As HFX Wanderers get set for their second away trip of the young season, the mood in the camp is high. There is much to build on after a thrilling late victory over Forge in their first home game, and Stephen Hart’s side will be looking to carry on the feel-good factor through a tricky away stretch. Wanderers will visit Valour FC in Winnipeg this Saturday, before kicking off their Canadian Championship with the away leg in a matchup with League 1 Ontario’s Vaughan Azzuri. Let’s have a look at what awaits the Wanderers in Manitoba.
Already, Stephen Hart will have some decisions to make when it comes to a starting 11 vs. Valour. The travelling squad for the Valour trip will be larger than usual, as the team will head straight to Ontario following the Valour match to prepare for the match against Vaughan.
At training on Thursday, players were still competing to make the trip, and the players were still none the wiser to who would be on the plane.
One player who will hope to be making the trip is Scott Firth, as he looks to build off of the personal high of making is professional debut in the clubs first ever home win against Forge.
“When Coach called me over I knew this was the time, and to be doing it in front of the home crowd especially was an amazing feeling. Hearing everyone chanting, the love from the crowd, it was just amazing.”
“It was a pretty quick pace, but I didn’t expect it to be slow obviously. It’s just getting used to that, I think I’ll be good for the future, hopefully get in [to the game] more.”
Injuries have again reared their ugly head in the lead-up to Saturday. Chakib Hocine has still not completely recovered from his troublesome knock, and isn’t expected to appear this weekend. There is also a new question mark around Luis Alberto Perea, who appears to have picked up a hand injury. There is hope that he will be cleared to make the trip, but Saturday may come too soon for him.
It will be interesting to see what tactical changes we see to the eleven put out against Valour. Many were surprised to see Juan Diego Gutierrez left out against Forge, with Kodai Iida being preferred as the #10. While Guti will want to return, it will be difficult to drop Kodai after his dynamic performance vs. Forge. The idea of both of them on the pitch together is enough to make any Wanderers fan salivate, but is a challenge to implement without leaving out more defensively inclined players.
“Kodai is learning that position” said Hart when asked about this. “It is not his natural position so we have the option of playing him in his natural position [or] using him in the position he started in the last game”
Aside from the #10 slot, there is healthy competition for a place in the deeper midfield positions. Ouattara was preferred against Forge, but Andre Rampersad will hope to earn his place back after dropping out following the loss at Pacific. Elliot Simmons is also waiting for his first appearance of the season, which we should see against Vaughan if he doesn’t appear against Valour. Elton John has been key in his role as the anchor.
Another player hoping to get his spot back will be Zach Sukunda. André Bona came in for him to face Forge and played well, but he doesn’t offer the attacking threat Sukunda does from right-back. This may be preferred against a Valour side who play with only one man on either wing.
Aside from Sukunda, you would expect Hart to field an unchanged backline, as N’sa, Schaale, and Langwa have all impressed in the first 2 games and seemed to have stoked an impressive chemistry through two games.
“I feel the chemistry is very good, I think we understand each other. We know the way we want to play, [the way] we want to defend” said Schaale. “We have to deal with whatever comes at us. We still conceded 2 goals, there is still some work to do first. It’s been alright, I think it’s a solid foundation and we can take it from there”.
Inconsistent Start for Valour FC
Valour’s start to the season has looked generally bright, yet they somehow find themselves with only 3 points through 3 games. A very strong away performance at Pacific saw them run out 2-1 winners in their first match, but an undeserved loss at home to Edmonton was followed by a tepid 1-0 defeat to Cavalry at Spruce Meadows on Wednesday.
The Edmonton result in particular will sting, and Rob Gale’s men will be determined to put things right in front of the same home supporters who left that match feeling disappointed. Valour carried the majority of the game and spurned several chances, only to concede two fairly soft goals at their own end.
Their most recent performance against Cavalry was probably the worst game we’ve seen in the league so far, with neither team in the mood to give much away. This was the first time Valour struggled to create, although they were also unlucky to concede from a clever Jose Escalante free-kick
How Might Valour Look?
Valour have lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation throughout the beginning of the campaign. They have been playing a high tempo, direct style when compared with what Wanderers have seen so far. The goal is to quickly advance the ball forward to their more creative players and try and get them running at the opposition defense before they are able to settle into shape.
Through 3 games, 58% of Valour’s passes have targeted the opposition’s half, more than any other side. They have also only attempted 18 passes per shot, suggesting they commit less time to buildup than any other team in the league
“Valour likes to push the ball forward to the players who can give them some penetration, so it’s a little different than the other teams, especially when they at home, they are a little more comfortable doing it at a high speed. We just have to be aware of that and understand that when the ball’s played past [our] lines, recovery is going to be very, very important” Hart said of his opposition.
A key player in this has been Michael Petrasso. The former QPR man has usually lined up as a striker, but has been given the freedom to move into space to find the ball, particularly in transition. A natural winger, he is especially dangerous coming out to the left as an outlet before driving forward.
At the back, they have largely relied on the experienced back 3 of Skylar Thomas, Jordan Murrell, and Martin Arguinarena. They have been largely solid from open play, with set-plays being the difference in both of their defeats. Thomas and especially Arguinarena are aggressive in pushing up the pitch to pin teams in, and Arguinarena has a taste for joining the attack out wide, which is so be expected from a converted full-back.
The OTHER Diego Gutierrez has been impressive for Valour on the right flank, but has played every minute of their campaign so far and could be rested. The left is anyones guess, with Nicolas Galvis, Arguinarena, and even Dylan Sacremento being tested out there in the first 3 games.
In midfield, ex-Impact man Louis Beland-Goyette has been trusted as the anchor, and looks solid and chippy in that role. Josip Golubar is yet another converted wide player counted on to provide some creativity through the middle. These two have formed the midfield base in every match so far, although rotation could see Dylan Sacramento or Raphael Ohin get a chance. Petrasso, Sacramento, and Dylan Carreiro have all started in the #10 role, and while Petrasso is expected to be up front, either of the other two could line up there on Saturday.
Of course, another candidate for one of the three more advanced roles could be fresh new signing Marco Bustos, who looks a very good pickup for this level.
Up top, Valour combine a traditional #9 in Stephen Hoyle with the aforementioned Petrasso, who is given the freedom to roam in order to offer outlets. Hoyle was rested vs. Cavalry, and a very wide front two of Glenn Muenkat and Ali Musse failed to create much of anything. I would expect Hoyle to return.
Much has been made of the travel and fixture congestion that Wanderers will have to deal with this year, but they may have the advantage this time around. This will be Valour’s third match in seven days. Will this give HFX an advantage?
Hart isn’t thinking that way. “We plan the same way, mainly because we’ll be in that situation, we [have] a cup game right after that” he said. “The players that come in will play an important role filling in for the ones that are left out, but that’s normal when you have such a quick turnaround."
It will be interesting to see if Hart chooses to use his key players against Valour and rotate for the midweek clash with Vaughan, or if the rest to the key men is spread out over each game. Of course, a cup run and potential MLS clash is appealing, but every game in the league is key in this sprint of a spring season.
Too Early For Make Or Break?
If that is the question, the answer is probably not. Valour will be wondering how they find themselves in a position where they already need a win to keep pace with the top of the table. Their performances so far probably deserved better than a solitary win and two losses. This is a massive game for them to turn this spring season around.
Likewise, a win here would keep Wanderers’ eyes set firmly up the table, putting them level on points with early leaders Cavalry.
It feels strange to have games mean this much this early. It’s almost easy to forget when watching any given match how important it is. Aren’t we supposed to have 10 games or so before we have to start sweating it over results? Not here. And I love it.