The Merchant Sailor 2020 Award and Unlikely XI

The Canadian Premier League has finally released its annual awards, just in time for… American Thanksgiving.

Not to be outdone, The Merchant Sailor is likewise staggeringly late with our highly prestigious annual awards. Plus what’s the point of least valuable player when you don’t know the most valuable player yet?

If you missed last year’s awards, settle down, get a coffee–there are some wrinkles to wrap your pretty head around. Straightforward “best at [insert skill, like cookie-eating, here]” are too boring and too conservative. All of our awards have a wrinkle. Often, several, like a shrunken, disheveled limb you might find in the back of a dark closet1In lieu of past difficulties with health authorities, and in keeping with good practice around Covid-19, gift bags will not be offered this year. Please keep all limbs attached. The Merchant Sailor thanks you for your cooperation in this matter..

The 2020 CanPL season will forever have an asterisk, as will these awards, albeit for different reasons. It bears mentioning that the 2020 season was only seven games for many teams, and a good chunk of the league’s players couldn’t even play due to the pandemic. It’s worth keeping things in perspective, and very much not worth trying to write a season summary piece back in October that you will never, ever get around to actually publishing.

In the interests of building the league’s heritage and legacy, we’re continuing with last year’s cultural totems. Last year, none were claimed by the recipients, which I’m deeply offended by on behalf of rural Maritimers everywhere.

The Winter Tire Award for Underrated Defensive Midfielder of the Year

Like the North Star Shield, it comes with its own detachable base.

I’m tempted to give this to Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson on a repeat–he’s been tremendous in CONCACAF for Forge, which is a real accomplishment for a player from Northern Europe who’s only 24.

But I don’t like repeats and Achinioti-Jonsson had that one really bad game on PEI. This is CanPL-based award. And really, I just want to give something to FC Edmonton.

Which is why Chance Carter is winning this. Not because he was the best d-mid this summer. More because he could very well be next summer. He beat out Erik Zetterberg for a spot as a 19-year-old academy kid, which takes some doing even if, admittedly, Zetterberg could have lost his spot to a training cone.

If Edmonton are going to build going forward, it comes from guys like Carter. I don’t know exactly what new GM Eric Newendorp has planned, but the Eddies are never going to be a terribly international club, nor do they need to be, and Newendorp probably never wants to hear the word “Rayo” ever again. What the club needs is for the academy to produce not so much superstars as solid, underrated guys like Chance Carter (and Antony Caceres, who was also a bright spot in a bad year).

Nobody is talking about him yet and maybe nobody ever will. That’s why we have this award.

Dylan’s Annual “How Did He Stay On The Pitch!?” Award

The rapid return to play made for some bizarre play, which included refereeing, though relatively few actual red cards, and most of the ones that did come were pretty clear-cut.

That makes recognizing a player who plays right on the edge somewhat harder. There’s actually a lot of skill and finesse in doing that effectively–that same skill and finesse that’s negatively affected by not having a pre-season.

Consequently, some front-runners for this award missed out. Dean Northover was hurt. Terique Mohamed left no doubt about his send-off. Nathan Mavila was kinda quiet?

I’m going to give it to Viti Martinez, actually, partly as recognition for his underrated defensive midfield work but also for bringing needed physicality to an Ottawa team that was a bit lacking in that without guys like Tevin Shaw and Oseh Bernardinho available. Assuming he returns (he’s out on loan right now), he’ll need to be that all-action player in 2021, too. Shaw is as much a distributor and Bernardinho’s a quick winger. Martinez is the guy who needs to smell danger high up the field and commit a smart foul to stop it.

Honourable mention here, though, to Joao Morelli for the absolute sneakiest bit of foulness all tournament. 10/10… or it would have been. Trouble is, he got caught. Props to David Barrie.

Antiques & Collectibles Award for Best Retiring Player

Like all good awards, this chair has a story. It began at the legendary Waegwoltic Club in south-end Halifax….

The offseason has started with something of an exodus of mid-20s players, none more recognizable to those of us who’ve become nerdier fans of CanPL than Luca Gasparotto.

York don’t really have fans, but if they did, they might not have noticed Gasparotto despite his playing every single minute for the club. He retires this winter as the first true ironman in league history, and one of its better defenders to boot.

He was only 252And is survived by Roger Thompson and Diyaeddine Abzi. and left soccer to pursue–wait for it–arborism. This can happen when a league pays players below $50K/year, and it’s hardly unique to CanPL. Gasparotto has a life to plan for, and has spent almost ten years playing the game professionally. You can’t blame him at all, but one does wonder how much the league furloughing salaries this year has had an effect, especially given Gasparotto was reported to be seeking more money.

Still, it makes sense for York9, too. The salary cap is unlikely to increase any time soon given the pandemic and veteran, reliable players cost money when young players can capably fill a spot, like Lowell Wright and Mex Ferrari did this summer. So Gasparotto is gone, so too are Chris Mannella and Joe Di Chiara, and York9 will have a very different leadership group next year.

Good luck to Gasparotto in all the hedges and thickets that await him; he’ll have been well-prepared, I think, by his experience in Canadian soccer, where you never know what you’re going to find.

Plus he’ll forever be the first CanPL player I interviewed.

Best Back-up Goalkeeper of the Year

This one’s a toughie this year, not least because none of the various back-ups were particularly good at the Island Games. Hell, none of the goalkeeping was that good, period.

So it’s a bit of a toss-up, but I’ll give it to Baj Maan for not screwing up in his only game, a game he only played because Forge were in hot water over U21 minutes, and a game where they could have missed the group stage with a big enough catastrophe.

That is why you pay a back-up goalkeeper.

Plus, Maan gets credit for some solid warm-up routines he has put in during the CONCACAF League run when it’s looked like Triston Henry is maybe playing through an injury.

Gotta be ready.

Maan is only 19, too, so this is all good experience. Hopefully winning such this award won’t go to his head, but there should be a cautionary tale there in the form of Nolan Wirth, last year’s winner.

Tactical Adjustment of the Year for Best Coaching, not Best Coach

This very tasteful lamp I got at a yard sale one time recognizes the recipient’s wisdom and philosophical approach to life and coaching.

The thing about Coach of the Year awards is they tend to go to whoever wins, or at least, whoever overachieves. Which is fine, it’s a results business. This is why Stephen Hart won the CanPL award–deservedly so, in my view. He was always likely to get the award at least once before he retires; he might have in 2019 had there been more parity and Wanderers been better. In 2020, they were better.

Here, though, I am going to go for a repeat winner because Bobby Smyrniotis is far and away the best coach in CanPL. It’s not that there aren’t other solid coaches–Hart, Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Jimmy Brennan, Pa-Modou Kah, even Jeff Paulus deserves a lot more credit than he gets. But Cavalry regressed this year, Paulus lost the room, York were bad, and Kah’s very new.

Bobby outcoached Hart in the 2020 final by yet again making an important tweak to his team’s approach. He’s been doing it again throughout the CONCACAF League run where Forge are winning in very un-pretty and very un-Canadian ways. More power to him.

When Forge are at their worst, they play too much to Bobby’s fundamentals. The biggest difference between Forge 2019 and Forge 2020–two championship teams, mind–is how much more able they were to switch when necessary. In 2019 they tried and were able to outlast Cavalry more than dominate them. In 2020, they dominated Wanderers, pressing Halifax right back and forcing a team that only had one way of playing into making mistakes.

Not only does Bobby have his team playing–usually–the best soccer in the league, his Forge team have also become the team most capable of preying on the learning curves of other teams.

…and introducing the “If He’d Only Stayed Healthy!” Award for Best Injured Player of the Year

I swear I came up with this before Arnold Bouka Moutou signed, and before Valour’s entire 2020 season.

He’s the obvious choice, though, right? He looked… well, okay in his first 20 minutes. Then the hamstring went and that was that. Valour ended up down to spare parts at left-back by the end of their seven games–that they were still competitive is testament to their overall improvement.

Bouka Moutou–who just re-signed for 2021–would definitely have made them better. He’s also going to be 32 before next year, so he’s an early front-runner for this award next year, too. It ought not to be terribly surprising given he’d barely played in three years, then showed up to run on turf in the wind on PEI. For that reason he’s one of the more bizarre signings in the league.

Honourable mention to Cavalry’s entire team, by the end of the group stage. 2020 was rough.

Finally, the much-anticipated Least Valuable Player!

One to each winner. First come, first served.

The name of this award is (deliberately) misleading–it’s not worst player, but rather best economical use of an asset in a salary-capped league3You try engraving that on a snow shovel, see how far you get..

You see it with guys like Gasparotto, Alex De Carolis, and pretty much Pacific’s entire roster construction now: overpay for domestic talent and you’re setting the club up for a pinch. Sometimes that’s the right move, of course, if the championship window is open, and helping fans understand how this works is why CanPL really ought to make contract info available.

Either way, though, you need those other guys. You need guys who can do a job in an unspectacular way. You need guys who are young and energetic with more than their fair share of skill and less than their fair share of monetary reward. Some of them will end up getting overpaid in the future according to what I usually call the “Darcy Tucker rule”. Until then, they get lauded on The Merchant Sailor and on sports radio everywhere.

Since this award is so prestigious, I usually do a nominee for each team, then an overall winner.

(Also, please note I only have seven snow shovels, so Ottleti’s nominee will get whichever one I break this winter.)

  • Cavalry FC: Tofa Fakunle
    I should probably just name this award for Fakunle, who had the most 2020 season imaginable as the team’s kit man who got called up for a critical game at the end of the group stage because everyone else was hurt. That’s commitment to depth.
  • FC Edmonton: Allan Zebie
    Likewise, Zebie wins his second shovel, playing I think even more different positions than last year–he was up front at one point late in the tournament. He will be with the Eddies until they don’t need him anymore, which should be the ultimate compliment for this kind of player.
  • Forge FC: Jordan Dunstan
    Dunstan was so obviously a panic signing right before the Island Games. He’s stuck around, however, and has even played a useful role in CONCACAF play. He’s 27 and relatively inexperienced, but appears more than capable of doing a job on the best team in the league.
  • Halifax Wanderers: Omar Kreim
    Kreim is another USPORTs gem for Wanderers–he would have been drafted in 2018 except he wanted to finish school. Wanderers got to him as a free agent–he’s cheap but oh-so-effective at the little things. Yeah, he scored that great goal, but his overall play on PEI was tremendously underrated.
  • Ottleti: Ben McKendry
    Most of Ottawa’s rosters were post-pandemic panic signings. It was great–and a lot more effective than expected–thanks in large part to a host of very marginal talent playing with tonnes of heart. That, and Javier Acuna. Most of the talent will not be back next year. I hope Ben McKendry is. He’s not young anymore, but he does really useful industrious work out there in a depth role.
  • Pacific FC: Zach Verhoven
    Verhoven’s been released, which is a minor tragedy–he’s so fun to watch and had the promise to be something more in year one. Depending on his own interests, I wouldn’t be shocked to see another CanPL team pick him up cheap and be rewarded.
  • Valour FC: Dylan Carreiro
    In among all the bigger names added last winter, Carreiro was a returnee, a USPORTs pick and local Winnipegger. I was never high on him at York Lions, but he simplified his game this summer and was quietly effective for Valour. That they’ve released him is yet another mark against the club developing its USPORTs assets.
  • York9: Lowell Wright
    They signed a 16-year-old, then ended up actually playing him, and got rewarded! The spirit of this award isn’t just “depth guys” but “play your kids while they’re cheap”. York are not going all-in on this strategy, which is riskier. But in Wright and Max Ferrari, they’ve unearthed two local guys who wouldn’t have got a chance otherwise. That’s a win.

And the Least Valuable Player goes to….

Omar Kreim

I loved watching Kreim with Les Carabins, so to see him transition to the pro game and actually stick–he’s been re-signed by Wanderers–is great. His role has changed in important ways–with Montreal he was more of a key attacking cog, whereas with Wanderers he’s a Swiss Army knife who can do a bit of everything. That means he probably won’t get Peter Schaale money, but can do a job for Wanderers as long as he cares to. Obviously he can deliver in the big moments, too.

The Unlikely XI

I don’t know what happened to the Fan XI this year. Honestly I wasn’t paying attention. If it never came back, that would be fine with me.

I’ll still put together a “best” XI, however–but one that has balance both practically and on paper, and which is designed for that thrifty captain who picks second on the schoolyard.

It’s tough to do this on only seven games.

I’m weighting a bit to Wanderers here, but only because the way they played was effective and I think they can and will build on it into next year. So this is a pretty basic 4-2-3-1–I’m not claiming any points for originality–with a midfield heavy on Wanderers. Morelli’s work-rate was a big part of what Stephen Hart did, and offers some creativity from the #10 while other XIs will feature Bustos or Bekker. It feels too easy to put Sissoko in there–not that I’ve seen him get the credit he deserves, but he will this winter if he ends up in MLS. That Kreim deputized so smoothly is why he’s now the proud owner of a snow shovel I backed over with the car last fall.

I dithered a bit out wide, but wanted Masta Kacher in there, and unfortunately that means Anthony Caceres drops to the bench, which is maybe the best spot for him at this point, but I like him in the second half. Max Ferrari operates as a bit more of a wide forward while Anthony Novak is maybe my biggest-name pick but as long as Bobby won’t consistently start him, I will.

Alex De Carolis is departing Wanderers, which is a pity because they were noticeably better when he was bombing up and down the left channel. I hope he lands somewhere he can continue to use his incredible engine. At centre-back and goalkeeper I’m going to give some love to Ottleti–they found a useful piece from nowhere in Milo Kapor and Nacho Zabal was the best–and busiest–goalkeeper on PEI without whom it would have been bleak for Ottawa.

Gasparotto deserves some recognition on retirement, but he’s actually on here for his aerial ability next to the more mobile Kapor. York’s problem wasn’t defending, and they were great on set-pieces.

Chrisno N’sa isn’t exactly an “unlikely” pick but he did just miss out on the U21 award to a guy at his position who was less consistent, so there.

Guys I’d have on the bench would include Ben McKendry, Austin Ricci, Klaidi Cela, and probably Eddies Mele Temguia and Jeannot Esua–the latter, in particular, has grown on me a bit since year one.

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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