HFX Wanderers begin their first real run of home games this year with a test against York 9 FC. Both teams have struggled to pick up points early in the spring season, which lends added impetus to a match that both sides will hope to use to kick-start their campaign.
Each side comes into this one off the back of a 2-0 loss, with Wanderers falling to Cavalry in
Calgary and York dropping their home opener to Forge in a clash marred by brutal weather conditions.
With the finish line somehow already in sight in this abbreviated spring season, this is a crucial match for both sides as they look to start moving up the table.
Wanderers come into this match off the back of some disappointing performances. The last win for the Halifax side came two weeks ago in the Canadian Championship when they topped Vaughan Azzuri 3-2. Since then, they have lost the return leg to Vaughan 1-0 at home before falling 2-0 in the league on Saturday.
The Vaughan defeat in particular will have stung, and it prompted some strong words from Stephen Hart last week. He called into question his teams identity, saying “there are a number of players that here that really need to look deep down and ask themselves, do they want to be here?”
Strong words, and certainly concerning for supporters to hear. However, he was happy to clarify exactly what he meant this week.
“Look, some of these players have not been in a professional environment for very long, so there are a number of things that take their toll on them. One is training day-in, day-out. The second thing is when things are not really going your way, how do you handle it? Do you have the confidence to play your way out of the situation? Stick with the game plan and hopefully things start to fall into place?”.
It’s clear Hart is not panicking, and he does not want his players to either. “When things are not going your way, you tend to fall back into old habits. We have a way we want to play, and they have to stick with that, trust the process, and sooner or later we will get it right."
Peter Schaale, who stood in as captain against Cavalry, echoes the boss's words. “Well it’s definitely frustrating, everyone is here to win games, that’s a players environment.” He said. “All the confidence for us is coming from training sessions, if you watch us train it’s different to what we put on the field [on game day]. We have to be confident, and carry out there what we’ve been working on the rest of the week.
There has been no shortage of rotation in Wanderers’ first 6 matches. Particularly, the midfield has been chopped and changed frequently. In the home leg against Vaughan, Hart put out a midfield of John, Rampersad, and Gutierrez. This is the same midfield from the season opener against Pacific, and marked the first time the same combination has been given a second start.
Four days later in Calgary, only Gutierrez was present when the starting 11 took the field against Cavalry, with Arnone and Simmons stepping in for John and Rampersad.
When asked whether this was more to do with fitness or striking a balance, Hart was quick to answer. “We’ve had players that are not 100% and you can’t start them because then you use a sub. What we’ve been trying to do is [start] the healthy ones and then bring on the [other] players for 15/20 minutes and hopefully they can pull through the game”
With these fitness concerns, it is anyone’s guess as to who could start on Wednesday night. Of those who missed out against Cavalry, Elton John is probably the most likely to step back in. One of Iida or Gutierrez will likely line up ahead of a midfield two, with Iida possibly preferred as Gutierrez played the full 90 minutes against Cavalry on Saturday. Zach Sukunda’s knee injury makes him doubtful and opens the door for Akeem Garcia on the right, while Kourouma may return on the left after a rest on Saturday.
The backline is beginning to appear more settled. N’sa, Schaale, and Langwa are the only Wanderers to have played every minute in the league so far, while Andre Bona appears to be the preferred choice at right-back. Barring injury, this is likely the back four that will turn out against York. Jan-Michael Williams will hope to be over his knock and back between the sticks.
Up top, there does seem to be some hope that Luis Alberto Perea will make his much anticipated return. While there are still medical tests to be done, Hart says he has trained this week and he thinks he should be good to go. In his absence, one of Skublak or Garcia are the most likely replacement. Vincent Lamy, who is still waiting to make his CanPL debut, is an outside shot.
Coach Hart will be up against a familiar face in the opposition dugout. Jim Brennan featured heavily during Hart’s time in charge of Canada, and will be looking forward to facing somewhat of a mentor figure. However, he isn’t letting it distract him from the task at hand.
“It goes to the back of your mind right? He’s the same, he wants to win, I want to win, every game that you play you want to win. When the game starts the friendship is put aside because you want to get the best for your team” said Brennan. It isn’t strictly a business trip though: “Before the game and after the game, absolutely we’ll be talking. I’m sure we’ll share a beer after.
York 9’s Early Changes
York 9, along with FC Edmonton, present probably the biggest mystery package in the league at this stage. Jim Brennan’s men have played just 4 league matches so far and still appear to be settling on a system.
Brennan looked married to a 3-5-2 system early on in the season. This is how they lined up to start each of their first 3 matches, showing the players who have played most frequently in each position
However, after falling to a 2-0 deficit in the first half at Westhills last week, Brennan switched to a back 4. This saw a dramatically improved performance, with a Rodrigo Gattas penalty and a Ryan McCurdy own goal seeing them through to a point. Brennan stuck with this against Forge on Saturday, and although they fell to defeat they looked a better side using this system.
“I was pleased with the performance” said Brennan of his side’s ability to adapt against Pacific. "When we put this squad together, we wanted guys who could adapt to different situations and change formations on the road”.
It will be interesting to see what Brennan fields against HFX. I would expect him to stick with the back four, but the pitch at Wanderers Grounds is much wider than the one in York and this may tempt him to move back to a back three.
Like HFX, York9 have had some key injuries to deal with early on. Joseph Di Chiara hasn’t played since the home opener, and his graft and guile in midfield is sorely missed. Roger Thompson, a hulking defender with European experience, has yet to appear. Michael Cox is returning to fitness and got his first run-out of the year on Saturday. Brennan says that Thompson and Di Chiara are close to a return, possibly next week, but they will not take part tomorrow.
How Might York9 Line Up?
In goal, Nathan Ingham has been a revelation for York. He is by far the busiest keeper in the CPL, and can probably be credited with at least one of the two points York have amassed. The graphic below shows just how busy he has been compared to the league's other keepers. Despite conceding more goals p90 than others, York's xG against suggests it should have been even more.
In front of him, Luca Gasparotto and Daniel Gogarty have been ever-present at the heart of defence, with Justin Springer so far being the casualty of the change to a back 4. There are more questions over the full-back slots, with experienced pros Kyle Porter and Ryan Telfer being preferred farther up the pitch. Diyaeddine Abzi is making a strong claim for the left-back position, while Morey Doner got the start at right-back against Forge. Springer and Steven Furlano are also options on the right.
In midfield, Wataru Murufushi has re-invented himself in Di Chiara’s absence as a busy holding midfielder, while Steven Furlano is also being adapted to play that role. Captain Manny Aparicio provides energy and creativity, but has yet to build on his solid first start of the year.
York are struggling for depth here with Di Chiara’s injury, and have tried Emilio Estevez (yepp, you read that right) and Kyle Porter in the midfield 3. Both of these players are forward thinking, natural attacking players. Ryan Telfer is also an option in the middle of the park. One of Porter or Telfer have always been used on the wing since changing to a back 4, with Rodrigo Gattas also operating as a wide attacker with license to roam.
Up top, Simon Adjei has struggled to adjust to the CPL so far, but certainly offers a physical presence as an outlet. Cyrus Rollocks offers more of a threat in behind, while Cox and Gattas are also options up front.
Where’s the Joy?
Brennan does like his side to press reasonably aggressively, perhaps to a lesser degree away from home. Cavalry and Forge have both found success against them when playing direct so far this season. In the league opener, especially, Forge managed to repeatedly exploit a large space behind York’s midfield and consistently got their attackers running at the back three.
York have conceded far more chances than any other team on a per-game basis. While Gasparotto and Gogarty have been solid, the lack of a natural anchor in their midfield often leaves them exposed.
It will be interesting to see if the 4-1-4-1 Brennan has been trying resolves this issue somewhat. The small pitch at York Lions Stadium may cover up this issue at home, and Wanderers may look to exploit this on their own patch.
At the other end, it will be crucial that Hart’s side have addressed their issues in dealing with wide balls. A disproportionately high number of goals (read: literally all of them) conceded by Wanderers this season have originated from wide. In Ryan Telfer and Kyle Porter, York 9 have to very savvy wide players at their disposal. Simon Adjei is a physical presence in the middle, and Rodrigo Gattas has a knack for popping up in the box. Figuring out how to deal with balls into the box will be key.
Sadly, this would look like a classic relegation battle anywhere else in the world. Both teams will be itching to set it right, and both teams will feel that the position they are in is fairly harsh. Can Stephen Hart get a leg up over his former player in Brennan, and get Wanderers moving in the right direction? We’ll find out on Wednesday evening.
Alex Sheppard writes and rants about the words and numbers around the Canadian Premier League. His writing is usually found at From Aways and Northern Starting XI, his numbers are found mostly on twitter @its_shep, and his physical self is often found in Wanderers Grounds Section 105, balancing a notebook and a beer.