Yet again, HFX Wanderers will go to work at Wanderers Grounds tomorrow evening. This time, it's Valour FC making the trip from Winnipeg to the East Coast for the first leg of a Canadian Championship second round clash.
Wanderers reached this stage by overcoming Vaughan Azzuri on away goals, after a nervy second leg at Wanderers Grounds saw the tie finish 3-3. This will be the first ever appearance in this competition for Valour, as they were gifted a first round bye.
The only time these sides have met previously came almost a month ago, with Valour running out 1-0 victors in Winnipeg. That match probably holds up as Wanderers best away performance to date, but a lack of cutting edge (and, perhaps synonymously, Luis Alberto Perea) saw them fall to defeat.
Wanderers will come into this match feeling good, as two solid performances have seen them earn 4 points out of 6 at home in the last week. A hard-fought 1-1 draw with York last Wednesday was followed by a 2-1 victory over Pacific, with Akeem Garcia and the aforementioned Perea seeing off the B.C. side.
Valour come into this game fresh off of a 1-0 away victory over Edmonton, having previously been on an extended rest. Ali Musse played the role of super-sub in that victory, popping up off the bench to score the winner in the second half.
The mood will have been lifted this week in the HFX camp, with the victory over Pacific ending a winless run in the league that stretched back to the home opener against Forge. Stephen Hart will demand his players carry their second half performance against Pacific into this match.
The Wanderers boss looks like he is beginning settle upon a preferred XI. The Pacific match saw only one change, with Christian Oxner stepping in goal for an injured Jan-Michael Williams. This comes after an extended period of tinkering, although Hart’s hand was forced due to some injury misfortune.
“I just have to step up when my name is called, like everyone else in the room does. That’s kinda been how we’ve been doing things. We’ve had guys go down hurt, and a lot of guys have had to step up” Oxner said.
On his first win in front of the home crowd, the local boy couldn’t hide his joy. “It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before, something I never knew how good it would feel. It’s hard to put into words. In front of a sold out crowd, you have so much emotion and energy going through you. When the final whistle comes, you just scream your head off your so happy”. The whole time he is answering this question, he is looking over my shoulder at the Kitchen. It is empty save for a couple of maintenance folks, but you get the feeling that isn’t how Ox is seeing it as he talks about that moment.
While this was the first time Oxner has celebrated a win with Wanderers at home, it is not the first time he has been key in clinging on for a tight victory on Wanderers Grounds. Ox backstopped an Atlantic Selects team to a penalty win over Fortuna Dusseldorf last summer.
“I hope we can start winning by a few goals so it’s less nervy” he said with a chuckle when reminded of last summers match. One area on the pitch that has really benefitted from this consistency is the centre of midfield. This area saw extended rotation in the opening weeks, but after last week Elton John and Elliot Simmons are showing the potential to be a good midfield duo.
“Elliot Simmons is a very good young player, he is open to learning. He listens. I am also a learner as well so anything I can learn to him I try to, we try to bond together. We try to clean up each other’s mistakes”.
The performances of John in the past week have been particularly inspiring. While he has proven to be a solid anchor in midfield, it is his leadership and organizational skills that have stood out to many at Wanderers’ Grounds. John is HFX’s vice-captain, and wore the armband for the first time against Pacific.
When asked if the armband provides extra impetus to provide that leadership, John was categorical in his answer. “No. That’s me. That’s my personality. It doesn’t matter if you wear the armband or not, and I think that should be true of the whole team. We have good players with a good knowledge of the game, and we must try to share that experience”
The sight of Elton John cajoling his teammates is one that Wanderers supporters will hope to see for some time to come. In Gary’s excellent reaction to the Pacific match, he noted John’s baffling ability to debrief three or four of his teammates at once in the heat of battle. “Not only the younger players, but the players around you sometimes go to sleep. It is our job as senior players to keep each other awake during the game”
This leadership is greatly appreciated by the Wanderer’s boss. “It’s extremely important, because once a game starts I am more or less useless except for a couple of messages I can try and get out there. If you have someone who understands what you want from the midfield, and then you have a leader in the back directing things, it does help a lot”
How Might HFX Line Up?
As mentioned, Hart looks to be settling on a consistent XI with his hand slightly forced due to injury. N’sa, Williams, Sukunda, and Gutierrez all missed the weekend's tilt with Pacific. Sukunda and Williams could return tomorrow.
Hart’s system has been progressively morphing into a 4-4-2, with Kodai Iida as a second striker who will drop into the midfield.
The backline could well remain unchanged, with Bona seemingly preferred at right-back and Sukunda being used as a rotation option farther forward on the right wing. Williams can be expected to slot back in goal.
In midfield, Simmons and John are clearly striking up a good camaraderie, but the intense run of fixtures could see rotation in midfield. Andre Rampersad has impressed in cameo appearances and could slot in, while Kouame Ouattara will chomping at the bit having not made an appearance since the Forge win over a month ago.
On the wings, Mohamed Kourouma is unquestionably the preferred choice on the left, but his energetic style of play will surely be difficult to sustain for a fourth match in eleven days. Akeem Garcia has been nursing a knock picked up in the Pacific game, and Sukunda could relieve him if he is not ready to go. Vincent Lamy is also waiting for his first start, and is capable on the right side.
Up top, there is only one man in contention when fit. Perea is the fulcrum of this attack, and HFX look a completely different team with him up top. While he is still not 100%, you would expect Hart to wring every minute he can out of the savvy 32-year-old Colombian.
Rob Gale set his Valour side up in a versatile 3-4-1-2 early in the season, with key players being used in several different positions.
Against Halifax in early May, however, he switched to a 4-1-4-1 and stuck with it for the following fixture against Forge. It will be interesting to see if this back 4 was something Gale did specifically to combat HFX, or if it was more a case of his hand being forced by player availability. This weekend’s win over Edmonton saw him revert to the above back 3.
In goal, an interesting battle is developing between Tyson Farago and Matthias Janssens. While Farago seemed the preferred choice early on, Janssens has yet to concede in the two matches he has played, each being 1-0 victories. Farago has struggled to make the #1 shirt his own at previous clubs, and will certainly be sweating after Janssens’ confident performances.
Valour’s defense was much-hyped going into the season, but has been an issue in a few games so far. Skylar Thomas and skipper Jordan Murrell are both experienced ex-USL players, and have been ever-present so far. If Gayle goes for a back 3, they are likely to be partnered by Martin Arguinarena, a natural full-back. If it is a back 4, Arguinarena could shift to the left and one of Raphael Garcia or (the other) Diego Gutierrez could slot in on the right.
Valour have a dynamic midfield rife with creativity. While the loss of Josip Golubar to a season-ending injury will hit Valour, Marco Bustos has proven a dynamic force in his absence. Louis Beland-Goyette has been key in his role anchoring an otherwise attack-minded midfield. The third spot in the centre of midfield is anyone’s guess, with Gutierrez, Dylan Sacramento, Dylan Carreiro, and Raphael Ohin all comfortable in that area.
The wing-back positions are yet another are that Gale has been happy to tinker. Gutierrez has played the most minutes on the right, but Michael Petrasso put in an excellent performance in that position against Edmonton and may be called on again. Nicolas Galvis and Ali Musse are in contention on the left, but neither are particularly defensive-minded options.
Up top, Valour possess the league's most natural poacher in Stephen Hoyle, but his minutes have been scrupulously managed as he only just finished his season in New Zealand before the start of the CPL campaign. Former Wanderers trialist Calum Ferguson started against Edmonton, and he was the one who put HFX to the sword in Winnipeg. Ali Musse could also be an option.
What to Watch Out For
Rob Gale has his Valour side playing a high-tempo, energetic brand of football. It is very much geared towards getting his most dangerous creators on the ball as quickly as possible, and giving them license take risks and attack the opposition. Against Edmonton, it was Bustos and Petrasso who were these players. Bustos is very dangerous with the ball at his feet, and excels at breaking through the opposition midfield with his skill and agility. Petrasso has been, for me, under-appreciated so far this year and is unquestionably amongst a handful of the most dangerous players in the league. His freedom to run inside from the right wing against Edmonton caused all kinds of headaches.
The focus on getting the danger men the ball quickly means Valour are significantly less build-up oriented than other teams in this league. While they often come out on top in the possession battle, they largely do so while being camped in the opposition half. This will be in stark contrast to the Pacific and York matches taken it at Wanderers Grounds in the last week.
One reason they are able to spend so much time in the opposition half is how attack-minded their midfielders tend to be. In possession, Bustos and whoever is partnering him play very high up the pitch and look to hem in the oppositions defensive players. This puts a lot of responsibility on Beland-Goyette to anchor the side, but he has performed admirably in this role so far.
These high midfielders were in stark contrast to their Wanderers counterparts in the first matchup between these two teams. Valour choked passing lanes high up the pitch, and Wanderers reacted by dropping more and more players into the buildup. It was not uncommon to see all three of the HFX central midfielders dropping very deep into their own half to try and break out. Rarely did this lead to any kind of success, with Wanderers often recycling the ball around the backline without options farther forward. Perea has the ability to offer the kind of vertical passing option that may have been sorely missing that day.
So the hope for Halifax? Valour’s defensive vulnerabilities will sound all-too-familiar to Wanderers fans. A large amount of the chances they concede come from set-plays, or from wide areas in open play. As well, they are vulnerable in transition. The flip-side of their very high midfield and attacking wing-backs is that there is a decent amount of space for the opposition to attack quickly after winning the ball back, and a lot of pressure on Beland-Goyette, Thomas, and Murrell to cover that space. Even when playing as a centre-back, Arguinarena likes to join the attack down the left.
What’s At Stake?
For both sides, an enticing reward awaits in they can manage to get through this tie. The winner will take on the USL’s Ottawa Fury, a matchup that has had Canadian footy fanatics riled up for some time. Ottawa management has been seen to be dismissive of the CPL, and fought tooth-and-tail to avoid being forced into the league. General Manager Juilian de Guzman has given every manager in the league a quote to pin up on the dressing room wall, saying that of all the players in the CPL, only Kyle Bekker would be fit to wear the Fury shirt.
Fury have had a good start to their USL campaign, and whichever side gets through will have the rest of the league hoping they can make de Guzman eat his words.
While this is a great example of the clichéd “charm of the cup”, Stephen Hart is not letting the occasion change how he prepares his side.
“It’s the same kind of preparation. I’m concerned with the things we’ve been doing well and the things that we could do better” he said. “It makes no difference to me. The biggest thing, and I’m not going to harp on it with the players because I don’t want it in their mind, is no away goals. But… I’m more concerned with the positive things we’ve been doing and playing to those strengths”
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.