In his latest piece for the blog, Alex Sheppard takes an in-depth look at last week's open training sessions. If you're interested in hearing more from Shep, you can find him on Twitter at @its_shep.
For further discussion about training, including a wide range of player interviews, check out episode 4 of the From Aways podcast here.
Pre-season is well and truly in full swing for HFX Wanderers, with this week marking the fourth week of camp. Last week, Wanderers opened up the BMO Centre to the public to take in training. For us, it was a welcome opportunity to get away from grainy highlight videos and stop trawling Google. Finally, we could get a look at the side in the flesh, on the same pitch.
It was fascinating to watch Stephen Hart and his staff put the side through their paces. 4 of the 5 sessions I watched were 10v10 matches, although often with significant restrictions that I’ll talk about. This lead to plenty of hints toward the way Hart wants his team to play, if not who will most trusted to carry it out. So, what stood out?
Style of Play
From day one it was clear to see how Hart wants his side to use the ball, and it is certainly encouraging to my eyes. “Sharp and quick” turned into a kind of mantra as they knocked the ball around in the 10v10s.
“I would say it’s a good tempo. We have a lot of quick players, and the philosophy of how we are trying to play is don’t hang on to it, just quick(ly) move it, so I think that it plays to our strengths” said midfielder Elliot Simmons.
This was on show for all to see. Hart cut a relaxed figure all week, very occasionally intervening in the games to offer direction. When he did, the point almost always seemed to be geared towards getting the ball moving quickly, and with purpose. He would only become visibly frustrated when intensity dropped in possession, or when players overcomplicated their possession play.
There is also an emphasis being placed on being able to play in tight spaces. In one training match, a rule was put in place where a team would sacrifice possession if a player took less than two touches. Hart wants his players to be strong and calm when under pressure, and to be able to play their way out of those situations. Throughout the week, this looked to suit Kodai Iida very well, while Akeem Garcia also showed this ability in his better moments.
None of this is to say that Wanderers will value possession for possession’s sake. Players are given license to drive with the ball or try more direct passes, so long as they are careful in choosing their opportunities. Peter Schaale was particularly impressive when looking forward, playing several incisive passes through the opposition from his centre-back position. Langwa and Sukunda also provided a directness through their eagerness to drive forward with the ball at their feet.
There were some real surprises when it came to where players slotted in throughout the week. Hart clearly wanted to get a look at guys in as many different places as he could, and for very good reason.
“The league schedule is a killer. I think right now we are just trying to figure out who is most comfortable in what position, and we’re still learning the players as well” said Hart when I asked him about the task of playing 30+ games in 6 months, often with 2 a week.
“We will need to not only rotate the squad, but players are going to have to fill in positions they are not comfortable with, but it’s the nature of what we do”.
The most frequently tinkered-with position was in the centre of midfield. Injuries throughout the week to John, Iida, and Ouattara meant Zack Sukunda and Akeem Garcia were tried out in deeper midfield roles. Sukunda showed himself to be a jack-of-all-trades, playing his natural fullback position and as a winger in addition to midfield.
The backline was only slightly more settled. Schaale and Chakib Hocine consistently played centre-back, while Langwa was ever-present at left-back. What rotation there was saw Chrisno N’sa and Alex De Carolis switch between full-back and the centre.
Up front, Perea was consistently the focal point for his side, holding play up well and showing his class, even if he only bagged a couple of goals. Vincent Lamy and Sam
Karklins were also tried out as 9s, with Lamy offering pace and trickery while Karklins used his physical presence and impressed me with his movement, if not his finishing.
Lamy and Karklins were both also used on the wing, where you would also see Iida and Scott Firth tried out. Garcia is another natural choice and spent a lot of time on the wing. Juan Diego Gutierrez, who only arrived from Peru last night, was a notable absence here.
Throughout the week there were some players who missed some time with knocks. Iida, Elton John, and Kouame Ouattara all missed two days, while Alex De Carolis and Akeem Garcia sat out a day each. Hart was quick to say that it is nothing major and they are simply exercising caution at this point
Hart also said he was impressed with fitness levels. “Most of the players that came in had personal trainers, so the level of fitness was higher than I anticipated” he said. Certainly, the pace of play was very high all week, as was the level of competitiveness. No one was backing down from any challenges, and a few had me wincing as I watched on.
The Final Spots
With 18 players believed to be under contract, and at least one more believed to be imminent for trialists, there are still at least a couple of roster spots up for grabs. There were a number of players without contracts training all week, but Hart was quick to say that there is still a chance players could come in from outside camp.
“We have a couple of people that we haven’t been able to get in as yet because they are still at various clubs. I’ll make some of these decisions as we go.” He said. “The trialists are here now and trying to fit in, it’s still up in the air.”
Clearly, Hart’s mind is not completely made up with regards to the last few slots. At least once he was on the phone speaking to coaches and agents, so it is certainly not out of the realms of possibility that we see a new face or two. That said, the feeling is certainly that supporters will have to remain patient on that front.
Andre Bona was initially a trialist but seems to have signed, while Karklins and Schaale are both still around and believed to have very real chances at earning a deal. One other notable presence was that of Oscar Marshall, a Halifax-born 17-year-old who is a member of the Montreal Impact academy. He impressed at right-back throughout the week.
As well, Hart mentioned a couple of young players who are likely to train with the squad this year, but not sign deals. I would assume they would be Suliman Elromany, a 16 year old who played on the wing, and Ryan Davis, 17, who was the third keeper.
Thrilling the Fans
The enthusiastic support watching on as the Wanderers were put through their paces brought a grin to my face on several occasions throughout the week. The open sessions were sandwiched by a youth soccer camp, which meant there were 50-60 kids taking in the action on their lunch break. They were loud and excited, and it served as a wonderful reminder of how important this league is to the future of the game in Canada.
In particular, the support for fan favorite Scott Firth was heartwarming. Every time he touched the ball, cries of “Scotty!!!!” rang out around the seats. Excited kids waited for him at the doors as training ended. They have a real local star to look up to.
“It’s pretty crazy knowing that I get up in the morning, play soccer, run off to school, come home and focus on ways to improve in the game, and then do it all again. And to have it in my hometown… it’s just amazing” Firth told us.
Another local boy, Christian Oxner, echoed Firth’s thoughts. “It’s been surreal. I can’t believe I show up every day here and I call it work… I’m coming out here and having so much fun every day, we have a great group of lads, it’s amazing. It’s so surreal I don’t really think it’s hit me yet because we are going so fast”.
The turnout for the player meet-and-greet on Wednesday was equally as pleasing to see. Hundreds of kids, parents, and fans flooded the turf as the session ended to get pictures and chat, and the players were wonderfully open to chat with their new fans. All week, it really felt like a club that cares about its community, and a community that cares about its club.
Getting so close
The week quenched the thirst for some real, tangible footy to give a sense of what this club is going to look like on the pitch. Early signs encouraged me to think that this side will be trying to play in a way that we will enjoy watching at Wanderers, regardless of results.
We are only one month out, and the hard work is well underway. This is a group of players that believes in themselves, and believes in Stephen Hart’s plan. I, for one, left feeling good about what I saw.
Alex Sheppard is a footy obsessive who follows the Canadian Premier League and the EFL. You will find him in Section 105 at Wanderers ground this summer, likely trying to balance a pint and a notebook. Follow @its_shep on Twitter for more CPL ramblings and analysis.