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Football on the Atlantic Coast: A Day at the HFX Wanderers

The Wanderers reminded me why I am encouraged about the future of club football in Canada.

Trevor MacMillan

Having travelled to Nova Scotia for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be appropriate to take in an HFX Wanderers match at the Wanderers Grounds in downtown Halifax.

Admittedly, nearly all of the content on this site is focused on soccer in British Columbia, and usually, on the MLS escapades of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Yet, especially in the last couple of years, the scope of club football experiences that are available to Canadian players, coaches and supporters alike has grown significantly. It was a good opportunity to broaden my horizons.

The first thing which really stood out to me about my Wanderers experience is that I felt the presence of the team in the city days before the match actually took place. Walking around the downtown core a few days prior, there were constant nods to the team, whether it was on the sides of buses, hats, kits, advertisements in bars, or people talking about the match, it very much felt like a marquee event for the city.

The exact same could be said on match day as well. Usually, I arrive somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes before kickoff. In most venues, this affords me the opportunity to wander (no pun intended) around the venue basically undisturbed. I especially like doing this at grounds I have never visited before. Well, someone should have sent me a memo about Halifax. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised, albeit very impressed, when I saw just how many supporters were at the stadium over an hour before kickoff. My normally tranquil stadium tour was amidst a boisterous crowd. I can’t say I minded.

A big credit here goes to the Wanderers events staff, as well as the advertised “happy hour” up to 30 minutes before kickoff, which evidently motivated many supporters to arrive in good time. Regardless of whether or not you like a pint at the game, the fact that so many supporters had bought in, and were there chanting and getting excited for the match long prior to when players hit the pitch pregame made for a really special environment before the opening kickoff.

Now unfortunately, I wasn’t there on a great day for the Wanderers as far as the on-pitch performance was concerned, as the home team fell 3-0 to two-time CPL Champions Forge FC. Even though the match was a struggle for the home team, I have to say that the support throughout was fantastic, and I’m not sure I saw a single fan leaving early, even after an 80th minute red card.

I do feel a little bit better about writing this article more than a week on, following HFX’s 3-0 victory over Pacific FC on Vancouver Island this past weekend. The surprising results for Halifax the last two times out are emblematic of the league’s maturity, demonstrating a much greater level of parity amongst the top teams than we’ve seen in prior seasons.

Continuing to think back on my day at the Wanderers Grounds, a big part of what appears to make Halifax such a great market for Canada’s domestic league is that it is so accessible: approachable in terms of price and within walking distance of basically anyone who lives in the downtown core. For a league that’s been marred by COVID-shortened seasons and so many matches without fans, the bond the team has formed with the city so quickly is impressive. I think there are plenty of towns across Canada that could tap into elements of this formula.

Now, I’m not saying that the model the Wanderers have created is perfect, or easily repeatable. Halifax still has to face the issue of putting a permanent structure in at their historic location, and while discussions are ongoing, that could take some time. Equally, it is one of the biggest cities in Canada that didn’t already have an NHL or CFL team, so there was somewhat of a void to fill in that regard.

However, what I think the Wanderers have shown me is that club soccer, at a wider level than just MLS, works in Canada. Not only are we seeing that with CPL teams, but we’ve also been experiencing this in our province with the rise of League One BC. Whether it is professional or grassroots, there is undoubtedly a place and a desire for more club soccer in our communities.

Before departing the match that day, I caught up with Marcello Polisi, who is currently locking down the holding midfield role in Halifax. Marcello is a BC Native, as well as a Simon Fraser and TSS Rovers alum.

As someone who has recently made the jump from university to the pro game, I wanted to know the biggest thing that stood out to him about the jump to the next level:

“You have to be switched on at all times, you can’t take a minute off, you have to be going at 100% constantly.” Marcello said. “You need to find that consistency. To me, that’s the biggest difference between the university game and the professional game, if you’re not consistent day in day out you’ll be out of the lineup.”

After 17 appearances and just over 1000 minutes for Halifax in year one of his pro journey, Marcello has been in the process of finding that consistency in year two. He’s been gradually returning from injury and building up to match fitness, logging his first two 90 minute performances in his last two matches.

I also asked Marcello how closely he’s been following some of his friends and former teammates in League One BC, and what he thinks it can do for the growth of the game in the province:

“I’ve been following it a little bit. I have some SFU teammates that I talk to and have been asking them about it as well. I’m still following up on how the TSS Rovers are doing. I think it’s great, I think it’s exactly what BC needed. It’s a great platform for university players to make that next step.”

I left Halifax feeling incredibly encouraged about the way soccer is trending in Canada. It’s one thing for national teams to enjoy success, and there’s no doubt that plays a very large role in the way the sport is viewed in this country, but experiences like the one I enjoyed a couple of weeks ago can be just as important.

It’s remarkable to think that we are in a place where players from local academies and clubs are honing their craft at the pro level in a domestic league on the other side of the country. The recent growth of soccer in Canada is not without its flaws, but the more that communities embrace soccer at the club level across the country, the more excited I am to follow along.

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