In ‘CPL Roundup’ our weekly piece looking back at the Canadian Premier League, we look at what stood out from the opening weekend of CPL action.
After a lengthy break, it was a triumphant return for the Canadian Premier League.
Nearly 280 days after Forge FC defeated the Halifax Wanderers in the 2020 CPL final, the league finally returned this weekend, as they officially began their 2021 campaign.
Unlike in 2020, though, the CPL is getting set to play a full season this year, after having played a modified 7-11 game campaign (depending on the team) as part of the ‘Island Games’ in Charlottetown, P.E.I., last season.
With a full 28 game slate awaiting once again in 2021, along with a short playoff, it’s going to be a busy summer for soccer in Canada for all 8 teams involved, who will all be vying for CPL supremacy come November.
To start out, however, before teams can dream of finally hosting games in front of fans again, they’ve all headed to Winnipeg to participate in the ‘Kickoff’, which is a bubble that will allow teams to complete the first 8 games of their season before returning to their usual stadiums for the first time since 2019.
Playing at hosts Valour’s IG Field, all 8 teams will play as many cross country games as possible in the bubble, with the goal being to limit travel for the stretch run of the year, making it easier to a gradual return to the normality of the season.
So with this, it’s just nice to finally be treated to the Canadian domestic club scene once again, and make no mistake, this first weekend was filled with plenty of good soccer action to keep an eye on.
In the first edition of ‘CPL Roundup’, a weekly look back at the last 7 days of action in the league, here’s how the action went down this past weekend, as the CPL finally made its triumphant return to action.
First act: FC Edmonton vs Atletico Ottawa
To start, a clash between two longtime rivals was the opening act of the kickoff, as FC Edmonton took on Atletico Ottawa Saturday afternoon.
For a game between the 7th and 8th placed teams last year, it was unsure what sort of game this would end up being, but to the pleasant surprise of most, this ended up being a pretty entertaining game.
On one side, you had an Ottawa team that was fresh off a 2-month preseason in Spain, where they made full use of the facilities owned by their parent club, Atletico Madrid. Along with some intriguing additions, that made them a team to watch heading into the new season, as many picked them to make a substantial improvement over their finish in 2020.
On the other side, you have an FC Edmonton side that picked up the Wooden Spoon in 2020, finishing dead-last after only picking up 1 point from 7 games at the Island Games. Because of that, a new coach in Alan Koch was brought in, along with a few new players, but despite that, folk were a lot less optimistic of their chances than they were Ottawa’s.
So for Edmonton to arguably outplay Ottawa in the first half was a big surprise, as Koch’s side quickly proved to be quite the organized unit, making it hard for their opponents to break down. Along with some solid hold-up play from Tobias Warschewski up front, the Eddies seemed on the precipice of a breakthrough, as their new German striker was the facilitator on a few good attacks.
But then, Ottawa woke up in the 2nd half. After mostly relying on some individual bursts originating from Ryan Telfer in the 1st half, they started to put Edmonton to the sword in the 2nd half, racking up the chances.
That paid off in the 82nd minute, as Ottawa Viti Martinez found some space at the edge of the box, and he made no mistake with his chance, blasting a left-footed shot into the side-netting for the winning goal.
Ultimately, there were no surprises here, as that was always going to be the predicted outcome heading into this one, but Edmonton can still hold their head up high after their performance.
Against an Ottawa team that looks to keep the ball as much as possible, for Koch’s side to hold 51.5% of the ball is a big positive, as they did their best to keep their opponents quiet for most of the game.
If they can continue to do that, keep a solid defensive shape, and get Shamit Shome and Thomas Gardner the ball more in offensive positions, there’s a foundation for success there, especially when you’ve got Amer Didic holding down things at the back, along with Warschewski and Easton Ongaro up front.
“We are incredibly proud of the group,” Koch told reporters after the game. “Obviously, if you take everything into context, as you should with life, for us to play our first game in 8 months, for our guys to go out and play like that and really show who we are as a club, we are as a city, I’m incredibly proud of the guys.”
On Ottawa’s side, they had some good bits of play from their front three of Malcolm Shaw, Telfer and Rafael Nunez, but they failed to get them the ball enough, as Martinez and fellow #8 Chris Manella only completed 43 passes between them.
Along with a quiet performance from one of their main play-driving sources in 2020, left back Vashon Neufville, Ottawa just didn’t get the sort of penetration into the final third that they would’ve liked, but with it still being early in the season, they’ll feel that can change soon.
Lastly, though, the player of the game was Ottawa’s Drew Beckie, who was a rock at the back for Ottawa, playing the full 90 and keeping the clean sheet.
If Ottawa can keep getting performances like that from him, their offence should figure itself out in due course, which should allow them to push to the level that many are expecting from them after a decent first season as an expansion side in 2020.
“We are very happy,” Ottawa’s head coach, Mista, told reporters after the game. “We are a pretty competitive team, we picked up 3 points because we did a great job defensively.”
Saturday’s second: Pacific FC vs Halifax Wanderers
Then, we were treated to a matchup between the two CPL teams the furthest away from each other geographically, and that’s between Vancouver Island’s Pacific FC and the Halifax Wanderers.
This was also the matchup between the two surprises of the ‘Island Games’, as the Wanderers famously went from 2019 Wooden Spoon winner to 2020 finalist, while Pacific joined them and usual contenders Forge and Cavalry in the final 4, picking up some big wins along the way.
Because of that, both teams headed into this year as favourites to contend for the crown in 2021, as Pacific made some big signings to go along with early MVP favourite Marco Bustos, while the Wanderers mostly kept a core that showed to be very hard to beat last year.
But despite there not being much separating the two teams on paper, Pacific ended up putting up a dominant performance, winning 2-0 in a game marked by 2 notable lightning delays.
They were the better team by every metric, keeping over 58% of the ball, and putting up 9 shots, including 4 on target, but were also dominant via the eye test, putting together some very impressive passages of play, including a really nice sequence on their opening goal from Bustos.
Along with an otherworldly strike from newcomer, former Northern Irish youth international Ollie Bassett, it allowed Pacific to cruise to an easy victory, as they put up what was arguably the most convincing performance of the weekend.
From their front three of returnees Bustos and Alejandro Diaz, plus former York midfielder Manny Aparicio, combined with some solid midfield play from Bassett, Jamar Dixon and Josh Heard, Pacific were forces in possession, making it hard for Halifax to contain them.
Considering that their solid backline of Christopher Lee, Thomas Meiller-Giguère, Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung was hardly tested, let alone Callum Irving in goal, their midfield played a big part of their success, and will be an area to monitor going forward.
And the scary thing if you’re the other 7 teams in the league? Pacific still has more depth to turn to at all of those positions, except maybe at centre back, as head coach Pah Modou-Kah has quietly built one of the deepest teams in the CPL.
“It’s been a long time since we played,” Bassett told Onesoccer. “So we wanted to get a win, and get off to a winning start, so yeah, we’re delighted with that.”
So on the other side, the Wanderers don’t have to be too worried about losing to this Pacific team in week 1, as they’ve still got a lot of growth to do themselves.
With Peter Schaale and Eriks Santos holding down the centre back position, along with Jems Greffard when he returns from international duty, they’ve got a solid defensive foundation, which should make them a team that’s hard to beat once again in 2021.
The one worry if you’re Halifax, though, is the lack of midfield creation that they saw on Saturday, as they really felt the absence of someone like Aboubacar Sissoko and Louis Beland-Goyette in midfield, having lost Sissoko to the USL, while choosing not to bring back Beland-Goyette.
That lack of replacement for either of those players has to be a worry, as Halifax has players that can do damage up front such as Cory Bent, Alex Marshall and 2020 Golden Boot winner, Akeem Garcia, but they need to get them the ball.
One name that could help them out in that regard? Former SFU midfielder Marcello Polisi, who was signed to the team just weeks before the start of the season, but having arrived late into camp, he’s still a ways off from being able to contribute, especially as he enters his first pro season.
But other than that, this Halifax team should still be a team to avoid messing around with in 2021, no matter what Pacific’s dominant display did to them.
Sunday morning: Valour FC vs Forge FC
Moving on, there was then another fascinating matchup to kick off proceedings once again on Sunday, as the hosts, Valour, took on the defending champions, Forge, in what was expected to be a lopsided matchup.
With Forge putting out what some described as the strongest lineup in CPL history, they were expected to walk over a Valour side that was decent in 2020, but just overall a cut below a team that was a penalty shootout away from making the CONCACAF Champions League last year.
So naturally, Valour rode 2 early goals to a 2-0 win, as they capitalized on a couple of surprising errors from the champions to give something for the home crowd stationed outside of the stadium to cheer about.
First, a nice Valour attack in the 6th minute forced Forge centre backs Dejan Jakovic and Daniel Krutzen to run back into a tough position, causing all sorts of confusion, leading Jakovic to foul Valour’s Austin Ricci, making for an easy penalty decision. From there, Moses Dyer stepped up to the spot for Valour and made no mistake with his penalty, putting it past Triston Henry to open the scoring.
But while that first goal would’ve had Forge’s head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis tearing his hair out, the second goal was even worse. After a poor Krutzen giveaway at the back, Ricci pounced, twisting Krutzen and Jakovic inside out before slotting home, giving Valour a 2-goal lead in the 26th minute.
From there, they were able to cruise the rest of the game, as Forge desperately chased the goals needed to get back into the game, but were faced with the great wall of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Stefan Cebara, who helped keep Forge to only 2 shots on target despite them having 8 shots and holding over 66% of possession.
So for Valour, there was a lot to like there, as they once again showed their ability to score early clutch goals that they had at the ‘Island Games’, while also adding a level of professionalism in defence that they didn’t always have last year.
They might lack a bit of depth, as they have one of the smaller rosters in the league, but if they can keep playing like that, they won’t be the easy out that many might be thinking of when they see their name on the schedule.
“We know the resources we got,” Valour head coach Rob Gale told reporters after the game. “We do the best with it, and in the room, nothing changes. We want to win back-to-back football matches, we haven’t done that yet, so this is just one game, it fuels the fire to win again.”
On Forge’s side, however, despite the shock result, there shouldn’t be too much cause for concern, as it was really only 2 individual mistakes that sunk them. Otherwise, despite not getting a full preseason due to restrictions in Ontario, they did well to hold the ball as much as they did, as rust was a big problem for them.
A few weeks from now, chances such as Chris Nanco’s curled strike that hit the bar probably goes in, and this is a whole other ballgame for the defending champions.
They do need to find a way to get their two main creative hubs, Tristan Borges and Paolo Sabak, more involved, as Sabak didn’t create a single chance despite completing 45 passes, while Borges only got 12 passes, but other than that, Forge’s build-up play did its job until the final third.
As long as they avoid any defensive calamities, they’re the early season favourites for a reason, and shouldn’t be worried about a result like this, especially considering that they failed to win both of their opening games in 2019 in 2020.
On Valour’s side, though, this win is a big one, as picking up points off of Forge could be huge in the long run, so they’ll need to bottle up the good feeling that this sort of result can bring.
The final act: York 9 vs Cavalry FC
Lastly, and most definitely not least, we had a clash between the new-old boys on the block, York United, and the ever-consistent Cavalry FC, in what was dubbed the ‘Comeon! game of the week’ by the league.
On one side, there was a York side that had undergone a significant rebuild both on and off the pitch, ditching several players and their York 9 monitor to become ‘York United’, as they looked to hit the reset button after two seasons to forget as a club.
Against a Cavalry team that has been the class of the league since the first season, at least in terms of regular-season performance, this was a good first test for this new-look York side.
And unfortunately for them, they showed that they still have some work to do, as Cavalry picked up a 2-0 lead before cruising to an eventual 2-1 victory, as York was just unable to break them down other than a wonderful Diyaeddine Abzi free-kick.
Again, much like with Forge, York hasn’t been able to train much, which for a team with significant turnover, does put them at a big disadvantage for the first few weeks, but on the other hand, they didn’t show a whole lot of new after all of the turnover they went to.
“It’s difficult,” York manager, Jimmy Brennan, told Onesoccer. “I don’t think people know our situation, I thought our fitness levels were decent today.”
They did get 10 shots, including 5 on target, which considering they only at 42% of the ball, is actually not bad, but most of those chances came via wide balls, as Cavalry’s Marco Carducci didn’t have too many shots that truly threatened him in goal.
But despite that, there is still a lot to like there if you’re York. Abzi continued to show why he’s one of the league’s best players from his left back position, while 17-year-old Lowell Wright had a very mature performance up front to kick off his 2nd pro season.
Along with an excellent performance from Chrisnovic N’Sa in midfield, who shifted up from his usual spot at right or centre back into a central area and looked no worse off for it, and it’s clear there are certainly pieces for this York team to rely upon.
Plus, considering that there are still names to work into the fold, such as internationals Alvaro Rivero and Osvaldo Ramirez, things will get better for York once they get their legs under them, so this loss against a good Cavalry side is far from the end of the world.
Shifting to Cavalry, however, and there was a lot to like from their performance, as they showed once again why they should be regarded as one of the favourites heading into this year.
They were clean, crisp and composed in possession, putting together several sequences of controlled play, just overall starving York of the ball.
Plus, they turned their possession into chances, as well, putting up 5 shots on target, including a few that threatened Nate Ingham in the York goal.
The big positive if you’re Cavalry, as well? The two best performances came from two original Cavalry players, as Jose Escalante and Sergio Camargo were electric Sunday, with Escalante setting up Camargo for Cavalry’s opener, before scoring their second himself after a poor Roger Thompson giveaway.
Along with a quietly solid shift from former Forge striker, Anthony Novak, up front, it made Cavalry hard to stop in the final third, making life tough for York all night.
There are still some questions to be had of Cavalry in midfield, as they do still lack a true #8 with Elijah Adekugbe out injured, but they showed that they’ve got a lot of quality in the final third, and have a very solid backline, paced by the additions of Daan Klompf and Daniel Kaiser.
And given that they’ve got one of the most consistent head coaches in the league, Tommy Wheeldon Jr., you’d expect any of those issues to be figured out pretty soon, as well, cementing their status as favourites.
“We’re very happy,” Escalante said to Onesocer after the game. “But we know that this game doesn’t mean everything, it’s another 3 points, and the start to a long season.”
Player of the week: Jose Escalante
Elsewhere, Escalante picks up our first nod as player of the week this season, as his goal and assist proved to be crucial for Cavalry’s big win. After missing last year due to visa issues, the 2019 Cavalry standout wasted no time getting in amongst the goals this weekend, much to the delight of fans in Calgary.
(Honourable mentions: Drew Beckie, Austin Ricci, Ollie Bassett)
Goal of the week: Ollie Bassett
Otherwise, this bending volley from Bassett is an easy pick as goal of the week, as Oxner had no chance of getting to this missile from the Northern Irish midfielder. What a way to welcome yourself to a new league from Bassett, who is quickly looking like a great addition for Pacific.
Game to watch: Cavalry FC vs Atletico Ottawa, Wednesday, June 30th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (IG Field, Winnipeg)
Lastly, our game to watch this week is the lone game between two teams that won on opening weekend, Cavalry and Ottawa, which should give us a good idea of how strong this Ottawa side actually is. Given how convincing Cavalry looked against York, and their pedigree as a top team in this league these past 2 seasons, Ottawa will look to use this game to show that they are indeed a team to watch in 2021.
PHOTO CREDIT: CPL / Robert Reyes/William Ludwick