Tundra Turf: CanPL Weeks 1 & 2

Credit to Adam Jenkins for that call. One of his best.

If there’s one thing that’s distinctive about the Canadian Premier League, it’s variable playing surfaces. Variable conditions, too.

Artificial turf is a fact of life for soccer in Canada, and so are the injuries that come with. Travel doesn’t help, and already we’ve lost key players to injury, some before the season has even started.

Joao Morelli’s ACL injury will be the most painful for Wanderers fans, but it’s a league-wide problem. Raphael Ohin went down in pre-season. Cavalry lost a whole host of starting calibre players, and are now 0-and-2 to start the season. Andrew Jean-Baptiste is still coming back from an ACL injury last year.

No league is better than its star players. Whether because they’re exciting playmakers or local heroes, these are guys a broader fanbase comes to watch. Changes to the schedule will help with the sheer volume of injuries in the short-term. Long-term, getting more soccer-specific stadia and trying to avoid games in extreme cold and heat (where possible) will help, too.

But it sucks to watch big-name guys go down early. Part of the game, but fans in Halifax, Calgary, and Winnipeg will be wondering if the season isn’t at stake already.

As such, it’s appropriate to break out the first recap of the season, not least because alongside the injuries were some pretty thrilling games. It didn’t make sense to read too much into a season opener, so we’ll look at the first two weeks cumulatively.

Wanderers

W 1-0 @ York; L 0-1 @ Ottawa

I don’t think there’s any real silver lining to the Morelli injury. He was treated in Ottawa and is back in Halifax. There’s still no exact timeline, but it won’t be short.

If you’ll allow a fan to grasp, however…. Morelli masked what has been a pretty woeful attacking group. The club has readily admitted this, and will now have to face it systematically, rather than rely on the Brazilian to create two or three chances each game.

Aside from injuries to Akeem Garcia and now Morelli, a lot of Wanderers’ problems are frustratingly obvious. They don’t attack space well at all. For as confident as the team looked on opening night in York, they don’t think like goal-scorers.

This is the goal that undid them on week two in Ottawa. It’s a really simple goal, caused by Vladimir Moragrega making a run to the near post. It’s not even a great run. Moragrega is not going to win this ball and he’s not going to be an especially notable CanPL signing, but he doesn’t have to be, because he distracts Mateo Restrepo long enough for Malcolm Shaw to get off his shoulder and win the game.

Contrast this chance, at the other end.

 

Sam Salter, who led PLSQ in scoring a couple of years ago, doesn’t make a run to the back post. Morelli creates this chance, but if there’s any consolation for Wanderers fans this week, it’s that Aidan Daniels creates that chance, too.

But it won’t matter unless someone attacks the box with speed to bang home a rebound. They don’t all have to be pretty. As they say in puckball: go to the net!

Alex Marshall didn’t do this on week one, either. Some of the problem–maybe more than I’d like to admit–is systemic. In Garcia’s absence, Stephen Hart’s played Morelli as a false nine, and Morelli’s spent more time next to defensive midfielder Andre Rampersad than he has in the box. When you play a false nine, the wingers must pinch in and attack between the posts. Instead, they’ve been waiting around for Cory Bent to send gorgeous crosses to nobody.

Obviously Morelli is now out, and Garcia is training again so this might fix itself. But if the club wants to address its scoring problems — they have no goals from open play yet this year, and that penalty from York was a gift — they need to stop trying to get cute with systems play and consider using some of the roster relief from Morelli to find a striker willing to make the run Moragrega made on Saturday.

Next: @ Pacific on April 23

FC Edmonton

D 1 – 1 v. Valour; D 1 – 1 v. York

On-field, it’s been a lot better than anyone expected.

Sadly, off-field, it’s been about what you’d expect, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Eddies are now through two of the fourteen chances they’ll get to sell fans on this team and the temperature hasn’t topped zero yet.

The team of cast-offs and hopefuls has been way more fun than it could have been, but it’s also two games at home, and the Eddies have had to bunker for a lot of that. Nothing new there.

The pairing of Cale Loughrey and Luke Singh looks solid and the Eddies can break from that into a pretty nasty counterattack if you give them opportunities, which both Valour and York did — we’ll get to them below. I’m still not totally convinced Tobias Warschewski is going to score enough goals to carry this team, but carry them he did on opening weekend.

Before people get carried away: playing away is going to be a sterner test. The Eddies have often been about as close to negative expected goals on the road as a team can get. We’ll get our first look at how brave they’re willing to be next week, when they travel to face a winless and wounded Forge team in Hamilton.

Come mid-July, Edmonton have six straight away, criss-crossing the country twice in that span. They’re away almost the entirety of kids’ summer vacations, prime time to draw fans, which is another reason beyond the turf it’s so important for teams to control their own venues.

They need to put themselves in a position now — points-wise and interest wise — before the well of motivation and energy runs dry.

Next: @ Forge on April 23

York

L 0-1 v. Wanderers; D 1 – 1 @ Edmonton

Hasn’t quite clicked yet in North York. I have a fair bit of faith in Martin Nash as a coach and think it will in time, but we have 180 minutes now that have not been encouraging.

For one, a lot of the internationals have looked utter duds again. Sebastian Gutierrez has been rightly dropped once more after one of the most disinterested displays I’ve seen in CanPL against Halifax. Mateo Hernandez has racked up more matches suspended than he has minutes. Lisandro Cabrera is another injured star, though apparently close.

To be fair, I always manage to miss one player in the season previews and this time I missed Martin Graiciar. He’s injured too, of course, but he’s also a guy Fiorentina a million and a half for five years ago.

Now, those five years are instructive in Graiciar’s case — and York’s more generally — because there are a lot of similarities between him and Gabriel Vasconcelos, in that Graiciar came up through a respected youth system (several of them, actually) but once Fiorentina bought him as an 18-year-old, he could never kick into a first-team while on loan, in three tries.

It’s a tough world for young players, and Fiorentina have an excellent track record scouting Eastern Europeans, so they must have seen something from Graiciar. York desperately need him to show that — he hasn’t scored since 2018 — both up top, where he needs to replace / complement Lowell Wright1Who’s away with the U20s, but he’s not going to be in this league much longer, either. and at the same time add some threat from half spaces out wide or behind the strikers.

So far, almost all of York’s limited offense has come from Diyaeddine Abzi (he’s also carrying an injury) attacking from deep on the left and diving to try and win penalties. He’s very good at it. But it’s not enough to float a team.

They got very lucky to score late in Edmonton, courtesy Osaze De Rosario scoring a goal that was so much a De Ro goal I did a double-take. The young players have, once again, carried this team through three games. If they hadn’t, York would be on zero from two very winnable games, and I’d already be worried for Nash.

Next: Three at home, beginning April 22 v. Cavalry

Valour

D 1 – 1 @ Edmonton; L 2 – 3 @ Pacific

Edmonton are not going to be pushovers at home and it’ll take more than a little skill and a lot of luck to get anything from out west this year.

Valour look like they only have a little skill, though. Add Jean-Baptiste back into this group — he might have featured on the weekend but for their being out of it pretty early; there wasn’t much point — and I can see them being defensively sound enough, not unlike Rob Gale’s group.

Likewise, Phil dos Santos has indeed instilled a bit of self-belief and directness into the attacking group. There’s nothing fancy here, but they press and run fast when they get the ball. This phase lasted about three months in Vancouver until it became clear it could not win them a game if the dos Santos’s jobs depended on it, which they eventually did. For all their energy, Valour have much the same problem, and no way to break an opponent down when up against a bunker, which is what Edmonton showed them.

Both Edmonton and Pacific exploited Daryl Fordyce and either Jacob Carlos or Stef Cebara in the middle. Without Raph Ohin, there was a noticeable hole in defensive transitions, too. This was always the balance question for Gale — if the team pressed high and created attacks with a buzzsaw approach, they weren’t quick enough to get back. Sit too deep, and the goals dry up.

Now it’s only two road games, so I’m not actually all doom and gloom on a team I figured would be at least competitive. They have been competitive, even if the score in Victoria is flattering (Valour gave up over five expected goals against in that one — it was closer to being 8 – 1 than 3 – 3).

However, they have to play a very bright Ottleti side away before going home. On that note….

Next: @ Ottawa on April 24

Ottawa

W 2 – 1 v. Cavalry; W 1 – 0 v. Wanderers

The caveat about road games applies in reverse here, especially since Ottawa drew a very creditable and very rambunctious 5,300 fans to the home opener.2The week two attendance was disappointingly sparse, though. Factor in the turf and Ottawa’s going to be a tough place to play.

I also really like what Carlos Gonzalez has his team doing. It retains some of the basic ideas Mista implemented — Atléti ideas, basically — but all done a little faster, a little more to the strengths of guys like Shaw and Brian Wright. Neither of those guys is Radomel Falcao, but they’re hard to stop and they make good runs. If you scrolled down to here, scroll back up to see Shaw’s work against Halifax.

Gonzalez has been stylishly diplomatic and positive through two games, too.

Everyone is spouting nonsense about it,3Yes, Canada Soccer manages discipline for CanPL. The national FA manages discipline in like 98% of leagues the world over, for the obvious reason that it’s impartial and lends transparency to the process. This shouldn’t change, and is unlikely to. Every player in Canada works under these rules. but I actually don’t mind Drew Beckie’s red card late on against Cavalry. In past years, Ottawa got way too many silly reds. You don’t get anything from bad tackles, mouthing off, and the like. Centre-backs the world over step on people on corners because it’s a way to throw them off. it’s a risk, and Beckie got caught, but Cavalry do all of the same stuff and it’s part of why they’re an unpleasant and effective team.

It’s a different kind of diplomacy. Gonzalez may be soft spoken but he’s coached in some tough leagues. His Ottawa side are savvy this year, have two wins for it, and look nothing like the group of scared second-chancers they were under Mista.

Next: Ottawa play four of their first five at home4There’s a nasty road trip right at the end of the year because the CFL season will have kicked off., and host Valour on April 24 before heading to York.

Cavalry

L 1-2 @ Ottawa; D 2-2 @ Forge

People have been pretty hard on Cavalry through two weeks. I get it. Lofty expectations can lead you here. This was never going to be 2019’s Cavalry, though. They’re old, and they’re showing it.

I think they’ve been unlucky. They’ve given up more screamers than humanly possible over their first two games. That’s not sustainable but at least one, I’d guess, Marco Carducci saves, and he’ll be back soon. They also should have had a penalty against Ottawa that might have all but ended that one in the first half.

They’re nowhere near as ruthless as they have been in the past, thanks largely to injuries decimating the attacking group. A lot of times, it feels like they’re trying to attack and defend with the same guys, which is against the Cavalry ideal — roles are usually more defined. It’s unsettled, and given the injuries I’d expect (some) more signings.

The defense is more concerning, not least because it’s mostly healthy and five goals in 180 minutes is not the Cavalry ideal, either. Daan Klomp was comically error prone in Hamilton. Karifa Yao was all over the place. Cavalry might have been lucky to even hang around that game long enough to turn it into another classic.

I want another couple weeks with this team — enough time to get some of the minor injuries cleared; enough time to play York and face Pacific at Spruce Meadows — before I adjust my own expectations for this group. Tommy Wheeldon doesn’t seem overly concerned yet, and neither should you.

Next: @ York on April 22

Forge

L 1-2 @ Pacific; D 2-2 v. Cavalry

First off, that David Choiniere goal. The curve on that thing did not obey the laws of physics, never mind the laws of football.

It’s a good thing it found its way into the orbit of Julian Roloff’s goalpost, though, or else I’d be a bit worried about Forge, too. These were two tough games, and Hamilton have a host of injuries of their own to deal with, too, which has meant some bizarre set-ups, like Abou Sissoko out wide right, where he’s been retrograding between poor and mediocre,5Wanderers fans will take him back. Just saying. and Garven Metusala at right-back, which has just been ugly.

What is working is the midfield, where everything is perfectly balanced despite adding Alessandro Hojabrpour. Rather than drop deep like he’d been doing in Victoria, he’s playing a very similar role to that which Paolo Sabak was playing (not that well) last year. It lets him float around, connect things, play in Tristan Borges, and make runs from deep to do this.

The closing-down on that goal is not great, but Hojabrpour’s technique is. Hit a few more like that, and MLS teams will sit up and take notice. Heck, John Herdman might, too.

So yeah, I wouldn’t worry too much here, either. Early season; things happen. Forge tend to start slow, but by July they’ll be cruising and by October they’ll be in the final.

Next: v. Edmonton on April 24, which should give them a first win

Pacific

W 2-1 v. Forge; W 3-2 v. Valour

They’ve not missed a beat coming off that championship, the coaching change, roster shifteroos, everything. James Merriman deserves a lot of credit.

Seasons are not two games, and certainly not two home games. I doubt any team wants to go to the Island right now, though, and that’s always been one of Pacific’s greatest strengths — they just haven’t had full use of it since 2019 because eastern teams haven’t had to travel out there since last time we had a full season.

They’re also healthier than almost everybody right now, with a deep and talented team. They deserve the fear.

If I had to nitpick (I do always enjoy nitpicking Pacific), I’d key on a worrying tendency to let teams back into games. That’s been around since 2019, too. Both times so far, they’ve done it late enough it hasn’t mattered, but no coach wants to rely on that caveat, plus I’m sure Callum Irving would like a clean sheet.

A lot of those problems have been of their own direct creation, too. All Valour really did was press them, and not even that hard, but it was enough for Thomas Meilleur-Giguere — who not long ago was in the national team conversation — to pass straight into three consecutive turnovers, the last of which ended up in an own-goal by Kunle Dada-Luke.

I’m willing to chalk that up to early season wobbles, but going on the road is where a team has to cut those wobbles out, because that’s where they cost points.

Next: once more at home against Wanderers on April 23, then off to Edmonton mid-week

Discussion of the Week

Jonathan Sirois and Andy Baquero debate who should be marking Eddies attackers. Note the scoreline.

I’m hoping to do more “anatomy of a goal” posts this year, and almost did one for Tobias Warschewski’s goal on opening weekend before deciding it was too silly to even try to explain.

It does have an explanation, though, and it’s nothing to do with Warschewski and everything to do with our inquest of the week, which happened on the play before this, when Valour left Julian Ulbricht completely unmarked in the box.

Warschewski’s goal came from a free-kick deep in Edmonton’s defensive third, which was chased down by Wanderers prospect Wes Timoteo, and crossed to Warschewski, who had nobody within five yards of him (which is probably a good thing or he’d have kicked them in the face and the goal wouldn’t have counted).

That’s how you lose two points.

What I’m Watching Next Week

I’ll be curious to see how Wanderers set up against Pacific. Three points from three road games isn’t that bad, and this one’s going to be a tough game, but Pacific will give Wanderers some chances. I’d take a road goal. Any Wanderers fan would.

As mentioned above, I’m also curious to see Edmonton travel. If they manage to snatch points in Hamilton, I’ll be really impressed — and maybe a bit more willing to believe in this group.

On the field, at least.

About Dylan Matthias 216 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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