8 reasons why CPL Year 5 was 'bloody hard,' as explained by each team's head coach
There's no doubt that the fifth season of the Canadian Premier League has been the best one yet.
The league's most competitive campaign to date produced a top-to-bottom battle across the table all the way to the final matchday, producing a thrilling playoff race that eventually saw Cavalry FC lift a new trophy as champions of the regular season. A Concacaf Champions Cup spot now secured, Cavalry enters the post-season bracket with dreams of doing the double while four other teams vye for playoff silverware.
The league's 2023 finale is entirely unpredictable, as was the season that preceded it. Beyond a format change and an influx of new stars, there was another reason for the increase in quality of competition across the board.
More than ever, teams across the CPL are showcasing a stronger understanding and appreciation of the strategic nuance of the game, and it’s having a marked impact on the product that's being put out on the field every week. Seemingly overnight, teams now boast distinct tactical identities. They use multiple formations. They have clearly-laid plans for what to do on both sides of the ball. And, most importantly, they tweak things based on their opponents. This certainly wasn't happening a few years back.
It all made for a much more entertaining league. We asked each of the coaches to weigh in on that growth. Here's what they had to share.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr: You evolve... or you die
Whether it's Pacific's fast-and-furious 2021 title charge, or Atlético Ottawa's methodical 2022 resolve, or the Halifax Wanderers' catch-em-by-surprise 2023, tactical identites in the CPL have become more varied, and it's made for a simple message to become clear to coaches across the board: Evolve, or move on.
It's why, of the seven coaches that were on the sidelines in year one, only Cavalry’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Forge’s Bobby Smyrniotis remain: They’ve adapted, while others have moved on and have been replaced by those who have been able to push that level forward.
"What this league has done to us is make us evolve," Wheeldon Jr. told OneSoccer. "I've said this time and time again: Last year, even though we were disappointed with our loss in the playoffs – as we could have ended up making the final – if we're being honest, we felt that we overachieved with the group that we had. I think this year, we've been able to get a group together and have them buy into our team focus, and we're braver in a lot of aspects.
"But what that's done for me is that as a coach, I've had to evolve. You can't be the same coach with this generation of players, as well. You've got to bring them in on the why, you've got to bring them in as part of the journey, and I think that's what these players are, they know that they’re the forefathers of the next generation, of those kids that come to our camps, the ones that sit in the stands, they know that they're paving the way for that future, and I think that's the most powerful message.
"For me, as a coach and my coaching staff, we've had to look at ourselves, and look at things that we can improve, and I think we've come on leaps and bounds as a coaching staff as well."
That willingness to be honest with themselves and grow? It yielded sweet victory and reward for Cavalry and for Wheeldon Jr.
But evolution is not easy. Glory is never promised. And, as some coaches learned in 2023, progress? It isn't linear, either.
Carlos González: Who you are is how you play
While Wheeldon Jr. and Smyrniotis continue to find success as OG CPL managers by showing their ability to adjust and evolve, those who have come in after year one have had to face the different challenge of having to come in and impose new ideas on teams.
However, bringing fresh perspectives is especially challenging in a new league where teams might not have even cultivated their club identity yet. It's a radically different process taking over a five-year-old club versus one like Dutch giants like Ajax Amsterdam who has been around for a long time and boast a very clear (and iconic) way of how they play and do their business.
Tactical and club identity is important, and it's why teams like Cavalry and Forge may have been more dangerous on day one, building off the foundation that was set by them being involved with the Calgary Foothills and Sigma FC for years prior. It's why some new managers have two roles to play: Head coach, yes... but organization manager, too.
Atlético Ottawa’s Carlos González is one such example, having done so to great success last year when he was able to lead Ottawa to a regular season title and a finals appearance after finishing last the year prior, with his ability to give his team an identity being a big reason why.
"Now, more than ever, there are games in which every detail is important," González told OneSoccer. "The evolution of the league is the appropriate one on the field. It's true that when I was analyzing games before coming here to Ottawa, I felt that the games were a little bit less organized, so I thought that playing here would be a little bit different.
"Since last season, though, and this season a little bit more, every single team is capable of closing a game, capable of playing compact, capable of being solid tactically, capable of defending high, and capable of defending low. And the moment they're in doesn't matter – teams can show different images of play, and that's a really good sign of the evolution of football in this country."
This season, González has had to head back to the drawing board as Ottawa failed to procure a post-season berth. But the lessons he'll take out of 2023 off the field could be equally as valuable as the tactical lessons learned along the way. While a failed season hurts, there's nowhere to go but up. And, as Ottawa have already proven with their zero-to-hero 2021 to 2022, this team knows how to orchestrate a turnaround.
Perhaps that's the resilient identity being cultivated here.
Ottawa is still a young outfit. Really, all eight CPL clubs are. The lessons learned – and applied – in the early years of an organization could play a massive role in its future direction. It's why you have to get it right, even if you've got to break a few eggs along the way.
It's what the league's youngest team is currently going through, too.
Afshin Ghotbi: Opposition repetition sets benchmark
While it’s always challenging to have to create an identity from the ground up, there are benefits to playing in a brand-new league.
As there are currently only eight teams in competition, the smaller size of the CPL means that everyone plays each of the other seven teams four times across the regular season to complete a 28-game schedule. Fewer teams mean coaches can gameplan much easier, which also gives you more benchmarks to use as you track your progress.
In the CPL, an expansion team like Vancouver FC have to play Cavalry and Forge four times each this season, giving them plenty of opportunities to test themselves and grow while playing the best. For Vancouver’s head coach Afshin Ghotbi – who has had the chance to coach in several leagues across the world – that's been an advantage for his team tactically, but has also been a trial for his young group to overcome.
"It's psychologically very difficult for a coach to motivate players to play a team that you've already faced three times," Ghotbi told OneSoccer. "If you've played them in a cup game or played them in in in the friendly game, then it's the fourth, fifth time in a season? That part is difficult.
"Tactically, though, I believe it becomes easier for us, because you know everything about the opponent and almost all the nuances of what those coaches think, how they organize their teams and react in different situations, as well as each player what their tendencies are, because you've seen it firsthand multiple times, both live and video. So psychologically, I’d say it’s hard, but tactically it's actually been easier."
Halifax Wanderers head coach Patrice Gheisar agreed with that assessment, but added: "I like it. I like the challenge."
"One thing that I've really started to see more... the games are all so close, and a lot of them are decided by set pieces and moments.
"So why is that? Well as you're getting closer to the playoffs, it could be that you've played a team as many as four times."
Gheisar and Ghotbi were both new faces in 2023, but while Ghotbi had the task of bringing up an infant club, Gheisar's own team went through a massive rebuild, too. His approach? It's a little ironic, actually...
Patrice Gheisar: You need a plan (and a back-up plan)
After going winless in their first eight games under their new bench boss to start the season – drawing six and losing two – the Halifax Wanderers quickly grew into a formidable team unit under Gheisar. As a result, Halifax were able to book a spot in the playoffs, and will host a playoff game at Wanderers Grounds for the first time in their history, given that they qualified in the top four.
Gheisar came into the CPL out of League1 Ontario and brought a handful of his Vaughan Azzurri players with him.
So what was the secret to his success in 2023?
"You need to keep the same basic principles, but have a flexible plan that you can alter to try and get one over your opponent," he told OneSoccer. "You want to be the same... but also be unpredictable, which is probably very ironic to say.
"Your players need to find moments to be unpredictable, but that's what makes this game amazing – the improvisation of getting the ball, and then doing a move to beat a guy and shoot. I think our recent game against Atlético Ottawa (on September 18th) may have taken a few years off my life, but I can't imagine many better games that I've seen at any level over the past few years.”
As Gheisar notes, Halifax became a team to watch because of how they were playing, as they brought an exciting brand of football all year long, but as they've gotten the chance to see each of their opponents, they know how to balance what they're good at as a team with another layer of understanding of how to use that to their advantage in games, too.
"Tactically, we need to continue keeping the same principles, but be flexible in the way we do things: Are we skipping passes, are we hitting diagonals, do we go directly behind the opponent, do we be more patient in the build-up? The game dictates that for us sometimes."
Interestingly, the unpredictability that Gheisar speaks of is also key to another important point. While coaches can be the ones to lay out a well-thought-out game plan, the players are the ones who have to execute it, while also being able to adapt on the fly based on circumstance.
So, while the improvement of coaching in the league has played a role in its tactical growth, don’t forget the role the players have played, either.
Phillip Dos Santos: Coaches coach, but players play
Let's go back to September when Valour FC defeated Atlético Ottawa 1-0.
Fresh off two tough losses at home in the seven days prior in which they were eliminated from playoff contention, Valour put on a remarkable performance despite having every reason to struggle given their elimination, fatigue, etc.
Add a tough travel schedule to the mix, and you can see why head coach Phillip Dos Santos needed to lean on the intangibles for this one.
"I am going to confess to you, we didn't have a long time to prepare the team before this game," Dos Santos said after the match. "So what I showed the guys about Ottawa was late at the hotel, as the players were recovering from a Sunday and Wednesday game in the week, and I’d felt that during the week that we had emotionally (with our playoff elimination in midweek), the guys weren't ready for a lot of X's and O's at training.
"So we had to make adjustments for the game in the way we pressed from the front, how we utilized our wide players and more.
"Now we have to keep things simple: The essence of football will always be football, and it'll always be about executing on the pitch. It's about the players being able to make the right decisions, as well as simple decisions in the right moment. But yeah, there is growth and a lot of that has to do with the quality of the people coming into the league right now."
In short: You can lay out all the plans you want, but your players have to make good decisions in the end.
Sometimes, it really is as simple as trusting that your players will step up and take charge.
James Merriman: Trust is built in difficult moments
When it comes to concepts like identity and trust, no team has leaned in more to a very specific set of parametres as Pacific FC has with their "Trust the kids" mantra. If there's a single element that Vancouver Island's pro outfit has become known for, it's giving young players opportunities to play.
And, more importantly, sticking by them through the highs and lows, too.
"Sean Young, for example, has played all of his professional minutes at Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League," Merriman told OneSoccer. "We've gotten to see him develop and grow, as he's played some matches at centre back, he's played as a no. 10, he's played as an no. 8, he's played as a no. 6. I challenge him to be a true box-to-box no. 8 here, but he also needs to stay open to being a no. 6 or a centre back, as somebody at a higher level might see that potential in him.
"Without the opportunity for young players to play, they don't get to grow, they don't get to develop as quickly, so that's the most important part of our role at Pacific – it’s to be brave and to give opportunities to young players.
"Here's another example: Emil Gazdov and Paul Amedume are finishing the season really strong for us. They’re either turning or just turned 20 years old. Without that opportunity for development, there's no growth for them. But we don't drop our standard and we don't drop our expectations."
Sometimes, the big difference between Canadian players and those in other countries hasn't been talent, but instead their tactical ability, a gap that has been exposed across international youth competitions or when Canadians move to bigger clubs abroad.
An underrated aspect of what the CPL has been able to do with some young Canadian players is to improve that side of their game, allowing them not to get left behind in that regard. Not only are they getting minutes to go out and develop their skills while trying to win in a professional environment, but they’re developing tactically, which can only help them in the long run.
"We want to win, we want to be competing for trophies and we want to be competing for championships, but with young players while playing an attacking brand of football that fans can get behind," Merriman offered.
"It's not easy what we're asking of ourselves, but that's who we are and we’re not going to change."
It's an honourable stance. It might also be stubborn. There is no one path to success... as York United hope to prove on Wednesday night.
Martin Nash: Give 'em everything you've literally got
Plan all you want. Write it down on your white board. Script the whole game in your head. Great.
Sometimes, you just need to want it more.
York United's path to the playoffs wasn't easy. Hell... it wasn't even likely.
But in a league built on parity, the margins between defeat and glory can be razor-thin. So if something isn't working?
Change it up.
Your top-scoring striker isn't scoring? Swap him out. Your winger isn't getting looks at goal? You're a CAM now. Or a right-back. Red card troubles? Next man up. Depth and an overall increase in player quality proved York United's biggest assett in 2023, often in spite of their best efforts. Throw everything against the wall. Something's bound to stick.
"Teams are now able to rotate players and interchange them a lot more than they did in the first few years," York head coach Martin Nash told OneSoccer.
"The game is evolving at a fast rate in the league, which is great to see. Some of it comes from the ability of the players coming in, and some of it comes from players growing and understanding the game better... but for our team, we had to be a bit more fluid. We had to interchange with other things. We change things depending on an opponent. That’s the big thing now: You need to be flexible."
It's counter to every other approach in the league. York doesn't have a tactical identity – not one that you can clearly identify, anyway.
But is there one outfit that teams don't want to play in the post-season more than York United?
Bobby Smyrniotis: Risk, reward, and the virtue of patience
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis has seen it all and done it all as far as the CPL is concerned. Sure, the Coach of the Year award eludes him. Yes, he hasn't technically lifted a "regular season title" yet. But with three of the last four seasons painted Forge orange by year's end, none of that really matters.
Linked to Toronto FC and the Canadian Men's National Team, Coach Bobby also has a different experience than his peers when it comes to preparing for a match-up: Other teams wake up for Forge matches.
"I'd say what we've seen mostly over the last two years, and I can only speak from my experiences in playing these teams, is that there's a lot more defensive structure in teams playing against Forge than ever before," Smyrniotis told OneSoccer. "There’s a bigger sense of wanting to wait to do things and then hit on counter-attacks.
“I’ll always say this, it’s easier to win games in the CPL by not playing football. It's easier to win games in a lot of leagues by not playing football.
"But that's the biggest thing that we've seen against us, teams are much more energetic and more engaged in their defensive structures, which makes things more difficult when you want to play on the ball, when you want to create. The toughest thing to do in football is to be on the ball a lot, be adventurous and try things. Typically, there’s more of a cautious approach to games now, but that’s been everyone over the last few weeks, including us, these games where you can't lose, the margin of error is so small. So I think that’s where things have gone, there are more stalemates, as teams are staring at each other to make sure you're not the first one to make a mistake."
It's turned the regular season into a series of chess matches. Even Cavalry's war-path to the title didn't see them blow out their opposition, winning just two games by more than two goals all season. Everyone can beat everyone else. The point gaps for playoff berths and seeding are as fine as they can be. Teams are taking every match seriously right now. If there is any rotation, it has been because of rest or merit, as using a game to rotate just to rotate poses a lot more risk than it used to (unless you're York).
The most exciting part about this season? Its final chapters have yet to be written.
The battle for the new North Star Cup marking the league's playoffs promises to be the most intense we've had yet.
One thing is for sure: The coaches won’t complain. These are the sort of games they live for. This is where it all comes together.
"It's bloody hard and it's been a hell of a ride," Wheeldon Jr. offered. "I'll reflect more on it as a neutral at the end of the season. But I’ll tell you this: Every single opponent, they’ve got good moments in different aspects, so when we look at it, we say 'If we can we hurt them, well we’ve got to do this, and if we do it, we have to be perfect in doing so.'
"What I like about teams now is that it’s a very modern and forward-thinking league... You're seeing now that teams have a formation with the ball, a formation without the ball, and some are now even going one step further and having a different formation away from home, and that gives you different things to look at. I think the set plays have also improved, and people are a little bit more clever with that.
"That’s not bad considering we've only really had five years of this league, and two of those were pandemic-impacted. It’s been exciting, but it's certainly a hard league to compete in."