AGR's High Press: Here's why your team can win the North Star Cup (or not!)
It was a fitting way to cap off the regular season.
As Cavalry lifted the CPL Shield on Saturday, it officially marked the end of an entertaining 2023 Canadian Premier League campaign, one that had seen the Cavs end up as deserved winners at the end of it.
After a gruelling 28-game campaign, one filled with all sorts of highs and lows for those involved, Cavalry were able to stand with their heads held highest at the end, having finished 13 points ahead of second-place Forge in order to claim that trophy.
Now, however, the end of a journey like that one just means that a new one is just beginning.
Of course, in the CPL, that’s the playoffs, which are now underway this week, with Pacific hosting York United to kick off those festivities on Wednesday, as that new journey begins in earnest.
With another trophy on the line, the North Star Cup, it’s a special time of year, as the playoffs are a beautifully chaotic setting - as the saying goes, *anything* can happen.
Because of that, in lieu of the usual weekly round-up on High Press, here’s a preview of the five teams that are participating in the playoffs, based around two simple premises - one reason why they can win it all, and a reason why they might not.
Can Cavalry complete a double? Will Forge cement their status as a playoff dynasty? Can Pacific sneak another surprise win? Will Halifax complete one of the best turnaround stories in the league? Can York complete an underdog run for the ages?
Here’s a look at how all of those scenarios could become a possibility over the next few weeks (or not!).
Cavalry will win the North Star Cup because… their all-around dominance speaks for itself, really. Despite this being one of the most competitive seasons yet, they ended up running away with the regular season title, and finished with the most goals, the fewest conceded, the best home record and the third-best road record. Not only that, but they didn’t back into the playoffs, either, winning their last five games, and eight of their last nine, as they’re in fantastic form right now. Plus, they’ve got a good mix of talented players such as Ali Musse, Daan Klomp and Marco Carducci to go along with a plethora of depth options, many of which would play big roles on other teams. You add in the coaching acumen that Tommy Wheeldon Jr has displayed this season, having done well to push the right buttons on this squad, and that’s just another factor that plays into the Cavs abilities to go out and win another trophy, something that will certainly be motivating them.
Cavalry will fail to lift the North Star Cup because… the advanced numbers suggest a regression could be possible, especially offensively, as Cavalry is fourth in the CPL in xG and Expected Points despite being first in both of those categories. That’s key, as goals often dry up in big games, so teams that can generate the chances that can break open a game are key. For what it’s worth, Cavalry is quite good defensively despite sitting fourth in xG against, as Carducci has faced over 6 xG less than expected, reflecting Cavalry’s abilities to get in the way of dangerous shots, but goals do win games. And that’s the last worry that Cavalry will have heading into the playoffs - goals, more specifically from their #9, Myer Bevan. For what it’s worth, Bevan will enter these playoffs feeling confident after scoring from open play in their last game, allowing him to end up as a co-winner of the Golden Boot, but that was just his first open-play goal since July 1st. Cavalry will have other options that can step up, as seen in the recent success they’ve been able to have despite Bevan’s slump, but sometimes in those big games, it’s important to have a #9 that can step up in key moments. Lastly, it’s important to note that Cavalry is looking to exorcise some pretty big playoff demons, too - if you remove the Island Games, they’ve actually never won a playoff game. Historically, Cavalry have struggled in these sorts of big games, so that’ll be another thing that could weigh down the CPL’s most successful regular season team, as they try to translate that success into some playoff magic here.
Forge will win the North Star Cup because… that’s what Forge does. In their four previous seasons, they’ve only finished first in the regular season once - in 2021. Fittingly, that just happens to be the only year they’ve failed to emerge as playoff champions, falling to Pacific at home in the final. Otherwise, Forge have been flawless in these playoff settings, and they once again were able to prove that last season, when they defeated regular season champions Atlético Ottawa on the road. Because of that, despite their struggles in this regular season, which has actually been their worst in club history by a good margin, it’s hard to count Forge out. Given that it felt like they sleepwalked through large parts of the season and still ended up in second place, that just shows the talent and depth of this team, which is among the best in the league for a reason. You add in the winning pedigree that they’ll be able to lean on in these games, from Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges, Triston Henry and more, and that’ll only help them. Plus, the advance numbers reflect well on Forge, too - they’re second in the league in xG, first in xG against, and second in Expected Points. While they’ve struggled this season, a lot of that has been down to luck, both in terms of their execution and injuries, which they’ll look to leave behind this postseason once again.
Forge will fail to lift the North Star Cup because… their fear factor is gone. Before teams seemed to fear Forge in key moments, but it feels like that aura has started to lift this season. There’s a reason why Forge have only claimed 19 points from 14 at home this season, good for fifth in the league, for example, as teams are no longer facing Forge with that same fear. Otherwise, there are two factors worth watching out for with Forge - depth scoring and goalkeeping. First, on the topic of the former, other than Woobens Pacius (10) and Terran Campbell (10), who have scored over half of the team’s 39 goals, scoring has been an issue for Forge, as only Jordan Hamilton (4) and Kyle Bekker (3) have even scored more than two goals this season. While it’s good that their strikers are scoring, which is key for big games, that lack of depth scoring could be a big concern. Secondly, on the topic of goalkeeping, Triston Henry has had a strange campaign, as he’s battled all sorts of inconsistency. On his day, he’s won Forge a few games on his own, but he’s also conceded over seven goals above expected despite facing the third-fewest xG among goalkeepers with over 1000 minutes. For what it’s worth, Henry has always shone in the playoffs, but he’ll have to put those stats behind him if he’s to do that again this time around.
Halifax will win the North Star Cup because… they don’t back down to any challenge, and play their way no matter what. As a result, they were the only side other than Cavalry to get a win against every team in the CPL this season. Considering that they rarely drifted away from their tactical principles as a team across games, that’s impressive, as it shows their ability to beat teams while sticking true to their philosophies. Plus, as seen in the advanced numbers, their process isn’t based on luck or anything. There’s a reason why they’re third in xG, xG against and Expected Points, as they do a lot of the right things on both sides of the ball, too, making them a balanced outfit. Lastly, they’ve also got a very important factor on their side heading into these playoff games - individual star power. Between Dan Nimick, Lorenzo Callegari, Massimo Ferrin, Zachary Fernandez and Wesley Timoteo, that quintet could all be considered for the CPL Team Of The Year, and that doesn’t even highlight players that are so key to this team such as Aidan Daniels, Cale Loughrey and Yann Fillion. Sometimes, you need your key players to win you games, and Halifax has a fair few they can lean on, as they’ve done all season.
Halifax will fail to lift the North Star Cup because… their road record. One of the best teams in the league at home, finishing with 28 points from 14 games (2 points per game), they struggled to come close to that on the road, as they had 14 points from 14 games (1 point per game) in those situations. Not only that, but they only won two of their 14 road games, too. To their credit, that they picked up 8 road draws could be seen as a bonus heading into a knockout setting, as being able to tie games gives you a chance at winning with the presence of shootouts, but you’d ideally like to be able to turn those draws into wins in key moments. Elsewhere, the Wanderers might worry about a lack of a true goalscorer up front. Massimo Ferrin has certainly stepped up as the team’s main source of goals from the wing, as he finished fifth in the CPL’s Golden Boot race with eight goals, but other than him, Dan Nimick is the next-best option on the team with six goals from centre back, with four of those coming from the penalty spot. Other than that, only Théo Collomb and João Morelli have more than three, sitting with four goals each, but Collomb has only played in one of the team’s last 10 games, while Morelli looks like a possibility to be out injured for these playoffs, which is less than ideal in both circumstances. There’s no doubt that this Halifax team can score, as they had the third-most goals in the league, but they’ll need their “score by committee” approach to maintain itself, which can sometimes be tough in playoff games.
Pacific will win the North Star Cup because… they’re due for a statistical resurgence. There’s no doubt that Pacific’s struggled as of late - after starting the year with a record of 7W-4D-1L (25 PTS) through their first 12 games, they only mustered up 4W-3D-9L (15 PTS) over their last 16, as they went from runaway leaders to narrowly hanging onto a top four spot by the final day. Despite their slide, however, the numbers do look good for Pacific, as they lead the league in xG, are second in xG against by a good margin ahead of Halifax, and lead in Expected Points. They’ve also got the league’s deepest offence, as seven players have scored four or more goals, (and 10 have scored two or more goals), and are quite good defensively when they need to be (they’ve ensured that Emil Gazdov faces the lowest xG/90 of any goalkeeper whose played 1000 minutes). Because of all that, Pacific will feel that when it comes down to it, their process has been the right one, and that all that’s missing is for them to better execute it. And given that they’ve won a North Star Cup before, and have a history of showing up in knockout games, there’s no reason why they can’t crank it up for the playoffs, returning to the form they showed earlier in the season.
Pacific will fail to lift the North Star Cup because… they’ve struggled against other playoff teams. Of the five teams to make the playoffs, only York has fewer points against top-five opposition, and if you exclude York and only do the top four (and the games they played against each other), they’ve got by far the worst record of those teams, as Cavalry (23), Halifax (17) and Forge (14) are far ahead of Pacific (9) in that category. That’s relevant, because while Pacific will be likely favourites against York, having picked up 10 points out of a possible 12 against them this season, that they’ve finished fourth means that they’ll have to go through each of the teams in front of them, all on the road, to win a North Star Cup. With just two wins and three draws in 12 combined meetings against the top four this year, that’ll be a tall ask for Pacific, one that might be too tough to overcome. Otherwise, there’s the fact that part of the reason that Pacific’s struggled hard in the second half is that they seem to score in bunches, meaning that a lot of their games actually saw them finish with one or fewer goals (19 of their 28 games). They’re great when they score two or more goals in a game, sitting with a record of 7W-1D-1L, as they’ve got the defence to protect those sorts of leads, but the reality is that they’ve spent a lot of this campaign locked in 1-0 and 2-1 games that they’ve often ended up on the wrong side of due to their inconsistent offence. Given that goals only seem to try up in the playoffs, Pacific’s inconsistency in front of goal seems likely to continue to bite them in the rear, which could be costly.
York will win the North Star Cup because… they’re perfectly built for the underdog role. Look, it’s going to be tough for York to win this trophy - they’ve got to beat every team in the top four once, all on the road. At the same time, given that York leads the league in road points with 24 from 14 games, if there’s a team to do it… Plus, for what it’s worth, they’ve got a style of play that lends itself well towards being able to grind out games, too, which is likely why they score more on the road, where they’re able to sit back more and hit on the counter. At home, where teams are expected to carry the initiative a bit more, they’ve struggled to score this season, but that problem has seemed to evaporate away from home. Lastly, York’s got the talent to win games when need be. The likes of Mo Babouli and Osaze De Rosario have struggled for consistency this season, but they can step up in key moments. That’s why someone like Babouli is tied for the team lead in goals with De Rosario and Kévin dos Santos (who is another name to watch), while De Rosario has a knack of showing up in big moments, as he showed last weekend when he scored the two goals that sent York to the playoffs. In these big games, it’s important that your best players step up, and between the likes of Babouli, De Rosario, Santos and more, York has options in that category, and they’ve proven it by winning two must-win playoff-like games just to get here in the first place.
York will fail to lift the North Star Cup because… their defence just hasn’t been good enough. It’s a cliché, but there’s a reason why people say “defence wins championships”, and that’s because it’s true. Unfortunately for York, their defence has left a lot to be desired this season, as they’re second-last in xG against, and have conceded the second-most goals in the league. Then, while they got options up front, they haven’t necessarily outscored those problems, which is why they’ve struggled for large parts of this season. As a result, they’ve got the lowest goal differential of any playoff team by a good margin with -9 (the next-best teams are Forge, Pacific and Halifax all with +7), showing how sloppy they’ve been defensively. Given that they’re also going to need to be perfect across four road games against the four best teams in the league to win, it’ll be a lot to ask of York’s defence to tidy up as they’ve done over the last two weeks (1 goal against on less than 2 xG) across the entirety of these playoffs.