Let’s face it: with only 7 teams, matchday in the Canadian Premier League can often feel a bit like Groundhog Day. This Wednesday, however, HFX Wanderers have a chance to break the cycle and test themselves against some new opposition. Ottawa Fury, of the United Soccer League, will come to Wanderers Grounds for the first time, and it is a great opportunity for Wanderers to see how they stack up against an established and capable USL side.
News from Wanderers Grounds
Training at Wanderers Ground on Tuesday felt slightly different. Chatter amongst press and staff felt fresh. There was excited talk about who has watched Fury, what kind of threat they offered, and how the infantile Canadian Premier League stacks up to the USL.
Though his demeanour was one of familiar calm, Stephen Hart couldn’t help but admit he was excited as well. “It will be nice to play against somebody who is a little bit different” he said. “It will be nice to see, they will probably play faster just because of their understanding of each other and being around as a team for a lot longer time, they will have better understanding, better movement in terms of timing. It will be good for our concentration.”
Hart faces a selection headache that he will be unbelievably happy to have. Luis Alberto Perea, Juan Diego Gutierrez, and Chakib Hocine are all available for selection after long term layoffs.
“We have quite a few games. They’re back, we have to ease them into the games, we have to be very careful. We’ve had no time to have a couple exhibition games to bring them up to speed, so we have to measure this very carefully” Hart told press.
The only player not taking part on Tuesday was Tomasz Skublak, who is still nursing a knock that kept him out of the York game at the weekend.
The matchup with Fury will have special meaning for a small handful of Wanderers. There is a strong contingent of Ottawans in the squad. Zach Sukunda, Zoom Langwa, and Elliot Simmons were all either born in Ottawa, or spent significant portions of their youth there.
Simmons and Langwa have had a particularly bizarre experience signing in Halifax together. The two not only were team-mates at a young age, but lived a matter of blocks from each other in Ottawa. While this type of small-world situation is all-too-common in this country, the fact that they both end up in Nova Scotia after collectively playing in 6 different European nations trying to grind out a career is particularly serendipitous.
“It’s very bizarre, knowing Zoom from when I moved from England, not knowing anyone in Canada, then playing with him in Ottawa, becoming good friends” said Simmons.
The two both spent time with the Fury as youth players before moving on to other academy programs. Both are looking forward to their return. Langwa predicts and emotional day.
“I used to play for Fury when I was young, so it’s definitely going to be an experience, definitely going to be an emotional day for me having my family and friends be at a game. I’ve never played in front of my family and friends in Canada, so it will be a great moment for me and my family.”
Sukunda experience is similar to Simmons'. Although he spent some time with Fury att a very young age, he then left to look for opportunities abroad. Upon returning to Canada, he plied his trade in Montreal. Nevertheless, he is looking forward to returning home.
“When we go there, I’ll have a lot of people there. My family still lives there, my mom and my dad, I have a lot of friends [there]. The whole offseason, I went there, I trained there. Ottawa is where I was born, where I was raised, that’s going to feel like my home town. That’s the kind of attachment I have to Ottawa, but the Fury I’m not so attached to. I want us to win. Halifax Wanderers is much more my hometown club than the Fury”. No divided loyalties there, then.
As mentioned, Hart will have Perea, Gutierrez, and Hocine available for selection on Wednesday, but that isn’t to say they will all slot in immediately.
Perea is the most likely to see minutes, as Skublak’s absence leaves a hole up top for Wanderers. Gutierrez and Hocine are in need of match fitness, and are more likely to be seen on the bench. As well, they aren’t needed as urgently due to the form of Kodai Iida, Peter Schaale, and Matthew Arnone.
Significant changes from the XI that took on York should not be expected. Should Perea’s fitness be trusted, we may see Garcia pushed back out to the wing. Zach Sukunda may be the most likely to miss out if this is the case, although Mo Kourouma has played a lot of minutes as a willing runner and is also a candidate for a bit of rest.
Expect the defense to be unchanged following 2 clean sheets in 3 games. In particular, Jan Michael Williams' excellent display against York should see him keep his place in goal.
Elton John has been rested frequently of late, and his leadership and tenacity in midfield may make him a candidate to step in for Andre Rampersad, who occupied a deeper midfield role last weekend.
If Perea isn’t fit to go, Garcia will likely continue up top after a very good performance in that position last Saturday.
I’ll be clear from the start: I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on the Fury. What you are about to read are conclusions drawn from a couple of matches I’ve managed to watch, and a whole lot of numbers.
Fury have gotten off to a good start to their USL campaign. After 17 games they are sitting in 7th in the Eastern Conference, comfortable in a playoff position with an 8 point cushion. 7 wins, 7 draws, and 3 losses suggest a story familiar to Wanderers fans: Ottawa seem difficult to beat, but also have some trouble turning draws into wins.
Manager Nikola Popovic is a devotee of the modern 4-3-3. They have hardly deviated from this system during his reign. The midfield is comfortable keeping the ball and recycling possession, the full-backs like to push high (especially skipper Carl Howarth). Charlie Ward is the catalyst in possession: he sits deepest of the midfield three and completes more passes p90 than any other player in the USL. He is usually partnered by Chris Manella and Wall Fall.
While Fury are a new opponent for Stephen Hart, that is not to say he hasn’t done his homework.
“They have some good quality, they are patient in the buildup, they can also play direct. They’re attacking players are very tricky, they have two in particular who love to try and get isolated and to use that direct dribbling approach. And then they have some experience, with players knowing exactly when to arrive in the box.” Hart seems impressed with this Fury side. “You can see that they are complete, you can see why they’ve gotten results in the last 12 games”.
Hart has identified what seems to be a core part of Popovic’s approach: while he prefers his side take a patient, positional approach to build-up, they are capable of playing direct when that isn’t working.
He singles out two players as particularly dangerous with the ball at his feet. One of them is unquestionably Christiano Francois, a Hatian winger with scary pace and a willingness to drive at his man. The other could be a few players. Kevin Oliviera is one, who plays opposite Francois as a wide playmaker. While less pacy, he finds good pockets of space and shows a creative streak as well as a willingness to shoot. The aforementioned Haworth is another possibility. He is often used at RB but is equally comfortable as a wide forward.
The goals have been shared fairly evenly amongst the creative players. Senegalese forward Mour Samb leads the way with 7, while Francois, Howarth, Fall and Oliviera have added at least 3 each.
At the back, Howarth is usually joined by Dakota Barnathan and ex-Impact youth duo Jeremy Gagnon-Laparé and Thomas Meilleur-Giguére. Ottawa’s defensive record this year has been solid, but the eye test from the matches I have watched would suggest they leave fairly significant gaps to be exploited after losing the ball. The positional discipline Popovic demands in possession surprisingly leaves some large spaces between players immediately after turning the ball over.
Fury also seem to prefer pressure be applied to the ball when out of possession, which further opens up these holes.
It is worth noting that Popovic does not often rotate his squad. Occasionally, one of the experienced defensive options in Nana Attakora, Jamar Dixon, or Onua Obasi may step in, but other than that Popovic will almost always go with the above 11.
I would possibly expect experienced keeper David Monsalve to get some minutes in place of Callum Irving. Outside of that, significant changes would be unusual for Popovic and may speak of his approach to the competition.
As mentioned, take all of the above with a grain of salt. I may have watched two particularly disorganized Fury performances, and it is always dangerous to read into numbers without also watching tape.
What's in this for HFX?
Ottawa are a USL side who are performing slightly above what the numbers would suggest they should be. But hey, the numbers also suggest Edmonton should be stranded at the bottom of the CPL. Grain of salt and so on. A complete guess on my part would say I would expect Ottawa to be in the Cavalry/Forge tier of this league, but by no means running away with it.
Fortunately, if that assessment isn’t horribly off-base, it is also the kind of side I could see struggling with the way Hart sets his side up. As Wanderers do not press intensely until the ball makes its way into their compact shape, it could be difficult for Fury to use prolonged possession to pull HFX out of position. Wanderers willingness to allow the opposition the ball, coupled with Fury’s willingness to probe, could be a recipe for frustration. It will be crucially important that Wanderers defend well early on and suck the wind out of Ottawa sails.
As mentioned above, there are spaces to be exploited by HFX on the counter, which we all know is their main attacking threat. Ottawa’s spacing is often quite distant upon losing the ball, which can make counter-pressing difficult. HFX will get chances if they look to find players in these gaps.
A Measuring Stick?
Many are very quick to suggest that this match can be used as a measuring stick by which to judge the Canadian Premier League. I myself do not see it this way: two matches against a new opponent will not answer that question.
While a respectable performance is a reasonable expectation for this match, there is a gap in experience and, in all likelihood, quality between these teams.
Ottawa are a strong side, one that I would expect any CPL team to have a difficult time against. We are in for a slog, but there are few teams in the country I would back in a slog on their own ground more than HFX Wanderers.
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 104, balancing a notebook and a beer.