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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.