The Merchant Sailor Contrarian Awards and Unlikely XI

Tristan Borges with the North Star Shield at Spruce Meadows in 2019.
There's something missing from Cavalry FC.

It’s awards week. Everyone and their favourite pundit has an MVP pick and a Best XI.

But they’re all so similar! Given two teams mostly ran away with the inaugural Canadian Premier League season, it’s not exactly surprising, but still. Where’s the fun?

Even Kurt Larson mostly just chose the same guys as everyone else. What is the league coming to? Here on the high seas we have different rules. My rules. Like ’em or greet the sharks.

The league has awards for best coach, most valuable player, the golden boot1Which is contrarian in its own right by being calculated in the most ridiculous way possible., and golden glove. So bland.

So bog-standard. There’s no insight in who scored the most goals. Surprise! Forge were good. Each of my awards is a bit different: a key position, someone nobody thinks of, and a couple weird awards just for fun.

CanPL has commissioned Inuit sculptures from Cape Dorset artists Taqialuk Nuna, Palaya Qiatsuk, and Pitseolak Qimirpik, among others. I have nothing so significant, but will attempt to add unique cultural contribution from rural Atlantic Canada for this year’s recipients to treasure.

Antiques & Collectibles Award for Best Retiring Player
Like all good awards, this chair has a story. It began life at the Waegwoltic Club in south-end Halifax….

It can’t have been easy to get beat out by a local back-up, but someone was going to be, and that someone was Jan-Michael Williams.

He came in as arguably the best goalkeeper in CanPL. Certainly, he was the most experienced. A long-time Trinidad & Tobago international (mostly as a back-up). By the end of July people were calling him the worst ‘keeper in the league.

Which wasn’t really fair, even if he did give up one of the worst goals this year off Tristan Borges’ olimpico corner. He was obviously hurt during that play, having just saved another goal with his face moments prior.

Through it all, he never made a peep, never melted down, and kept working with Christian Oxner as a goalkeeping coach, easing a transition from university to pro soccer for Oxner. Wanderers’ dressing room was not always an easy place–and Williams was the closest thing to a leader it had.

That he’ll likely stay with the club is good news–Derek Martin all but confirmed it on the From Aways podcast. There aren’t actually a lot of retiring players in year one, but it feels fitting to honour one each year. There were some signs that Williams was considering leaving the game last winter, but instead he came to Halifax, got a club off the ground, and handed over the starting job in better shape than he found it.

Runner-up would have been Nik Ledgerwood but he’s back for another year. It looks like Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s career might be over, though, which is sad, especially given he mentioned off-field struggles playing a role. He’s been a servant for FC Edmonton for a long time–it’s good he got to go out with his tome-town club back in action.

Tactical Adjustment of the Year (for best coaching, not best coach)

Everyone will be giving the best coach award to Tommy Wheeldon Jr. Admittedly, Bobby Smyrniotis has been getting more chatter since the championship, as he should, but when I came up with the idea for this piece back in, like, July, it was at least half so I could give credit to Smyrniotis’ season no matter where Forge finished.

Because without his adjustment mid-way through the spring season, Forge were headed for league disappointment status rather than championship glory. Think back to those first couple of games: the listless inaugural against York rescued by a late goal, the late collapse a week later in Halifax.

Then Anthony Novak happened.

I’ll talk about it more in my recap piece on Forge’s 2019 season, because I wonder how much Novak just forced Smyrniotis’ hand with his two goals in week three against Pacific, but a coach can only work with what his players give him, after all.

And after that, Smyrniotis simplified his game. A lot. No coach spent as much time talking about principles in pre-season as Bobby. Watch the dressing room clips from the finals, and you can see he never stopped talking about them. To start the year, Forge were trying to play like Manchester City–both fullbacks were inverting on the regular, Bekker was at #10, Borges cutting in the left, all with a comically high line.

It was dreadful. Dom Samuel and Daniel Krutzen couldn’t defend space at speed, and Emery Welshman was invisible up front because neither he nor Chris Nanco could use his pace.

Putting Novak in changed all of it. He gave Forge an outlet, and Smyrniotis was able to swallow his dreams and allow his defenders to use it direct. Kwame Awuah started overlapping down the left instead of cutting into the middle. Borges spent more time at #10, which allowed Choiniere to play2I understand Bobby’s reluctance to use Borges in the middle in big games–he’s not that strong defensively yet–and anyway he does good work out wide, too., and when he did play, he mostly did well. Novak couldn’t stop scoring, and by the final was doing a lot of work in the build-up, too. When he got hurt, Smyrniotis briefly reverted to Welshman, but put USPORTs star Jace Kotsopoulos in when Welshman left and he scored for fun, too (and then got hurt–’tis CanPL). The defenders sat a bit deeper and the line of engagement got a little deeper, too, reducing teams’ ability to just play over the backline.

FC Edmonton made a similar change, so I’ll give Jeff Paulus the runner-up in this category, but a.) Forge’s shift worked way better, and b.) Edmonton should have played to their strengths from day one. Forge never abandoned those original principles. They just simplified them, and it paid off.

Best Back-up Goalkeeper of the Year

I’m sorely tempted to give it to Christian Oxner, but I don’t know that you could really call him a back-up after about mid-July. Wirth did get a fair few more starts down the stretch, but was excellent in relief of Village several times before that, including in a terrific clutch performance against Valour in late July.

This had to have been a thankless job, too: Pacific’s backline was among the worst in the league, regularly giving opponents clear looks at goal. Wirth just never seemed flustered. And on a team that had its collective mentality questioned after Michael Silberbauer’s firing, he always brought a certain pep and positivity.

It’s great to see a guy from the VISL succeeding for Pacific–may there be many more to come. With Mark Village being released, it seems likely Wirth will be ineligible for this category next year, so let’s make like the Hockey Hall of Fame and induct him now before he ends up like Curtis Joseph.

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

Much as it pains me, you need guys like this in your team, especially in a new league full of physical players. Of them all, Jay Wheeldon is the best.

In part, it’s because he’s a good player–it took until late September before Cavalry lost a game in which he started. He’s also savvy. A veteran who knows exactly how to toe the line once he’s got a yellow card, and even when and how to provoke an opponent into something stupid. Wheeldon’s finals performance caps off a sterling year in this category.

Honourable mention to Jordan Murrell who would have won this except that he couldn’t quite manage the actually staying on the pitch part.

The Winter Tire Award for Underrated Defensive Midfielder of the Year
Like the North Star Shield, it comes with its own detachable base.

These guys prop up their teams, especially when the going is rough. No modern team is complete without a tireless #6 who can either dictate tempo or break up attacks–ideally both. And yet they never get the credit–even the league’s best XIs usually went with Buescher and Bekker, both of whom are #8s. Who on that team is going to defend in transition?

Which is why you need a guy like Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, who’s been underrated pretty much since he showed up in this league, and somehow still is despite shutting out Cavalry over two legs in the final.

He’s just 23, but his work in the middle is already so smart and experienced. He’s not a bruiser like Alexander Gonzalez, who gets the runner-up for no less than saving Pacific’s season. Some teams need the grit. Forge have Elimane Cissé, but Achinioti-Jonsson deservedly beat him out of a consistent starting spot with his ability to occupy space and passing lanes, as well as win the ball, before finding the intelligent pass, be that long or short. He makes Bobby Smyrniotis’ plan work, and he did it no matter who was around him.

Least Valuable Player / Best Economical Use of an Asset
One to each winner. First come, first served.

Look, in a cap league you have to make tough choices. The problem with having MVP players, as Cavalry and Forge fans will discover soon enough, is you end up having to pay them. A lot.

That’s especially tricky in year one when most of the contracts were single-year, meaning anyone who performed above expectations now finds himself with piles and piles of leverage. Which means every team needs a couple guys who can do a job and not really expect to get paid. Best case? You don’t notice them. They aren’t match-winners, but they aren’t match-losers, either.

Today, we honour them.

Because it’s year one, each team had a fair few of these guys, and since it’s perhaps my most prestigious award (I like to think so, anyway), I’ll go team-by-team rather than anoint a runner-up.

  • Cavalry FC: Dean Northover
    One of the lesser-known Foothills’ players, he came in, gave it his all, and got hurt. Cavalry dropped off a bit after that. Northover will be back next year, probably cheap, and stands out on a whole team of quality players.
  • FC Edmonton: Allan Zebie
    This team had so few centre-backs to start the year, and Zebie filled in again and again. He’s a local veteran, cheap and unspectacular, but the Eddies’ backline would have been a different story without him.
  • Forge FC: Klaidi Cela
    Another CCAA/L1O guy, Cela barely played but was always good when he did. Forge have tons of star power and won’t be able to keep all of it. When that happens, look for Cela to do more with his playing time.
  • Halifax Wanderers: Kodai Iida
    Iida came in via the open trials, a complete unknown coming from the US amateur game, and quickly turned into a fan favourite. His play deserved more goals than he got, though he went out on a goal-of-the-year candidate. It doesn’t look like he’ll be back, and Wanderers will miss his ability to draw fouls just about anywhere.
  • Pacific FC: Lukas MacNaughton
    He’s borderline for this category because I could see him getting a pay bump next year, but for this year? Nobody beat expectations better than MacNaughton, the mostly anonymous partner to Hendrik Starostzik who held down the fort when Staro was (frequently) hurt. He was particularly good in Pacific’s much-improved fall season.
  • Valour FC: Raphael Ohin
    Ohin came in from WSA Winnipeg, a last-place local PDL team, essentially as depth. By mid-season he was starting (and racking up yellow cards) both at d-mid and in the back, and actually ends 2019 as one of Valour’s reasonably few pieces to build on. His age (24) and lack of much in the way skill means he’s unlikely to ever be more than exactly the kind of athletic fix-it man you need to patch a leaky defense.
  • York9: Emilio Estevez
    Another open trialist who played well enough to get a national team call up (for Chinese Taipei, mind). He was quietly one of York’s more creative midfielders, giving them a dose of something different I–and many others–didn’t think they’d have.

Overall Winner: Dean Northover

The Unlikely XI

Featuring Dylan’s picks that few others had at positions that actually make sense in a tactical system. I’m not going to try and avoid every other pick, but I will avoid guys in the league’s Fan XI and most of the One Soccer picks as well.

Some brief notes:

  • I’m a fan of Forge’s system, both the ideal and the end product. I’m letting Awuah free to overlap but also gum up the works defensively, while Rampersad provides a more athletic fill-in for the much-heralded Kyle Bekker.
  • Both wingers can come inside–Bustos was key to Valour’s attack, which was the best part of that team. Minatel was consistent off the bench–he’s never been given a starting job, but he fits this system really well as the late run for Bustos to find, so why not try him out for a spell now?
  • Garcia stuck around the golden boot race for longer than you’d expect given he was playing on a team that, as we’ll see when I do their recap, was almost constitutionally incapable of creating chances. He deserves a shout-out, plus he’d be great off Novak.
  • How did Novak not make a single One Soccer best XI? I feel like I’m not even contrarian with this pick. He put up 0.72 goals + assists per 90, which is excellent. Had he only been healthier, he’d have been in the golden boot race.
  • Once David Edgar arrived, Forge’s defensive problems went away. His organizational ability is absolutely key–he’s far better at that than Trafford, who got most of the awards love despite struggling at times with Cavalry.
  • I went with a bit of homerism in Arnone, but he’s the guy I’d have alongside Edgar to get experience. I don’t think he’s the second-best CB in CanPL right now–but he might be sooner than later, and he proved a quick study after joining Wanderers’, who defended far better than they attacked.

Team-by-team recaps are coming later this week.

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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