(Updated April 25th to fix a couple formatting catastrophes and add a bit more about League 1.)
New Depressing Opening
As often seems to be case, this blog manages to be out of date before even being published.
We take this responsibility seriously. This is what you pay us for. As such, you can skip this section entirely and read the out-of-date intro below by clicking here.
As is also increasingly the case, the Canadian Premier League dropped major news on a Monday morning and — once again, case, often — no one is seriously covering it because this league doesn’t actually get that much press.
There are enough unknowns in the announcement that Tork United is being taken over by the league that I don’t want to do a full post on it yet. Canadian Soccer Business’ release claims they “anticipate” new ownership, which could mean almost anything: I anticipate being alive tomorrow, but I also anticipate one day having an actual career. One of these is likelier to change than the other. For now, we’re in the dark as to which.
The fact none of the usual suspects are writing about it is certainly concerning. When the league wants to trumpet something, it gets all the One Soccer personalities to tweet it out en masse — it’s so scheduled you can almost set your watch to it. If there was an owner lined up, they’d trumpet it.
No, this is probably not good. There’s a certain subset of the reaction to the news that’s to gloat about York, or its attendance woes, as if York’s average of about 1,200 is markedly better than the league’s average of about 3,500 people at a game. It’s not.
Neither is sustainable, and gloating doesn’t help any more than so-called journalists not writing about the league’s problems for fear of portraying the league poorly.
Nor am I convinced it’s a marketing problem, or just about accessibility. Certainly, it takes more than promotion to make a team successful. I think York have made mistakes, particularly in the rebranding. I also think it would help if they won games more consistently. But neither of these things can be engineered. Building a soccer league is an art.
Every time a team struggles in this league, people point at Halifax. But for the benefit of anyone who reads this blog who isn’t from Nova Scotia, Halifa is a bit of an odd city in sports terms — it doesn’t have any other professional teams; it has a large parcel of public land sitting right downtown, including a derelict sports field that badly needed a facelift anyway; and the community has always supported its sports teams well, possibly because of the large chip Martimers are born with on their shoulders, at least until the league containing said team folds.
If the news out of Toronto is as ill as it looks, the league is in serious trouble, and that rather overshadows anything below. If a new owner can be found, it’s an opportunity to start fresh and rethink some of the core assumptions behind this league, like “if you build it, they will come,” and the idea that positive press equals positive attention.
Most of all, it’s an opportunity to get the league out of Toronto. But that’s a topic for another day….
Original Outdated Opening
Usually, after just two weeks of a season, not much of anything is clear.
This year, perhaps because it’s the fifth year, everything seems to be proceeding according to prognostication. Or, my prognostication, anyway. Not any of the people who had York being good.
D 1 – 1 @ Ottawa
L 1 – 2 v. Ottawa in Vaughan in the cup;
I’m not very optimistic on Wanderers’ chances this season, and that hasn’t changed any more than my feelings on York, but they’re doing quite a lot right through their first three games.
HERE WE GO, HALIFAX 😎
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 15, 2023
That first goal, against Ottawa — that was nice. A driving run by Aidan Daniels through the middle, a savvy dummy run from Kosi Nwafornso, a perfect late arrival from Zachary Fernandez.
They also gave up two soft goals across those three games, and tried damn hard to repeat that mistake in the third, eventually coughing up a late lead against Forge. It’s a young team, doing some rapid growth — mistakes will happen. They’re mistakes Wanderers fans recognize pretty easily, though.
The tactics have been very, very sexy. The reason I’m still not sold — on this year, mind — is the tactics were pretty sexy last year around this time, too: double-pivots galore, attacking fullbacks, lovely combinations.
They just didn’t finish all that well, got caught out a bit too often, ran out of gas, ran out of belief in themselves shortly thereafter, and were out of the playoffs by August.
This year’s team is already struggling to finish, is still getting caught a bit — you see how it goes. It’s a young team. I still have a huge amount of hope for 2024.
The home opener is a big chance to impress the fans, and impress upon themselves that they can actually win games.
That’s what these tactics are all about.
Next: The home opener, against expansion VanFC. Then out for the annual early-season disappointment in Winnipeg.
D 2 – 2 v. Cavalry
W 3 – 0 v. FC Laval in the cup; D 1 – 1 v. Wanderers in the league
Forge always start slow — give it two or three weeks and there’ll be think-pieces about how maybe this is the year they fall apart.
Give it two or three months and there’ll be think-pieces about how unstoppable they are.
I don’t think Forge have ever minded the slow starts. They don’t do a huge amount of high-intensity pre-season stuff. Every year, they figure some things out in the early going. Sometimes they make a late-spring signing.
This year, they’re also dealing with a few absences. Kyle Bekker has been ably deputized by Noah Jensen, who is coming off three goals in three games, and is already a better attacking player than Bekker was when he debuted in MLS as a 22-year-old.
What he doesn’t yet have is Bekker’s all-around sense of the game — Bekker developed from a golden-haired luxury player to a very unflashy midfield tempo-setter, and it’s that part of his game, not the free kicks, which make him so integral to Forge. But they’re deep enough to have Alessandro Hojabrpour (who’s about 75% of the way through the same transition) help out, too.
That both these guys are doing this in their early 20s instead of late 20s is why CanPl is so important for the future of the national team. There’s a lot of Jonathan Osorio in Jensen’s game, too — the way he finds late spaces around the box and does his best work in combination. Remember: Osorio didn’t really become the player he is now until he was about 25 or 26. If Jensen keeps playing like this, he could be sold this summer and he could be in the national team conversation a couple years from now.
The Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson absence was the bigger one, this past weekend. Bekker’s the tempo-setter, but Achinioti-Jonsson is the build-out guy. If neither is playing, Forge are the kind of team that drops home points to Wanderers.
Next: After three at home, Hamilton get two away, though the second is back at York after a marquee tilt against Pacific this weekend.
L 0 – 1 @ Pacific
L 0 – 1 @ York in the cup; W 2 – 1 v. Vancouver in the league
The league’s first real expansion team — Ottawa are an affiliate club and debuted in a pandemic — had a really intriguing start to life.
It’s taken them a bit of time. They were unlucky, I thought, in Langford, but Afshin Ghotbi went with a very structured approach — not necessarily defensive, but definitely a road game.
VanFC do some interesting things, particularly in getting the ball wide to players like Kwak Min-jae and, usually at this point, either Shaan Hundal or Gabriel Bitar. Which is a bit surprising on two levels — Kadin Chung is playing inverted and I think the long-term idea is to have Gael Sandoval doing more of that link-up work. He’s started a bit slow, gaining fitness, but played most of the match this past weekend and launched a bunch of really nice counters.
Hundal’s finally getting the proper run he deserves in this league, and both he and Bitar look like players revived. Everything behind them is kind of a work-in-progress, and I wasn’t surprised when Ghotbi said they’d missed out on a marquee #8. Summer will help this team settle, and so will their home opener.
Next: at Wanderers next weekend before their home opener against Cavalry
D 2 – 2 v. Forge
D 1 – 1 @ Pacific in the cup (L 4-5 on penalties); D 1 – 1 @ Pacific in the league
The Cavs are a much better case for the typical “we don’t know anything yet” early-season recap. They played Forge to a kind of inconclusive result on opening weekend, then slogged Pacific through what felt like a two-legged tie with the shoot-out in the middle. I liked the format.
They also put up some great examples of what I talked about in their preview, though, particularly against Forge. For parts of the game, especially early, they did their all-out tempo, and caused Forge some trouble. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t sustain it, though, and settled into possession for longer stretches, during which they really didn’t threaten enough. That’s the puzzle of this team, that Tommy Wheeldon Jr. still seems to be puzzling out.
Unhelpfully for him, he’s already losing guys to injury. Joe Mason went down in the cup. Charlie Trafford limped off, too. Those are important players. On the flipside, Goteh Ntignee’s had a bright start to his first full season, Jesse Daley’s been steady enough off the bench, and they’re very much a deep team again. They’ll be there again in October. Ask me then.
W 2 – 1 @ York
L 1 – 3 @ TSS Rovers in the cup; D 1 – 1 v. Ottawa in the league
Yeah, they lost in the cup. And it’s great for Richmond — everything the Voyageur’s Cup is about, especially since this is the first time a fan-owned club has won a game in this competition.
Everyone else has written a million words about TSS Rovers’ win, though, so I’m going to focus on Valour in CanPL instead, because you look at that travel mid-week and you can see why they lost.
In CanPL, they’ve been very very good. It’s still recognizably Valour, and recognizably Phil. It ain’t glorious. What they are doing so well is just blasting up and down the touchlines — Pacifique Niyongabire is the perfect international signing for this league. He has some real technical limits — this isn’t a reclamation of a European with pedigree, but Niyongabire is blinding fast, knows it, and makes decent decisions when he does beat his man.
To prove my point, he destroyed Lassana Faye on week one, and set up a goal.This is what it looks like when a team that’s ready for the season goes up against one that isn’t:
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 16, 2023
On week two, Matteo di Brienne did the same thing down the left to set up a rare Diego Gutierrez goal. This is Valour: they get the ball wide, and they run. Defending that, in this league, is harder than defending a bunch of technical players who don’t really fit.
I don’t know if they can keep it going, or if it’ll matter enough off the field to quash rumours the club is in peril. But it’s actually quite fun to watch, so hopefully people will.
Next: Out to Calgary for what will be a very physical match-up, then they host Wanderers on May 6th.
D 1 – 1 v. Wanderers
W 3 – 1 v. Wanderers in the cup; D 1 – 1 @ Valour in the league
I had to go and look up their result from this weekend, it was that unmemorable.
Ottleti are never especially aesthetic — they’re actually a good test case for the idea you don’t have to play sexy football to draw fans in this league; it’s all about community and character, which Ottawa ooze.
Like any proper protagonist, they got themselves badly behind in all three of their matches, then did what they couldn’t do last year and got back into games, even winning the one mid-week so they’ll have a cup quarter-final against Forge to look forward to. Win that, and they’ll be a very dangerous opponent for an MLS team.
What TSS Rovers did to Valour mid-week was both the tactics and appeal of Atletiball. Done well, counter-attacking football is fun to watch, just because it’s so fast. Every bounce matters because every challenge is a chance. Wanderers found that out last Wednesday, after Ottawa had enough time to figure out their patterns and disrupt them. CanPL teams play each other four times a season, sometimes more — there are no secrets in this league Ottleti can’t exploit.
Next: Likely another fairly boring game on Saturday against York in Toronto, then what will be a very interesting play-off rematch in Langford.
W 1 – 0 v. VanFC
D 1 – 1 v. Cavalry in the cup (W 5-4 on penalties); D 1 – 1 v. Cavalry in the league
Kind of a hum-drum opening for Pacific, who had the benefit of not having to leave the Island through three games. Tough to say much about them until they do, and even if I tried, there wasn’t much to say about the performances.
Easton Ongaro did a lot of what everyone thought he would, getting on the end of low crosses and providing some good hold-up play. Manny Aparicio got hurt, but Pacific are used to that by now and survived okay. Emil Gazdov looked mostly solid.
If there’s any concern, it’s in Cavalry looking more tired than dangerous by the end of the weekend, and in Pacific getting sucked into the Jose Escalante side-show again — he managed to initiate three separate mass confrontations on Sunday, which might be a new record, even for him.
That, or the fact the stadium was worryingly empty for both those games against Cavalry, though it did give us this week’s Salutation of the Week.
Next: Pacific stay in the Pacific to host Forge this Sunday before a trip east to face a similarly staggered-looking Ottawa side.
L 0 – 2 v. Valour
W 1 – 0 v. VanFC in the cup; L 1 – 2 v. VanFC in the league
(For the record: I wrote this before Monday’s news about the ownership, but I think it mostly still stands and I don’t have time to rewrite it.)
Sometimes, you look at a team and can just tell there’s something wrong off the field.
Wanderers fans will tell you this about 2019. It was obvious. Valour have had some of the same issues. Eventually, it either comes to the surface or you see a lot of players cleared out — for all it hurt, I still respect that Wanderers didn’t throw individuals under the bus in 2019. They could have.
York might need to start doing that, though. Going into year five, it is obvious something is broken. Once year five started, with three straight home games, the team played like they’d been called in to do bag-runs on a Sunday morning.
Nobody wanted to be there.
I can’t imagine it’s easy, playing in front of less than a thousand fans. I also can’t imagine it’s easy to push yourself when your club’s marquee international signings show up in town and yet again look like they don’t particularly care to be here, either because they aren’t professional enough or because they’re not being well supported in the transition. Or both.
Oussama Alou’s main contribution this week was one of the most flagrant dives in Canadian soccer history. Brem Soumaoro is playing at walking pace through three games. And by this weekend, Lassana Faye was being subbed on for the guy who got subbed on after getting roasted repeatedly by Pacifique Niyongabire on his first start.
All of these guys were much-heralded. All, we were told, had great data. All are, quite likely, making more than Paris Gee or Markiyan Votsekhovsky, who have been York’s best players through two weeks.
Not many of the local players have looked very motivated, either. Something is wrong off the field. If it doesn’t change soon, I wonder about Martin Nash, honestly.
I wonder if people will start looking at Gus McNab’s record of signings, too.
Next: away to a strong Ottawa side, then hosting Forge on a Friday night. Which means York could easily be winless two weeks from now.
Salutation of the Week
One of the reasons Starlight Stadium is such a great venue is that it’s so tightly packed. Whoever’s planning that mythical new get-up at Woodbine, take note.
What this means in practice is that there’s nowhere to put the sideline mics, and the “concourse” beneath the new grandstand, which is near the concession building, is absolutely teeming with kids.
It was blink-and-you-miss-it, but our title this week came when one of them got a hold of a mic during the Voyageur’s Cup game and did a little improv over Adam Jenkins on the One Soccer webcast. It’s at exactly 1:23:00 in the archived webcast.
If Jenkins heard it, he didn’t miss a beat. He and Jordan Wilson were lights-out on that game, by the way. One of One Soccer’s best-ever broadcasts, stolen completely by a bored ten-year-old.
Which is what the Voyageur’s Cup is all about. Just embrace the chaos.
Honourable mention, this week, to whatever this celebration from Cavalry’s Myer Bevan is supposed to be.
What are we seeing here? https://t.co/g6F16LKf35
— The Merchant Sailor (@merchant_sailor) April 15, 2023
Any other week, that’s our winner.
Wilson comparing Kunle Dada-Luke to a ninja turtle — same broadcast, about 38 minutes in on the player — also a very worthy contender.
League 1 Thought of the Week
I always mean to get around to watching more of these. The quality of play is terrific, there are real rivalries to enjoy.
Vaughan v. North Toronto is one of those, and was also the League 1 Ontario opener, available for free on YouTube so you can even go back and watch it. Loads of former CanPL players in this one, and some of them could absolutely still contribute. Chris Mannella, healthy again! Nyal Higgins and Emmanuel Zambazis! Wanderers fans will appreciate Ryan Robinson getting a run-out, just like he did for Wanderers.
Omar Marzouk has been scoring for fun for Vaughan through two weeks, too. Obviously, we have a test case of him failing to score against CF Montreal in the cup, but he’s been one of the top attacking talents in university soccer and semi-pro ball for a while. I still wonder if he could help a CanPL team.
On the flipside, I thought I’d watch St. Catharine’s v. FC London this weekend. Vaughan and NTN are top L1O teams. St. Catharine’s is not, though they still got a somewhat fortunately 2 – 1 home wine over London.
It was an interesting game in just how scrappy it was, and a good reminder that, while there are some very good players in League 1, there are also lots of players who are, shall we say, aspiring to be good.
I’m not generally a huge fan of the promotion/relegation discussion, but it bears mentioned relegation is coming to League 1 Ontario and this is the reason why it makes sense in this limited capacity. League 1 Ontario has to be a lot of things. Clubs like Vaughan are loaded with professional players who want to train six days a week and remain in the spotlight. A team like St. Catharine’s, a club which dates to 1967 and which has been some level of professionalih since the ’90s, is closer to a local high-performance U23 club, which is also what this league is supposed to be — even more so. The idea is local teams developing local players.
What I’m Watching This Week
Hopefully more League 1, with BC starting up this weekend.
Wanderers have their home opener, too, and that Pacific – Forge game is going to be tasty.
I’m not going to do liveblogs for every Wanderers game this year — I always set out to try, and I never make it all the way through the year. Especially with Wanderers likely to be off the pace later in the year, I think I’m going to stick with these recaps and try to do some deeper topics, plus liveblogs for the occasional game.
We’ll see in the coming weeks, anyway.