Even with York’s USPORTs picks, coming out of a league that is notoriously bad about even managing to keep basic stats, McNab was talking about their great data, only to then pass on signing either of them, even though playmaker Chris Campoli looked interesting and has experience in League 1 Ontario. The data is just a coat of paint. Everyone can see through it.

The idea of playing Moneyball isn’t that you get to cast Brad Pitt. It’s using technical smarts to find value others might miss. In Canadian soccer, I’d suggest it might actually be finding players who don’t have large amounts of pre-existing data from an academy or existing set-up. It would be finding more Morey Doners in League 1 Ontario, commuting in from hours away just to get a chance to play. York sit on one of the deepest pools of talent in the country, but are instead bringing in 29-year-olds from the Danish semi-pro leagues, Mexican university players, and any South American cut by a big-name club.

Moneyball is seeing that St. Louis FC was about to shut down and snapping up Jérémy Gagon-Laparé or Paris Gee, or bringing Shawn-Claude Lawson back from NISA. Nor can you be a team based on technical smarts and not realize the Canadian border was going to be shut most of this year.

Smart is, in fact, the exact opposite of what York have done, which is chase trends, gizmos, and logos, as if they can sell the club entirely on buzzwords to Toronto soccer fans who have heard it all before. Even then, they’ve not yet been able to stick with any of their identities, or show any commitment to anyone, from the playing staff to the people running the show.

It won’t be fixed with a pitchdeck, slick demo, and marketing-fueled hope that soccer in Canada can work if we just change the CSS.

 

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About Dylan Matthias 179 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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