Handicapping the Canadian Premier League spring season
Predicting who will end up on top of the Canadian Premier League after its inaugural season is basically impossible at this stage. I am inclined to believe that anyone who thinks they can is deluding themselves.
To whit: in 1996 DC United book-ended the first Major League Soccer season. They lost 1-0 to San Jose in the inaugural match and then came back from 2-0 down in a Nor’easter to win the first MLS Cup thanks to Eddie Pope’s golden goal.
It is worth recalling that Eddie Pope wasn’t on the pitch in the opener. Neither was another future U.S. World Cup mainstay, Tony Sanneh. They both scored in the final but weren’t starters in week 1.
Steve Rammel had taken three years off as he finishing up his master’s degree before joining the Washington Mustangs of the (third tier) USISL when MLS kicked off in 1996. He signed with United a couple of weeks in the season and finished sixth in league scoring with 14 goals before adding three in the playoffs. The club also added Jaime Moreno mid-season though he would make a bigger mark in subsequent seasons.
DC United lost seven of their first nine matches but won a title by the end of the season.
A slow start will sink you in the CPL spring season sprint. But it’s hardly a death sentence. There is every reason to expect that players who are not currently on a CPL roster will have a say in the final outcome.
When that first MLS season started, no one would have guessed that Pope and Sanneh would join Jeff Agoos to start every match for the Americans during their most successful World Cup in six years. No one would have expected Rammel — three years removed from last playing with TuS Celle in the German fourth flight — would score a bunch of vital goals to help them get into the playoffs. Or that when Moreno arrived mid-season he would set every significant career record in the club and have those stand for more than 20 years.
Predicting the winners of the 10-match spring season will not be easy, but at least it can be handicapped.
It will be very interesting to see how teams approach the short season. If, say after six or seven matches, a side were six points adrift or more, it makes perfect sense to get some of the 1,000 minutes that need to be allotted to 21-and-under players off the books and also look to tinker with the team and even the tactics or formation to try to start the fall season off with a fast start.
With players continually being added and seven new clubs coming together, there are no certainties at this early point of the year.
I can see the league breaking into three tiers, a couple of contenders at the end of the spring season, two more who stay in the hunt most of the way and then a bottom tier that will be tough to separate as they may look to shift priorities to the Voyageurs Cup or preparing for the fall season if they fall off the pace.
So without further ado, a highly speculative prediction of the spring season listed in the projected likelihood of winning the spring season:
1. Forge FC
They are probably the trendy favourites and it’s pretty easy to see why. They have some quality big pieces, they have 13 players who have previously played under head coach Bobby Smyrniotis and they seem to have more depth than anyone else in the league.
Every team has questions: what happens if player X isn’t up to the level or if player Y gets hurt. How good is that import? What happens if that player can’t make the step up? At the start of the season Forge has the best answers to those sorts of questions.
The bottom line is that Kyle Bekker will need to be one of the best players in the league and Emery Welshman and Chris Nanco will need to score goals.
Strength: Forge has depth and familiarity which will both hold them in good stead. The majority of the squad played previously under head coach Bobby Smyrniotis at Sigma FC and therefore know what he is looking for and in many cases know each other. Beyond those intangibles, Forge also has a lot of quality, especially in the centre of the midfield with Bekker and Elimane Cissé and up top with Welshman and Chris Nanco. Add in Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Anthony Novak and Marcel Zajac and Forge have more attacking options than they will be able to use every match, but it’s a good problem to have.
Keys to success: The defence has to hold up. Their aggressive, pressing style may unsettle teams, but it also is going to ask questions of the central defenders. The Canadian talent seems very competitive with the rest of the league, but they are going to need their imports to also be just as strong.
Question marks: Bertrand Owundi failed to make an impression with MLS’s Minnesota United and the USL’s Charlotte Independence. If he fails to be an important piece for Forge that could be a major setback. Dominic Samuel and Klaidi Cela were a solid combination for Sigma a year ago. NCAA veteran Daniel Krutzen from Belgium is another option, but with so much certainty around the park, there are definite questions in the back.
Look out for: The swarming, pressing style that Smyrniotis’ teams are known for. Fullbacks Kwame Awuah and Jonathan Grant will be given license to press and attack which plays to their strengths. Borges was once a bright hope as a playmaker for Canada while he played in the Netherlands. Zajac is a tricky wide player who had an excellent NCAA campaign with Akron and the two young attackers seem to be flying under the radar at the moment.
The bottom line: Forge has four first-team League 1 Ontario all-stars from 2018 in the squad and it’s likely none of them will start. They have a lot of quality in key areas and only Cavalry FC can even come close to the quality of their depth players. How important depth will be in the short Spring season remains to be seen, but the starting XI is impressive enough to still make them prohibitive favourites. There are questions in the centre of defence, but every team has questions, Forge seems to have the fewest.
When your biggest question is whether the Cameroon international is ready to be your rock in the centre of defence and plan B is to bring in the L1O defender of the year, those are problems that a lot of other teams may well envy.
2. Cavalry FC
Cavalry FC retains the majority of the Calgary Foothills FC squad that won the Premier Development League title a year ago under Tommy Wheeldon Jr. This is a step up in class, but a number of those PDL players probably would have been at a higher level a year ago had the CPL not been on the horizon. The Cavs didn’t retain some of Foothills’ top attacking players like Ali Musse and Moses Danto but focused some of their recruitment on attacking options.
They have strong, proven pros in a lot of key positions and options all over the park. That combination, coupled with the squad’s familiarity with Wheeldon and the time they had to prepare should set them up well.
Strength: Cavalry FC signed three big pieces: a veteran organizer in the centre of defence in Mason Trafford, a creator in for former DC United midfielder Julian Büscher and a finisher in Dominique Malonga, who has extensive professional experience in Italy, Scotland and Spain. Nik Ledgerwood offers experience and versatility and Marco Carducci is ready to build off of his PDL keeper of the year campaign.
Some teams are leaning on unproven players who had success in League1 Ontario or the PDL. Cavalry will need some of those players to contribute as well. The key difference is that they have a pool of players at that level fighting to get into the team instead of one of two who are penciled in as starters with more uncertainty waiting in the wings.
Keys to success: Cavalry has been together training and many of the players have that base of being teammates. From the outside, it is hard to speculate on what Cavalry’s best 11 might be, but if Wheeldon has a good grasp on his team — as he should — they are well positioned to hit the ground running and have the depth to roll with the punches the season deals them.
Question marks: Can some of the PDL players make the necessary leap if they’re asked? Fullback Dean Northover, centre backs Dominick Zator and Jonathan Wheeldon, plus midfielders Elijah Adekugbe, Sergio Camargo and Carlos Patino and wide player Nico Pasquotti were all important for Foothills and will have a role to play.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the English duo of Nathan Mavilla and Jordan Brown. Mavila is going to be asked to play left back — particularly after Chris Serban’s injury — but was most recently with a series of teams in the National League or in non-league after a once promising career started with West Ham. Brown was last in the Czech second flight. He too was once a youngster at West Ham — incredibly, his only appearance for West Ham came in a 10-minute cameo in the a Europa League qualifying match that Canadian Doneil Henry started, which was Henry’s only appearance for West Ham as well. The positive is that Cavalry have other options up top if Brown struggles.
Look out for: There is going to be internal competition for places and very few players can feel secure in their place in the team. In the midfield, Büscher, Camargo, Honduran under-20 José Escalante and USL/NASL veteran Mauro Eustaquio will be fighting for a place in the midfield and should be pushing each other to stay in form.
The bottom line: The PDL veterans are going to have to make the jump, but Ledgerwood and Trafford will be reliable and there is a bevy of attacking options and creative players to drive the attack.
3. FC Edmonton
Over the course of the season, FC Edmonton may not have the depth to stay near the top of the pack. However, they may be the team best suited to getting off to a fast start and punching above their weight. Much like their provincial rivals, the Eddies have had the benefit of having some time to train and gel. There is also familiarity with head coach Jeff Paulus and some of the young academy grads, plus with some of the holdovers from the NASL-era Eddies.
Signing former academy player Amer Didic was a massive get for Edmonton. Not only is the six-foot-four former Sporting Kansas City squad member an imposing presence in the centre of defence in a league full of big target forwards, but the trickle down of being able to play Ramon Soria in the midfield and James Marcelin in a more advanced midfield role as well.
Strength: If Soria plays in the midfield in front of the back four, that frees Marcelin — who has 31 caps for Haiti and 39 appearances in MLS — and CPL open trial standout Son Yong-chan to go to work in front of them. Didic is going to be an important leader in the back and T&T right back Kareem Moses and target man Tomi Ameobi are Eddies veterans from the NASL era.
Keys to success: FC Edmonton is going to need some of their young attacking talents to embrace the spotlight and take their opportunities. Marcus Velado-Tsegaye is 18 but could start out of the gate. Prince Amanda, David Doe and Ajeej Sakaria are other attacking talents that may need to chip in right away. Mélé Temguia in the centre of defence is another young player that will be leaned upon to do a job from the outset.
Question marks: How well will they be able to break teams down when they have to take the initiative? Tough defensively and fast in the attack, the Eddies are set up well to counter-attack. It will be interesting to see who they fare when they have to take the initiative. The other big question may be how much they can rely upon Ameobi to score goals.
Look out for: Randy Edwini-Bonsu. For some reason, a number of other players with similar pedigrees seem to be getting more attention. At this level, there is a real chance that Edwini-Bonsu could be one of the most dynamic game-breaking attackers in the league. The Eddies are going to have pace in attack and that suits Edwini-Bonsu’s game, but his change of pace should be a key to unlocking defences.
The bottom line: FC Edmonton should be very strong in the air in the back. They have a solid back line, they are going to be combative and hard to play against in the middle of the park and they have the pace to hurt teams on the counter.
4. Valour FC
Valour FC have the best backline on paper. They have some nice pieces through the rest of the squad and aren’t as deep as some, but aren’t as thin as some others. They might have the most complete starting 11 in the league with balance and quality across the board.
Strength: Their strengths start with the defence. Jordan Murrell played 47 matches in the last two season in the USL and is 25. Skylar Thomas is also 25 and played 49 matches in the USL in the last two season. They also played together at Syracuse in the NCAA. There are defenders with better CVs in the league, but this tandem is entering their prime and were everyday starters for two seasons at a decent level. Martin Arguiñarena made 22 appearances a year ago in the Uruguayan top flight and played 35 times for El Tanque Sisley at the same level. Diego Gutierrez, a Canadian youth international, late of Palestino in Chile should complete the back four.
Add in Canadian international Michael Petrasso on the right flank, Croatian veteran Josip Golubar pulling the strings and the midfield has some real quality as well. Louis Béland-Goyette was a late addition but may prove to be a vital one to help stabilize the midfield. Adding former MLS squad players like Petrasso and Béland-Goyette also takes some of the pressure off of Dylan Carreiro to be a big catalyst for the attack.
Keys to success: Valour is going to have to win games. Before a ball is kicked, they look like a side that isn’t going to concede a lot of goals and may not score a ton. Draws aren’t going to cut it in a push to win the spring title and earn a spot in the CONCACAF League.
At six-foot-five Thomas looks set to be a dominant presence in the back. Valour needs their back line to be rock solid. Tyson Farago should be the starter after spending time in the NASL and the League of Ireland of late.
Valour is going to need their depth to do a job. Glenn Muenkat, Raphael Ohin and Dylan Sacramento give manager Rob Gale options in the midfield as well and you have to think their depth will be tested early.
Question marks: Can Englishman Stephen Hoyle score enough? If he can’t, can former Canadian U20 Calum Ferguson fill the void? Petrasso’s pace and ability to cross and attack from wide areas will be a plus and Valour will be banking on Golubar’s ability to put in a good final ball. Given the height Valour has within their ranks, they could be dangerous off of set pieces.
Look out for: Ali Musse was a big catalyst for Calgary Foothills in their run to the PDL title last season. He played as a wide left attacker and seems likely to fill a similar role this season. Musse propelled Foothills to the PDL final by scoring in in three straight playoff matches and once they got there he scored twice in their win. If he can find the net at this level and compliment the target man, that will be huge for Valour’s aspirations.
The bottom line: They have a brutal schedule to open the season — playing five matches in 16 days — before taking two weeks off from league play. If they can survive that run within reach of the top, they will have a realistic shot to contend to the end. Their defence will keep them in matches, but they need to win matches, not draw them, if they’re going to win the title. If their forwards can score, look out because they seem to be set up well across the park.
5. Pacific FC
Pacific FC feels like they could contend for the title when all is said and done in October. For now, the last team to join the CPL still feels like they’re a work in progress. There is no doubting their high-end quality, but they are paper thin at the dawning of the new season and that combined with the distances that they will have to travel doesn’t feel like a good recipe early on.
They are going to lean on some young players early, but their best XI stacks up favourably with anyone else’s. One of the main issues with their starting lineup and their squad at this stage is that they have too many players who fulfill similar roles. They lack many true central midfielders and are thin in the centre of defence.
They didn’t play any matches in the Dominican Republic either, which only adds to the questions about how ready they may be in the early weeks of the season. They’ve done some superb recruiting and have some young talent that knows each other and know assistant coach James Merriman from his time with the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program.
Strength: The big pieces are in place. Marcus Haber has proven he can score and he is a presence in the box. Losing Marcel de Jong was a huge blow, but they replaced him with Blake Smith on loan from MLS expansion side FC Cincinnati. Smith has more than 100 matches of pro experience between MLS, the NASL and USL. Issey Nakajima-Farran is 34 now, but he is still a tricky customer.
German central defender Hendrik Starostzik made 68 appearances in the German third flight and is entering his prime. Starosztik looks to be the leader of one of the best backlines in the league.
In addition to the big pieces, they have a lot of promising young players, like fullbacks Kadin Chung and Émile Legault to midfielders Noah Verhoeven, Matthew Baldisimo and Terran Campbell.
Keys to success: Getting some players to bolster their ranks would be a big start. Heading into their first match they have 14 outfield players. I know you can only make three subs anyway, however, that’s a bit much.
They are going to need their young players to contribute big minutes and be consistent right away. There is a lot of talent and potential there. Pacific could start four 21-and-under players. They’re going to have to do a job and do it every week if they’re going to contend.
Question marks: Who is in the centre of defence and who is in the centre of the midfield. The first answer seems pretty straight forward: Starostzik will have to anchor the back and pair with Lukas MacNaughton who had a stellar five-year career with the University of Toronto. If they stay healthy and MacNaughton can hold his own — and his pedigree would suggest he can — then the back should be set.
In the middle of the park, Matthew Baldisimo looks like he will sit in front of the back four. The 21-year-old is talented, but he might have a lot on his plate. Pacific is spoiled for wide attacking players with Nakajima-Farran, Campbell, Verhoeven and Ben Fisk all being primarily wingers. Fisk played centrally with Derry City this past season and has the experience to play where he’s needed. Spanish former Whitecaps 2 player Victor Blasco could be another central option, though he is also very attack-minded.
Look out for: Terran Campbell. The 20-year-old former Whitecap residency player and Fresno FC loanee looks like he’s going to get a chance to start this season. He has been in good form early in the season and could be one of the early revelations of the season.
Legault and Chung both looked like they could be the right back of the future for Canada are each put in some great performances at youth level. Legault looked poised to transfer to Celtic last fall and Chung had been with 1.FC Kaiserslautern 2 before returning home. Each could be one of the best young Canadians in the league, but there’s no guarantee they both get on the pitch at the same time.
The bottom line: There is a good case to be made that with two or three more average CPL level starters and five more living, breathing squad members, Pacific could be the league favourites. However, at the moment there are too many question marks and holes and paper thin depth — more in actual number than talent — to feel very confident about their chances. The schedule favours them, though. They only play Forge FC and Cavalry FC once each. They travel to Hamilton and matchday 3 and are then in Edmonton five days later. If they are still in contention after that stretch, they should be able to stay in the hunt the rest of the way, but with their travel and their lack of depth, it’s hard to back them, yet.
6. HFX Wanderers FC
Halifax has an interesting mix because they might have the best collection of imports in the league, but they also arguably have the least proven commodities when it comes to domestic talent. Much like Pacific one spot above, the Wanderers have some really good big pieces, but when you start adding up the question marks, it’s hard to feel as bullish about their chances — despite Stephen Hart being in charge of a veteran side.
They have a mix of U Sports stars, nomad Canucks abroad and unproven former MLS academy players and somewhere in that soup of domestic talent, Halifax is going to have to find some everyday starters and consistent performers.
Strength: Wanderers have experienced veterans who should step in and be difference-makers at this level. Jan-Michael Williams is 34 and has 81 caps for Trinidad & Tobago. At the other end of the pitch Colombian attacker, Luis Perea is 32 and has played top-flight matches all over South America and in the 2018 Clausura season in El Salvador he scored 14 goals to win the golden boot.
Peruvian playmaker Juan Diego Gutierrez is 27 and holding mid/central defender Elton John is 32 and has CONCACAF Champions League experience. It’s a different profile than a lot of the other collection of imports in the league, but Halifax has an older team with players who should still be able to make a big contribution.
Keys to success: Gutierrez and Perea are going to have to be the creative spark and form a potent partnership after being teammates previously at Deportivo Universidad San Martin.
The young Canadians — and the old Canadians and the old U Sports players — are going to have to be up to the level. If the imports play like the veterans that they are and there isn’t a noticeable drop-off with the rest of the team, there might be something cooking at the kitchen party this spring.
Some of the relatively unproven Canadians like Mohamed Kourouma, Alex de Carolis, Zachary Sukunda, Elliot Simmons and Thomasz Skublak are going to have to contribute and be steady players.
Question marks: U Sports standouts Peter Schaale, a 22-year-old German, and Andre Bona, a 29-year-old from France with Canadian citizenship are both likely going to be asked to a do a job in the centre of the defence alongside towering Chakib Hocine who is 27.
Where will the versatile Canadian Zachary Sukunda play? He can play on either flank in the back or in the midfield and if he plays farther forward can Zoom Langwa and Chrisnovic N’sa do the job at the fullback spot? You can add them to the list of Canadians who will need to stand up when they are called upon.
Look out for: Hocine who stands six-foot-three and is imposing physically. There are questions in the back for Halifax, but if Schaale and/or Bona can fit in playing out of the back and Hocine can provide the strength in the air, that’s a good platform for some of the Wanderers more creative players.
The bottom line: Halifax isn’t blessed with the kind of talent in their own backyard that other teams have and they’ve done a good job of finding interesting Canadians who were overlooked and have some versatility. They have also brought in a lot of quality imports, but it just doesn’t feel like there is enough there to compete for a title out of the gate. The distances they will have to travel — with some older legs on top of it — won’t help any.
7. York 9 FC
Truthfully, it seems pretty unlikely that York 9 FC will actually prop up the table at the end of the spring season, but from here it’s hard to see how they will be able to truly contend for a title with the side they have now.
There is some quality in the York 9 lineup and they have more depth than the two teams listed above, but question marks about goal-scoring and
Strength: York 9 should have two of the best players in the league in Luca Gasparotto in the centre of their three-man back line and left winger Ryan Telfer proved he can contribute and play at the MLS level a year ago with Toronto FC and should be a lot for opposing sides to deal with.
On the other wing, Kyle Porter is a steady professional who also has MLS experience after two seasons with DC United and still, only 30 feels he has a lot left to give. Combative defensive midfielder Joseph Di Chiara made his professional debut as a teenager in the Russian Premier League. He will offer some important qualities in the midfield with former TFC prospect Manuel Aparicio captaining the side and being asked to provide some quality and creativity in the centre of the midfield. Last year Wataru Murofushi had an incredible first season as a pro a year ago as he was named the top player in Singapore after captaining Albirex Niigata to an unbeaten season and a domestic treble. York 9 is keen to see what can Murofushi do for an encore in his second year after earning his degree.
Keys to success: York 9 is going to need to find consistent goal-scoring and they are going to need a lot of their starters to find their best form. Few teams have more players who have looked too good for the CPL at various times and yet for a myriad of reasons find themselves in the new league. If Gasparotto, Di Chiara, Telfer, Porter, Aparicio and Michael Cox all find their best form, York 9 is going to be very strong.
Gasparotto enters the season as one of the top centre backs in the league. Roger Thompson has experience in Europe, while St. Kitts & Nevis international Justin Springer and U Sports standout Daniel Gogarty are stepping up a level. The back three and keeper Nathan Ingham are going to be leaned on if they are going to succeed.
Question marks: Can they score enough? Given what they have on the wings and in the midfield, it should follow that York 9 will create some chances and be able to impose themselves on matches like they want to. However, can Cox and Simon Adjei score at a rate to win York matches and keep them in the hunt?
Cox scored three goals in 16 USL matches last season, though he did score 11 times in 2016 with Orlando City B to show that he is capable of the kind of form York 9 needs. Adjei is a big target and he’s scored everywhere he’s played, though that has mostly been League1 Ontario and the lower tiers of his native Sweden. Austin Ricci was a PDL standout last year with the Michigan Bucks scoring 12 goals and adding seven assists in 14 matches.
Rodrigo Gattas, a 27-year-old Chilean, was a late signing. York 9 will hope he can be another attacking option, but after collecting five goals and making only 26 appearances over the past two seasons in the Chilean second flight, it’s hard to expect him to be a difference-maker.
Look out for: Cyrus Rollocks. The 21-year-old’s name keeps popping up around York 9 as the people who watch him every day wait to see if the former Toronto FC academy player can fulfill his potential. He has a nice mix of size and pace and in 2017 was the League1 Ontario young player of the season after scoring 17 goals in 17 matches.
The bottom line: Will York 9 be at the bottom of the table in the spring season? Probably not. There is enough depth and quality to expect them to be closer to the middle of the pack. On the other hand, they have questions up top and some inexperience in the back. The quality and depth in the midfield should help them pick up points, but they will need to pick some up early on the road to stay in touch.
They travel to Hamilton and Calgary to be the first foe for both and then head to Victoria for their third match. They don’t have a home league match until May 25, after they make their home debut in the Voyageurs Cup against AS Blainville three days earlier.