Wandering to Winnipeg: Wanderers 2021 Preview

Welcome back.

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.

About Dylan Matthias 178 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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