There’s been something pleasingly clinical about the way HFX Wanderers has gone about its transfer business this off-season.
Despite some sadness and anger from a small minority of fans along the way (and a fair amount of but he's MY FAVOURITE pearl-clutching, too) it’s hard to see past the fact that a reboot was desperately needed. This was, remember, a squad that finished in last place in 2019.
As a result, the changes that have transpired over the past six months have been substantial. There’s wiping the slate clean and then there’s smashing the slate on the floor and going out to buy a new one.
Depending on which side of the fence you sit on, that HFX Wanderers chose the second of those scenarios is either a stroke of genius or an act of self-immolation.
Personally, as will be discussed, I tend to think it’s the former.
So, what does the 2020 incarnation of HFX Wanderers look like? Who are the players we’ll spend the next six months cheering for? Where are this squad’s strengths and weaknesses?
Let’s start from the back.
After the signing last January of an international goalkeeper with 81 caps, many assumed a season warming the bench awaited Christian Oxner. The Nova Scotia native had enjoyed an impressive U-Sports career but competing with someone as esteemed as Jan-Michael Williams seemed a step too far.
But, as it turned out, that wasn’t how things played out.
Whenever an opportunity was given to him due to rotation or injury, Oxner capitalized, and once he’d wrestle the no.1 spot away from the Trinidadian, he never let go.
He’s a fine shot-stopper, our Ox, and perhaps the only goalkeeper in the league who has a 50/50 chance when it comes to penalties, too. But it’s the other more surprising areas of his game which impressed the most. Any early-season nervousness from the terraces regarding his footwork quickly dissipated as he displayed a calmness in possession that belied his experience. His height was never fully exposed on set-pieces either, with defenders protecting him well
Providing competition this season will be Jason Beaulieu, a player with whom a lot of guess work is required. His time with NCAA side University of New Mexico Lobos was, by all accounts, an unqualified success - but footage is difficult to come by. Even so, enough promise was shown during this time for Montreal Impact to take a chance on him, and were it not for a knee injury he would’ve been a fixture for Ottawa Fury last season, too. The pedigree is certainly there and there’s no doubt he’ll have an eye on winning the no.1 spot from Christian Oxner by the time pre-season reaches its end.
Pros: An intriguing battle for the no.1 spot should keep both ‘keepers on their toes. Cons: Lack of experience, but there’s only one way to fix that…
The meteoric rise in popularity of Peter Schaale last season should really be of no surprise.
In a stadium that was probably split 50/50 between seasoned watchers of the sport and casual fans who were learning the game, the big German displayed attributes that were instantly attractive to both demographics. The drive, the aggression, the physicality… these are all qualities that resonate with Canadian sports fans, regardless of how knowledgeable the viewer is.
Schaale is a fantastic penalty box defender. He dominates space on set-pieces at both ends of the pitch, wins the majority of his duels, and has the natural qualities of a leader. There are kinks that need ironing out, of course – odd days when his distribution lacks accuracy, for one, but he’s still young and will certainly be in the frame for a starting spot this season.
Pleasingly for Wanderers fans, one potential partner at the back for Schaale come April will be an accomplished international. After representing Haiti 14 times, Jems Geffrard is more than qualified to deal well with the rigors of the league, and at 6’3 (193cm) represents a considerable barrier in the HFX Wanderers defence. His size, however, also carries its own baggage and footage of Geffrard reveals he can sometimes be susceptible to getting beaten on the turn. Pairing him with a player with good recovery speed may prove crucial.
Promisingly, the Haitian is left-footed, which can be an advantage in possession by opening up parts of the pitch blind to players who instinctively shift the ball onto their right side. He’s also played as part of a back-four and a back-three in recent years so there’s flexibility to him as well.
Another left-footer joining the squad this year is Eriks Santos. The product of top-tier Brazilian side Sport Club Internacianol joins Wanderers after a season in Georgia with Dila Gori. Much like Geffrard, Santos is comfortable in multiple positions across the back-line, including at left full-back. It’s anticipated that Wanderers will use him primarily at centre-back though and as Stephen Hart transitions his side into being one that has more and more possession, it’s not hard to see why.
Rounding out the centre-backs is another returnee in Chrisnovic N’sa. I’m a big fan of the former Impact trainee. The brilliance of his performance versus Forge in last season’s home opener is often forgotten amidst the delirious joy of that day. Re-watch those 90 minutes though – he was outstanding. The tenacity, the work rate, the drive… these qualities more than make up for the occasional positional lapses common with defenders of his age.
Were it not for N’sa being so versatile last season, he’d have more regularly competed for a centre-back starting spot. As it was, the 20-year old was often used to plug any leaks that sprang up at right-back or in defensive midfield. It’s good to be able cover a number of positions, but a sustained run at centre-back should be the aim of N’sa in 2020.
The opening weekend pairing of these four centre-backs is difficult to predict, which is credit to the level of recruitment this off-season.
For reasons I can barely explain, I have an absurdly unreasonable bias against having two left-footers at centre-back. The only half-baked argument I have for this is that left-footers tend to be aggressively one-footed. A weak assertion, whichever way you look at it, but as my high-school girlfriend told me one sad evening in June, 2004 - I'm sorry, that's just the way I feel. So, I’d like to see a right-footer paired with a left-footer just for passing variation. Schaale and Geffrard is the most obvious choice, simply based on the German’s experience in the league and the Haitian’s accomplishments at international level, but expect N’sa and Santos to be pushing very, very hard too.
In the full-back positions, Wanderers have an interesting mixture of talents and a very young average age. Alex De Carolis, or as you may prefer – East Coast Maldini – finds himself, at 27, the experienced head in this group. The work the Ontario native did last season was very underrated. While he found himself behind Ndzemzela Langwa in the pecking order at the season’s start, by the time October rolled round he was the undisputed first-choice on the left hand side of defence.
There’s a lovely anachronistic quality to De Carolis’ style of play. He’s a throwback to the type of cultured, technically sound full-back that was most often found at top European teams in the mid-90s.
Way back when, before full-backs became attacking wingers and in doing so the hipster’s position of choice, the highest caliber of them were those that were technically very strong and had a playing style that was easy on the eye. Both of which De Carolis has in abundance. While not as athletic as some of his peers, he offers balance and security when he plays. Key qualities in a team which looks set to favour attack over defence in 2020.
Providing competition for De Carolis is a man who this week earned a call-up to the Canadian U23 squad. Daniel Kinumbe is another product of the Impact academy, and one whose career could have gone in a much different direction if not for fitness problems last season. After getting minutes in MLS, the attack-minded full-back was loaned out to Ottawa Fury. Unfortunately though, meniscus surgery in his knee ended his season.
What Wanderers have in Kinumbe is a player bursting with potential, and one they’ll expect to cash in on sooner rather than later given his already blossoming profile.
On the opposite side of defence, Matteo Restrepo and Jake Ruby find themselves competing for the right full-back position. Both offer modern interpretations of the role with attacking thrust from deep. Restrepo joins Wanderers after a strong season in NCAA with UCSB and experience with Canada’s U17 and U18 sides. Clean on the ball, technically sound, and strong from crossing positions, the Colombian-born full-back is an intriguing prospect. Less is known about Jake Ruby, who joins from Trinity Western Spartans via the U-Sports draft. A strong passer who enjoys getting forward, if the B.C native is anywhere near as successful as Joel Waterman - the most recent Spartan to join the league – then his future looks bright.
Pros: Robust, aggressive centre-backs flanked by attacking, energetic full-backs.
Cons: A lack of pace at centre-back may be exposed and De Carolis aside, it’s a very young collection of full-backs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. B+
Despite the dizzying array of attacking talent at its disposal (more on that later) the real strength of this HFX Wanderers side lies in the middle of the park. The collection of midfielders acquired this off-season is an almost perfect balance of potential and proven quality, and also, more importantly, of ball-winners and ball-distributors.
The most defensive minded of the central midfielders looks to be Aboubacar Sissoko. Last years’ U-Sports Player of the Year earned a trial with Vancouver Whitecaps during February and everything suggests he was very close to signing an MLS contract with them. That he didn’t is to Wanderers’ benefit.
The Malian-born 24-year old is a combative ball-winner who's very good at taking up positions that stop the opposition playing through the midfield. He’s a tidy passer, too, able to keeps things ticking over with short, simple balls to his more creative teammates.
His partnership with Omar Kreim at Montreal Carabins was a dominant one, and should the two turn out together in Halifax, there’s no reason to think they can’t repurpose their relationship for a higher level.
Kreim is an interesting prospect with a slight stylistic resemblance to Juan Diego Gutierrez. He’s a very left-footed player who seems to effortlessly float across the pitch with the ball. His final pass is excellent and he’s just as comfortable playing as a no.6, no.8, or even as a 10. This positional flexibility should ensure he gets the minutes required to prove himself at this level.
Perhaps the biggest club-to-club coup this off-season was the snaring of Louis Beland-Goyette from Valour. The 24 year-old enjoyed a fine season in 2019 and will be expected to build on it in April. With his ultimate goal a move to Europe or MLS, a strong season in Halifax won’t do him any harm at all.
Goyette’s a tremendous player at this level with a real knack for making certain matches appear to be built completely in his own image. He's that kind of talent. A central midfielder for whom the game tends to slow down.
He possesses an excellent variation of passes that allow him to go short or long, which should help Wanderers adjust tactically depending on the opposition: Goyette can suit both a counter-attacking style with quick, long diagonal passes into the wide forward positions during the transition, and also a possession-based style in which his short passing ability helps the team recycle the ball.
The only two HFX Wanderers midfielders to survive the 2019 season were Andre Rampersad and Scott Firth. Rampersad was an interesting case-study last season. He was barely discussed at the season’s start, criminally underrated halfway through, and by the end considered by many to be our best midfielder and probably deserving of a call up to the Trinidad & Tobago national squad.
His strengths lie in his aptitude for switching the angle of play. When receiving the ball in tight spaces he’s very good at adjusting his body to shift the opposition midfielders around, creating space for the attackers in the process. The question mark around the Trinidadian exists in where his best position in central midfield lies. Is he a 6? An 8? Does it even really matter? Probably not.
Personally, I like him a few yards ahead of whoever’s the holding midfielder. His ability to carry the ball through the lines is something Wanderers will likely need next season to help create space for the more explosive wide players up ahead.
Scott Firth will be viewing this season as a chance to really establish himself in the HFX Wanderers team. As the youngest in the squad, he spent much of 2019 learning from the more experienced players around him. His appearances, when they came, tended to be late on in games, but he usually did very well when given the opportunity. York 9, in August, comes to mind. After a disastrous first-half (this was the 6-2 capitulation), Firth came on as a second-half substitute and completely changed the momentum of the game with a calm and measured passing performance. Away versus Pacific, too, he was very good. The end of season statistics show that Firth finished with one of the highest pass completion % in the squad. No easy feat in a team that struggled to keep the ball.
The jewel in this Wanderers midfield, and perhaps the squad in general, comes in the form of Joao Morelli. Maybe I have a strong internal bias towards creative South American players, but the prospect of a Brazilian play-maker operating as a no.10 at the tip of this midfield is compelling.
Morelli comes off the back of an outstanding two-years in the Estonian top-tier. 58 games, 28 goals, 17 assists, all in a competition very comparable to the CanPL if player value is anything to go by. If he manages to translate even half of those numbers over to this league, Wanderers will have a gem on its hands.
Any fears over his ability to handle the physicality of the league should be quickly quashed, too, as anyone who has suffered through the rigors of football in England’s lower leagues (with Middlesbrough and Fleetwood Town) will have absolutely no problem surviving in the CanPL.
Stylistically, there’s a lovely smoothness to Morelli’s movements. In the full-matches and highlights available of him, you can find evidence of a player able to cleverly manipulate the ball to his advantage, pulling defenders out of position with the drop of the shoulder or half-movement. Perhaps most impressively is the number of different roles he’s able to play on the pitch: he can build attacks from deep, act as a cohesive cog, play the killer through ball, and crucially he can score. He’s an all rounder and exactly what this Wanderers team needs.
Expect Morelli to start at the tip of a midfield diamond with two of Beland-Goyette, Rampersad, Sisokko, and Firth screening the space behind (as we'll discuss, the defensive discipline of the chosen two is going be of great importance this season).
Given the freedom to properly utilize his talents, Morelli has a chance to end the season one of this league’s finest attacking players.
Pros: A perfectly balanced collection of talents
Cons: None. Nada. Zilch.
Make no mistake, the technical level of Wanderers’ attack has had a massive injection of quality this off-season. There’s much to be excited by in this collection of attackers and much to be intrigued by, too. But there are also questions to be asked, and any quick read of social media will reveal there are questions that are already being asked.
The most glaring of which we can address right away…
Where, exactly, is our no.9?
Yes, Ibrahim Sanoh is a no.9, and with an utterly astounding scoring record for Holland College, the two-time Toronto FC trialist should by no means be underrated. But it’s understandable that putting all our centre-forward stock in someone without professional experience has caused nervous fidgeting in some quarters. And even if he does come good – and I fully expect him to do so, for the record – what if he gets hurt? Are we one injury away from having zero out-and-out centre-forwards available?
Enter Akeem Garcia, because noise from inside the club suggests he’s no longer thought of as primarily a right-winger, but instead as the attacking fulcrum of this Wanderers side.
Full disclosure, I must admit at first I had my doubts about this, mainly because I love Garcia as a right-winger. His diagonal runs between the centre-back and full-back, his work rate, his scoring efficiency from wide. These are all qualities I'm reluctant to lose.
But equally, if Garcia as an out-and-out centre-forward is the plan, it’s important to take a step back and objectively evaluate if he has a skill set capable of making him one of the league’s top scorers from this position.
In terms of his finishing, there should be no concerns. Garcia's an excellent one-on-one goalscorer with a wide range of finishes at his disposal.
The types of runs he makes, too, are fantastic.
And you could go on. Pretty much every metric you measure the quality of a cenre-forward on, Garcia comes up trumps.
But still, doubts remain, mainly from those who point to his lack of height being more suited to a wide position, and while this is understandable - the image of a bustling no.9 physically dominating a floundering defence persists, even now - football in 2020 is a brave new world. These days, a good attack is less size, and more flexibility, the intelligence to interchange positions, and subtle movements in and around the penalty box. All qualities that Garcia has in abundance.
Therefore, the answer is yes, Akeem Garcia can play primarily as a centre-forward. And yes, he has the potential to be a very, very good one, too.
But even so, slight concerns do remain, most pressingly in what would happen if one of Sanoh or Garcia were to get injured and only one centre-forward is tasked with leading the line over a long period.
So it’s not a case of questioning the level of quality among the two strikers, but more a matter of depth. If another body is added early-season to help carry the load – as some are saying there might be –then Wanderers are well-set up top.
The wide attacking areas of this HFX Wanderers squad should be places of real excitement this season. Battling for a position on the left of the attack will be Alex Marshall and Alessandro Riggi, both of whom bring similar qualities to the role.
Marshall, a Jamaican international lest we forget, is a player who tends to hug the touchline, beat his opponent for pace, and cap things off with dangerous delivery into the box. He’s a dribbler, first and foremost; at his best a carousel of flicks and tricks with the end product to match. The 22-year old was a very highly thought of youth player, and despite his relatively slender frame, he’s been playing amongst men since he was 16 – and on less than favourable Jamaican pitches, too – so should have no problem adjusting to the physicality of the CanPL.
Also vying for a spot on the left is Alessandro Riggi. There are question marks regarding his fitness, but should he reach anywhere near the level he did pre-ACL, the Montreal-native has the potential to have a very, very good season in Halifax.
Riggi’s most impressive attribute is that he’s almost completely two-footed. Watch any footage of him and he’s passing and shooting with both feet at an equally high level. There are similarities with Marshall in that they’re both dribblers, both love isolating full-backs one on one, and both have good end product. What Riggi also offers though is a very high defensive work rate.
Whether Riggi ends up as a regular on the left hand side is up for debate, because if Akeem Garcia is used as a striker from here on out, a big hole opens up on the right side of the Wanderers attack. Another man who’ll be looking to stake a claim to that spot is Cory Bent, one of this season’s U-Sport picks. There’s an expectation among those familiar with the Bent that he could well end up being one of the league’s breakout stars this season.
Another dribbler who loves to go one-on-one with defenders and cross early, he has a similar physical profile to Akeem Garcia: both have a low centre of gravity with strong lower body strength. Just as comfortable (and maybe even at his best) on the left side of attack, Bent also offers lightening pace and consistent quality with his final ball.
There’s a lovely creativity to the Wanderers wings this season and any number of combinations between the wide players will work as all can play on either the right or left side.
Should Akeem Garcia and Ibrahim Sanoh managed to stay fit and juggle the centre-forward position between them for the entire season – or at least until more depth is added – this could be a team that finds the back of the net regularly in 2020.
Pros: A wonderful assortment of attacking talent all but guarantees a more prosperous season in front of goal.
Cons: Without back-up, an injury to Sanoh or Garcia could leave Wanderers short.
HFX Wanderers have spent the off-season building a team with a robust and physical spine that's flanked by quick, attack-minded wide players. There have been upgrades in almost all areas of the pitch and the result is a far more balanced group of talent than last year. If key players stay fit, and a defensive system is put in place that lets the vast array of attacking talent flourish, then 2020 could, and should, be a very successful year for the club.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.