CPL talent blossomed in the spring

2019 Spring Season wrap-up

Matthew Gourlie

The weather was often miserable, goals were at a premium and there were some growing pains. In short, the first Canadian Premier League spring season was great.

While it was far from perfect, there was a lot to recommend as the CPL got off the ground The quality of play has been the most impressive aspect in the early going and now the league’s top sides will have a series of tests in July as the Voyageurs Cup and CONCACAF League kick into gear.

After playing the league’s first 20 matches over a span of 37 days, the league played 15 matches in 17 days while the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Gold Cup and Copa America all took place. It took some effort towards the end of the season to watch all 35 matches, but here are our spring season awards followed by thoughts on the start of Canada’s national league.

Canadian Premier League Spring Season Best XI

A few notes on the best XI: this was subjective, but it was also done by giving each player a grade after each match and then tabulating the results. Not surprisingly, successful teams tended to have players with higher grades. Secondly, consistency mattered. There were players who looked like world beaters one week and donkeys the next, they didn’t crack this list. Also, there wasn’t an arbitrary cut-off, but we applied common sense. Pacific FC’s Hendrik Starostzik actually had the highest average score, but one match does not a season make.

Goal: Nathan Ingham, York 9 FC — Ingham was only signed three weeks before the season started, but earned the starting job in time to turn some heads in the league’s inaugural match. He was the busiest keeper in the league but was also very consistent.

Second team: Marco Carducci, Cavalry FC — he wasn’t forced to be as busy as Ingham was at times, but he was similarly sound.

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Dominick Zator, left,  heads home a goal in the snow for Cavalry FC. CPL photo

 

Defenders: Dominick Zator, Cavalry FC; Daniel Krutzen, Forge FC and Peter Schaale, Hfx Wanderers FC.

It may be cheating a little to not have a proper right back, but the back three was a popular choice to start the campaign for a lot of clubs and it allowed Krutzen to get into this team. Forge’s Belgian was more versatile than a Swiss Army knife and was composed and provided quality wherever he was deployed. Zator scored an important game-winner in Cavalry’s first match and was a rock in the back for the best defence in the spring season. Schaale was strong 1v1, dominant in the air and also dangerous at the other end of the pitch for Halifax. His rare mistakes tended to be punished, but the German student was a quick study as he stepped into a leadership role immediately for the Wanderers.

Second team: right back: Morey Doner, York 9 FC — York 9’s goals against were cut in half once Doner slotted into the back. A poster child for overlooked talent thriving in the CPL, Doner is turning heads with his pace and strong play at both ends of the pitch.

Centre backs: Luca Gasparotto, York 9 FC and Joel Waterman, Cavalry FC. Neither player is overly flashy, but they’ve both been steady and reliable.

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Nico Pasquotti, right, was named the most valuable player in the PDL final. photo courtesy of the USL/PDL

Right wing: Nico Pasquotti, Cavalry FC — the hero of Calgary Foothills FC’s PDL final win a year ago showed that he was capable of being a game-changer and yet his spring season was remarkable. After not starting in the opener, he scored the winner at the death in Hamilton to put Cavalry in the pole position for the rest of the season. He exemplified Cavalry football with pace and relentless effort coupling with no shortage of skill and guile, Pasquotti was a handful for everyone who faced him. And he can throw the ball in like a corner kick just to add to a defence’s woes.

Second team: Akeem Garcia, Hfx Wanderers FC — much like the Wanderers, Garcia was great at home and scored three times in five matches at Wanderers Ground.

Defensive midfielders: Elijah Adekugbe, Cavalry FC and Alexander Achinioti Jönsson, Forge FC — Adekugbe covered a lot of ground and put in plenty of crunching tackles as the ball-winner in the Cavalry midfield. Achinioti Jönsson, on the other hand, served as a pivot between Forge’s central defenders to help them play out of the back and spread the ball. His range of passing and the intelligence of his movement provided a platform for the potent Forge attack.

Second team: Ramon Soria, FC Edmonton, James Marcelin FC Edmonton and Elliot Simmons, Hfx Wanderers FC. Simmons has provided some needed ball-winning in the Wanderers midfield, while Soria has been brilliant at times for the Eddie while complimented by the robust Marcelin who has been outstanding filling in at centre half of late.

Left wing: Kwame Awuah, Forge FC — more of a left back than a winger, Awuah certainly wasn’t shy about getting forward. At his best, he added another dimension to the Forge attack and complimented their many wide attacking players. While he provided danger in the final third, he also was sound defensively and showed off a relentless motor which also served him well when he was pushed into the midfield.

Second team: Bruno Zebie, FC Edmonton — after a slow start, Bruno Zebie put together a string of strong outings for the Eddies to close the spring season.

Borges Forge

Tristan Borges, left, celebrates a goal with Forge FC teammates Emery Welshman and Kadell Thomas. CPL photo

Attacking midfielders: Noah Verhoeven, Pacific FC and Tristan Borges, Forge FC — primarily a wide player, Verhoeven began the season in a holding role for Pacific and showed a great range of passing and composure for a 19-year-old. He’s been pushed farther forward as the season has progressed and his quickness and final ball have made him a handful for opponents. After four matches Forge had one win, two losses and a draw. Borges was the best player on the pitch in three straight 2-0 wins — scoring in each match — as Forge surged back up the table to challenge Cavalry.

Second team: Kyle Bekker, Forge FC — most inconsistent players weren’t able to crack this list. Bekker’s play in June was enough to over-shadow a bad start.

Forward: Jordan Brown, Cavalry FC — other players scored more goals, but Brown never really had a bad match and put in a good shift every time out. He scored the first goal in club history and then the game-winner in the first Al Classico.

Second team: Emery Welshman, Forge FC — he missed time because of the Gold Cup and wasn’t always effective, but his flashes of brilliance were frequent enough to land him here.

Honourable mention: in addition to Starostzik, Luis Alberto Perea from Halifax was another player whose average was good enough to be all-league, but he just didn’t play enough matches. Michael Petrasso in Winnipeg, Anthony Novak in Hamilton and Mason Trafford and Nik Ledgerwood in Calgary also missed too much time in the spring.

Player of the Spring Season

Tristan Borges was actually .01 ahead of Nico Pasquotti for the top spot in my rankings. Since it was basically a dead heat and since Pasquotti scored the match-winner against Forge and Cavalry won the spring title, I will give it to Pasquotti here in the spring.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

Manager of the Spring Season

It’s a bit of a no-brainer to pick Tommy Wheeldon Jr., but here we are. Much credit to Stephen Hart for the job he did in Halifax, but for me, the key deciding factor was that Hart was notable for figuring out his best team and formation very quickly on the fly. Wheeldon knew his team and their tactics before the year began. It’s easy to forget, but Chris Serban and Mason Trafford seemed very likely starters in the back for Cavalry, but even with injuries to two likely starters, Cavalry’s defense was rock solid. His tactics and expectations seemed crystal clear to his side. They went on the road in the Voyageurs Cup and started a nearly all-changed XI and didn’t miss a beat. The groundwork laid with Foothills in the PDL last season helped, but it shouldn’t take any gloss off of the consistency of the way his team played out of the gate.

Referee of the Spring Season

There were certainly calls for people to moan about and some contentious decisions — the non-call in Hamilton on Cavalry’s late-winner loomed pretty large — but on the whole, the officiating was better than many feared.

Filip Dujic topped our spring season rankings. Dujic was very judicious with his cards and did a very good job of managing the players and having a quick word get his point across. His games seemed to flow fairly well and he maybe was a little too lenient at times, but he got the big decisions correct and was consistently solid.

Biggest surprise

The biggest surprise, personally, was the general level of parity — not only within the league but particularly in the level of the players. In the first season in a new league, it’s reasonable to expect there to be a great disparity in the talent levels and it really wasn’t as pronounced as I might have expected. No one really stood out as being a different class or too good for the level. If anything a number of players grew into the league and rose to the level of competition more than the other way around.

While Cavalry and Forge came in tipped to be favourites and looked the part throughout the spring, they were rarely dominant match to match. As most of the rest of the pack seems to have found their footing and have much more cohesion, it should be a more tightly contested fall season, though I would still put my betting money on Forge or Cavs. 

Biggest Disappointment

The lack of goals. The CPL averaged 2.14 goals per match. That is significantly lower than every major league in the world. The German Budesliga averaged 3.14 goals/match last season, the English Premiership was at 2.82, Serie A 2.68 and La Liga at 2.59. Major League Soccer is currently at 2.93. That’s a big difference. It goes without saying that supporters enjoy goals and matches benefit from them. York 9 scored once in their four-match homestand and FC Edmonton went six matches without a goal. Not that there’s necessarily a direct correlation, but those teams are at the bottom of the league in terms of attendance.

Biggest Positive

It probably is a little too obvious and on the nose, but the league existing at all has never gotten old to me. I wake up on a Saturday and there will be a match in a Canadian domestic league to watch. The last time I could say that I wasn’t old enough to drive. I’m in my forties now. There has been plenty of soccer to watch in the interim, but this is special.

The other aspect that goes hand in hand with that is watching players that you’ve largely only read about. There’s a world of difference between reading far-flung dispatches about the Canucks abroad and then actually getting to watch some of these guys every week and developing a fondness for them and the way they play. This league is chock-full of dark horses and the over-looked making the most of their chance and as a neutral, it’s really fun to watch.

 While there are some causes for early concern on the attendance front, the average of 4,829 over the spring was a solid start and has them ahead of the USL Championship to date. 

There were also, of course, areas for improvement.

There are going to be growing pains whenever you launch something new and hiccups are understandable, but One Soccer has a lot of room to improve. Let’s focus on things within their control.

Firstly, the consistent issues with trying to air two matches at the same time were ever-present. As they start to add other properties, this is worrisome. Also, not only were you not able to pause or rewind live matches, it often took more than 24 hours for the full match to be added. While far from a streaming service expert this is significantly longer than any other platform I’ve used. So let’s say (purely hypothetically of course) that its June 15 and Canada is playing a Women’s World Cup match and their first Gold Cup match and the CPL has a triple-header. So you catch one CPL match and plan to catch up on the two you missed the next day. Except none of the matches are up until Monday morning as you head out the door to start your work week.

 One of the biggest disappointments of One Soccer was their decision to stop sending broadcast teams to each match and doing the games out of a Toronto studio. Watching Pacific FC matches called from aways has been utterly pointless. Hey, there’s Ben Fisk, when did he come on? How many red cards were just issued? Did that ball go over the line? These are the questions you might have as a viewer, but it’s also the same questions the broadcasters are asking because they have absolutely no idea either. They’re seeing what you’re seeing.

That actually pales to another decision to do things slightly on the cheap. I can’t 100 per cent confirm this, but it does seem likely that some of the matches are being called from overseas. Those broadcasters are making strides, but there were some monumental head-scratchers in the early days. As you may recall Hfx Wanderers lost their first match 1-0 in Victoria to Pacific FC thanks to a Hendrik Starostzik goal and then beat Forge FC 2-1 in their home opener. In their Voyageurs Cup match in Vaughan, Ont., the One Soccer announcer was the Barclona-based Duncan Bishop (the Catalan capital is not coincidentally where MediaPro is also based) proved that a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous when he said this “Three games played so far by Halifax in the Premier League. They’ve won one, lost both. They debuted at home to Pacific FC, losing 1-0 with a goal from Spiros.”

There are plenty of mistakes from the Canadian announcers as well (Kwame Awuah and Bertrand Owundi are entirely different people), but I am willing to accept those as part of the growth of the game and the league. Having foreign-based announcers who seem to have the faintest of interest in these players and this league just isn’t good enough.

For a year leading up to the opening match, every signing, every open tryout was chronicled and hyped. It was a great way to engage with the league and it felt like the CPL web site was doing a good job of meeting their mandate to be a hub for all things Canadian soccer. And then the season started. There was lots of content, but not a ton of news. Early in the season, there was no clear indication of how a player’s nationality was determined. There has been very little news about injuries leaving supporters wondering if players they had been reading about for months in the build-up were injured, not favoured or something else entirely. The somewhat bizarre choice to enforce a yellow card accumulation two weeks after the fourth card was acquired has not been explained as far as I’ve seen. Is there a transfer window and if so when does it start and when does it end? Simply put, for a league with its own 24-hour dedicated network, there sure is a lot of mystery about even the basics.

Fearless Fall Predictions

For the Spring season our predicted order of finish was:

    1.    Forge FC

    2.    Cavalry FC

    3.    FC Edmonton

    4.    Valour FC

    5.    Hfx Wanderers FC

    6.    Pacific FC

    7.    York 9 FC

For the Fall, I don’t see much evidence to deviate too far from this.

    1.    Forge FC: Krutzen and Samuel have answered a lot of the questions about their backline and they have depth and quality everywhere else. My question would be if they can get enough scoring by committee, consistently, to win the title. They seem to have the horses and if Welshman or Novak (or even Borges) can provide a consistent source of goals, they should be the odds-on favourite. They could possibly score by committee and still get over the line too. Nine different players scored for Forge in the spring. Three of the seven teams didn’t even manage nine goals period.

    2.    Cavalry FC: I can’t see Cavalry taking their proverbial foot off of the gas, but the motivation just isn’t the same with a foot in the final. While they were clearly the best organized and best-prepared group to start the campaign, the frightening thought is that they got off to a red-hot start without Trafford and with inconsistent play from some of their attacking players. If Camargo, Büscher and Malonga carry their end-of-spring form forward, Cavs are going to be tough to beat again.

    3.    FC Edmonton: It took a while, but the Eddies’ ability to be hard to break down started to turn into a run of good form. Cavalry showed in the early weeks of the season that a strong defence and some timely goals can take you a long way in a low-scoring league. The goals remain the question for Edmonton. It surely won’t be as simple as Diouck’s ability to convert his chances being the determining factor, but if Ameobi can turn his solid play into more production and if the promising young players and/or Edwini-Bonsu can contribute anything they should be in contention.

    4.    Pacific FC: In my eyes, Pacific’s hopes hinge on two men: Starostzik and Haber. I have no idea if anyone is tracking expected goals/90 mins, but my money would be on Haber to be the runaway leader. If Haber is healthy and can find his form and Starostzik can stay healthy and be the player he looked to be in his debut, Pacific will contend. Those are big ifs, but Pacific’s young players showed there is enough depth and quality through the squad in the other areas. What Pacific needs is a consistent goal threat and someone to anchor the back and they may well have both already in house.

    5.    Valour FC: They have a lot of talent and a lot of options and versatility. What they need is a focal point for the attack and to figure out their best team and settle the side. On paper, they should be much better than they have been, but without a real No. 9, the creative pieces behind them haven’t been able to make things go. With Petrasso and Bustos creating chances there has to be someone who can finish them off in the squad, isn’t there?

    6.    York 9 FC: They have a lot of talent and a lot of options and versatility. What they need is a focal point for the attack… maybe. Unlike Valour, York 9 has done a better job of overcoming their difficulties up top. Having a settled back line has helped and their depth in the midfield has made them hard to beat at home where goals have been hard to come by — for everyone. I have Valour a shade ahead based more on potential then current reality, but there is very, very little to choose between the bottom teams in the table.

    7.    Hfx Wanderers FC: A little harsh one of the better teams in the spring, but in a league where injuries have been a challenge for everyone, I don’t know if the Wanderers could overcome a few injuries to key players. They already have been missing some big names, obviously, but it’s their Canadian depth that worries me. If Kourouma, Simmons or Langwa are out for an extended stretch, that could sink any hopes of being higher up the table. They’ve been great at Wanderers Grounds, but their road form – one point and no goals in five matches – is not reassuring at all. That being said, if they’re healthy and have Perea up top, there is a lot to like about this team and they can play with anyone in the CPL when their best 11 is on the pitch. I think the fall is going to test their depth too much to ultimately challenge.

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