2020 Canadian Premier League preview

The Island Games invokes images of relaxing diversions possibly followed by a Mai Tai.

In reality, the Canadian Premier League’s tournament in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island — which will serve as the entire 2020 season — will be anything but relaxed. It will be a grind and a sprint to the finish as the teams cram 28 matches into 25 days during the preliminary round-robin.

The format is simple, each of the eight CPL teams faces each other once and the top four teams in a single-table advance to a second round-robin with the top two finishers there meeting in a one-match final to determine the champion.

Kyle Bekker from Forge FC.

The format should heavily favour teams with continuity and depth, which is why last year’s finalists Forge FC and Cavalry FC are among the favourites along with York 9 FC who retained most of their key pieces and added depth.

That is not the norm in the league, however. Three of the seven teams lost their captain from last year.

Valour FC’s top four players in minutes for 2019 are all gone. In Halifax, two of the three players who led them in minutes are gone. Valour scored 30 goals last year, spread among 10 players. Only Dylan Carreiro remains and he had two goals in 2019.

While Atletico Ottawa are the new team this season, there are plenty of major changes at a lot of the clubs who failed to make the post-season. The counter-argument is that what they had wasn’t working, so new blood was required, but it does put those teams at a distinct disadvantage.

In a three-week race to advance, cohesion is going to be hugely important. The Island Games are also hard to handicap because so much is unknown about the new imports (at least those that could get in the country at least). That being said, in 2019 the teams that succeeded did so largely on the strength of their domestic talent. There were plenty of foreign players who made an impact, but eight of the league’s best XI were Canadian and Forge started nine Canadians in their title-clinching win.

The schedule hasn’t done any favours to last season’s Spring and Fall champions. Cavalry FC has the worst schedule of any team in the tournament. They play Valour on Sunday afternoon having already played Thursday night. They will meet Pacific on Aug. 30 with Pacific having two more days of rest than they do. Most teams won’t be in that situation once and it will happen to Cavs twice.

All told their opponents will have a combined four extra days between matches when they meet them. Pacific FC and HFX Wanderers have the two friendliest schedules in terms of rest compared to their opponents.

Here is a look at all eight teams in our predicted order of finish:

1. FORGE FC

Forge FC enters the season as defending champions and favourites. They lost the best player in the league in Tristan Borges, but they have the best backline and the most depth of any club in the league. Perhaps just as importantly they have a clearly defined system that the core of their roster knows well and has experience playing. In a short season like this, that is invaluable.

Borges led the CPL with 12 goals and shared the title of the league leader in assists with five. That is a lot to replace and Forge is unlikely to replace it with one player. However, they have a long list of players who can score and create and will be looking for more minutes and an increased role.

Newcomer Paolo Sabak (NEC Nijmegen/NED) has been brought in to take some of the pressure off of Kyle Bekker in the midfield and replace some of the creativity of Borges. The former Belgian youth international will have to earn his playing time for a team loaded with attacking options.

While Forge does have a bevy of attacking players, they don’t have many true No. 9s outside of Anthony Novak. Marcel Zajac and Mo Babouli (Al-Ittihad/SYR & Mississauga MetroStars/indoor) are the best bets to fill that role, but they were used more frequently in wide areas at previous stops.

It may be by committee, but it’s easy to feel like the goals will come for Forge. Adding Babouli and Sabak to an attacking group that includes Marcel Zajac, Chris Nanco, David Choinière and Kadell Thomas seems almost unfair.

Nanco had a good second half of the Fall Season after a slow start. Choinière had a knack for scoring in big games and Zajac only showed glimpses of the skill he showed (11 goals and 8 assists in 19 matches) in helping Akron to an NCAA final.

While that internal competition for playing time will be healthy, Bekker is still going to have to be the catalyst for Forge in the attack. He is fully capable of being one of the top players in the league, but he wasn’t always at that level in 2019.

It is hard to even guess how Forge may decide to line up because they have so many options. As the games in PEI come thick and fast that is going to be very valuable. Jonathan Grant and Dominic Samuel can both play right back and Samuel played all along the back four last year. On the left, newcomer Maxim Tissot (Ottawa Fury/USL) may get the nod, but Kwame Awuah was great there last year. David Edgar and Daniel Krutzen seem like a safe bet to pair in the centre of the defence, though Krutzen did play as a fullback. Left back Monti Mohsen and central defender Klaidi Cela will also get time in the back to fulfill Forge’s U21 minute requirements.

In front of the backline, Swede Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson was an important component to the team, allowing them to play out of the back and protecting the central defenders. Awuah can also slot in beside him as a double pivot and Senegalese midfielder Elimane Cissé also did a lot of work and running to give the forwards added freedom and then played farther up the pitch himself as the Fall season wore on.

Triston Henry silenced his doubters with a pair of clean sheets in the 2019 final while showing no signs of the inconsistent play that plagued him at times earlier in the year. Forge will need a repeat of that form because, in a one-match final and the four-team second round, there isn’t going to be any room for a soft goal.

The quality of their defence and their depth alone should get easily get Forge into the second round. There is no shortage of options for the attacking roles, Forge is going to want two or three of the likes of Novak, Sabak, Nanco, Babouli or Choinière to truly make those spots their own. Even if they are still looking for the right combination in the second round, Forge still feels like the same time of side that knows how to collect a gritty 1-0 victory when they need to.

2. YORK 9 FC

York 9 may not be as deep as some of the other favourites, but between their continuity and some nice additions, it feels like they significantly closed the gap on the big two this off-season and we’re going to tip them to reach the final.

Much like Forge, York 9s consistency and familiarity in the back gives them a great platform for success, while question marks up top are really the only cause for concern.

York 9 brings back a strong backline that featured fullbacks Morey Doner and Diyaeddine Abzi, who both had breakout seasons, and Luca Gasporotto and Roger Thompson in the middle. Matthew Arnone started 24 matches for HFX Wanderers last season and adds depth to the centreback position and will push Thompson for playing time. Japanese newcomer Fugo Segawa (AC Oulu.FIN) could push Abzi for playing time or allow the attack-minded Abzi to play farther up the pitch on the left.

When using a backline of Doner, Gasparotto, Thompson and Abzi, York was 5-2 last season with seven goals allowed in seven matches. They managed four wins, 10 losses and seven draws the rest of the way – primarily missing Thompson – and allowed 30 goals in 21 matches, an average of 1.43 a match.

That was then, but in a short tournament having a consistent backline – backed by keeper Nathan Ingham who was as good as anyone in the CPL during the Spring season – is going to be a big leg up.

Last season there were times when York 9 was dynamic and fun as they combined with quick passing and interchanging positions. At other times they looked like they were spinning their wheels. They were second in possession time during the season and tied for the bottom in terms of the percentage of their passes that went forward.

It’s clear how York 9 wants to play. They were hoping to bolster their attack with Brazilian forward Jaco, Peruvian forward Adrian Ugarriza, Jamaican attacker Nicholas Hamilton and Argentine playmaker Brian Lopez. All four were unable to travel to join York 9 this season as COVID-19 has put a wrench in the plans of manager Jim Brennan and new president Angus McNab.

In terms of last-minute replacements though, York 9 has high hopes for Spanish forward Alvaro Rivero (Leganes B/ESP). The five-foot-seven Rivero is not a prototypical No. 9, but he should fit with York’s possession and short-passing style.

Last season Rodrigo Gattas scored nine league goals and Simon Adjei had seven, but York looked more comfortable with Gattas in more of a false nine role combining with the midfield.

In addition to Rivero, York 9 also added Brazilian forward Gabriel Vasconcelos (Corinthians/BRA) who is more natural centre forward and the 24 year old has 47 matches in the Brazilian Série B to his credit.

Rivero and Vasconcelos should both not be wanting for opportunities to score goals.

The consistency wasn’t always there, but when he was on his game Ryan Telfer was a game-changer and right there with Borges as the best player in the CPL. His return is a massive boon to York’s hopes. Michael Petrasso began last season with Valour FC looking like he was one of the top players in the league but struggled to turn his creative play into goals as Valour’s forwards struggled. Injuries hindered him and as Valour struggled, his form dipped. There are some concerns about Petrasso’s health heading into the season and if he isn’t fit and healthy by the time the second round comes, that may be a decisive blow to York’s hopes.

If healthy, Petrasso and Telfer could be as dynamic a pairing as there are in the league.

The rest of the midfield behind them is largely intact. York saw Emilio Estevez move on to the Dutch top-flight with ADO Den Haag. While that move speaks to his quality, Estevez only made five starts a year ago.

Chris Manella (Ottawa Fury/USL) is a good addition and joins Joseph Di Chiara as they both offer a little steel in the middle of the park. However, York’s style was built on the quickness and ability to combine between players like captain Manny Aparicio and Wataru Murofushi. Kyle Porter adds experience and quality on the flanks and York has a lot of flexibility in how they want to line up.

York has the depth and continuity to navigate the opening round. From there, they look to have enough quality in the final third to score goals and contend for the title.

3. CAVALRY FC

Cavalry FC was the best team out of the gates last year as their co-ordinated high-pressing style frustrated opponents and they rode a string of tight wins to the Spring title and managed to carry the momentum on to a Fall title and a Voyageurs Cup coup over the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS.

But they lost the CPL Final. That ‘but’ will linger long in the memories for Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and his men, however, they head to PEI with more questions than Forge and may see some of the pack closing ground.

Losing Dominique Malonga up top hurts, but there may be other more subtle losses that are more painful. Julian Büscher was an important presence in the middle of the park linking the lines, while Honduran winger José Escalante (signed but absent due to the pandemic) added an element of creativity to say nothing of the ability to get under his opponent’s skins. Joel Waterman provided valuable depth in the back and had a lot of quality and earned a move to Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer.

The Cavs didn’t stand pat and adding hard-working d-mid Elliott Simmons from Halifax, veteran winger Bruno Zebie from Edmonton and promising young attacker José Hernandez from Pacific. Hernandez may help offset the loss of Escalante, but they will miss Büscher’s presence in the heart of the midfield.

With Büscher gone and Escalante and new Brazilian signing Richard Luca both unable to get into Canada, Sergio Camargo is going to have a lot on his shoulders. He played some of his best soccer towards the end of the season, but part of that was down to how he and Büscher were able to drive Cavs forward. Brazilian veteran Oliver Minatel had seven goals in the Fall season as he found a role. He will also be leaned on

Cavalry retains much of their defensive core. Marco Carducci was rewarded with a Canadian call-up after being named the league’s top keeper.

Jay Wheeldon and Mason Trafford are both on the wrong side of 30 which means they may not be in the lineup every match for Cavs, but offer plenty of experience once the tournament gets down to the nitty-gritty.

With Dominick Zator and Dean Northover back, Wheeldon Jr. has flexibility in how he deploys his backline and in what formation he chooses. That allows him to play with three in the back as Zator is comfortable at fullback or in the middle and Northover was a consistent starter at wingback or fullback until suffering an injury. TFC II loanee Robert Boskovic adds to the depth in the back and adds more of an aerial presence.

Nathan Mavila on the left and Nico Pasquotti on the right caused problems last season but saw their effectiveness dip as the season wore on. Sergio Camargo grew into the playmaker role from his No. 10 spot and will be asked to do a lot with Büscher gone.

The work rate, energy and quality of Nik Ledgerwood and Elijah Adekugbe helps protect a backline that is not particularly fast and helps launch the press.

While not being big names, Malyk Hamilton, Mauro Eustaquio and Carlos Patino combined to make 50 appearances last season and if Cavalry’s depth is tested they may well be missed.

Jordan Brown found himself on the flank late in the season as Malonga had cemented his place at the target man. Brown will vie for the spot up top, but it would be a big boost to Cavalry’s hopes if Jair Cordova (Juan Aurich/PER) acquits himself well. Cordova won the golden boot in the Peruvian second flight but struggled to do much at the first division level in his native country.

An interesting X-factor for Cavalry was a late signing that didn’t get a lot of attention – Marcus Haber. A year ago Haber was expected to be one of the top forwards in the league with Pacific FC. It didn’t happen. Not by a long shot. What Haber’s first CPL campaign will best be remembered for are a lot of missed chances and a lot of injuries. That being said, Haber is 31 and has 27 international caps and is a towering presence. He fits well with Cavalry’s style and should get opportunities to play.

If Haber is in form, he could win the golden boot and that doesn’t even feel like a particularly hot take. On the other hand, he probably starts the season behind Brown and Cordova and if he isn’t producing early, he may end up being nothing more than a last roll of the dice late – much more Aribim Pepple than Malonga.

Cavalry will be hungry to win their last match this year, but amongst the league’s elite, they look to be the only side that isn’t as strong as they were a year ago. If they have the depth to stay healthy and fresh towards the end of the tournament, they have enough quality to win, but between their age, their style and some of their losses we’re narrowly picking them out of the top three.

4. FC EDMONTON

The most interesting and most enjoyable storyline of the season could come from Edmonton.

FC Edmonton made two significant additions in the off-season and watching Keven Aleman (Sacramento Republic/USL) and Hanson Boakai (Inter Turku/FIN) should be fun at the very least. Can they be effective? Who knows. Both are looking to rejuvenate their career and each would be a great story.

As a teenager, Tristan Borges was the kind of skilled, tricky, play-making midfielder Canada has often lacked. He was also viewed as a bit of a Mercurial talent, but came good with Forge last season and transferred to Oud-Heverlee who are now in the Belgian top flight.

Those same characteristics, expectations and criticisms have also been levied at Aleman and Boakai. There is no denying, the quickness, the feet, the tight control… they both have those qualities in spades. Will there be enough end-product? How will they combine with Easton Ongaro and/or Tomi Ameobi? How will they play together? It could be magic and it could be a mess. They could be the thrust to get Edmonton into the second round and they could both just easily flop. In the early stages of the season, it is the storyline I am most looking forward to watching.

Aleman, still only 26, played with Costa Rican giants Saprissa and Herediano and made his international debut at 19 in a Gold Cup loss to Mexico. Boakai was 16 when he made his professional debut for FC Edmonton and became the youngest player ever to play in the North American Soccer League by doing so. It’s been a nomadic existence since then for the 23 year old – Croatian second division, Swedish third flight, Romanian second flight, Finnish second and top flight – and if there is ever a time to start to fulfill his promise, this homecoming should be it.

The Eddies have some strong pieces returning. Amer Didic was one of the top central defenders in the league a year ago and earned a Canadian call-up and a Major League Soccer tryout. Cameroon’s Jeannot Esua was our choice for the top right back in the CPL a year ago.

Connor James established himself as Edmonton’s No. 1 keeper and looks to build off a very strong first campaign.

Edmonton has some decent depth along the back with Allan Zebie and Kareen Moses both experienced fullbacks and young TFC II loanee Terique Mohammed has some quality. Duran Lee made eight appearances with Halifax after impressing with Vaughan Azzurri in the Voyageurs Cup and will add to the centreback depth as Mélé Temguia looks likeliest to pair with Didic.

Ramon Soria could also fill that role and adds leadership and quality either in a holding midfield role or out of the backline. Son Yong-chan also adds a lot of energy and some bite to the midfield.

Edmonton’s midfield depth is a concern and losing Edem Mortotsi to injury hurts.

In addition to Boakai and Aleman, the other question surrounding a new face is what the Eddies will get from Swedish midfielder Erik Zetterberg (Varbergs BoIS/SWE). The six-foot-two midfielder fits the profile that saw that Eddies boss Jeff Paulus seems to prefer after bringing in James Marcelin and Tony Tchani a year ago.

Towering six-foot-six forward Easton Ongaro was one of the revelations of the first CPL campaign. After not starting in the Spring, he scored 10 goals in the Fall season. Edmonton can’t afford a sophomore slump from Ongaro who will get a lot more attention from opponents and pundits alike this year.

Ameobi only scored four times last season and the Eddies will be hoping Academy graduates like Marcus Velado-Tsegaye, David Doe and Prince Amanda can take another step forward to take some of the pressure off of Ongaro to carry the goal-scoring load.

The Eddies were the fourth-best team in the CPL last season and they look to be improved. They will need Ongaro (or Ameobi) finishing chances and they will need creativity from Aleman and Boakai. After Randy Edwini-Bonsu flopped in his return home last year, Edmonton fans there are no guarantees, but with a lot of key players returning and a little more depth in the back, we’re backing Edmonton to be the best of the second tier of teams fighting for the final spot into the second round.

5. HFX WANDERERS FC

If there is a team that is flying a little under the radar heading into the tournament, it seems to be Halifax.

The Wanderers may only go as far as their new imports can carry them, but there is a real possibility Halifax’s core of imports are the best in the league.

If Halifax is going to make the final four they are going to need production from Brazilian forward Joao Morelli (FCI Levadia/EST) and Jamaican winger Alex Marshall (Cavalier SC/JAM). Neither man seems to be getting too much hype in the build-up, but perhaps they should be. Marshall has 10 caps for his country and Morelli was most recently in Estonia, but earned a contract with Middlesboro in England as a teen and looked set to continue his career there with League One’s Fleetwood Town before a managerial change left him out in the cold.

The biggest reason to think that Wanderers can advance is the way they improved their team from last year. Getting central defender Peter Schaale back is a big boost and pairing him with Canadian-born Haitian starting central defender Jems Geffrard should immediately improve the backline compared to a year ago. Chrisnovic N’sa showed quality and versatility a year ago and can play along the backline and in the midfield, but seems likely to start at right back to replace the loss of André Bona.

Wanderers are also deeper at fullback with Alex De Carolis, Daniel Kinumbe, Mateo Restrepo and Jake Ruby all fighting for time.

Two of the imports that Halifax did retain from last year are holding midfielder Andre Rampersand and attacker Kareem Garcia. Garcia started the season on the right wing, but also led the line and used his pace to play off the shoulder of the last man. He led Wanderers with seven goals.

Rampersand was a steadying presence in the middle of the field. He will be joined by Louis Béland-Goyette who was one of the best holding midfielders in the league last year doing a lot of the dirty work for Valour FC. That is a very strong tandem for manager Stephen Hart in the middle of the field. Wanderers don’t have the depth they had there last year, but N’sa is another option and Aboubacar Sissoko has been one of the best players in USports with Montreal and is another interesting option.

A week ago, we were tipping Halifax to finish fourth. The loss of keeper Christian Oxner was enough to flip the razor-thin margin between them and Edmonton. Oxner may not be out long term and Jason Beaulieu may be a suitable replacement, but it is very hard to know what to expect from the 26 year old who spent three years on the Montreal Impact senior roster without seeing the pitch. Jan-Michael Williams went from the net to the coaching ranks and has been pulled back to be in the roster while Oxner is out.

It’s hard to imagine Halifax succeeding without goals and contributions from Morelli and Marshall, but Halifax will also be looking for some secondary scoring from Alessandro Riggi (Phoenix Rising/USL) and Ibrahima Sanoh.

Riggi had 21 goals over four years in the USL and has quickness and skill on the ball. Sanoh will be the only player from PEI playing on the island. The former Canadian College Athletics Association MVP scored so many goals for Holland College that Toronto FC invited him to train and trial with them during the pre-season.

Halifax is better on the backline – particularly in the centre of defence – and deeper as well. Marshall and Morelli are going to need to be impact players along with Garcia. If those attacking imports don’t come good, the Wanderers won’t be around long.

Questions about their goalkeeping and their lack of attacking depth may be what keeps them out of the final four ultimately, but if they can beat Pacific Saturday and stay in contention they close with Valour and Ottawa to end their tournament.

6. PACIFIC FC

A year ago, Pacific FC had a lot of young players who showed a lot of promise while being put into larger roles than expected while a core of seasoned veterans struggled to have the expected impact.

Most of those veteran faces are gone and former Vancouver Whitecaps defender and coach (and former Norwegian international) Pa-Modou Kah is in charge of Pacific FC. Kah looks like he will be a good fit with a young team that could well be the most entertaining in the league.

Pacific looks like they have goals in them, but they had the second poorest defence a year ago in terms of expected goals against and actual goals against. They will be hoping their off-season moves to bolster the backline will help, but Pacific’s strengths still lie further up the pitch.

Alejandro Diaz (America/MEX) has the potential to be one of the best foreign players in the CPL. The 24-year-old forward came through the ranks at America. He was a starter on Mexico’s U17 side that reached a FIFA Under-17 World Cup final in 2013 and featured at a FIFA Under-20 World Cup as well. He got a chance in 2017-18 to try to establish himself with the Mexican giants, earning 29 appearances in all competitions. He was loaned to Atlas the following season and second flight Zacatepec last season where he made nine appearances and only one start.

Pacific are banking on a fresh start being good for the once-promising striker. At the very least he should help take some of the goal-scoring pressure off of last year’s breakout star Terran Campbell who scored 11 goals. Campbell won’t be flying under the radar to start this tournament, but he’s the kind of poacher that can be lethal around the box and hard to contain.

Last season Victor Blasco was a consistent threat and caused problems for defences and helped create opportunities for Campbell. Pacific tried to make a big splash in the off-season by adding Marco Bustos from Valour after he scored seven goals and showed flashes of the pedigree that earned his six caps for Canada.

That quality in the final third is right up there with the best clubs in the league.

Pacific’s lack of depth last season reared its head on the back end. They have a little more depth and quality there, but they also lost some decent contributors and their backline have more to prove compared to some of the other front-runners.

Lukas MacNaughton and Thomas Meilleure-Giguère (Ottawa Fury/USL) are a solid enough central defence pairing and if they can play every match their quality might be enough to help Pacific advance. MacNaughton struggled without having a consistent partner last year and Meilleure-Giguère had runs of impressive play over two seasons where he was nearly ever-present in Ottawa while on loan from the Montreal Impact. Abdou Samake — who was an all-Big 10 tournament selection last year with Michigan in the NCAA — provides them with more depth than they had last season and it figures he will be thrown into the fire at some point.

Marcel de Jong is one of the most experienced and pedigreed players in the league and losing him for the year during pre-season a year ago was a big blow. His crossing and quality from set pieces will be a big asset. Kadin Chung on the opposite flank had some great performances a year ago, but it remains to be seen if his inconsistency could be down to the revolving door on the backline or something else.

Jamar Dixon (Ottawa/USL) adds veteran depth behind Chung and can play in the midfield.

One area where their depth is unquestioned is net, where Pacific may have the strongest tandem in the CPL. Nolan Wirth won the starting job in the Fall season and Callum Irving was Ottawa’s No. 1 keeper in 2017 and again last year.

Pacific started last season very thin and are four players shy of a full roster of 23 heading to PEI. That may not be fatal, but it doesn’t provide as much cover as other teams.

The area where Pacific does have depth is in the centre of the midfield. They will miss Panamanian destroyer Alexander Gonzalez and don’t have a real like-for-like replacement which could be a concern. However, there are a lot of young, talented options in the middle of the park from Noah Verhoeven and Zach Verhoven to Alessandro Hojabrpour and Matthew Baldisimo.

Indeed, there is a lot to like about this team and it feels like they are on the right path to building a contending team the right way. They have the friendliest schedule in terms of rest in the tournament and if they can stay healthy their starting XI matches up favourably with the other teams that they will be challenging for a spot in the second round.

Pacific should be one of the few teams in the tournament who expects to find the back of the net every time out. They, Halifax and Edmonton should be in a good battle for the last spot and may even drag Cavalry into that mix.

If they can ride the same backline most times out and score as expected there’s no reason that they can’t finish fourth, but injuries – or even a red card – at the wrong spot could be really costly.

7. VALOUR FC

There is officially only one expansion team, but Valour FC almost completely overhauled their lineup and might as well be.

Valour had 11 players who started at least half of their 28 matches last season. Only three remain: Raphael Ohin, Diego Gutierrez and Dylan Carreiro. That doesn’t count promising youngster Tyler Attardo or Italian veteran Michele Paolucci who led the line for Valour in the Fall season and have both moved on as well.

With all of their new faces, there is no time for Valour to dip their toes into the season and figure out their best XI or their best formation. They tinkered with formation and personnel in the Spring season a year ago and were the last team to really look settled.

Whatever Plan A is for Rob Gale, he will be hoping it works because there won’t be time to recover with a Plan B. It won’t help that the plan has been derailed by COVID as much as any team. Panamanian central defender Amir Soto is a loss and a search for a No. 9 wasn’t able to be fulfilled before the borders started to close.

The defence is completely changed from a year ago. York 9 back-up Matt Silva (who was originally slated to start) and Montreal Impact loanee James Pantemis will vie for the starting role in goal and both look to have enough quality to do the job in limited viewings.

Raphael Garcia is back as a right fullback, but that is the likeliest spot for Stefan Cebara (Vojvodina Novi Sad/SRB) to slot in as he returns to Canada after a decade in Europe. On the left, Arnold Bouka Moutou (Dijon/FRA) is a 31-year-old Congolese international with four seasons in France’s Ligue 1, though he was most recently spending time with the reserves in the lower leagues. Bouka Moutou is an intriguing signing that hasn’t received a lot of attention but could be a very astute one.

The centre of the defence will be anchored by Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Umeå FC/SWE), an American-born, Haitian international who played in MLS with Portland, Chivas USA and a spell with New York Red Bulls where he played for Red Bulls II.

With Soto unavailable, Valour added Chakib Hocine, a physical presence with some ball skills who struggled to see much of the field last season in Halifax. They also were able to add Julian Dunn from Toronto FC on loan. The 20-year-old has a pair of MLS first-team appearances and knows Gale from his time with the Canadian youth set-up. Yohan Le Bourhis – who has paired with Dunn on Canadian youth national teams – returns after being a mid-season acquisition last year and offer another option in the back.

Valour are clearly hoping that Jean-Baptiste, Hocine and Dunn will be a significant upgrade over the departed Skylar Thomas, Jordan Murrell and Adam Mitter who were part of the league’s worst defence that shipped 52 goals in 28 matches.

There are a lot of questions about how Valour may lineup. Expect former Vancouver Whitecap Brett Levis to be in a much more attacking role like he was at the University of Saskatchewan. Similarly, right winger Fraser Aird (Cove Rangers/SCO) won’t be reprising his role as a fullback either and instead will be looking at getting after the opponent’s fullbacks.

Northern Irish USL veteran Daryl Fordyce (Sligo Rovers/ROI) is more of a link player than a forward and the same could be said for young New Zealand international Moses Dyer (Florø/NOR) who has 11 caps and is only 23 years old. It is anticipated that one of those players could well start up top with the other playing off of him.

Shaan Hundal showed goal-scoring promise as a teenager with TFC II, netting six goals in 2016 and seven in 2017, but hasn’t been able to score consistently of late.

With Bustos and Petrasso gone, there is a need for a creator in the middle of the park. Diego Gutierrez played more on the right wing or as a fullback, but will look to be more central this season and combine with one of the new imports.

Valour will miss Béland-Goyette in the centre of the field. José Galan is a good veteran character player. As bad as it got at times last summer, the Spaniard never let his head drop and tried to push the team forward. Unfortunately, at 34 it unlikely he will be ever-present in the midfield but will have a role. That puts a lot on Raphael Ohin who provided a lot of quickness and work rate in the midfield a year ago but also gave the ball away in bad areas far too often. Dante Campbell is on loan from TFC II and he is another option to provide some energy into the midfield.

While there are questions up top, Masta Kacher (Saint Louis/USL) has more than 100 USL games to his credit as an attacking left winger and Austin Ricci is coming off of a disappointing year with York 9 where he only played 199 minutes and is another attacking wide player who will be looking to contribute.

It is a new year, but there are a lot of the same questions. The depth looks stronger than a year ago, but while the backline is almost completely changed, it remains to be seen if it is significantly upgraded. Valour probably has more balance in the midfield but doesn’t have the kind of creative players it did a year ago with Bustos and Petrasso and Béland-Goyette’s loss may also be felt. Most significantly, the lack of a dangerous and potent forward (beyond Attardo who graduated from high school during the season) was a killer a year ago. Gale will be banking on Fordyce, Dyer or Hundal will be the finisher Valour needs.

If you are a Valour supporter all is not lost. The club got a huge break from the schedule-makers and could give themselves a real shot at qualification with a fast start. While Cavalry opens Thursday in a rematch of the final, Valour gets to wait to play Cavalry on Sunday. With two days between matches, they should face a heavily rotated Cavalry side and have an opportunity to start the season with a result. They follow that with a match against Ottawa. Valour will need a fast start to grow their confidence as the group gains more cohesion.

8. ATLÉTICO OTTAWA

Despite being in the wooden spoon position, this is not a terrible Ottawa side. Given their late start to signing players and all of the issues surrounding the pandemic, Atletico put together a pretty competitive team.

The problem is that it is not nearly deep enough and their weakest positions appear to be in the centre of the defence and at the forward spot. That doesn’t bode too well for Atlético.

Atlético Ottawa did two things well – they landed some good foreign players and they landed some good CPL players from last season.

In goal Nacho Zabal (Calahorra/ESP) has logged 237 matches in the Spanish second and third flight. He will provide good leadership and organization out of the back and should fit with the way Ottawa wants to play.

The 33-year-old keeper is not the only veteran import that the Atlético brass brought in to try to establish the culture of the club.

Francisco Acuña (Puebla/MEX) 135 matches in the Mexican top-flight, the five-foot-six right winger was nicknamed “El Messi” during his time with Tigres. Clearly, that was a pretty big reach but it gives you an idea of his style and ability as a youngster.

The club also looked at the CPL to find some strong veteran talent. Ben Fisk (Pacific FC) was tied for the league lead with five assists despite perhaps not living up to expectations on the island. Mohamed Kourouma led Halifax in appearances and also led the CPL in the advanced metric of expected assists – simply put his service from the left flank should have resulted in more goals.

Ajay Khabra made 24 appearances in the centre of the midfield for FC Edmonton a year ago and showed he can keep things ticking along with a good range of passing. He is joined in the centre of midfield by 27-year-old Ben McKendry who spent three seasons on the Vancouver Whitecaps senior roster and Viti Martinez (Gimnastic/ESP), a young Spanish midfielder who adds to the depth and quality of a pretty complete midfield group. Local teenager Antoine Coupland is an exciting talent and didn’t look out of his depth as he made his pro debut at 16 last year with the Fury. Coupland’s play at this level will be interesting to watch.

Malyk Hamilton will turn 21 during the tournament and made 18 appearances for Cavalry as a right wingback or fullback and slotted seamlessly into their side. He has a lot of potential and it was a good coup for Ottawa to sign the young Canadian.

He is reunited with West Ham United academy teammate Vashon Neufville who is a left back. Neufville earned eight England U17 caps and a West Ham senior roster spot, but the 21 year old is looking for a fresh start.

Former Vaughan Azzurri fullback Jarred Phillips will add some cover after being one of the top defenders in League1 Ontario.

All in all it’s a good start, but the depth is paper-thin and the concerns about the centre of defence and the attack make it hard to expect too much from Atlético.

Milovan Kapor (Buxoro/UZB) and Brandon John (Orlando City B/USL) are going to be thrown into the deep end with this club and each other along the Ottawa backline. Kapor is 29 and John is 25, so their experience should be a benefit, but there are going to be tested early and often at this tournament.

Ottawa also boasts one of the best young defenders in Canada in Gianfranco Facchineri. The 17-year-old is on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps and was a big bright spot from Canada’s recent FIFA Under-17 World Cup campaign.

Up front, Ottawa made a shrewd signing, picking up League1 Ontario MVP and golden boot winner Maksym Kowal from Vaughan Azzuri where he scored 14 goals. Much like Novak in Hamilton, the 29-year-old Kowal has been waiting for an opportunity to show what he can do in the CPL after scoring in a fair number of countries at a lot of different levels.

Unfortunately, beyond Kowal Ottawa is very young and inexperienced up front and Kowal is hardly a sure bet to be the goal-scorer they are looking for.

Ottawa was also hard done by as three players – Jamaican international Tevin Shaw, Bernardinho from Ghana and Canadian Kunle Dada-Luke – were all unable to join the team in PEI. They would have done a lot to help spur the attack.

There are some nice pieces in place and Ottawa is very competitive in a lot of areas of the pitch. If the centre of their defence holds and they can find goals, they could surprise, but for now, there are too many questions and too little depth to expect too much for their debut.

If you made it to the end, thank you. It has been an unusual 2020 and The Island Games will certainly be a unique tournament, but any chance to watch young Canadians get first-team football is exciting to us, and getting a second season of CPL soccer is a bright spot and a blessing. Let’s hope the quality is good despite the congested schedule and everyone stays healthy and safe.

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