The Canadian Premier League season is upon us. With two rounds of group stage play before a final, each of the (now) eight CPL teams is guaranteed at least seven matches during the “Island Games” tournament in Charlottetown PEI - with all matches being featured on One Soccer, and with select Sunday matches on CBC.
While it’s not the full season the CPL clubs were probably hoping for, the bubble seems to be going well so far, and at the very least, this tournament gives young players a chance to showcase their talents as Canada’s domestic league continues to build it’s global profile.
That being said, let’s take a look at the teams.
For Ottawa, the biggest question so far has been depth. With the global pandemic throwing a wrench in their transfer plans, the late additions of Ben McKendry and Milovan Kapor were as much to fill out the roster as anything else.
Thirty-two year old midfielder Francisco Acuna will need to bring all of his Liga MX experience to the table, and Whitecaps prospect Gianfranco Facchineri may very well be a starter at centreback. Athletico also has a first time head coach in Mista, who briefly featured as a Toronto FC Designated Player back in 2010.
Player to watch: Former Pacific winger Ben Fisk scored 5 goals and added 2 assists in the fall portion of the season last year... can he bring that level of production for Ottawa at this tournament?
Projected Finish: 8th
After a tough 2019 campaign marred by organisational dysfunction, Valour FC also lost three of their top players this offseason in Marco Bustos, Michael Petrasso, and Louis Béland-Goyette - each to other CPL clubs.
It’s not all bad news though, as a culture change was definitely needed anyways, and the Winnipeg based club has brought in some exciting additions for 2020. Former Whitecaps Fraser Aird and Brett Levis will roam the flanks, while Impact loanee James Pantemis should be a top keeper in the CPL.
Valour’s defensive line is probably their biggest question mark, and Head Coach Rob Gale might have to get creative in the midfield to get the most out of his top players there.
Player to watch: From New Zealand by way of Norway, attacker Moses Dyer scored the game-winning goal for his country in a win over India in the 2018 Intercontinental Cup. At just 23, he’s still got room to grow, but will need to create chances and space for his Valour teammates if they have a hope of making it out of the first group stage.
Projected Finish: 7th
Connor James in goal and Amer Didic at centreback provide a very solid spine for this FC Edmonton team. Didic may very well be the best CB in the CPL, and if it wasn’t for the Whitecaps’ depth at the position, I’m certain he would've made the MLS roster this year.
Up front, all the pressure falls on Easton Ongaro. The six-foot-six goal scorer had a breakout end to his 2019 campaign, with 10 goals in 16 matches, and will have to keep up that pace for Edmonton to have success, as they lack other attacking options.
Player to watch: Midfielder Erik Zetterberg comes to Edmonton from Sweden with just eight matches in the top flight, but scouting reports are optimistic. He’ll need to play a big role in the midfield for Edmonton if they’re going to control the run of play in matches at this tournament.
Projected Finish: 6th
York Nine FC
The LA Galaxy of the CPL, York9 is a team full of boom-or-bust potential. Keeper Nathan Ingham faced an inordinate amount of shots last season, and defending will have to improve if they want to ascend to the top of the CPL table this year.
Despite these defensive struggles, York really didn’t add to their defensive depth at all this offseason, which is concerning, to say the least.
Diyaeddine Abzi remains one of the most exciting players in the league at left back, and winger Ryan Telfer will look to build on his breakout campaign from last year, despite a strange offseason which saw him briefly shipped off to Cyprus - York should be tons of fun to watch, but will they win games in this condensed format? I’m sceptical.
Player to watch: Brazilian newcomer Gabriel Vasconcelos grew up in the Corinthians Academy but has only played 11 matches since 2017 in Brazil’s second tier. Can he be a reliable frontman for York at this tournament?
Projected Finish: 5th
After shambolic goalkeeping early last year, Halifax now find themselves with a solid 1-2 punch of Jason Beaulieu and Christian Oxner, which should turn a huge weakness into a relative strength for 2020.
Bringing in Louis Beland-Goyette from Valour should do wonders for the Wanderers midfield, as LBG was consistently performing above the level of his team last year, and will have better supporting pieces around him this season.
In the wide areas, the Wanderers have added CPL-USPORTS Draft first overall pick Cory Bent from Cape Breton, as well as dynamic Jamaican international Alex Marshall.
There’s a lot of new faces on this Wanderers team, so it’s very much a question of how all the pieces fit together in order to project how they’ll finish at this Island Games tournament.
Player to watch: Likely the most proven commodity of any CPL signing this offseason, Brazilian forward João Morelli bossed the Estonian top flight in 2019 with 11 goals and 11 assists in 29 matches. If he can bring that kind of production to the CPL, he could very well be an MVP candidate.
Projected Finish: 4th
The top team during last year’s regular season, Cavalry lost some major pieces this offseason with the departures of Dominique Malonga, Julian Büscher, and Joel Waterman.
While this will certainly have some effect, Tommy Wheeldon Jr’s system should thrive regardless, although losing the home field advantage of Spruce Meadows will certainly hurt a bit. Depth is still a strength for Calgary, and it will be interesting to see if Dominick Zator starts at right back or centre back in this tournament, as Cavalry have lots of options at the back.
The only position group which feels a bit thin is the midfield, although it’s real challenge to poke holes in this Cavalry team.
Player to watch: English-Canadian youngster Elliot Simmons has made the move from Halifax to Calgary after a decent campaign last year. Nik Ledgerwood & Elijah Adekugbe, play very defined roles in the Cavalry midfield, so it will be up to Simmons to fill in the gaps and adjust to the high-press system on the fly.
Projected Finish: 3rd
Pah-Modou Kah brings a new feel to the youngest team in the CPL as the Vancouver Islanders will look to rebound from a disappointing inaugural campaign.
Marco Bustos is a huge addition no matter where he slots in the lineup, and Marcel De Jong is a sneaky addition after being injured all of last year - providing not only his play, but also leadership and on field coaching for an inexperienced squad.
Zachary Verhoeven was perhaps the most underrated player in CPL last season, and Kah’s biggest question as a coach might be how to fit all of his best players on the pitch at the same time. Could Kah go for three at the back, and will he field a single striker or a tandem up top?
Player to watch: Pacific’s marquee addition this offseason, Alejandro Díaz brings Liga MX and Mexican U-20 National Team experience to the table. How will he pair with Terran Campbell, or will he at all? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Projected Finish: 2nd
The defending champions come into this new CPL season as favourites in my eyes. Yes, they lost Tristan Borges, but other than that, their rock solid roster has remained almost entirely intact.
Forge are easily the deepest team in the CPL defensively, especially if David Edgar can stay healthy, and Kyle Bekker will continue to lead things in the midfield. Up front, if Anthony Novak can find the target more consistently this year, the rest of the league is in big trouble, and if Novak stuggles, Forge still have depth they can rely on.
I can’t see this Forge team getting bounced in either of the group stages, but in a one game final, hey, anything can happen.
Player to watch: Paolo Sabak is the Borges replacement plan. Sabak is just 21 and grew up in the Genk Academy, but has not played many meaningful minutes to date, mostly honing his craft on U-21 teams in Belgium. That being said, Genk has a history of producing top players, so hopes are very high for him long term.
Projected Finish: 1st
Rounding out my predictions for this tournament, of the top four I’ve selected for the first group stage, I’m pegging my top two seeds to advance to the finals in Pacific FC & Forge FC.
Because picking favourites is boring, and I do truly believe that Pacific has the chance to do something special in this tournament, I’m taking Pacific FC to win it all at the Island Games beating out Forge in the final, and reigning victorious as the 2020 CPL Champions. No pressure!
Oh, and if you want to get super deep in the weeds in preparation for the CPL season, check out the Third Sub podcast where myself and Alexandre Gangue-Ruzic went for 2+ hours (in two parts) previewing the CPL season.