AGR's High-Press: Introducing CPL version of Matt Doyle's MLS Armchair Analyst
After a (far too long) five-month break, the Canadian Premier League returned with a bang this past weekend.
Marked by the arrival of a new club and a new rivalry on the west coast, and punctuated with the beginning of a new era over on the east coast, there was a lot to watch out for as we kicked off the fifth season of CPL action.
Here’s a look at some key takeaways from this opening weekend, in the first installment of AGR's High Press – your weekly Canadian Premier League round-up (inspired by the impeccable Matt Doyle's Armchair Analyst series at MLSsoccer.com).
Valour impresses with new-look system 💪
Despite mounting a late push into the playoffs last year, many weren’t too high on Valour heading into this year, as they lost some huge pieces, and didn’t look to have replaced them as well as some would have hoped.
But if opening weekend is any indication, those people could end up looking really silly by the end of 2023, as head coach Phil Dos Santos had his new-look team executing their game plan to perfection on the road against York United.
Despite York "winning" the off-season with a number of big acquisitions and a strong pre-season camp, Valour ended up picking up the biggest result of the weekend, a 2-0 road victory, one that has them atop the standings after Week 1. But the result wasn't the big surprise; it was how they won. Valour didn't just hang on and try to beat York in moments, but instead took the game to their hosts – and were rewarded for it.
Armed with a new-look 4-3-3, the Winnipeg-based outfit did well to control every important facet of the game. They were solid defensively, dangerous in both transition and possession when attacking, and dominant on both sides of the ball in midfield. In particular, the return of Raphael Ohin from a torn ACL was crucial, as he paired nicely with captain Diego Gutiérrez and newcomer Dante Campbell in a fun midfield trio.
Ohin forced the own goal off Jonathan Grant that stood as the winner, while Gutiérrez probably could’ve had a goal and an assist from all of the chances that he was involved in – that’s huge, as often Valour didn’t control games in the middle in 2022, electing to be a team that tried to play very north-south in games.
Now? Valour showed an ability to play more east-west while also keeping that verticality that they're known for, something that was demonstrated to perfection on their second goal, one that finished with newcomers Pacifique Niyongabire and Anthony Novak linking up for the tally after a strong sequence of play from Valour’s midfield.
The midfield isn’t the only thing Dos Santos will be happy about, too.
His attack also looked very dangerous, with Niyongabire, in particular, looking like he could dominate the league, showing that they’ve answered some questions there. Along with some key additions at the back in Guillaume Pianelli, Abdou Samaké and Matthew Chandler, which should ease the load on Andrew Jean-Baptiste (who didn’t even play in this game!) and Rayane Yesli (who was excellent in goal once again), that was also huge, as there were some worries that they’d take a step back given some of the defensive losses they suffered.
Thanks to all of that, it led to Valour looking better than they’ve ever been under Dos Santos, who had the team playing the way he’s always said he wanted them to play, which is exactly what he’ll want to see as he enters his third season as a coach.
As for York, they’ll look to go back to the drawing board after this one. Their starting lineup, which was filled with newcomers, were simply outmatched in midfield, and the Nine Stripes also struggled to create anything down the flanks until they made subs – though they finished strong after those changes were made, which is a plus.
Plus, they’ll know that Mo Babouli won’t be kept quiet in many more games this season, especially if Osaze De Rosario starts, as Babouli struggled to get into the game until his 2022 running mate came into the game in the second half.
As Martin Nash accurately noted post-game: "We didn't start playing until they scored the two goals."
Halifax's flexibility vs. Ottawa's resilience ⚔️
Halifax was a team that struggled to score goals for most of their CPL existence, leading to the mutual parting of ways with their first head coach Stephen Hart over the offseason. But in new coach Patrice Gheisar, the former Vaughan Azzurri tactician brought a reputation for knowing how to create offence ... and bring it, he did.
We just got our first taste of what Gheisar's cooking in the Halifax kitchen, with the Wanderers looking fantastic on the road in their game in Ottawa, even if their match ended in a 1-1 draw.
Plus, they did so by trying some fun things, too, especially on the ball, doing well to put Ottawa under pressure for a lot of the game.
They may have come out in a 4-1-4-1 on paper, but it ended up being a 3-2-2-3 in possession, as right back Riley Ferrazzo tucked into a midfield role, while Massimo Ferrin and Aidan Daniels played in free roles in the attack.
Along with the play of former PSG academy product Lorenzo Callegari as the deep-lying midfielder, who controlled the play with his passing, along with a typically dominant display from captain Andre Rampersad alongside him, it made for some fun soccer across the park.
In particular, the Ferrazzo experiment was a fascinating one to watch, as he really helped his team set the tempo in this game. As a result, he finished with an impressive 80 out of 85 passes completed, had two shots, created two chances, and made a whopping 19 passes into the final third, making several penetrating passes like the one below.
Due to his movement, Ottawa just struggled to track him, and that allowed him to find spaces between lines, where he really shone. From there, that allowed him to pair nicely with Callegari, who completed 99 of 113 passes (yes, 99), while showing good flair on the ball, helping Halifax control the middle of the field.
As a result, that allowed Halifax to lead on every key metric except the scoreboard, as they outshot Ottawa (11-8), had more shots on target (4-3), out possessed them (57-43) and won the xG battle (0.87-0.52), looking every bit the aggressor in this game.
Not all was perfect, though, as their aggressive rotations on the ball left all sorts of spaces on the flanks for Ottawa whenever they broke on transition, and they struggled to turn their possession into chances at times, but everything else was exciting, and should only get better as Ghesair’s players get used to his system.
As for Ottawa, however, despite Halifax’s performance, there’s plenty for them to be happy about. They started very slowly, but did well to nab a goal before half time to cancel Halifax’s early opener, and then really grew into the game in the second half.
Plus, they showed some good growth as a team, as while they stuck to their usual game plan of wanting to defend well and then breaking in transition, they were a lot more penetrative in possession, and just overall added more directness to their possession play in the moments where they failed to break right away.
So while they’ll have wanted to grab a win at home to kick off the year, they did have some good flashes of what they’ll want to improve on, giving them something to build off of.
How Pacific earned victory over CPL's newcomers 🔱
For 80 minutes, Vancouver FC looked poised to get off to a dream start to their life in the CPL, looking like they had what it took to grab a draw, if not a win, off of Pacific FC. Looking very organized in their 4-3-3 off the ball, one that dropped into a 4-5-1 at times, while playing some direct soccer in possession they look as disciplined as you would’ve liked for a new team playing their first game as a team.
Looking very organized in midfield, despite a makeshift unit that included Kadin Chung (as the CPL embraced its inverted full back era this weekend), it was a very spirited performance from the CPL’s newest team, who looked like a team that could surprise teams this season.
Yet, thanks to a moment of magic from Manny Aparicio, Pacific got the last laugh in the CPL's first-ever all-B.C. derby, as he did well to capitalize on a rare defensive mistake from Vancouver.
(Speaking of which, we're gonna need a name for this rivalry. @ me your suggestions.)
Having done well to stretch Vancouver’s backline by offering a bit more wide threat thanks to substitutions Ayman Sellouf and Kunle Dada-Luke, it was a well-deserved goal from Pacific, too, as they did well to open up more space for themselves with their changes.
As a result, look for Pacific to try and lean more into their dangerous wide threat earlier in games, embracing the verticality that it can bring, as it could be crucial towards opening up more space for their midfielders going forward.
Meanwhile, for Vancouver, they’ll just look to use this game to grow in confidence, as when they played their style of play, as they did for a twenty-minute spell in the second half, they really put Pacific under a lot of pressure, which isn’t easy to do, showing the glimpses of what Afshin Ghotbi’s team could be all about when everything ends up clicking.
"I see this game and have more belief and faith that this team is going to be there at the end of the season, fighting for the championship," Ghotbi noted afterwards. "You see how competitive we were today."
(Another) CanPL stunner re-ignites CPL's best rivalry 🔥
It was a typical Forge and Cavalry matchup on Saturday - lead changes, a couple of skirmishes, a screamer and a tactical battle for the ages between Bobby Smyrinitois and Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
For Cavalry, it was a good road point, although they’ll feel hard done by for relinquishing a 2-1 lead, as they did well to threaten Forge with their ability to defend tightly, be flexible in possession, and direct whenever the opportunity presented itself.
It’s a style that suits their players, too, especially their front four of Mikaël Cantave, Ali Musse, Joe Mason and Myer Bevan, so look for more of that from Cavalry going forward, as getting that quartet going will be crucial for them.
As for Forge, it was a lot more of the same from Smyrniotis, as his team built out nicely from the back, had a lot of control in midfield, and used movement from their flexible frontline to create space.
Plus, they discovered that they’ve got quite the weapon in possession when it comes to Manjrekar James, as the veteran Canadian’s passing range ended up destabilizing Cavalry’s defensive lines on more than one occasion. Safe to say, that’s something to keep an eye on going forward.
Player of the matchday ✨: Pacifique Niyongabire
A constant threat down the flank all game for Valour, as he showed no fear in running at York’s defenders, Niyongabire had the CPL debut to remember for his new club. His stat line backs it up, too, as he had one assist, one shot and six chances created, to go along with four dribbles.
If he can keep playing like that, Valour will not have to worry about the departure of Sean Rea, let’s just say that.
#CanPL. Bangers. Only. (Of the Week) 🚀: Mikaël Cantave
It wouldn’t be a CPL matchday these days without a screamer, so credit goes to Cantave for keeping that tradition going in week one.
Despite being closer to the half line than the goal, the Cavalry winger decided to have a shot from distance, and he caught it perfectly, hitting a shot that Forge’s Triston Henry ended up knowing nothing about as it sailed into the top corner.
You gotta see this: Manny Aparicio's celebration 🤫
It’s one thing to score a beauty of a goal to win a game. But then to set the first battle lines in a brand-new derby?
Safe to say Manny Aparicio’s BC Derby-winning strike wasn’t just great for how nice of a goal it was, but his celebration, which saw him run up to Vancouver’s away support and shush them.
Especially when you hear him describe why he did it post-game, saying that he saw black and red and just let loose, is the exact sort of thing you want to hear from someone after the first game of a rivalry that many will be keeping a close eye on going forward.
“As I shot, I kind of stepped to my left,” Aparicio explained. “Then I started running that way, I looked up, I saw the red and black, and I was like, yeah, I *have* to do something.”
GOL 🔱— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 16, 2023
MANNY APARICIO ES UN CRACK 🤫@PacificFCCPL go up 1-0 over @VanFootballClub in the final stanza of this #CanPL derby courtesy of the midfield maestro 🍁
81' | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/LG5cy0fpQJ
Power Rankings 📊
What I’m watching next week 👀
Forge FC vs Halifax Wanderers
This was a toss-up between Valour and Halifax’s next games, as they both impressed a lot in their opening matches, but given that Halifax visits the defending champions on the road, while Valour gets to host Ottawa, Forge vs Halifax gets the nod for the game I’ll be keeping a close eye on.
There, it’ll be interesting to see if Halifax can really impose Gheisar-ball on the game, as Forge loves to set the tempo in matches, and are always keen to expose some weaknesses, something that they’ll look to do based on what they saw from them this week.
Because of that, it’ll make it tough for Gheisar’s side to repeat what they showed in this match, which if they do, would certainly prove that this Wanderers team might be worth watching in 2023, as not many teams end up controlling matches against Forge, especially not in the way Halifax will look to do so.