5 things we learned in the Canadian Premier League's 5th season
Year 5 of the CPL ended with a bang this past weekend, as Forge defeated Cavalry 2-1 at Tim Hortons Field to win their fourth playoff title in five years.
A final to remember, one that featured three bangers, all in extra time, it was a fitting end to the season, arguably the best one to date.
Yet, it’s a sign of the progress that the league continues to make, both in terms of the product on the pitch, as well as the growth off of it.
From an increase in talent, bigger crowds and more, there was a lot to remember both on and off the field in 2023.
⚒️⚒️GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 29, 2023
Say it again, folks: #CanPL. FINAL. BANGERS. ONLY!@ForgeFCHamilton takes the lead deep into extra time, as Tristan Borges scores an Olimpico to make it 2-1
Heading into year six, that’s exciting, as that growth doesn’t look like slowing down anytime soon, either, with this seeming like just the start of what’s to come in year six and beyond.
Before looking forward to that sixth campaign, however, here’s a look back at five things that stood out from this special fifth CPL season, one that certainly lived up to the hype.
New playoff format yields immediate value:
Heading into the season, the CPL announced a surprising change shortly before the first kick - they’d be tweaking their playoff format.
A fifth straight season in which they changed the format, it was a huge surprise, especially given that the format for the fourth season worked quite well, with the top four teams making it, with it being two-legged semi-finals and a single-legged final.
Despite that, the format was completely changed ahead of this season, as they instead decided to employ a brand-new page playoff system used in curling, one that was weighted based on where teams finished, while adding a fifth team.
Both moves led to a lot of frustration, as many felt that letting over 50% of the teams in an eight-team league into the playoffs was a lot, while the page playoff was seen as a far too radical shift from a traditional format that didn’t seem to have any warts.
But while there was strong initial opposition to the change, the tweaks ended up catching a lot of doubters by surprise, as they had a pretty noticeable impact on the season, in a positive sense.
To begin, there was the value it provided to the regular season, given that every spot in the table meant something. For example, if you finished first, you got a trophy, a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup, a bye to the first semi-final, a chance to host the final and a second shot at a semi-final if you lose that first semi, whereas the fifth place team had to beat the four teams in front of them, all on the road, to win a playoff title.
Of course, the old format offered a similar weighting from top-to-bottom - but the big benefit of this new format ended up being for teams in 2nd, 3rd and 4th place, as there was a noticeable difference between finishing in those spots now.
For example, Pacific falling to fourth ended up hurting their chance at winning a North Star Cup quite significantly, while the top two teams in Cavalry and Forge ended up taking advantage of where they finished to make the final.
And, most importantly, the regular season ended up mattering right until the final weekend, too, where postseason qualification, playoff seeding and more were still in play, leaving plenty for teams to jostle for.
That’s key, as while the playoffs were exciting, they were always going to be that way, as knockout soccer is rarely boring. But as seen across North American sports, an overemphasis on the playoffs can sometimes devalue the regular season, something that this new format did the exact opposite of.
All of a sudden, that gives the CPL a nice balance between still making the regular season important as it is in Europe, but also still leaning into the playoff culture of North America, something that paid off quite nicely in the end, and will provide them something to build off.
(Provided that they don’t change the format for a sixth straight year, that is.)
Forge and Cavalry continue to set the pace:
Right from year one of the CPL, Forge and Cavalry have been important standard-bearers for the league, emerging as the two best teams.
Backed by two coaches in Forge’s Bobby Smyrniotis and Cavalry’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr who were quite familiar with the Canadian system, as well as two crucial developmental clubs in the Calgary Foothills and Sigma FC, that gave them a big leg up heading into that first year.
As a result, they ran away with the league, which led to Cavalry winning the regular season, while Forge claimed the first playoff title.
And since then, they’ve done well to keep up their standards, too, with Cavalry remaining a team to beat in the regular season, while Forge has continued to be a dominant force when it comes to the playoffs.
Plus, Smyrniotis and Wheeldon Jr haven’t slowed down, either. The lone two remaining coaches from the 2019 CPL season, they showed that they’re still standard-bearers this season, as Cavalry and Forge finished #1 and #2 in the standings, before meeting again in the final.
Therefore, heading into next season, it feels like if any team is to challenge for silverware, the road still goes through Calgary and Hamilton.
Pacific were able to do it in 2021, beating both teams to win the only playoff title that Forge didn’t win, while Ottawa did it last year, claiming the regular season title, but other than that, everything else has been either won by Forge (four playoff titles and one regular season title) or Cavalry (two regular season titles).
It feels like teams are closer than ever to pushing both teams from their perch - Pacific has finished in the top four in four straight years, the Halifax Wanderers made great strides this year, while York United and Atlético Ottawa have pushed, but there’s still work to do.
But seeing how dominant Cavalry was in the regular season, and how ruthless Forge was in the playoffs, they’ll look to keep up that dominance next season, especially with both teams now getting to step into the Concacaf Champions Cup, which will only help them grow further.
As long as Smyrniotis and Wheeldon Jr are still coaching those respective teams, they will continue to set the standard, and now it’s up to the others to match and better that next season, if not similar results could occur in 2024.
What happened to the strikers?
Through its first four years, the CPL hasn’t been exactly a ‘strikers-friendly’ league.
That’s not been a bad thing, as good defending, a calendar where you play teams four times a year and balanced rosters have contributed to that.
What that’s meant, however, is that there haven’t been many gaudy goal totals through the first four seasons. Tristan Borges was able to win the Golden Boot with 13 goals in 27 games in 2019, Akeem Garcia won it with seven in 11 in 2020, João Morelli had a record 14 in 21 in 2021, and Alejandro Díaz claimed it with just 13 in 18 last year.
Those are all respectable totals, of course, but no one has even reached 15, let alone pushed 20, which was something that felt likely to change this year.
Especially given that a pair of young strikers in Woobens Pacius and Osaze De Rosario finished with 12 apiece last year, while Sam Salter was just behind them with 11, it felt like one of the trio could push for that 15+ mark this year.
Instead, however, 11 ended up being the winning number this year, as Cavalry’s Myer Bevan and Ollie Bassett ended up splitting the award with that total.
Given that Bassett is a midfielder, that was a surprise, albeit an impressive one from him, but more of an indication of the kind of year it was for strikers.
In fact, of CPL players to score six or more goals this season, just Bevan, Pacius (10), De Rosario (6), Terran Campbell (10) and Salter (7) were strikers, as the rest were either wide players, midfielders or even centre backs (shout out to Dan Nimick). For comparison, that total was in double digits in both 2022 and 2021.
Yet, 2023 was a year of inconsistency for strikers, even those who cleared that six-goal tally, as Pacius and Salter started slowly, Bevan finished slowly, De Rosario missed decent chunks of the season, and Campbell struggled to score against anyone not named York (he hilariously scored seven of his goals against Forge’s rivals).
Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see if things will be better for strikers next year, allowing someone to finally break that 15-goal mark for the first time.
That’ll depend on a multitude of factors, to be fair, as some of the best candidates to do that might move on to other leagues (and the players to do it might not be in the league yet), but either way, no matter if it’s strikers who played in the league this year or not, they’ll want to be a bit more productive in front of goal next season.
A strong year for the centre backs:
While the strikers struggled to score, however, that meant it was a good year for defenders, who probably contributed to those woes.
In particular, it was a good year for the central defenders, as many of them shone across the league.
And they were recognized for it, even beyond the league’s Defender of the Year or people's unofficial Team of the Year, too - Dan Nimick was nominated for Player’s Player of the Year, while Daan Klomp was nominated for both the Player’s POTY and the POTY, winning the latter, while finishing in the top three in the voting for the former.
That last point is key, as Klomp also became the first defender to win the POTY award, one that had been previously won by four more attacking players, as is usually the case for that sort of award in this sport.
Yet, Klomp was just one of many centre backs who shone, with the likes of Nimick, Amer Didić, Manjrekar James and many more having big seasons.
Plus, they did it at both ends, too, helping teams with their build-up play, while serving as genuine threats on set-pieces and in other offensive situations.
As a result, they were recognized for it, and that’s important.
This isn’t the first time centre backs have thrived in the CPL - CPL exports Joel Waterman and Lukas MacNaughton are doing well in MLS, while Dominick Zator has headed to Poland and pushed himself into the Canadian Men’s National Team bubble, but it was nice to see them recognized for it.
Given how important centre backs are to teams, hopefully that continues, as a lot more of them could join the likes of Waterman, MacNaughton and Zator at higher levels, and they proved that this season.
Halifax Wanderers sets precedent for potential turnarounds:
Through their first four years of existence, it’s safe to say that the Halifax Wanderers had struggled a fair bit.
Other than a surprise run to the CPL Final in a shortened 2020 season, the Wanderers hadn’t had much joy as a team, with individual honours such as back-to-back Golden Boot wins for Akeem Garcia and João Morelli in 2020 and 2021 and a Coach of the Year nod for Stephen Hart in 2020 standing out as the lone highlights.
Given that they’d entered this year with the seventh-lowest points-per-game through the first four years of the CPL, scoring less than a goal per game across those seasons (the only team to do so) the numbers backed that up, too.
Because of that, it was not just a surprise to see them completely turn things around this year, finishing in a tie for second place in the regular season, but see them do so while scoring 39 goals, smashing their previous record of 28.
Not only that, but they played some of the most entertaining soccer in the league, too, playing a free-flowing style of play that saw them build out of the back and be ruthless in the attack, while pressing high and aggressively on defence.
Arguably, that was the most remarkable part of this turnaround from new head coach, Patrice Gheisar, though. They’re not the first team to go from a team that missed out on the playoffs by a lot one season to a contender, as Pacific, Ottawa and Valour have done that in previous years, but what stands out about Halifax’s turnaround is the way that they did it.
Unlike the other teams mentioned, who did so by focusing on more of a defensive style, the Wanderers bucked that conventional wisdom with their free-flowing style.
Given that teams usually take years to pick up those sorts of aggressive tactics, that’s a huge credit to Gheisar, who took a big risk, but one that paid off for him.
And in a sport where teams can often be quick to copy others, it provided an intriguing blueprint for those who might want to rebuild their teams. Given that the Wanderers were able to do this while not focusing on flashy names, but instead on profiles that they felt suited their new system, they were able to do this while not making too many big signings, Lorenzo Callegari aside.
That will be encouraging for a team like Valour, for example, who will need to retool their offence this season, but will probably do so while looking for value and substance over flash, meaning that they could look to follow this Halifax model of recruitment.
Plus, the Wanderers aren’t done yet, either. Given what they did in year one, they feel that chasing a double in year two isn’t that unrealistic, for example, and will look to push for that in 2024, further continuing their remarkable turnaround.