Questions for each CanPL team ahead of pre-season

Unless you’re in Ottawa, the 2020 Canadian Premier League offseason is more or less complete.

I was a bit surprised, actually, at how many teams have pretty much filled up the rosters by camp. Wanderers have said they’re done adding, for now at least. Forge look like they’d be content to start the season with what they have. Cavalry are looking at some trialists but mostly at specific positions. Only Valour are still trying to build.

It felt like waiting all the way until April to talk at you fine folks again would be sad, so let’s pause at this juncture and look at what each club needs to address in the pre-season.

Halifax Wanderers

What is the shape going to look like?

We know Wanderers won’t be adding a true, starting #9, at least not right away. I’ll talk more about that in the season preview, but it’s fair to assume this means Akeem Garcia will play more up top.

He can do that, because although he’s not the biggest, he’s very good at using his body to both hold off a defender and turn into space. Think Emery Welshman.

This probably works best off another striker who can help occupy defenders, but the rest of Wanderers attack (minus Ibrahima Sanoh, who’s a great story but not a starter) is mostly hybrid players, particularly wingers. Only Joao Morelli plays regularly in the centre, and he often drops deep.

I could talk myself into a 4-3-3 being a good look for this group, or I could see Hart’s stand-by 4-4-1-1 with Morelli behind Garcia and lots of running. He talked last year about wanting a different style, however, and mentioned a 3-5-2. Wanderers have the pieces for it in defense, and I’ll be real curious to see if that comes out in training and warm-up games. And if it works.


How do they make up for Dom Malonga’s goals?

Cavalry scored a whopping 51 goals last year and are returning most of them, but not Malonga’s 11. And though he had some barren stretches, he was persistently Cavalry’s focal point in and around the box.

Good strikers create space. They keep defenders from stepping up, they pull markers away, they contest deliveries and create second balls.

Malonga was also Cavalry’s only true striker last year. Like Wanderers, they really haven’t replaced him–Jordan Brown can play there, as could a few other hybrid players, but Brown isn’t as intelligent in his movement as Malonga and he only put up a single CanPL goal last year, which is why he played–when he played–on the wing.

But Nico Pasquotti, you say. But Jose Escalante, Sergio Camargo, or Oliver Minatel. All those guys thrive and thrived off what Malonga created.

Cavalry do so much of their work in transition that it might not matter. A lot fo the reason those guys above were successful, apart from Malonga’s presence as an outlet, was that each is, in his own way, one of the most dangerous one-on-one players in CanPL. Cavalry’s whole system avoided extra passes in midfield or even into central attacking areas in favour of isolating those guys as early as possible.

Oh wait… Julian Buescher’s gone, too?

I think Cavalry will be fine, but there are questions.

FC Edmonton

How good is Raul Tito?

There are several players who came through the league’s centralized system and 21st Club who could be exciting: Alejandro Diaz, Richard Luca, Adrian Ugarizza, to start. Raul Tito, though, might have the biggest job.

FC Edmonton did not score many goals last year (just 28). They created very few chances, too–finishing only slightly above Wanderers in xG despite scoring seven more. Easton Ongaro accounts for most of that gap with his best-in-the-league goals/90.

Getting the ball through midfield and to him in a way he could use–Ongaro’s six-foot-six and not bad in the air, but better with his feet–was just a constant thorn.

Enter Hanson Boakai and Raul Tito, the Eddies’ only real midfield reinforcements.

Boakai, even when he is on, is more of a direct, one-on-one threat. And he hasn’t been that since he was last with Edmonton. Maybe ever. I hope he resuscitates his career in CanPL, I really do, but that’s not where to bet Edmonton’s 2020 season.

Tito, on the other hand, is a 22-year-old coming in with decent experience in Peru’s top flight. He’s never been a starter, but has put up decent creative numbers for a young guy coming off the bench. He’ll have more chance to start in Edmonton, and he’ll have targets in Ongaro, Tomi Ameobi, and Marcus Velado-Tsegaye.

Remember, Edmonton finished third overall in 2019. Their underlying numbers would have put them about fifth. A lot is riding on Edmonton improving, and most of that is riding on Tito creating.


Who plays at #10

There are a few questions could go here. The easy one is “who’ll replace Tristan Borges?” but let’s broaden that a bit, because Borges, while excellent last year as a surprise breakout, also overperformed the underlying numbers a bit. Forge are so deep that I really wonder if losing him might not matter.

They certainly haven’t outright replaced him. They did have a terrific USPORTs draft that nobody’s talking about, and either Gabriel Balbinotti or Alex Zis could win that attacking spot in pre-season.

Bobby Smyrniotis gave an interview to Charlie O’Connor-Clarke at this week where it sure sounds like they could.

“(Choinière and Zajac) do have the quality for that,” he said. “When I look at it statistically — the goals, the assists — they’re probably not where they want to be, last year, and where I think they can be. So it’s getting that extra production from them this year, because last year in a lot of areas of the game they were excellent.” –Bobby Symrinotis to, March 5 2020

I’d like to see David Choiniere get more minutes, actually. But that quote from Bobby S. is a challenge. That is a message you deliver publicly when said player(s) have not earned the minutes. (Zajac very much falls in that category, too.)

There are a few ways this could go. Kyle Bekker could obviously push higher, as he did early last year and in San Francisco. But given how effective he was deeper in midfield with Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, other options will be on the cards. Smyrniotis mentioned Elimane Cissé could play higher, and he’s another who needs to win a spot back after losing it last year. He also mentioned versatility, though, and Balbinotti, who blew everyone away at USPORTs nationals, can absolutely give them Borges-level flexibility and craftiness.


Just how bad will this team be, and in what way?

(Atletico are only ever called Atleti. So it shall be in Ottawa.)

The questions with this team are, obviously, myriad. They have to build a roster in about three weeks, they’ve announced three players so far, and… yeah.

This team is going to be Quite Bad.

That’s fine. It’s a byproduct of how this came together. They missed out on Nana Attakora, for instance, by about a week–he signed in the new NISA, America’s latest volatile league for pro/rel, winter-season truthers. (The league has had more presidents than it has clubs.) Players gotta find work.

There will be loanees from Atleti, but I’d not expect them to be more than youth players–the Atleti brand has a Liga MX club for players closer to breaking into the first-team. The Canadians will likely be local guys like Antoine Coupland, who’s barely sixteen, and whoever else is available, like Ben Fisk.

But that’s kind of the fun! Coupland is going to get real minutes. So is Malyk Hamilton, who desperately needs a good season or else is career is on the brink. There’s new energy in town, and the tickets are reasonably priced. If this goes well, it is going to be a blast.

If it doesn’t, though, there are real risks in this market, as the Fury found. That’s the bet the league is making here. Launching for 2020 makes no on-field sense, but it means there’s continuity and novelty at the same time. Building a new team from scratch might help re-energize a big, empty stadium.

The Fury ownership poisoned the well, not just with CanPL but amongst a sizeable portion of their own fans. Worse would be if people slipped away, bored. Worse would have been Atleti elbowing in earlier, creating a divide. This team is not going to win much, but if it’s fun, it won’t matter. It really won’t.

Take it from a Wanderers fan.


Can Pa-Modou Kah win?

I really, really like Pacific’s offseason. There are still holes, they’re still betting rather hard on the kids, but that’s their thing, and they addressed the biggest issues at centre-back and in attack.

They were also the first club to fire their coach. Michael Silberbauer wasn’t that bad–I saw him as a pragmatist, given Pacific’s rushed roster build. Josh Simpson and Rob Friend went in a different direction.

That direction was Kah, formerly of Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinatti, as an assistant under Carl Robinson and then Alan Koch.

Silberbauer was fired for, among other things, not getting results. Neither of Kah’s former teams, you may notice, were exactly stellar in that area.

Now, that can’t really be put at the feet of an assistant. Kah strikes me as more of a player’s coach–that’s him out there leading the team’s first pre-season run.

I do think Pacific needed some fun. That’s Kah, and it sure wasn’t Silberbauer. (It is belting down rain, I see–welcome to the Lower Mainland.)

He’s also a complete unknown as a head coach, another rookie, having only retired a few years ago. Pacific have splashed this offseason–Marco Bustos, Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Jamar Dixon, Alejandro Diaz–this team needs results.

By the way? This is how CanPL should be getting coaches into the league. Kah’s not Canadian (yet), but this is the pathway we need for Canadian coaches with loads of local experience and no pro experience. That’s what’s been missing. Wanderers signed local player/coach Mesut Mert this week1Okay, he’s not suiting up for Wanderers. Though I bet he could.. Throwing him into the deep end as a head coach would have been risky–instead, Mert, who’s got a solid, lengthy local coaching résumé, can develop experience, credibility, and connections in the professional game, putting him in a much better position to succeed, just as Kah is now after his time with Vancouver and Cincinatti.


What’s the plan?

Valour have not had a good offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean a bad season is ahead–this time of year means nothing in terms of results.

There needs to be some sort of direction, though. An identity. That’s one of those sports words that’s hard to explain, but Rob Gale sure felt Valour didn’t have one last year and sure wants to build one for this year.

Usually, roster moves point that way, but it’s hard to see what Valour are doing there. Gale’s talked about wanting to be more physical, and if you squint you can see an ongoing attempt to get more veteran leadership, ranging from signing José Galan last summer (he just re-signed) to bringing in Ligue 1 journeyman Arnold Bouka-Moutou.

But there’s no cohesive whole. One Soccer’s Oli Platt lit into the Bouka-Moutou signing not because it wasn’t ambitious but because, cap-wise, it doesn’t make sense for a team that’ rebuilding like Valour is. Are they rebuilding, though? All their best players are gone, but as free agents, not transfers. They’ve not gotten younger.

Is there even a championship “window” in a year two league? I agree with Platt’s analysis, actually, but I also see what Rob Gale is trying to do in making a quick, total turnaround. Also, frankly, he’s coaching for his job.

Valour weren’t terrible last year, just hideously inconsistent. If Gale can fix that problem, and not just make the team tougher physically but more resilient tactically and mentally, there’s hope. But most of that hope is hanging on an assembled collection of journeymen, marginal prospects, and trialists.

The real issue here? Rob Gale lacks professional connections beyond players connected with the CSA.


Can they finish?

York had the best underlying numbers of the non-finalists last year. They played some really attractive football, too, particularly in June and July. They have the best midfield in CanPL and have only added to it this winter, with Canadian USL stalwart Chris Mannella and the young Brian Lopez, among a couple others. Mike Petrasso comes in, as does Matt Arnone, filling out the team even more.

And yet. This team should have scored about 56 goals last year. They actually scored 39, all while giving up far too many shots. Midfield is indeed where games are won and lost, but key to that is balance. Creating chances doesn’t finish them. Nor can a midfield really defend the box. York gave up 36 goals last year. The underlying numbers say this was more or less on course, despite a midfield with creators like Manny Aparicio and bruisers like Joe Di Chiara (who I think is the best stopper in CanPL).

If adding more of the same fixes that, great. Most of the scoring rests on Adrian Ugarizza, who has a really good South American résumé, including starts in the Copa Libertadores. If he gets hurt, or turns out to be Rodrigo Gattas under a Peruvian alias, Y9 will underperform again because there’s next to no depth behind him.

One guy to keep an eye on, though? Stefan Karajovanovic. He has to win a job in preseason, but the USPORTs pick has a lot of skills. He’s not a pure forward, either, but he is a little more of one than, say, Petrasso. York will serve up opportunities, and Karajovanvoic has shown in PLSQ and USPORTs that he can take them.

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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