It’s hard to believe, but we’re already approaching the end of the first stage in the 2020 Canadian Premier League season. Matches have been coming thick and fast for Canadian soccer fans, and the on-pitch product has rarely disappointed. More than just that, the parity throughout the league has been pleasantly surprising as well, with both Valour FC and Atletico Ottawa punching above their expected weight. A week ago, both Cavalry FC and Forge FC were sitting high and mighty atop the CPL standings, looking virtually untouchable. But with both top teams dropping matches since then, the CPL table looks wide open, as each team braces for the final push towards the second stage, and those top four spots.
With all that being said, in this piece I’m endeavouring to go around the league (from the top to the bottom of the standings), and pick one storyline which has stood out to me so far.
Forge FC (1st - 3W, 2D, 1L - 11 points)
The loss to York 9 is nothing to worry about.
Despite picking up their first loss of the Island Games, Forge is still undoubtedly the best team in this tournament, a title which has only been solidified by Cavalry’s recent struggles.
Bobby Smyrniotis is one of the best coaches in the league (if not the best), and has the most talented, deep roster in the league - that’s generally a recipe for success. It took everything going right for York 9 to produce a result, including some dubious officiating, and that’s what it feels like it’s going to take for Forge to drop another match.
Cavalry FC (2nd - 3W, 1D, 2L - 10 points)
The lack of home-field advantage is a serious concern.
After cruising at the beginning of this tournament, things are beginning to catch up with the Cavalry, and unlike Forge, it might be time to press the panic button.
Every team is going to have an off-match every once in a while, and credit the Atletico for making the most of it in their 2-0 win. But against Pacific, the Cavalry were thoroughly outclassed, and the scoreline likely flattered them at the end of the day. Cavalry hadn’t lost two consecutive matches up until this point in CPL play, and I have to think that not being able to play home matches significantly weakens what Tommy Wheeldon Jr is trying to do - or maybe the rest of the league has just finally cracked the code?
Pacific FC (3rd - 2W, 2D, 1L - 8 points)
The pre-season Pacific hype was justifiable - this team is for real.
It may have taken a few matches for the Vancouver Island team to put everything together, but boy, does Pacific look dangerous right now.
Bustos and Blasco have been very consistent, and Alejandro Díaz is starting to find his form as well. The one issue that Pacific had through the opening matches was goalkeeping, but with Callum Irving taking over between the sticks (something they probably should've done since the outset), that issue seems to have been fixed. At this point, the sky's the limit for Pacific as they face Ottawa and Edmonton in their final two matches.
York 9 FC (T4th - 1W, 4D, 0L - 7 points)
York 9 is due for a market correction.
I’m truly shocked that this is the last undefeated team in the CPL.
Sure, that counts for something, but York has made a habit of defending poorly, blowing late game leads, and overall, not inspiring much confidence with their play. There was no better example of this than their match-up against the Wanderers, in which they were up a man for 80+ minutes and still managed to concede a late goal, dropping two easy points. The victory over Forge was a coup for sure, but it also came off three set pieces, not exactly a stable format for success. Their decision day match-up with Cavalry is going to be very interesting - and will likely have a second stage spot on the line.
Valour FC (T4th - 2W, 1D, 2L - 7 points)
Valour are the feel good story of the tournament, even if they don’t make it out of the first stage.
Rob Gale’s side is a much better team than people were giving them credit for going into this tournament.
What’s perhaps the most surprising is that Valour are the third best defensive team so far in terms of expected goals against, I wouldn’t have called that one. Shaan Hundal has been a surprising stand out for the Manitoba team with two assists so far, and their Wednesday match-up against Halifax will likely be critical to see who will emerge from the first stage.
HFX Wanderers FC (6th - 1W, 3D, 1L - 6 points)
There are promising signs and a favourable schedule left for the Wanderers, but this still could go either way.
The Wanderers don’t really have any “bad” results on their resume in this tournament.
Their lone loss came against Cavalry, but that was a match they were certainly competitive in, and Cavalry was on an absolute heater at the time. With just Valour and FC Edmonton left to play, everything feels perfectly poised for HFX to rise to the occasion - and that’s what has me worried. If the Wanderers want to be considered a contender, they need to win their next two matches, but being without Joao Morelli for those two games won’t help. On a positive though, Halifax has been criminally underrated defensively in this tournament (2nd best defensive record in terms of expected goals against), and 1st overall USports pick Cory Bent has played like the top prospect he is - albeit sooner than some might have expected.
Atletico Ottawa (7th - 1W, 2D, 2L - 5 points)
You can thank Atletico for the parity in this tournament.
Going into the Island Games, I think that most expected Ottawa to struggle to be competitive. Yet even though the expansion side is currently near the bottom of the table, it hasn’t felt like they’ve been thoroughly outclassed or outmatched on many occasions.
Discipline and the ability to close matches have ailed them certainly, but every match has been competitive and entertaining (save for maybe against Valour), and beating Cavalry 2-0 blew the tournament wide open. I doubt Ottawa has the horses to get out of the first stage, but their plucky nature has gone a long way to making this tournament as exciting and unpredictable as it’s been. Midfielder Francisco Acuna has also been immense, with two goals and two assists.
FC Edmonton (8th - 0W, 1D, 4L - 1 point)
FC Edmonton just can’t catch a break.
From losing their best player in Amer Didic in their first match to untimely errors and bad bounces, everything has gone against the Eddies in PEI.
Their underlying numbers are actually pretty solid (about league average in expected goals both for and against), but they needed to be an above average defensive team if they wanted to contend in this tournament, and the frontline, led by Easton Ongaro, has sputtered to find its form.