HFX Wanderers’ maiden Canadian Premier League season finally gets off the mark this weekend with a tough trip to Vancouver Island. In preparation, the Halifax side were put through their paces on a cold Thursday morning. While Sunday’s matchup with Pacific FC will surely be an occasion of celebration for fans on either coast, the mood around the training ground is one of focus and calm.
This week saw the culmination of a long pre-season, but still there was no shortage of things to work on as Stephen Hart drilled his side this week. Wanderers have been making some tweaks this week, working right down to the wire before they jet out west on Friday.
“We’ve made some adjustments to the team quite recently in some of the things we do, and it’s a bit new to some of the players” said Hart. “It went reasonably well, we’ll probably have to do a little more work tomorrow” he told press on Wednesday. He added that one thing they have been focusing a lot on is their collective defending, particularly in midfield.
Of course, preparation for this game will look different from others as the season begins to roll on. Information on how Pacific may set up is obviously scarce, and there is no past form for either side to go off of. Hart says that means his players need to focus on their own game.
“Both teams are going in blind really, not knowing much about each other. It’s going to be one of those games where it is more important how you play than the opposition”
It’s a message that is getting across to his players. “[He wants us] to be mindful of our game, not to worry much about the other team. Focus on the things that we have been working on” said striker Luis Alberto Perea.
Hart says he has a good idea of his first eleven, and was interestingly specific about how many guys are part of that plan right now. “It depends how we want to approach the game. You have about 14 players in mind that you would like to mix and match with the starting eleven.” We also got an idea of how big benches will in the CanPL, with Hart saying the travelling squad can be between 16 and 18 players.
Even if the coaching staff knows who they would like to put out on Sunday, the players are tight-lipped, and it appears they were competing for places right up until the last day. When asked if the players knew where they would lineup, Alex De Carolis said that isn’t the case. “I think it will be closer to the match, we have a lot of guys that can play multiple positions, and we’re playing 30 games all across the country, it’s not going to be the same starting eleven every week” he said.
In a week where we are inundated with speculation about how teams may set up, little consideration is being given to the fact that most teams will likely have injuries to deal with from the start. Unfortunately, Hart revealed that Halifax will not be an exception.
“We have some fitness concerns, we were just starting to get back healthy, we had some injuries in Dominican Republic, and we have some injuries now.” Hart didn’t reveal specifically who is struggling for fitness, but he suggested there is cause for concern. “It is a bit worrying, because it’s experienced players, so we just have to deal with it.”
A few players were resigned to watching Thursday’s session from the sideline, namely Tomasz Skublak, Scott Firth, and Chakib Hocine. Perea was doing some light fitness work at times in the session, but he took part in a small sided game, which would suggest he is in Hart’s plans for Sunday.
If these are the players Hart is concerned about, the obvious big miss here would be Hocine. His absence would leave a gap in the backline in terms of both experience and size, which could be all important in successfully marshaling Marcus Haber at the weekend. If Hocine does miss out, it would appear that one of Chrisnovic N’sa or Andre Bona could partner Peter Schaale at the heart of defense.
A Special Occasion?
There is so much excitement around this weekend’s fixture amongst supporters, you would be forgiven for thinking this must have spread to the players as well. For most players though, any excitement is being kept in balance by steely focus and composure.
Zach Sukunda issued a rallying cry, itching to get the season started after a long pre-season. “A mutual feeling around the whole team is that we feel we’ve been a bit underrated, and we are just ready to go out there and prove ourselves.” “It’s really [about] us proving we have faith in our team, in our coaching staff, and the whole club. It’s about proving we’re going to be a big-time team.”
For some, it is also a big occasion on a personal level. For André Bona, it is an opportunity to play the first professional game of a career which has taken him from France to Quebec, before landing here in Nova Scotia. “Personally, it’s amazing for me, a good opportunity. I have a lot of expectation [on me] because it’s my first professional game. I expect my level will be the same, and that’s why I’m excited for the first game.”
When asked about the prospect of testing himself against Pacific’s experienced attack, he said he was looking forward to it. “I think Pacific have good players, and when good players are on the pitch it’s a really good test. It’s a good opportunity to show the whole crowd that I earned my place in this team.”
This match will also mark a first for Stephen Hart. While much has been made about his vast managerial experience, it has perhaps flown under the radar that this will be his first game in professional club management. While he expressed excitement, it was clear that this was secondary to how his team performs. “Of course, it’s exciting. You want to see how the team progresses as you go along, you’d like to see how they progress from the opening whistle, how they manage the game in the second half… I’m looking forward to it”
Sweet, Sweet Speculation
With the previews all but written and the first ball about to be kicked, I couldn’t help but ask some of the players to join us in some final speculation. So, let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth: who will be the first Wanderer to bag a goal?
Luis Alberto Perea gave us the answer we were all expecting. “It’s gonna be me, you know? It’s an easy answer for me. But whoever scores, it’s the team first."
Sukunda and De Carolis seemed happy to allow the guys farther up the pitch to shoulder that burden. “That’s a tough one” said Sukunda. He took his time to play some images in his mind before coming to a conclusion: “I could see Guti scoring one. Banger, left foot.” De Carolis also went for one of his creative midfield mates, plumping for Kodai Iida.
By far the quickest to answer, though, was Elton John. His face lit up in a way that I knew what was coming. “I pick me”
Alex Sheppard writes and rants for From Aways. On Sunday he and his From Aways pals will be watching Wanderers vs. Pacific nervously, hoping not to be exposed as clueless frauds. You can follow him on Twitter, @its_shep.