While it is difficult to believe, the first chapter of the Canadian Premier League is in the books. The spring season has been an excellent advertisement for Canadian football, and it hardly feels like there is a break before the whirlwind schedule of the fall campaign kicks into full force.
It felt strange to be talking to players and staff about the start of a “fall” season after training on Thursday morning. Later that afternoon, thermometers in Halifax would hit 30° C for the first time this summer. The heat reflecting off of the turf at the BMO Centre made that feel even hotter. Considering the last match Wanderers played was on a cold and rainy Canada Day in Edmonton, just hearing the word “fall” was demoralizing.
The spring season was one of ups and downs for HFX. It took too long for performances to start turning into results, and while there was an encouraging uptick in the middle of the campaign, a 2-0 loss to Edmonton was a bitter way to finish off.
While 4th place won’t satisfy many inside the club, there are clear positives to take. The performances Wanderers put in likely deserved more, and to come middle of the pack with the injury list they were faced with is impressive.
Stephen Hart’s side will look to carry these positives into the fall season, which starts with the return of York 9 this Saturday.
In the final post-match presser of the spring season, Stephen Hart cut a frustrated figure. When asked to reflect upon the first 10 Wanderers matches, his answer was simple. “Well it’s not good enough, is it?”
Given time to reflect though, he was clear in his appreciation of the positives that are there for all to see. “When I said it wasn’t good enough, I mean [we] finished 4th in the league. You have to be honest with yourself, it wasn’t good enough to win the league. There are a lot of things I am very very impressed with from an individual perspective and a collective perspective, but it can be a lot better, and that’s my job.”
Wanderers have a legitimate claim to be the best of the rest after Cavalry and Forge. While they were pipped to 3rd place by Edmonton on the final day, there is plenty to suggest they are in a good position to push those sides in the fall campaign.
Hart’s focus is on what his side can do better to push the top two, and any other potential contenders. He was honest when assessing what his side has done well and what they need to improve on.
“Believe it or not, I think we’ve actually defended quite well. Some little errors occurred, and we gave up bad goals in situations, but which team doesn’t really do that?” The first part of this statement was unnecessary: it is clear for all to see that this is a side that defends very well in most areas of the pitch. But what is also clear is that he is aware of the problems that creep in when defending close to their own goal line.
While he appreciates the shortcomings his side sometimes shows in possession, he was also pleased to point out a very dangerous side to their attack. ““[We have to] be a little more tidy on the ball, which we know is our problem. We have a very very dangerous counter-attack. What we need to improve upon is when we cannot counter-attack, how we move the ball into positions and create opportunities.”
That is the clear strength of this side. HFX have proved to be very dynamic once the opposition plays into their compact shape. There is an emphasis on pressing aggressively when the ball is played into the middle third (particularly in wide areas), and then transitioning as fast as possible with the dynamism of the likes of Kourouma, Iida, and Garcia. However, Hart is spot on in the need for his side to go back to the drawing board when this isn’t on, and figure out a way to work the opposition and get dangerous players in good areas.
Hart also mentioned the tendency to concede bad goals. Two major patterns in goals HFX have conceded are particularly alarming. Early in the season, a high proportion of goals against stemmed from an inability to defend wide areas close to their goal line. These include Calum Ferguson’s winner in a 1-0 loss away at Valour, and the André Bona own goal in the 2-1 home defeat to Cavalry.
As well, there is an issue with allowing players to take touches and shoot inside their own box. Terran Campbell and Sergio Camargo have both benefited from this, and some excellent goalkeeping from both Williams and Oxner have saved their backline on a couple of occasions.
While no one inside the club has been willing to use it as an excuse, one undeniable issue in the spring season was injury. Going into the season, Juan Diego Gutierrez, Luis Alberto Perea, and Chakib Hocine were arguably the most important signings at either end of the pitch. Collectively, they have taken part in 7 of a possible 30 matches. Hocine has not contributed a single minute to that. This makes the strength of the defence all the more impressive.
Other sides have had equally as bad times with injury. Pacific FC spring to mind. From day one they have been cursed. Marquee signing Marcel De Jong was ruled out for the season before a ball was kicked, Hendrick Starostzik put in an absolutely immense performance in their inaugural match and hasn’t featured since, and Marcus Haber is currently sidelined with a knee issue. Valour have also lost key pieces in Josip Golubar and Michael Petrasso.
The difference is in how each side has coped. Both Valour and, less so, Pacific have struggled without these players. HFX have done well to remain competitive while missing these key pieces.
You Schaale Not Pass
When looking at positives from the spring season, there is one that perhaps sticks out above the rest. Hart spoke about the strength of his defense, and the key man in this has been Peter Schaale. The imposing German has played every minute at the heart of defence, and has far exceeded the expectation that he would hopefully be a good squad player.
While it was no secret that Schaale was highly rated, few would have predicted any USports draftee would be ever-present and appearing in spring season Best XIs, but that is where we are.
Schaale didn’t know what his role would be when he signed. “Honestly, I didn’t have any expectations when I came in because I didn’t know what was going to happen. So many things depend on the coaches, how you fit in, so I didn’t expect anything. I was hoping, obviously, to play a lot of minutes. I’m a confident guy, I know I can play football”.
That confidence is as clear in how he wraps up his answer as it is watching him on the pitch: “I didn’t expect it” (to play a lot of minutes) “but I’m not surprised”.
His performances are not flying under the radar. He appeared in the official CPL podcast’s Spring Season best XI. He’s been called the league’s best CB by some pundits. And most prestigiously, he was voted Player of the Spring Season by From Aways’ brainy readers.
Fortunately for all who cram into Wanderers Grounds every week, he laughed off suggestions that this coveted prize may tempt him to retire on a high.
In all seriousness, a post-Schaale HFX backline could be closer than many would be comfortable with. Schaale is due to return to Cape Breton University in August, and currently all signs point towards that happening. If he does, he will leave a large whole for the HFX backline.
The end of a season is usually a time for reflection and analysis, but there is little opportunity for that before the fall season kicks into gear. With that in mind, let’s look ahead to Saturday’s tilt with York 9
For Wanderers, there is certainly hope that the injury bug may be wearing off. Hocine, Gutierrez, and Perea have all been training this week. However, this Saturday may come too soon for those who have been out long term, Hart said.
“They trained today, [the] 2nd full training session. This weekend might be pushing it, I might be putting them in jeopardy. But, if I need, I might see if 20 minutes are in order to get them match fit”
Tomasz Skublak is also touch-and-go.
Of the healthy players, Hart should be able to field a full-strength side against York. Many players with a high work-load were rested toward the end of the Spring Season, so the likes of Langwa, Simmons, John, and Garcia should be in line for a full 90 minutes.
Assuming none of the injury doubts are good to go, Hart could line his side up something like this:
If either of Skublak or Perea are available and can give Hart 45+ mins, they would be likely to start up top, with Garcia shifting wide right, Iida moving into the second striker role, and one of Rampersad, Simmons or John (likely Rampersad) dropping out.
While Garcia is clearly a bigger threat from the right wing, he is not uncomfortable playing up top. "I've played striker for my national team, at U17 and U20, so I have experience playing forward. Forward is just natural for me, but I prefer the wing".
York 9 Lineup
York 9 have become a familiar opponent, as every side will by the end of the season. The last match between the two sides was far from a spectacle, and ended 0-0 in York. Prior to that, a 1-1 draw at Wanderers Grounds left HFX feeling frustrated not to get more.
These two results typify both sides struggle to find the cutting edge to turn draws into wins. York in particular are suffering from this, managing to draw 5 of their 10 spring season matches.
York's lineup has recently looked something close to this:
In midfield, you would think Aparicio, Murofushi, and Telfer are set in stone to take part if fit, and the last spot will be contested between Porter and Di Chiara.
If Brennan prefers to field more natural wingers, Porter’s claim for a place is strengthened, and Emilio Estevez also comes into the conversation.
At the back, York have looked solid if overworked. Gasparotto, Gogarty and Ingham have been very good as part of the league’s busiest backline. Experienced CB Roger Thompson made his return from injury against Valour on Canada Day, but struggled to get himself up to speed and looked shakey.
Since switching to a back 4, Morey Doner and Diyaeddine Abzi have made the full-back positions their own. Abzi in particular has impressed.
Up front, Brennan has remained loyal to Simon Adjei and Rodrigo Gattas. Gattas in particular oozes class, a player who’s technique is far above the level he is playing at. His glaring issue, however, is his finishing. He has taken more shots than anyone in the CPL, but has yet to score from open play. Both of his goals come from the penalty spot, with one being in York’s only previous trip to Wanderers Grounds.
If Brennan decides to change things up front, Cyrus Rollocks has been the understudy most relied upon. Michael Cox is another option, and has been a bit of a mystery so far. Fitness must be an issue here.
York 9 Style
Brennan has his side playing a fluid system. Early in the season, York's midfield struggled to control games and was often overrun on the counter. However, they have started to come into their own. Against Valour on Canada day, there were lovely rotations and combination play that were too much for Valour's double pivot to cope with.
The midfield is increasingly resembling a diamond as the season goes on, with Doner and Abzi pushing high and wide to provide width. Ryan Telfer tends to be the attacking point of the diamond, and is given freedom to drift to either wing and help his full-backs. Naturally, he prefers to play off the left.
If Kyle Porter plays as a central midfielder, he often does a similar job as Telfer, drifting wide and interchanging with the TFC loanee. Rodrigo Gattas is also happy to drop off the front line and get around the ball or out wide.
While this fluidity allows York to get a lot of players around the ball, it leaves some vulnerabilities Stephen Hart will look to exploit.
“We have to make some subtle changes. York is a team that can cause complexity with all their movement, but because of all the movement there is unbalance sometimes when the ball is recovered in certain positions, and we have to take advantage of that.”
Hart is hinting at York’s vulnerability in the defensive transition. With so much fluidity in possession, it can leave them with a lot of distance to cover to return to defensive shape. This is something Wanderers are well equipped to take advantage of, preferring to create chances through the counter-attack than through positional attacks.
York allow significantly more counter-attacks than any other team in the league, and a staggering 35% of these lead to shots. On the flip side, HFX counter more than any other side. In the graphic to the left, the massive spike in the middle is unsurprisingly York’s last trip to Wanderers Grounds. Much of HFX’s success will hinge on the transition.
A Fresh Start
So, in the midst of our first East Coast heatwave of the summer, we plunge into the CPL’s first “fall” season.
Both of these sides will be determined to find the cutting edge they lacked in the spring campaign. If they do, either of these sides are capable of pushing Cavalry, Forge, and any other surging contenders.
The schedule will be extremely intense, so it is crucial that these sides hit the ground running on what looks to be a hot and humid day at Wanderers Grounds. If this conclusion seems half-assed, too bad. I'm going to the beach.
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.