For the first time, HFX will face a familiar opponent in the Canadian Premier League. Saturday’s match against Pacific is the second time these two have met in the league, with Pacific coming out on top 1-0 in both side’s first game of the season.
Pacific have yet to register another win in any competition since that day, but sit one point above Wanderers in the table thanks to two draws in their last two league matches. The most recent of those, a 2-2 stalemate against York, came two weeks ago. Pacific are coming off of an extended rest before Saturday’s clash.
Wanderers have hit a lull in the league since beating Forge FC 2-1 in their home opener, but they will look to build off of an encouraging performance on Wednesday against York 9 FC. Certainly, there will be no lack of desire to set the record straight after the disappointing loss to Pacific on day one.
Rest has been hard to come by for Wanderers in the last week. The Pacific test will mark their third game in seven days. Unfortunately, the injury bug has shown no sign of slowing down in this congested run. When asked if we may get anyone back, Hart wasn’t optimistic. “Unfortunately, we get one player back, but we might have one [more] out, so it’s a tradeoff” he said.
While the return of Luis Alberto Perea was very welcome and clearly a difference-maker, Chrisnovic N’sa and Juan Diego Gutierrez joined the causalities when they dropped out of the York match on Wednesday.
Stephen Hart made no substitutions in that match, and with the short bench, many of those who put in the full ninety on Wednesday will be asked to do so again against Pacific.
Last week, Hart called for his players to be braver in persisting with their own game, suggesting that Wanderers were too quick to panic when games turn south. When asked if he saw this bravery against York, he was positive.
“I thought it was one of those performances where players accepted responsibility in possession to keep us in possession, and to move the ball into good attacking areas.”
The performance itself against York was an improvement on recent times, even if Wanderers didn’t get the three points.
“We created a lot of chances and we didn’t capitalize on it. To be honest, we gave up a few chances as well, so the score could have gone either way. But I thought we created a lot of very good chances and should have done better” said Hart of the match.
How Might HFX Look?
The name that immediately jumps off the page in the above lineup is Perea. HFX look a completely different side with him in the lineup. His strength and poise on the ball gave his backline and midfield a real target to hit when breaking out of their own third, and his penchant for a well-timed run to drop in between the opposition midfield and defence to receive the ball is every bit as important as his goal threat.
Of course, there is much to be said for that as well. His calm play in the box set up Schaale’s equalizer, and he struck a lovely volley that left the crossbar shaking. If fit, he will certainly slot in up top. Kodai Iida partnered him as a kind of shadow striker on Wednesday. If Hart wants to relieve some legs, he has the option of using Skublak or Lamy in an out-and-out 4-4-2. He may also be temped to drop one more into midfield and give Andre Rampersad a runout, if he is fit.
In midfield, Elton John and, in particular, Elliot Simmons offered a balance in midfield that Wanderers have struggled to find. There may not be much choice but to give them a second run-out this weekend, and if the legs are there it is a duo that I would like to see tried out consistently. Rampersad may be the returning player Hart alluded too, and if that is the case Hart could be tempted to bring him in to guard against fatigue. Ouattara and Firth are also available for selection.
On the wings, Garcia looks the leading candidate on the right again, with Sukunda and Guti unlikely to take part. On the left, Mo Kourouma has been a consistent starter, but Alex De Carolis may slot in to deal with tired legs. Abd-El-Aziz Yousef and Vincent Lamy are both waiting to make their league debuts, and are outside shots for the wide positions.
The backline is particularly injury stricken at the moment, with Chakib Hocine, N’sa, and Sukunda all struggling. While Hart alluded to the fact that York created more than he would have liked, the only real candidate for a change at the back is, again, De Carolis. He could come in for Arnone in the middle, or give Langwa a rest at left back.
Pacific FC were the first CanPL team to register a victory, and it was HFX Wanderers who will forever be on the wrong side of that particular trivia question. However, Pacific have not won a game since that day, over a month ago now.
While two draws in their last two may appear to be an uptick in form, Pacific boss Michael Silberbaur will have every reason to be unhappy with both. The first of these results was a 0-0 draw against an FC Edmonton side that played 60+ minutes with 10 men, and Pacific failed to test the shorthanded Eddies.
The other, a 2-2 draw at home to York 9, came after Pacific led 2-0 at halftime before an own goal and a penalty led to a disappointing collapse.
As mentioned, Pacific are coming off of a long rest after an intense start to the season. Silberbauer will have been grateful for this rest. When I spoke to him, he was quick to point this out, but knows it comes with the territory. He acknowledged HFX are in the middle of an intense run of games themselves.
Pacific rely on a very young side, supplemented by a few experienced heads like Fisk and Haber. It is hard to say their season has gone to script so far though, as it is the youngsters who have outperformed the veterans.
Silberbauer was very honest when discussing his youngsters. “They got thrown into the fire, and it’s a big chance for them. I’m happy with the response of some of them. We played a program that was quite heavy, which Halifax are going through right now, so in that regard I’m pleased, but there still were some things we had to look at and correct. They are young and talented, yes, but this is a man’s game now and they have to step up”
In goal, Mark Village has played every league minute and is all but guaranteed to start due to injury to his deputy Nolan Wirth.
Their backline has also been hit hard by injury. Of course, marquee signing Marcel De Jong is on the injury list and will not take part at all this season. Hendrick Starostzik, who put Wanderers to the sword in the inaugural match, has not played since that performance. While Lukas MacNaughton has been solid, Starostzik’s leadership and physicality is clearly missing. In Kadin Chung and Blake Smith, Pacific have two fullbacks who love to get forward. Ryan McCurdy is likely to be the second CB, but Emile Legault is also a candidate anywhere across the back 4.
In midfield, two youngsters in particular have got off to storming starts. Noah Verhoeven and Michael Baldisimo present arguably the most inexperienced midfield pairing in the league, but both have held their own so far. Lately, Verhoeven has operated higher up the pitch and given freedom to roam, with Alessandro Hojabrpour partnering Baldisimo deeper.
The x-factor in the Pacific midfield could be the addition of Alexander Gonzalez, a strong Panamanian defensive midfielder. He was supposed to have signed at the beginning of the season but subsequently ran into Visa issues. His conformation just before Pacific’s extended break is perfectly timed, as he will have had 2 weeks to get familiar with Silberbauer’s system. I’d expect him to slot in, likely for Hojabrpour.
In Issey Nakajima-Farran and Ben Fisk, Pacific had what many thought would be a deadly duo of wingers. However, Issey has struggled to find his feet and has not got consistent minutes. Victor Blasco, Jose Hernandez, and Verhoeven have all been rotated in Issey’s place. Hernandez is out injured for Saturday’s clash.
Up top, we finally get to Marcus Haber. An early golden boot favorite, most would agree he has flattered to deceive somewhat this season. A massive aerial presence, he has got himself in good positions thus far but has really struggled to convert. Occasionally, Pacific’s shape will look like a 4-4-2, and this tends to happen most when Terran Campbell is involved, pushing up alongside Haber.
What to Watch For
Pacific FC have played a fairly fluid style of football so far this year, with specific players being given some license to roam in the buildup. Noah Verhoeven and Ben Fisk require particular attention. In Verhoeven, they have a highly technical and creative player who came through the Whitecaps system. His USL experience is largely on the wing, but Silberbauer will often start him centrally. In this role, he is free to get involved from touchline to touchline.
Likewise, Ben Fisk is a natural winger who Silberbauer will frequently start out wide. However, it is common to see him come inside and deep to help out in the buildup.
In midfield, the addition of Gonzalez should lighten the load on Michael Baldisimo, who has performed admirably as he learns the role of holding midfielder. Baldisimo, Verhoeven, and Hojabrpour all done a solid job when you consider the lack of experience in that area of the pitch.
While Pacific are patient in buildup and not afraid to control the game, there are issues when it comes to creating chances. While Pacific comparatively complete many passes over 90 minutes, they struggle to turn those into chances
Much of this comes down to the man they have up top. While Haber does get into good positions, he has struggled to convert thus far. His style of play is easy to recognize but difficult to stop, however I do wonder if Pacific are perhaps too eager to play to his strengths.
Frequently, their attacks seem geared toward taking advantage of Haber’s aerial power, perhaps neglecting the skill and creativity they possess once Verhoeven, Fisk, Blasco, etc. pop up in the final third.
If there is an area HFX may want to look to exploit, it could be in behind Pacific’s very attacking fullbacks, especially Chung. Other sides have had some joy looking to exploit these areas, putting a large degree of responsibility on MacNaughton, McCurdy, and Baldisimo to cover these spaces.
For Halifax, the key again will be defending wide areas. York 9 clearly looked to target Wanderers’ right-hand side, flooding Porter, Telfer and Abzi into this area. At times, this overwhelmed Andre Bona. Fortunately, York did not capitalize on the fair few crosses coming in from the right.
In the previous match against Pacific, HFX really struggled to work the ball through midfield. If tired legs hold up and it is John and Simmons in midfield, they will have to be more successful in finding the advanced players and supporting them.
The above map shows HFX's most frequent combinations, only taking forward passes into account. Almost no ball advancement occurred through the midfield.
Setting it Right
There is a fair amount at stake in this matchup, with HFX having the opportunity to avenge their opening day loss and leapfrog Pacific in the standings. While that will certainly be in the back of a few players’ minds, Hart isn’t putting too much stock into that first match.
“The first game was the first game, and that was difficult in many ways. We travelled, and we looked a little bit leggy, that cost us in terms of getting organized quick enough. I thought we played a better second half. That game is a long way gone, and hopefully we are a better team than we were on that opening day”
For Silberbauer, he looks forward to continuing to test his managerial chops in his first job in charge of a club. “Not only for the players, but also for me to try myself out as a head coach. I’ve been loving it, I’ve been loving having the interaction with the players on a different level, it’s definitely something I’m enjoying”
While the rookie manager will look to earn a quick double over his more experienced adversary, you can bet that no one in the Halifax camp is in the mood to roll over to this familiar foe.
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.