AGR's High Press: Is it time to start worrying about Valour?
The CPL entered the second quarter of its campaign in style this past week.
A week filled with rivalries, it set the table for some intense matches, especially when considering the heightened implications of a tightened table.
Safe to say, those games delivered in that regard. The second 905 Derby between York United and Forge FC this season ended with a 94th-minute winner from York, the second all-BC CPL derby between Vancouver FC and Pacific FC ended up being a record nine-goal thriller won by Pacific, while the CPL’s “Classic” between Forge and Cavalry had a 94th-minute equalizer from Forge.
Given the significance of those matches, it was thoroughly entertaining to see those sorts of results, too, as it continues to shake up the table.
At the top, a separation is continuing to occur with the top three teams from the rest, but at the bottom, things are wide open, with just three points separating fourth and eighth.
Of course, it’s early days, so that’s expected in a sense, but with a lot more still to come from teams like Cavalry, Valour, Atlético Ottawa, Vancouver and the Halifax Wanderers, one can only imagine what could happen if either of them catches fire the same way York did over the last few weeks.
Ottawa will hope it's them after they were the only team in that pack to win this past weekend, but the big key for them will be to then follow up that victory with another one, something that’s only been done by Pacific, Forge and York so far this season.
Will that happen this upcoming week? It’s to be seen, but before looking ahead to then, here’s a look back at what stood out from this extra-busy week of CPL action, where there were five games instead of the usual four thanks to an extra midweek match last Wednesday.
What's going on with Valour?
When Valour won their opening match 2-0 away to York back in April, it seemed to set the table for big things from the Winnipeg-based outfit. Based on how dominant they looked at both ends of the pitch, they seemed poised to get off to a roaring start.
Therefore, if you were going to tell anyone that approximately two months from then that Valour would still be on the hunt for a second win of the season? No chance.
Yet, that’s a reality that has quietly crept up on Valour as of late. A few days after that York win, they were eliminated by League 1 BC’s TSS Rovers in the Canadian Championship, and since then, they’ve sported a record of 0W-6D-1L over their last seven CPL games.
Despite that run of results, however, it still feels odd to be pointing out Valour’s struggles, as they’ve continued to play well despite what their record might otherwise suggest of their performances.
Offensively, Pacifique Niyongabire and Kian Williams have remained two of the best attacking players in the league, while Anthony Novak has been a huge presence up front, when fit to start.
Then, in midfield, Valour have done well to cope with the absence of Raphael Ohin since that Rovers game, as captain Diego Gutiérrez has been immense, while Dante Campbell, Marcello Polisi and Juan Pablo Sánchez have all filled in nicely.
At the back there have been some worries, yes, especially injury-wise at centre back as Andrew-Jean Baptiste is yet to play, Matthew Chandler looks to be out for the season, Guillaume Pianelli has been injured and Abdou Samaké battled knocks, but Valour has done well to battle through that.
League 1 Ontario signee, Klaidi Cela, has filled in nicely at the back, while Rayane Yesli has been playing like one of the top goalkeepers in the league, which along with the emergence of Matteo de Brienne and Andy Baquero as top full backs, has helped Valour not struggle too much defensively.
Plus, they’ve seemed to really buy into head coach Phil Dos Santos’s system, playing an organized, fluid brand of soccer, able to make things happen on both sides of the ball. You add in that they're running away with the required amount of U21 minutes, too?
Therefore, seeing all of that, the big question looms - what’s been holding them back over this stretch?
When peeling back the hood at their underlying numbers, however, the answer becomes a bit more clear - a lack of goals.
Ultimately, their Expected Goals (xG) numbers actually suggest that Valour’s a pretty consistent side - they’ve generated 9.69 xG and have conceded 9.99 xG in eight games, which suggests that they’re about an average team in both categories. And given that those numbers have them fifth in the CPL in each category, that’s a fair assessment.
The big difference, however, is that despite not being the most airtight defensively (with their injuries understandably playing a big role), they’re benefitting from a key factor - the Rayane Yesli effect.
Quietly, the 23-year-old is proving that his strong run at the end of last season is no fluke. After allowing just eight goals on 10.45 in Expected conceded goals in 883 minutes of CPL play in 2022, he’s only allowed seven goals on 7.99 xCG this season (which is how Valour have only conceded a league-low seven goals despite facing that 9.99 xG).
Given that he’s now maintained those numbers over a period of over 15 games across two different campaigns, it’s safe to say that he’s established himself as a very good CPL goalkeeper.
Especially now that he’s maintained his form despite Valour’s injuries, as there could’ve been the argument that he was benefitting from their strong centre back groups before, he’s put that discussion to rest.
Yet, while Yesli is making a big difference in goal, Valour isn’t getting the same production up front, and that’s been what’s holding them back.
They’re not underperforming horribly, as eight goals on 9.69 xG isn’t a terrible return, but that’s still nearly two goals less than what they could have. Given their six draws, and that their one loss was only by one goal, two more goals could be worth three to six points alone.
Then, if they can find a way to take another step on top of that… then they’ll be flying.
Therefore, keep an eye on Anthony Novak. The former Forge and Cavalry attacker has actually been very good for Valour, as his hold-up play has complemented Williams and Niyongabire nicely, but given that he’s only got one goal despite 2.09 xG, he’s due for a goal outburst soon.
That much has been clear when watching him lately, as he probably could’ve had one in their last game, a 1-1 draw against York, and could’ve arguably had a hat trick with a bit more luck in a 0-0 draw the week prior against Vancouver FC.
If they can get him going, it’d be huge for Valour. Given their strong midfield and defence (when healthy), along with the play of Yesli, this isn’t a team that gives a lot away cheaply, as indicated by the defensive record.
The difference between them going on the run they’ve been on as of late and a winning run, however, will come offensively, and so far, that hasn’t been falling for them since that opening day win.
GOAL 🎖️@ValourFootball find an equalizer vs. @YorkUtdFC as Matteo De Brienne runs into acres of space and stuns the 'keeper with a long-range drive 🎯#CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/LzCjZlq8YE— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 4, 2023
To end off on a good note, though, there’s a lot to be encouraged by in that York game (which on a pretty cool sidenote, was the 400th game in CPL history).
They did actually have a rare underperformance defensively as York scored one goal despite generating just 0.32 xG from five shots, coming from a Mo Babouli effort that Valour’s defence will want back, but they were flying at the other end to make up for it.
Finishing with 2.19 xG on 18 shots, they had three big chances, including a pair of wide-open looks around the six-yard box that they should’ve put away, doing everything but score on the day. Instead, a late Matteo de Brienne right-footed wondergoal would be the only way they’d breach the target, in what was absolutely a missed opportunity for them to beat a tired York side.
They do that in most other games, and they win, so they’ll need to find a way to maintain that sort of level. If they do, it should lead to a due reward for how they’ve been playing, especially in midfield and in goal, instead of letting those performances go to waste.
Pacific can’t stop scoring goals
At this point, the goals are falling out of the sky for Pacific right now.
Thanks to their six-goal outburst against Vancouver FC at Langley’s Willoughby Community Park last week, they’ve now scored a whopping 16 of them in their last five league games, and now lead the league in goals for by seven goals (and have a game in hand on second-place Forge).
That’s just a credit to their deep attack, however. Not only do they have all of those goals, but they’ve come from nine different players, too, as they’ve done well to spread the goal contributions around.
With three players in the top five goalscorers in the golden boot race, and six players who have scored more than one league goal (no one has more than three), they’ve been truly relying on everyone across their lineup to chip in offensively.
Throughout all of that, credit has to be given to head coach James Merriman, as how he’s managed the group has been spot on.
Sometimes, too much depth can be more of a curse than a blessing. When you’ve got good players, they want to play, and can often get unhappy if they aren’t.
Therefore, when you’ve got a deep team, it’s imperative that you manage those minutes incredibly carefully, while making sure to reward good performances when they arise.
So far, Merriman has done a strong job in striking that balance, and this Vancouver game is a prime example of that.
There, Pacific saw a pretty solid showing from their starters, especially offensively, as they applied the pressure on Vancouver right from minute one. They had a few defensive lapses, which is why they reached half time tied at 2-2 instead of being up by a goal or two, but it was overall a decent start to the game for their starters.
Then, they slowed down in the second half, leading Merriman to turn towards his bench, bringing in Ayman Sellouf in the 59th minute.
Already one of the league’s best attackers, he’d started on the bench in favour of Djenairo Daniels, who was selected to help Pacific’s pressure from the front, off of the back of a good run of performances himself.
Yet, instead of sulking about being dropped, Sellouf used it as an opportunity. In just 31 minutes on the field, he nabbed a goal, one assist and won a penalty, completely turning the game on its head after his insertion.
He wasn’t the only sub to make an impact, either - Easton Ongaro nabbed what stood as the winner, while Steffen Yeates (one assist) and Kekuta Manneh (one goal) also chipped in with contributions.
Safe to say, it was everything that Pacific would’ve wanted to see from them, as every player truly played a role in the victory.
GOAL 🔱🔱🔱🔱🔱🔱#CanPL BANGERS ONLY? 👀@PacificFCCPL go up 6-3 in this 9-goal B.C. Bash thriller vs. @VanFootballClub as Kekuta Manneh smashes the crossbar to finish off a 10-pass sequence in style 🤯— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 3, 2023
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/3vomKBB2nQ
Urged on by the power of competition, it’s pushing everyone on this Pacific side right now, knowing that competition for spots is tight. Whether you start or not, you can play a role, and can push into the starting group if you take your chances.
And as shown with Pacific’s performances as of late, it’s working, which given the quality of their depth, has been a huge asset for the Tridents.
If they can keep that up as the season wears on and teams get tired, watch out, because that depth will only grow as an asset if managed properly.
“We know we have that, it gives confidence to the group,” Merriman said after the Vancouver match. “It’s also extremely competitive in training, and it’s competitive with players taking opportunities in games, whether they start or come into games.”
“And I think if you want to challenge and be there at the end of the season, that’s the type of squad that you need, and that’s what you need the training environment to look like. So we’re where we want to be, and we need to keep managing the group, and the group needs to keep competing like this.
Forge’s setback worth worrying about?
It feels unfair to call it a setback, as Forge still sits first in the CPL as of writing, although they have played one game more than second-place Pacific. Despite that, it’s no doubt that it’s been a quieter four-game stretch than Forge would’ve liked - one win, two draws and one loss in their last four after they went on a three-game winning streak just before that.
Not only that, but they’ve hardly looked like the Forge many are used to seeing, either. In their draws, which came against Vancouver and Cavalry, they struggled to influence the game in the final third, getting shut out by Vancouver, and only breaching Cavalry’s goal in the 94th minute.
Then, in their loss, a 2-1 derby defeat to York at home, they had to play most of that game on the back foot, and uncharacteristically fell asleep at the wrong moment on Brem Soumaoro’s 94th-minute winner.
Heck, even their win, a 1-0 victory over Ottawa, wasn’t as convincing, as it required a superhuman game from Triston Henry and a timely goal from Forge’s Mr.Clutch David Choinière to see that one over the line.
To be fair, there’s a big reason for these struggles, as their run to the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship took a lot out of the squad thanks to draining games against Ottawa in the quarter-finals and then CF Montréal in the semi-finals, but that should theoretically be no problem for them as they’re probably the deepest team in the league (although Pacific has been giving them a run in that regard).
Of course, it could be worth wondering if all of the extra games Forge played due to Concacaf League and Concacaf Champions League exploits over the past few years is catching up to them, and given that they’ve retained a lot of players from those runs, that’s a valid claim.
Usually, that sort of fatigue can manifest itself at a period like this one, where the games start to come fast and thick, which could explain Forge’s minor blip.
Therefore, keep an eye on where they go from here. They’re in a very good position, no doubt, and should be in the hunt for a regular-season crown all year long.
GOAL 🔨@ForgeFCHamilton get the late goal AGAIN 🤯— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 3, 2023
A 94th-minute goal by Jordan Hamilton punishes @CPLCavalryFC late, as Forge come back with a vengeance to secure a point 🔥#CanPL POST-GAME SHOW up next
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/y23JxGzUYv
You add in that they’ve got the second-best offence and defence in the league, and are second in xG for and first in xG against, they’re doing a lot of the right things now.
Really, the biggest surprise from this blip has been a lack of execution in key areas, especially offensively. Ottawa game aside, a lack of clinical finishing has arguably been the biggest difference between them getting 12 points from this recent four-game stretch and getting five as they have.
Usually, that’s not something we see from Forge, who are typically a lot more ruthless in those key moments, hence the question about potential fatigue after coming up short in their goal of winning the Canadian Championship.
Knowing Bobby Smyrniotis and his side, however, they’ll recognize that, and will look to change things as quickly as possible, putting this sentiment of fatigue behind them as they look to get back on track towards that next goal, which is claiming the regular season title.
Alex's notepad: Quick thoughts around the CPL
- Four points in two road games against two of the best home teams in the league is a pretty good way to cap a strong week for York United, who continued their recent climb up the table in style. They were perhaps a bit fortunate to get a point against Valour, but were full value for their win over Forge, especially in their play on the ball. Plus, with more players getting fully healthy, such as Mo Babouli, Roger Thomspon and Michael Petrasso, it’s given them some much-needed depth to handle a week like the one that they just had. You add in Brem Soumaoro putting in some immense performances in midfield, Paris Gee adjusting nicely to playing centre back and Clément Bayiha starting to find his feet in the league, and there’s a nice recipe brewing there. Especially when you realize that Brian Wright and Osaze De Rosario's first goal watch is still on.
- Also, is this not the most professional of professional fouls from Paris Gee? He knew that he had to stop a transition moment, and made the most of it, and credit can only be given to him for that.
- Cavalry continues to struggle to hold onto leads, as they dropped a 1-0 lead that they got in the ninth minute late in their big matchup against Forge. Their seventh lead they’ve let evaporate in eight matches, they’ve now dropped 12 points from winning positions this season. Considering they sit in fourth place with nine points, just seven points behind first place Forge (who they have a game in hand on and dropped four of those points against), one can only wonder what those wins could’ve done for them. In better news, however, it’s worth highlighting that Cavalry did look a lot better in the back three once again, and that Ali Musse is continuing to play like a league MVP candidate every game, which is good to see.
GOAL 🐎@CPLCavalryFC OPEN THE SCORING 🔥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 3, 2023
Ali Musse goes for power and finesse on the end of a cross and beats the @ForgeFCHamilton 'keeper to give his team an early lead 😎#CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/7dxVGBjcu6
- Ollie Bassett can’t stop scoring big goals, as he scored his second game-winning goal of the season for Atletico Ottawa in a big victory for them. It wasn’t Ottawa’s prettiest performance, and could’ve easily gone south if not for an enormous Sean Melvin save in the second half, but they did what they needed to do in order to get a massive home win after drawing one and losing three of their four prior home matches this season.
- Speaking of that Melvin save, is this not one of the best free-kick routines you’ve ever seen, courtesy of the Halifax Wanderers?
The @AllstateCanada Save of the Match goes to @atletiOttawa's Sean Melvin for displaying extraordinary reflexes, managing to deflect Rampersad's shot right in front of the net, denying a crucial scoring opportunity for @HFXWanderersF 🧤 #CanPL | 📺 @onesoccer pic.twitter.com/juDxOP43Fg— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) June 4, 2023
- It was a night to forget for Vancouver FC, who have now conceded 12 goals in just four home games, and are yet to win at home. On the road, they’ve put up some excellent performances, but it’s yet to translate into a home victory, which has to be frustrating for them. The good news is that their offence took a big step forward, with the return of Gabriel Bitar, the emergence of TJ Tahid and the continued strong performances of Shaan Hundal all offering promise. If they can keep things tight defensively, and start to control more games in midfield, there is a path forward for them.
Player of the Matchday: Matteo de Brienne
Continuing to adapt to his new role as an out-and-out left back after playing higher up the field for most of his career, Matteo de Brienne’s performances have been growing each week, and he had the best of the lot against York this past weekend.
He was a menace defensively, making some enormous tackles, and was pretty good in his possession play, also generating some chances for his teammates.
Along with a wondergoal on his weaker right foot to help his team etch out a point, it doesn’t get much better than that for a full back, as the 21-year-old continues to stake out an early lead in the U21 Canadian Player of the Year award race.
Goal of the Week: Brem Soumaoro
#CANPL BANGERS ONLY 🚀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 1, 2023
Take a bow, Brem Soumaoro 😎
The @YorkUtdFC man single-handedly defeats @ForgeFCHamilton in the 94th minute with a STUNNER from long range 🤯#CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/1tHNaLW0G2
It’s hard to pick just one thing that’s great about this goal.
The power on the shot? The distance? The confidence to line up a hit from there in the 94th minute of a derby game you’re tied in?
No matter how you look at it, this goal from Brem Soumaoro is special, and an early candidate for goal of the year, and for good reason, as he helped York continue their recent surge with this big tally.
You gotta see this: TJ Tahid makes history
GOAL 🦅🦅— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 3, 2023
T.J. Tahid, take a bow! 😎
The 16-year-old scores a late equalizer for @VanFootballClub vs. @PacificFCCPL and the B.C. BASH (h/t @jwilsonxviii) is all level at HT #CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/SbCcMwBHVy
It wasn’t just a historic night in Langley because of the sheer number of goals between Vancouver and Pacific, but also thanks to one of the goalscorers, too.
That, of course, is the 16-year-old TJ Tahid, who after already becoming the youngest player in CPL history to sign a contract and then make his debut, became the youngest player in league history to score a goal.
What a goal it was, too, as he ran right at a solid Pacific defence before picking out a wonderful curled effort.
Despite having less than a handful of pro games under his belt, it shows his quickly-growing confidence, and why he’s a player to watch for Vancouver going forward.
What I'm watching this week: Forge vs Pacific
It’s a big week in the race towards the top in the CPL, as first-place hosts second-place Pacific in a tectonic clash.
With just one point separating both sides (although Pacific has a game in hand), whoever wins this game could stake out a key advantage in this race for a regular season title, while a draw definitely favours Pacific given that they’re on the road and have that extra game.
Plus, given both teams' depth, this should be a fascinating tactical battle, as both coaches will have no shortage of possibilities to surprise the other tactically.
Might Pacific try to sit back and hit on the counter after struggling to break down Forge in their first meeting of the year, a 1-0 Forge road win? Will Forge play a bit more offensively after their recent finishing struggles? Who wins an extremely loaded midfield battle?
Those are but a few of the many questions that can be asked tactically of this game, which is why you’ll not want to miss this when both teams take the field on Saturday, June 10th.