AGR's HIGH PRESS: Ottawa returns to form as summer signings make big splash in CPL
The second half of the CPL season officially began this past weekend, kicking off what will be a furious push toward the playoffs for all eight teams in the league.
That much is clear after a few intriguing developments occurred this weekend: Pacific's hold on the top doesn't appear to be as secure as it looked just weeks ago, while two new teams have thrown themselves back into the mix in Cavalry and Ottawa, the lone teams to win this weekend.
Yet, that's a reminder of why these next 13 games will be so fascinating to keep an eye on. With just 13 points separating first and eighth place as of writing, lots of movement could still occur in the table, with several six-point games still on tap over the next few months.
Especially as a busy summer transfer window continues, with teams not shying away from upgrading their rosters to aid any potential playoff push, that much is a guarantee, really.
On that note, however, here's a look back at this most recent weekend of CPL action, plus some transfer talk, in Week 14 of High Press.
No messing around in summer window
Speaking of transfers, that's a good spot to lead off this week's round-up, as it continued to be a busy week for signings across the CPL.
Now, quietly, six out of eight teams have quietly made key additions to their squad, with only Pacific and Forge yet to make a move, although that’s not surprising given that they had two of the deepest teams in the league heading into the campaign.
⚓ SIGNING: Doneil Henry is a Wanderer! 💎— Halifax Wanderers FC (@HFXWanderersFC) July 18, 2023
We've signed the Canadian national team defender on a deal through the 2023 CPL season with an option for 2024 ✍
Welcome to Halifax, Doneil 👊
Details 🔽🔽🔽#TogetherFromAways #COYW
That's key, as it shows that teams are really pushing to make the playoffs, as well as for first place in the league, perhaps motivated by the incentives that those now bring.
Before, it was “North Star Shield or bust” for teams, but between a trophy, prize money and a Concacaf Champions Cup spot for the regular season winner, the North Star Shield, a Concacaf Champions Cup spot for the playoff winner, and the benefit of finishing higher up the table for a team's playoff hopes (+ home playoff games), those incentives have clearly played a role for teams to want to expand their horizons.
In particular, the new playoff format has certainly made the regular season a lot more competitive, achieving the main goal of its controversial creation.
That's been clear in how tight the playoff race has been through the first 14 matchdays of the season, and this transfer window is only further highlighting that.
Just look at the list of arrivals from those five teams, giving an idea of the sort of talent they're pursuing, too.
- Maël Henry, William Akio → Cavalry
- Mikaël Cantave, Alejandro Díaz, Renan Garcia → Vancouver
- Doneil Henry → Halifax
- Alberto Zapater, Rubén Del Campo → Ottawa
- Carson Buschman-Dormond → York
- Ahinga Selemani → Valour
From established CPL players getting fresh starts (Cantave), youngsters getting new opportunities (M. Henry, Bushman-Dormond), previous CPL standouts returning to the league (Díaz, Akio), veterans bringing experience (Garcia, Zapater), players filling key needs (Del Campo) and the arrival of a key Canadian international (D. Henry), that's a pretty impressive list.
Especially as the CPL continues to stake out its reputation as a selling league, it's important that it also retains and attracts talent, allowing the circuit to not be hit hard by key departures.
And that's arguably the biggest thing about these moves, as it shows the continued growth of the league compared to last year.
There, a lot of teams got rocked by the summer transfer window, as York lost a few key pieces in Lowell Wright and Diyaeddine Abzi, Cavalry lost Victor Loturi and Aribim Pepple, Valour lost Akio and Pacific lost Díaz.
Good moves for the league as a whole, they ended up hurting those respective teams, with Cavalry and Pacific, in particular, suffering the most in their quests toward winning the North Star Shield.
With these arrivals, however, it helps build a safeguard against that. Especially the signings that are 23 or older on teams that are a bit younger, as those are key in that process.
Why, one might ask? Well, the big reason is that young talent will continue to be sold - that's clear, shown through the likes of Sean Young and Matteo de Brienne attracting interest from MLS clubs already this season, with many others likely to join them.
By bringing in some more veteran talent, however, it will help teams build up their teams with players who will stay and improve the overall level of the league, as well as with their depth, helping them deal with those sorts of departures when they do come around.
Then, teams can also continue to develop their tactical identities by building a core group of players on teams, making it easier to plug in replacements when departures occur, instead of being shaken when one key foundational piece departs.
Of course, these moves don't change the short-term pain teams will feel when selling young talent - those moves will always hurt. But as seen across the world, being a selling club and league can be maintained, and having a strong foundation helps with that.
That's what these sorts of moves bring and continue to add, highlighting their importance.
So while a signing like Doneil Henry will be huge for the Halifax backline today, especially given how motivated he is to find his feet after a few injury-filled campaigns, don't sleep on the importance that his arrival will also bring for the likes of Daniel Nimick, Cristian Campagna and Cale Loughrey in the future, too.
By playing alongside Henry, they'll only continue to progress as players, and then if they're sold on, that'll just open up another opportunity for another player to step right up alongside Henry, and then the cycle begins.
That's the formula that Forge, Pacific and Cavalry have nailed by maintaining an identity and retaining core pieces such as Kyle Bekker, Manny Aparicio and Marco Carducci, as an example.
Three teams who have done well to consistently move players on to the next level, while also remaining competitive in league play despite that, show that it's possible to maintain that sort of cycle and be competitive in a selling league.
So now, it's exciting to see that teams across the CPL are looking to follow in their footsteps, which should only improve the level of the league long-term, which is what makes these signings so exciting.
Is Ottawa returning to 2022 form?
In terms of weeks, it's hard to do much better than what Ottawa did in an eight-day stretch from July 9th to July 16th.
Entering that week, they were sitting near the bottom of the table with 12 points, with a record of 3W-3D-6L.
Yet, over 10 days on, they now sit up in fourth in the CPL table with 21 points, now sporting a record of 6W-3D-6L, as they went out and did the unthinkable - the nine-point week.
Starting with a big 2-0 win over Valour at home, they then followed it up with an even better 2-0 road win over Cavalry, before rounding things off with a tidy 3-1 win over Vancouver FC at home to cap things off.
Plus, they did so while putting up three of their most complete performances of the season, especially defensively, allowing just one goal. Given that they'd only picked up three clean sheets across their first 12 games, conceding 18 goals, it's a huge improvement, as they finally started to look like 2022 Atlético Ottawa in that department.
The numbers reflect that, too, as they allowed just 2.26 xG across those three games, an average of 0.75 per game.
That's important, as for a lot of the season, they've been struggling to perform to the levels that the numbers suggest that they should be. Despite sitting third in xG against with 16.69, they've actually conceded nearly three above expected, only sitting better than Forge (who are underperforming by nearly six goals) in that category.
No doubt, that's hurt their ability to pick up wins, and that's felt like a big loss, especially given that they'd done well to address one of the big issues from last season in their goal scoring, as they currently sit second in the league in both goals for and xG for.
With their defence returning to form, however, that'll allow for their offence to shine, which will pay huge dividends in the second half of the season.
Yet, that's a big credit to some recent tweaks to their lineup, which have proven to be key in this shift.
First, it started with the return of Nathan Ingham in goal, as his absence due to a finger injury was a big blow, given how big he was for them in their success last year.
Since his return, they've conceded seven goals in five games, four of which came in an uncharacteristic off-night from Ingham against Forge, meaning that he's otherwise only allowed three goals in five games.
Then, the bigger boost was the signing of Alberto Zapater in midfield. A signing that raised the eyebrows of many given that he'd just turned 38, it was a big bet from Ottawa as they decided to bring “El Toro” over from Real Zaragoza.
Despite concerns that the turf or physical play might cause him problems, he's so far looked like a seamless fit in Ottawa's midfield, already playing 225 minutes across three games since his arrival.
Those three games, coincidentally? This nine-point week, giving an idea of how nicely his transition has gone.
Slotting in perfectly at the #6 on an Ottawa side that has struggled to properly fill that position all season long, he's given their midfield the sort of balance it has lacked, playing a big role on both sides of the ball.
Plus, that's allowed Ottawa to move Miguel Acosta back to his more natural position as a full back, which has also been a huge boost to the team's defence, as they'd missed him there as he deputized in midfield.
Yet, that just shows why Zapater's arrival was so crucial for Ottawa, and why they're very much back in the playoff race now, sitting just five points off first.
🎬 The Debut of Alberto Zapater 🐂— Atlético Ottawa (@atletiOttawa) July 11, 2023
At the beginning of the second half, 5000 fans at TD Place witnessed history as Alberto Zapater made his debut in the Atleti red & white 🔴⚪️👏🏟️⚡️
🔗 Watch Full Video: https://t.co/lZpncd8YYg#ForOttawa | #PourOttawa pic.twitter.com/EypamleIIZ
And things can only stand to improve. Offensively, for all of the goals they have (led by Ollie Bassett somehow taking a step forward from his double MVP season), they've only got four goals combined from strikers Samuel Salter (three), Malcolm Shaw (one) and new arrival Ruben Del Campo.
Salter's been strong as of late, to be fair, although he's continued to be extremely unlucky in front of goal, underperforming his xG significantly, while Shaw has dealt with international duty and Del Campo has just arrived, so things could stand to improve, too.
So if they can get one of those three firing and in top form, watch out, as that feels like the lone piece missing for this Ottawa side, as they look to repeat as regular season champions, and avenge their heartbreaking loss at home to Forge from last year's final.
Time to panic about Pacific's mini-slump?
When you sit at the top of the table, any dip in form will be carefully analyzed, especially when you were as dominant as Pacific to start the year.
Sitting with a record of 7W-3D-1L (24 PTS) through 11 games, they were cruising, riding a four-game winning streak as they headed into a late-June clash with Ottawa at home.
There, they missed an opportunity to make it five straight, as they had a penalty saved (fittingly, by Nathan Ingham) in the 85th minute of the game with the score still 2-2, leaving them to drop two points in frustrating fashion.
Since then, they've wobbled a bit, as they then lost 2-1 to Cavalry at home in a game in which they missed another penalty, lost 2-1 to Halifax on the road just days later, and then recently drew York 0-0 away to now make it four straight games without a win.
Because of that, it's led to the all-important question - is this stretch of concern for Pacific, or is this just a bit of bad luck catching up to them after their great run of form?
To do that, it's important to look at the numbers from those games, first - in them, they scored four goals and conceded six.
Given that they generated 6.93 xG and allowed 5.96 xG, it's fair to say it's definitely an underperformance given their goalscoring woes, which is evened out by them being about as expected defensively.
Then, if you remove the two penalties from the xG total (around 1.5, total), putting them at around 5.43 xG, that's still an underperformance, albeit a much smaller one.
From there, if you put them in the context of their season, you can really see if it's bad luck or the start of a concern.
When you do that, a clear concern emerges - the defensive record. Offensively, they performed at about the same level they've performed all year - they've averaged 1.6 xG per game all season, and they averaged over 1.7 xG/game across this four-game stretch and 1.35 non-penalty xG/game, meaning that they've been about as expected.
Defensively, though, the 5.96 xG against they've allowed is around 1.49 xG against per game, well above the 1.08 xG they've allowed per game on average (a number that has also been inflated by this recent stretch).
And that's the big thing the'll need to clean up going forward. The offence should be more than fine (especially if they keep practicing penalties in training), given the talent and depth they have up front. All teams can go through cold stretches offensively, but they've continued to generate chances at a high-enough level across the season (the best rate in the league, in fact), which means that should not be a concern.
If they don't tidy up their defensive play, however, it could end up costing them points. Especially with two young goalkeepers in Kieran Baskett and Emil Gazdov, it'll be crucial to continue to insulate them as they get reps and grow.
Unless one of them all of a sudden takes after Rayane Yesli and starts saving multiple goals above expected, their growth will be an ongoing process, one that will have ups and downs.
Plus, as seen over this stretch, they've been performing at about what's been expected of them, too, showing that they've actually settled into a bit of a rhythm, too.
Therefore, the big key for Pacific will be to tidy up that defence, quickly. They've got the pieces to, but will need to shore things up, especially in midfield, where they've been a bit too easy to play through at times as of late.
If they can do that, this will be but a small blip in their journey toward becoming regular season champions, but if not, it'll just continue to open up an entertaining battle for that top spot as the end of the season approaches.
Alex's notebook: Quick thoughts from around the CPL
- It wasn't their prettiest win of the season, but Cavalry FC made up for a midweek slip-up at home vs Ottawa with a gritty 1-0 win over an in-form Halifax side on the weekend. Pretty cool to see a trio of CPL veterans lead the way on the day, too - Marco Carducci kept a clean sheet, while Fraser Aird and Ben Fisk put in strong performances, with the latter's free-kick leading to the own goal that won them the game. Not a bad showing from them, whatsoever.
- Forge FC will feel hard done by their 1-1 draw to Valour, as Terran Campbell was denied what appeared to be a good goal by an incorrect offside call. At the same time, given that Campbell then made it 1-0 not long after that call, they also had a chance to see things over the line, at home. Instead, they continued a habit of giving up goals out of nothing, allowing a late free kick, leading to more dropped points. Ultimately, that's the big thing that's held them back so far - efficiency in both boxes, so it's fitting that's the way they dropped two more points that way, as they continue to struggle in the battle for consistency.
- Not much to take away from York United FC 0-0 draw to Pacific, other than the fact that their U21 minutes problem is starting to become a big concern. After picking up just seven such minutes on the day (by comparison, Pacific picked up 270), they now need an average of 137 minutes per game for the rest of the season to clear the 2000-minute mark. They've got options to help them do that, especially after the shrewd signing of Carson Buschman-Dormond, but they'll need to get on it, quickly, before it's too late.
- Surely Halifax Wanderers will win a road game soon … right? Otherwise, they continue to miss Tiago Coimbra as he deals with an injury, so they'll hope that he's back soon, as it'll be fun to see a front line of him, João Morelli, Massimo Ferrin and Aidan Daniels in action.
- It was good to see Valour FC claw out a late draw against Forge, with former Forge defender Klaidi Cela scoring the equalizer against his old team after being at fault for Forge's opening goal. At the same time, goals remain a worry for Valour - they haven't scored an open play since June 16th. Hard to imagine them making the playoffs if that doesn't change, quickly.
- Vancouver FC ended up running into Ottawa at the wrong time on the weekend, as they just couldn't match the rhythm of their hosts on the day, struggling at times with routine build-up play. At the same time, new arrivals Renan Garcia and Alejandro Díaz looked bright, with the pair even linking up on their lone goal. That's key, especially for Garcia, who fills a key position of need in midfield, and had concerns about his fitness when he was signed. If he keeps playing as he did in that first game, however, those concerns should quickly dissipate.
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Player of the Week: Carl Haworth
It was a super sub performance for the ages from Haworth, who assisted the winning goal and scored an insurance marker in Ottawa's big 3-1 win over Vancouver, making the most of his 30-minute cameo off the bench.
Good to see from the veteran, who has continued to quietly play at a strong level for Ottawa after an early-season injury, with his return also playing a key part in their recent uptick in form.
Goal of the Week: Miguel Acosta
Not a lot to choose from on a seven-goal weekend, which included an own goal, but Acosta's strike against Vancouver stands out as a clear winner.
It might not look special at first glance, but the technique with which he strikes the ball is superb. Just look at the way he wraps his hips around it, fooling Callum Irving with the deceptive power he was able to find.
Pretty good from the defender, showing that he can contribute to Ottawa's success in many ways when in form.
GOAL🏠@vanfootballclub fail to clear the ball and Miguel Acosta punishes them to give @atletiOttawa the 1-0 lead🍁⚽️#ForOttawa🏠 | #VancouverFC🦅— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 16, 2023
TUNE IN | 🔴https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/ezk0HUAphv
You gotta see this: Gabriel Antinoro's celebration
Ottawa's clash with Vancouver was by far the most active match of the weekend, and this latest section is just further proof of that.
Here, after scoring his second goal of the season, Antinoro pulled out a pretty legendary celebration, teasing Vancouver with a childhood classic - the hands on the head, tongue-wagging clown celebration.
Just look at the joy he got from scoring that goal. In a sport where a lot of players like to celebrate like they've been there before, it's nice to see that pure joy from a player when they score a goal sometimes.
What I'm watching this week: Pacific vs Forge
It's hard to look anywhere but the Island this week for the game I'll be watching closest, as Pacific and Forge meet in a tectonic top-of-the-table clash.
Given Pacific's recent mini-slump and Forge's battle with inconsistency, this game could be huge for both sides, too, giving them a massive boost in the title race given that just three points separate them right now (although Pacific has a game in hand).
Because of that, look for Forge to flex their big game credentials and remind people why they were early season favourites to win the regular season, while Pacific tries and return to the form that had people in awe just weeks ago, in what should be a fascinating tactical battle between two of the top dogs in the CPL.