Maurizo Sarri’s claim this week that Chelsea could beat England came as somewhat of a surprise to some. Impossible to prove, more than a little arrogant, and exactly the kind of soundbite the salivating English press love to sink their teeth in to. Scratch beneath the mock-shock though, and Sarri has a point. Chelsea could beat England. In fact, Chelsea probably would beat England. Why? Because in football, nothing is more important than the collective. And for the collective to be successful, they have to have more than a four-weeks-per-season relationship with one another.
For the founding members of the CanPL, this is a dilemma primary to their success in the league's first season. In fact, it’s safe to assume the club that manages to best negotiate the pitfalls of throwing together 20-23 new players and hoping they gel, will end the season on top.
So, as we creep closer to April’s season-opener, there is one question that will have the seven coaches scratching their heads the most: how exactly do you get a team built from nothing to click?
As of now, we’ve seen most of the CanPL clubs attempt to answer this question by signing multiple players from their own in-province talent pool. By doing so, the clubs sign personnel who know each other either as teammates or opponents, thereby speeding up the process of how quickly they can click on the pitch. This cultural familiarity between players nurtures a togetherness that should make navigating pre-season and the league's opening weeks a less stressful process.
For HFX Wanderers, though, it isn’t that easy. How can Nova Scotia, with its population of 953,869, be expected to produce the same volume of footballing talent as, say, Ontario (14.9 million), or British Columbia (4.8 million). Even Winnipeg’s Valour FC, closest to Wanderers in terms of population, has 400,000 more people living there. To negotiate the geographical limitations imposed on them, Stephen Hart and his coaching team will have to seek out innovative ways to counteract this disadvantage, and the players they’ve brought in so far offer us a glimpse at how, exactly, they plan on doing so.
The announcement of new signing Chakib Hocine this past Wednesday was an interesting one. His profile fits that of many of the league’s early signings; the twenty-seven-year-old’s career includes spells in the USL with FC Montreal, a stint at Mississippi Brilla in the PDL and most recently a year in Finland playing with second tier side Ekenas IF. It’s a similar footballing story to a lot of the early signings (and once more hammers home just how important the CanPL will be at stopping young Canadian talent from slipping through the net), but what makes it interesting, for Wanderers fans at least, is the fact that one of Hocine’s teammates at FC Montreal was Zachary Sukunda.
Taken as a one-off this is nothing too revelatory, and really, in a country of Canada’s footballing size, to be expected. What makes this interesting is that every single one of Wanderer’s first six signings have played alongside at least one of the other six at some point in their careers. Of the four Trinidadians signed two-weeks ago, Jan-Michael Williams and Elton John spent two-years together at Central FC while Andre Rampersad and Akeem Garcia were teammates last year at FC Santa Rosa (coached, tellingly, by new Wanderers assistant Derek King). Add to this Chakib Hocine and Zachary Sukunda’s time together in Montreal, and you have a group of players armed with ready-made connections.
A quick glance at each player’s positional profile strengthens this point: in Williams and John, Wanderers have an experienced goalkeeper and defender, two related positions that rely heavily on one another. Likewise, with full-back Sukunda and centre-back Hocine. Further up the pitch, box-to-box midfielder Rampersad’s relationship with Garcia, who is most commonly seen on the right side of a front three, adds a promising offensive familiarity.
Whether this is a trend that continues as new signings are announced will tell us a lot about Stephen Hart’s thinking. We can expect, at some point, several signings from within Nova Scotia (two of which may well be draft-picks Christian Oxner and Peter Schaale). Presumably, given the smallish-scale of football in the province, these will be players who have either played for or against each other in their youth careers. So once again, familiarity. Looking further afield, another factor to consider is how the club decides to fill the final three international spots in the squad. Will Hart continue to stick with what he knows by unearthing more Trinidadian talent, or will he look elsewhere? The picture will be clearer once pre-season begins in February.
As the clock counts down to the last week of April, HFX Wanderers and the other six CanPL members will continue to sculpt and mold their fledgling squads into something a little more fully-formed. Mistakes will be made. Lessons will be learnt. But whichever team manages to achieve this synchronization the quickest could well find themselves on top of the pile come October.