Back threes in Week 2: CanPL recap

We did not have the tooth thing at Wanderers' Grounds, but Luis Perea is on the board in CanPL.

CanPL teams generally do not have the depth, with 23-man rosters, to play back threes very often. So fans of that formation should treasure this past weekend, where we saw them from everyone!

Ideally, you want five or six centre-backs to play a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 regularly. Only Halifax really has that kind of CB depth and they’re one of the teams doesn’t look like they’ll use a back three. York and Valour, in particular, both seem set on that system, probably for its having an extra midfielder to help press opponents quickly. Or, it would have an extra midfielder if all of York’s weren’t hurt.

It’s still too early to draw too many conclusions about teams. I’m trying to hold off on too many advanced stats since sample size makes them very wonky with only two games, but at the same time, we’re 20% of the way into the spring season. So be very careful with these numbers from nascent CanPL data-watcher NorthsideXI, but:

For me, we’re still in the realm of one-off games. After all, Cavalry and Edmonton only opened their seasons this past weekend. But because of the short spring season, the next two weeks are absolutely critical, particularly for the two Ontario clubs who come out of Week 2 on one point each.

What I like most about this league so far is the parity. Top teams will start to emerge, but as Halifax fans found out first-hand at Wanderers’ Grounds, any team can beat any other in this league.

Wanderers (W 2 – 1 v. Forge)

It seems fitting that, yet again, much of the story of this match is off the field. Right from the start, that’s been people’s go-to line about Halifax: it’ll be a party, the first real professional soccer in Atlantic Canada, and let’s maybe not worry about what’s on the pitch.

They dominated much of this game, though, and did it against what was thought to be one of the better teams in the league, often pinning Forge back by turning them over again and again in midfield. Now, Forge haven’t been great and Wanderers match up well against them tactically, but Stephen Hart yet again got more than the sum of parts and is now the width of a Week 1 crossbar away from a dream start.

It was a nervier start from Halifax, with a very different line-up that saw Luis Perea, Kodai Iida, Andre Bona, and Kouamé Ouattara all come in. They had to defend a bit, but yet again didn’t give up a lot of clear chances: even the goal came largely from the two USPORTs upstarts–Bona and Peter Schaale–switching off for a moment.

That’s actually my bigger concern. They’ve now given up two goals that I don’t think Stephen Hart will be happy conceding. Both were very preventable. It’s worth noting they still didn’t have de facto #1 CB Chakib Hocine available, however.

The attack worked a lot better with Perea up top. Not only did he send the Kitchen into delirium with his winner, his hold-up play was quietly economical. He didn’t get a lot of touches because he didn’t need a lot of touches, often just laying off a smooth pass to Iida or Akeem Garcia. But some of Wanderers’ better offensive performance was also down to their build-up, which was much better. There was less desperation, and better movement in midfield off of and around Perea. That led to the Iida free kick from which Garcia scored Wanderers’ first-ever goal.

This isn’t going to be a team that attacks freely very often, instead opting to stay compact and frustrate teams into opening up space in behind. I’d still like to see Iida and Juan Gutierrez start together, but that’s unlikely to happen on a road trip to Calgary next week.

(Next: @ Cavalry on May 11th)

Forge FC (L 1 – 2 @ Halifax)

This result doesn’t merit a crisis for Forge. That was always going to be the narrative when they struggled in their first two games, but their first two games were also against opponents set up to prey on build-ups that slow down too much in midfield.

That’s exactly what happened to Forge at Wanderers Grounds. Kyle Bekker played most of the game as a #10, again flaring wide a lot, and Stephen Hart sat Kouamé Ouattara right on top of him all game. They don’t call Ouattara “The Beast” in AUS for nothing. Bekker had nowhere to go and turned over possession time and again.

Bobby Smyrniotis actually did a good job avoiding some of the tactical overcomplication that was an issue at home against York. It was a more pragmatic road game, and particularly for the first 15 minutes of the match, they pulled Wanderers all over the place with smart diagonals and lay-offs. After that, things got much more difficult, and a real air of frustration had set in by the middle of the match. They maybe should have had a second goal, but yet again precision let them down at key moments, and you could see Wanderers’ winner coming.

There’s something wrong with this team’s midfield, though. If Emery Welshman or Marcel Zajac had finished one of their chances it might have papered over the cracks much as Kadell Thomas’ start has. It’s a combination of things more than just Bekker, and I feel like I want to see how they set up against a Pacific team that will likely bunker on Wednesday before I pronounce too much. Those are huge points, though, if Forge want to stay in the running for the spring season.

(Update: As I write this, the CSA has just announced that Kyle Bekker has been suspended for two games. Whether that helps or hurts Forge’s midfield is up to you.)

(Next: vs. Pacific on May 8th)

Pacific FC (L 1 – 2 v. Valour)

So let’s talk about Pacific, eh?

It wasn’t that Pacific were bad against Valour last Wednesday–they yet again played a bit better than I thought they might–but the match exposed a lot of the structural weaknesses in this team. Those were the reason I had them last in my season preview.

CanPL is going to be a “win your home games” kind of league, particularly in the spring and particularly for Pacific. So this one hurts, especially since they were in with a chance.

Instead, Marcus Haber, well… best not to say too much about the “double-double”.

Marcus Haber hits the post a second time on a wide open net.
Just… how?

That’s Haber, though. He will miss chances more than he should. He was once again effective enough occupying a defender, but Pacific had no Plan B, and no ideas in attack except possess aimlessly for a while before lomping it long to Haber. And repeat.

I haven’t seen xG stats for the April 28th match against Wanderers, but last Wednesday they once again had 60% of the ball overall and only 43% of the possession in the final third. It’s not hard to see why when you look at the passes from the centre backs and it’s all sideways between themselves.

Pacific FC passing map from May 1st against Valour.
Rarely were Pacific’s CBs starting passes in central midfield, and rarely did those passes arrive anywhere dangerous.

The back line, of course, had other problems. Without Lukas MacNaughton (who was suspended) and Hendrik Starostzik (who was hurt), Pacific not only couldn’t move the ball efficiently, they also couldn’t track support runners, which led to the first goal.

Most CanPL teams would struggle down two CB starters, but Pacific just don’t have the depth to lose someone of Starostzik’s experience, even for one game.

They still have three points from two games, which isn’t bad at all, but they’re about to enter the “gauntlet” phase of their season. After two home games, they play five of their next six away1Six of seven if you count the Voyageurs’ Cup game away to Cavalry., including the return mega-trip to Halifax. Pacific need Starostzik back to get much from Forge or Edmonton next week, too.

And should we start to be concerned that Issey has now played just half an hour of football so far this year?

(Next: @ Forge on May 8th; @ Edmonton on May 12th)

Valour FC (W 2 – 1 @ Pacific; )

Valour are another team that quietly has issues with defensive depth. Rob Gale did indeed trot out a back three last Wednesday in the club’s first-ever game, away from home. It looked a lot like what I predicted in my season preview, and it worked! A lot better than I thought!

They did it by putting Martin Arguinarena inside–another similarity with Pacific, actually, since that’s a role I thought we might see de Jong play at times, before the injury. Arguinarena had a mixed game against Pacific, moving things upfield very well but often struggling to scramble in the box. Over the course of the game, though, Rob Gale adjusted and had Skylar Thomas cover a bit more. It was a good move, and Gale had himself a very fine debut as a professional coach.

Things didn’t go quite as well at the home opener. It’s not that they were outplayed–Valour won the stats battle handily–but you can’t spot two easy goals at home to a good defensive team.

Both came off scrambles of one sort or another, too. The first was down to poor communication between Tyson Farago and Skylar Thomas, the second down to substitute Ali Musse being mismatched against Amer Didic on a corner kick.

To an extent, Valour ran into a hot goalkeeper–Connor James had himself a day–and they created plenty of chances. Lack of finish hurt, though, even with James’ heroics. And too often they were forced out wide to play crosses into Edmonton’s towering defense. Josip Golubar again struggled to move the ball forward.

It’s the defense that’s more of a worry, particularly at home. Valour have a busy, if home heavy schedule coming up after a trip to Calgary midweek. Fatigue is going to start to play a role with this team–it may be already–and it’s tough to play a back three with only four centre-backs on the roster. Gale was smart to sub off Stephen Hoyle, who does a terrific amount of running, early in both games, but Valour haven’t looked anywhere near as dangerous without him on the field and at some point his minutes may need to be managed even more given he’s coming off a full season in New Zealand.

(Next: @ Cavalry on May 8th; v. Halifax on May 11th)

York 9 (L 1 – 2 @ Cavalry)

York have had a tough start to the season and the stats looks bad, but they’ve also played both their games on the road and traveled to Calgary without a whole pile of starters. That they looked competitive for most of the second half is a minor miracle.

The entire midfield that started against Forge was out, save Ryan Telfer, who was playing inside, a position I do not think he’s ever played before. Kyle Porter, Joseph Di Chiara, and Manny Aparicio all missed out. Wautaru Murofushi didn’t start. Michael Cox is still injured. Those are critical guys. Instead, Brennan cobbled together a four-man group with futsal player Emilio Estevez, Diyeddine Abzi, and Steven Furlano. Austin Ricci started up front. None of the youngsters had anything like a 90-minute performance, but each did some things right–particularly Estevez, who created Simon Adjei’s first CanPL goal with some spectacular dribbling.

York were never a deep team, particularly in midfield. They need Di Chiara, in particular, to get healthy soon, as he underpins everything defensively and clearly helps with organization on set pieces, because York were dreadful on those on Saturday. This is still a team that I think will just outgun teams, but might not do it consistently enough to contend. They get a bit of time off now to heal, and then a winnable trip to Victoria where York’s runners in support will cause problems for Pacific. No need to panic yet.

(Next: @ Pacific on May 18th)

FC Edmonton (W 2 – 1 @ Valour)

This was every bit a road win for Edmonton. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth–if it offers you a two-goal lead, take it and make for the hills.

The Eddies should really have been underwater by the 30th minute–they conceded three or four glorious chances and were bailed out by a massive performance from Connor James, putting life and limb on the line to deny Dylan Sacramento and Michael Petrasso.

As with last week’s recap, this was Edmonton’s first game so let’s not read too much into long-term fortunes. Plus, a road win is a road win. For a team that’s built to be rugged defensively, though, Edmonton weren’t. Perhaps most revealing was that every time they opened up, Valour tore through them on the counter, often exposing Didic and Mélé Temguia’s lack of pace.

There’s a trendline forming for Edmonton if you include preseason, too, and it’s that their build-up is way, way too slow–not just methodical and patient but predictable and static. They mostly countered on Saturday, so it was less of an issue, but when they did try to possess, they had nothing up top from Philippe Lincourt-Joseph and Jeannot Esua, who was playing as a fairly defensive right winger.

They missed Tomi Ameobi’s mayhem up too, although Randy Edwini-Bonsu was good running in behind Valour’s high line and created the first goal with his fizzed cross. Oumar Diouck, too, looked more inventive when he came on. They get a nice break now to get healthy, then face what’s likely to be a tired Pacific team at home where they’ll have more chance to play on the front foot. After that, the schedule gets much harder.

(Next: v. Pacific on May 12th)

Cavalry FC (W 2 – 1 v. York)

Both Alberta teams get wins thanks to opponents gifting them goals. York gave Cavalry two entirely preventable set-piece goals, otherwise this could have been a very different game.

It might have been nice if it was, since this was a hockey game. Loads of physical play, players falling all over the pitch, and even some snow! Cavalry had the better of possession and thoroughly outplayed York for at least the first half, but struggled to break down York’s three, compact centre-backs, much as Forge did a week before.

The map on the left is Cavalry’s first half crosses–green are successful, red are not. The map on the right is first half shots–blue are blocked, green are on target.

The corner from Buescher (#8) was the goal, thanks to a late reaction by Emilio Estevez. But otherwise, they didn’t actually create much. Remember, this was a half in which Cavalry had 70% of the ball, and York generated nothing. There’s been a bad tendency in CanPL circles early on to overemphasize possession without a purpose, and that was Cavalry in that first half.

Now, once York started to open up, the Cavs got a lot more dangerous on the break using Dominique Malonga’s pace, and he really should have had himself a goal but for a frantic clearance. I wonder if the pitch actually hurt them a bit? The ball was bobbling a lot, making passes hard to control, and that’s tough on the kind of execution Tommy Wheeldon Jr. wants from his teams.

Cavalry had injuries, too. Mason Trafford’s absence could have been huge had York mustered more (or not had as many injuries themselves). Joel Waterman was good, but mostly because he played centre-back like a converted winger and wasn’t ever punished for his mazy runs forward. Wheeldon Jr. had to go to an impromptu 3-4-3, and hey, like everyone else’s, it worked. But given their lack of defensive depth, that’s not something Cavalry can employ week in, week out.

And I worry a lot about that pitch and injuries.

(Next: v. Valour on May 8th)

Parking job of the week

Speaking of which….

I usually try to make these funny, but there was a distinct lack of quality humour potential in CanPL this week and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some big off-field issues somewhere2And I don’t want to write a whole post about it..

It’s fair to say Calgary fans are pretty unhappy with the way the home opener went down. It’s tough, because I don’t want to see any team struggle, nor do I want to pick on one that didn’t hit the ground running–it’s not like there haven’t been wobbles at the other openers; it’s just they’ve been admirably hidden from the cameras.

But this isn’t the first off-field misstep for Cavalry FC and Spruce Meadows. This is a sobering picture of some of the challenges this league has to overcome:

Empty seats in the main grandstand at Cavalry's home opener.
That’s not a great look from the broadcast. I took a shot from later in the match, too, once people had finally arrived.

It was kind of a perfect storm for Cavalry: construction on the ring road leading to the stadium, a literal storm, and some of the highest ticket and parking prices in the league. To be fair to Cavalry fans, the supporters’ sections were packed and they were loud, but it all came together for an attendance of just 3,4863This is the CanPL number. I’ve seen higher ones, but am going with the league as a source here. for the home opener. On a weekend afternoon. Loads of people missed an historic moment in Alberta soccer.

Tomorrow’s game is likely to be bad, attendance-wise. Mid-week games are generally tough that way, especially early on. Cavalry then go on the road and return on May 18th for a game that could make or break their season both on and off the field. If the team comes home leading CanPL and Spruce Meadows is accessible again, the Alberta derby will be a terrific advertisement for Canadian soccer.

Spruce Meadows cannot be half empty.

About Dylan Matthias 244 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.


  1. Mod Note: This is a warning for rude behaviour and personal attacks. Mauricio Lopez is placed on probation until 23/5/19.

    Your analytical aspect of football/soccer is so poor that it suggests to me that you don’t even know what or how to play a high level is about. You’re not a credible blog for sure. For Cavalry you should mention more of the impact the players you said was going to flop are having and likewise in reverse for the players you said were going to shine for York how much of a flops they are.

  2. Hi Mauricio, and thanks for giving me an opportunity to demonstrate how comment moderation works aboard The Merchant Sailor.

    I’m a merciful captain, so while my rule goes, I’ll give you one warning. If you earn your keep, contribute properly, and scrub a few deckboards here and there, I let you stay.

    If you disappear, or otherwise offend anyone with a sense of manners and dignity, well, overboard you go. No love lost at sea.


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