Brennanball: York9 FC and the Canadian midfield whisperer

A variety of Jim Brennans.
Honestly, a lot of this preview is about Jim Brennan. No disrespect to Martin Nash, who's a lot like Jim Brennan in several important ways -- he's ambitious, no-nonsense, and has great hair -- but Jim Brennan's the only coach York have known. It won't be the same.

Jimmy Brennan is many things to many people. Perhaps best known as Toronto FC’s first-ever signing and first-ever captain, he also got his managerial as an assistant to Mo Johnston start in TFC’s, shall we say, lesser years. Brennan actually coached one game, filling in for Ryan Nelsen. He won.

He worked with TFC Academy for a while, then left and had some quiet success with League 1 Ontario and Aurora FC.

If nothing else, there was always an effort and directness to Brennan’s game that’s quite obviously reflected in how he’s built his roster for the inaugural Canadian Premier League season.

Suffice it to say, York are not going to win style points. This is a team built to get it up to the strikers, win the second ball, and use their size to run past or through defenders. It is old-school football, the kind Brennan made a career playing in England’s lower leagues.

York9 are well-equipped to do that with the size of Simon Adjei and Michael Cox. There’s a second element–and more of a question–that could tie it all together for York, and that’s their midfield, with Kyle Porter, Joseph di Chiara, and Manny Aparicio–potentially one of the best in the league, if they can work together. We’ll look at all three in-depth below.

No team has bet as hard on reclamation projects as York. Up and down the roster are guys on second, third, fourth chances. For many, this may well be their last chance at professional football. Motivation? Or pressure? Take your pick.

Key Players

Kyle Porter, who knows?

York’s first signing and possible captain, Kyle Porter is now officially a journeyman. He’s well-known in Canadian soccer circles after stints with Vancouver and then Edmonton, but his career has taken a steady turn for the worse since leaving the Eddies, to the point where he may have been out of the game but for York’s November announcement.

Ben Massey has already written a terrific in-depth look at Porter’s career. Reading it, I can’t help but feel like Porter is just chronically unlucky. In 2008, he’d have been a great MLS depth player: never spectacular, but ever-reliable, positionally flexible, creative but defensively responsible. Instead, he got his MLS shot in 2013-14, just as MLS was starting to trend upwards fast. His best spell was in NASL at FC Edmonton, where he put up 12 goals in 2011-12, but he left to pursue MLS opportunities. By the time he was back in NASL, he was too late again, and the league was falling apart–his Atlanta Silverbacks folded the year after he joined them. He ends up in USL, struggling for minutes with a Tampa Bay team that’s one of the bigger markets auditioning for MLS.

You can’t help but feel he’s two years late to every party. In a CanPL rushed to launch in 2016 or 2017, Kyle Porter is a top star, good with the ball at his feet and a solid professional competitor. Now, he pales a little even in comparison to some of the signings since November. He’s not as flashy as guys like Juan Gutierrez. He doesn’t have the numbers of Julian Buescher. He doesn’t have Kyle Bekker’s hair.

Part of the trouble with Porter is it’s not clear any more what his best position is. He’s spent a lot of the past few years playing right-back, which I’d like to suggest is not it, though he is responsible defensively and capable enough when it comes to putting in a ball. For York, he’ll more likely reprise the attacking midfield role he had with Edmonton. His numbers in it were never spectacular, and he had a tendency to waffle into cul-de-sacs as often as he created something out of nothing, but he should be among the better chance creators in this league.

Whatever has gone wrong for him–be it bad luck or something else–if Brennan can get the most out of him he can give York some composure on the ball and an ability to play between lines. Porter fits a more direct system, too–he was best in Edmonton under Colin Miller–so he can provide those runs, potentially on the right in a 4-4-2. Very old-school, but quite possibly effective.

Joseph di Chiara, defensive midfielderJoseph di Chiara playing for Russian Premier League side Kyrlya Sovetov Samara.

Joseph di Chiara playing for Russian Premier League side Kyrlya Sovetov Samara.There are two players in CanPL who have played games in what I’d consider a strong European league. One of them is Joseph di Chiara1The other is Cavalry’s Dominique Malonga, who spent some time as a prospect in Serie A..

di Chiara also signed with York from the Lithuanian first division, where he played six games off the bench (and, in true di Chiara fashion, got sent off). Prior to that, he was in League 1 Ontario.

Not that long ago, he was one of Canada’s best prospects at defensive midfield. He was getting minutes at Krylya Sovetov, for god’s sake. Sovetov are a bit of a yo-yo team in Russia, but they’re mostly up and the Russian Premier League isn’t a bad league at all.

Then he effectively got sent to the Siberia of Eastern European football. He barely got on the pitch in Hungary. Then the Russian third division. The, uh, Kazakhstani league. And finally Lithuania.

The one constant has been the York region. He’s from York. Every time di Chiara’s career has been about over, he’s ended up back at Vaughan Azzurri in League 1 Ontario, and every time he’s managed to parlay it, via connections and sheer willpower, to another chance.

He is, arguably, still the fifth or sixth best d-mid in the Canada pool2It drops off quick after Piette, Kaye, and Atiba’s last hurrah.. For years, he’s been the hipster Voyageurs pick to come riding in to save the national team, and he has actually been called up a couple times, though he’s not capped at senior level. If Jim Brennan can unlock his potential, well, Jim Brennan for CMNT?

What he’ll give York is a solid base built on tough tackling, which is the kind of thing a team needs when it’s lumping long balls to pacy forwards. di Chiara is one of those d-mids whom opposing players try to avoid. He will, at some point this year, get sent off.

Manny Aparicio, somewhere in midfield

I hate having to write this, because I was once a big fan of Aparicio’s. He was the exact sort of player I wanted to see coming out of TFC’s academy: technical, creative, smart. Aparicio is these things. But there has, as yet, been no indication he is anything but those things.

In theory, Aparicio is a playmaker, the kind of player who sits in midfield and plays quick passes nobody else saw. Actually kind of an old-school role in the modern game, albeit not in quite the same way as, say, Michael Cox. Practically, soccer is a physical game, particularly at the lower professional levels, and Manny Aparicio isn’t a great runner, isn’t much for a tackle, and can’t beat defenders 1 v. 1.

Coming out of TFC Academy, he was signed to an MLS deal way too early and loaned to Wilmington in USL, where he couldn’t get off the bench. TFC gave him another year with TFC II, where he did absolutely nothing. Bear in mind, he’s a creative player–he should have assists, even the odd goal. My memory watching him is that he rarely found the ball. He often looked lost, even uninterested.

USL was unlikely to ever suit Aparicio’s qualities, so he ended up in Spain, where he played a few games in the third division before getting relegated. I can’t find anything that suggests he was involved offensively.

It worries me that York seem to be considering Aparicio a starter. It seems unlikely that he is, particularly in a league likely to be physical. However, there was a time Aparicio was considered a good prospect at Toronto FC, and a part of me still clings to the idea that he could be that old-school, tempo-setting #10. If he somehow reclaims that, he’d add a whole new dimension to York’s attack, a way to change games.

Tactics and Positional Depth

York’s two main threats will be Simon Ajdei and Michael Cox. Both have question marks about them, but both seem like the kind of strikers who will excel in what CanPL is likely to be.

Cox, in particular. He’s actually an ex-USPORTs guy, and knows Carmine Isacco that way. He’s one of a surprisingly large number of USPORTs players to parlay strong performances into a lower-level professional shot, and he had one memorable season with Orlando City B, and one two-month stretch in particular where he couldn’t stop scoring.

The caveat there is that the 2016 Orlando B team had guys like Pierre da Silva, Mikey Ambrose, and Tony Rocha feeding Cox the ball–all those guys either start or should start in MLS. Then it closed down, and Cox was left in the cold. He’s had trouble finding minutes since, though he was rated highly enough for two darlings of USL–Saint Louis and Nashville–to give hm a look.

There are a lot of strikers in MLS who get drafted who will never consistently make an MLS roster. They run channels well, compete for knock-downs and flick-ons, and get released into USL, where they often end up scoring quite a few goals. Cox is that kind of striker: big, fast, and difficult for defenders to mark physically.

A lot of teams in USL do what I think York will do: they launch the ball out of defense, a player like Cox battles for it, they flood numbers into midfield to win the second ball, and look to spring either an athletic winger or an athletic striker over the top. Often, it works. Like I said: old-school.

Ryan Telfer will be a big part of this, as he can drive down the left and take defenders one-on-one, cross, and even score goals coming in late on the weak side. Porter could be effective doing the same on the right.

Simon Adjei is, like Cox, big and fast. If he’s just that, he’ll score a few goals in this league. When I dug into him last year, though, he had a bit of playmaking about him–he has soft feet for a big man, and that may go some way to explaining 30 goals last year in the Swedish fourth division. 30 is a lot of goals anywhere–you can’t get that just by running in behind.

What typically happens when players put up those numbers is a higher-division team comes calling, and York apparently beat out Swedish second division sides for Adjei, no doubt helped by his having spent time in League 1 Ontario. Some players continue to score at higher levels. Many do not. CanPL will be a higher level than either L1O or the Swedish fourth division. If Adjei, who’s 25 and no prospect, has a higher ceiling, he could be amongst the league’s top scorers.

We’ve covered midfield above, where the only others are futsal player Emilio Estevez, who came in via the open trials, and Wataru Murofushi, who starred in Singapore before signing with York. Murofushi could be interesting, although the Singaporean league is pretty marginal. Basically, I expect York to bypass the midfield on the pitch as much as they have off of it.

There’s depth defensively, albeit quite a bit of it is untested. Luca Gasparotto is the keystone, and a player I’m fairly bullish about. He’s a bullish player, actually–the kind of CB you expect on a team like York, and he has good experience in Scotland for a 23-year-old. His partner is probably Roger Thompson, who played in the Swedish third division. Justin Springer has played in USPORTS and was decent in League 1 Ontario.

Steven Furlano is one of the more interesting defensive prospects in the league. He’s only 21, and played for TFC II as a teenager. USL was probably too much, too quickly for him–he’s since been very good for Alliance United in L1O, somehow putting up nine goals in 14 games. As a CB. I presume he is good in the air.

Fullback is a lot thinner. Diyeddine Abzi signed from A.S. Blainville, who nearly beat Ottawa in the Voyageur’s Cup last year, and got there thanks to a Abzi’s goal against L1O winners Oakville. He’s a very attacking left-back, possibly even viable as a left winger in this league should Ryan Telfer get hurt or recalled.

On the right, I’d guess we may see Furlano a bit. Otherwise, it’s either Springer or Morey Doner. Doner is a great story–he commuted to Aurora FC games from just outside Barrie–and Brennan knows him, plus he has some PDL experience. He’s probably not a starter, though. Daniel Gogarty, a USPORTs draftee, will see some time as well.

Goalkeeper is a real worry for York–why have one keeper with no professional experience when you can have three? They’re one of the only teams with three keepers in the league, but only Matt Silva has played beyond League 1 Ontario, and that’s using the term “played” broadly, as he barely got off the bench in Sweden.

I tend to think there’s likely to be good undiscovered shot-stoppers in Canada–we have lots of tall, athletic guys with reflexes from playing both hockey and soccer. The US has long produced decent goalkeepers for similar reasons. So I don’t have a problem with giving Silva or Colm Vance a chance. Vance was part of the very good York Lions team Carmine Isacco coached. Nathan Ingham was briefly in TFC’s system before playing in L1O. Hopefully one of the three, at least, stakes a claim to the starting job.

Projections: 4th (Spring); 5th (Fall)

York have enough about them to threaten teams–there’s something to be said for simple, effective football, especially in Year One of a new league–but they don’t really have the depth for plan B, and will be quick to run out of ideas against teams that can contain them physically. There’s a heavy League 1 Ontario bent to this roster. While that’s led to lots of nice stories about how many L1O guys have made the transition to CanPL, PLSQ has actually won the playoff both years it’s been going. There’s depth in those leagues, but CanPL is likely to be a higher level.

There are a whole pile of teams I could see going on a bit of a run, though, and York are one of those. If things fall right, or a rival stumbles, they could surprise. A lot will depend on how Brennan fares as a full-time coach. He was a bit of an odd hire, especially given he’s also a team vice-president. There were some wild rumours about York signings earlier in the offseason. Brennan has, wisely, navigated around those, and kept largely quiet during preseason, which is smart.

If York have new-age Brennan, the Brennan who’s been good in L1O, and knows what he’s got and how to work with it, York could even thrive. Top spot is not out of reach–it’s just across town. Best Brennan is bold in giving the reins to Luca Gasparotto, can develop Adzi and at least one other depth piece into a legitimate starter-quality player, and finds some way to get his midfield’s minds engaged–personally, I’d recommend a seance and potluck supper.

The risk, especially if TFC start to win games again, is the sillier side of league marketing. Brennan-the-VP has to avoid any “let’s sign an aging Italian” rumours ownership comes up with, and avoid any other weird backroom stuff–seriously, being both manager and VP is a recipe for awkward conflicts. Cliques form in the dressing room in part because a strange tactical system, like a 3-5-2, exposes too many of York’s weak depth pieces. His selections bias to the guys he knows from L1O and York look predictable, resorting to making a bad summer signing to fix it. The goalkeeping becomes a mess. But you could write such a paragraph about every manager in the league.

Barring weirdness, York will almost certainly look like this:

Get it to the strikers. Knock it down. Play it wide. Look for Telfer/Porter coming in at the back post. Repeat. Do what works.

I could also see this as a sensible alternative if York want to hold a little more possession:

I want Aparicio to boss that role, but I just don’t think it’s likely, and York end up with a hole in the middle of the park.

The table projection is lower than it would be if that backline didn’t scare me the second I look away.

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.

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