SEASON PREVIEW: Everything you NEED to know about CPL's 4th season
Season four is upon us.
The Canadian Premier League returns on Thursday night when York United hosts HFX Wanderers in the season opener, and OneSoccer will be there every step of the way to guide you through the 2022 campaign.
It promises to be the most intriguing yet, and we have no end of offseason moves and storylines to discuss.
So let's get into it with a first look at how each team is stacking up heading into opening weekend.
Story of the offseason: Atletico Ottawa has undergone a major revamp following last season's last-place finish — and has turned a few heads around the league in the process.
Only seven players return, and there is a new coach in the dugout in former Kuwait boss Carlos Gonzalez. But the combination of the existing core plus experienced new additions such as Carl Haworth, Maxim Tissot, and Nathan Ingham should ensure that this is a competitive outfit from day one.
The backbone of the team looks vastly improved, particularly if centre-back Diego Espejo and midfielder Abdou Sissoko can play up to their European pedigree. Up front, much will depend on Ballou Tabla, who might be the most talented player in the CPL but needs to stay healthy and committed.
Atletico played its best football in a 3-4-2-1 system towards the end of last season and has the personnel to continue in that shape, with plenty of quality and depth at the wing-back positions.
Why they will win the Shield: On paper, this is a playoff-quality squad. And this is not a club content to simply take a couple of baby steps forward. Not finishing in the top four will be considered a disappointment.
Why they won't win the Shield: Overhauls this significant usually take more than one offseason. And if Tabla does not live up to his billing, the attack could be short on true difference-makers.
Story of the offseason: After making substantial changes a year ago, continuity has been the priority for Cavalry this offseason.
To that end, the vast majority of the roster as it stands is familiar, with only five new signings made. Even two of those are known quantities, with Fraser Aird making the short move from Edmonton and Charlie Trafford returning to Canada to link up with his cousin Mason.
Aird will be handed the considerable task of replacing Mo Farsi, while Trafford will help make up for the retirement of captain Nik Ledgerwood, who joins the coaching staff.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. will also be glad to welcome Elijah Adekugbe back into the fold after a long-term injury ruled him out of the 2021 campaign. He has plenty of competition in a packed midfield but has the quality to be a crucial piece so long as his return to full fitness is smooth.
Why they will win the Shield: Cavalry was agonizingly close to returning to the final last year. It would be silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater when the margins were that fine. If the uber-talented Karifa Yao and Victor Loturi can take another step and Joe Mason can stay fully fit, the quality is there.
Why they won't win the Shield: A persistent issue for Cavalry come playoff time has been an inability to break games open. Is there enough pace and dynamism in this group, particularly with Farsi gone?
Story of the offseason: There's good news and there's bad news.
The good news is that despite the restraints placed on coach Alan Koch — FC Edmonton has a minimal budget while a new owner is sought and has brought in 11 players on loan — there is some quality here. Tobias Warschewski — who led the league in assists — and Azriel Gonzalez were standout performers last year, while Shamit Shome's return will provide a steadying presence.
The bad news? It's not exactly clear who will play with Shome in midfield. The squad is heavy on strikers, but none of them have a track record of scoring goals in professional football. And while there is some promise in defence, it is an extremely young group.
But this was always going to be the reality — placing a number of low-cost bets and hoping enough of them pay off to be competitive. These players are being given an opportunity, and they will be hungry to prove they belong.
Why they will win the Shield: This sport has produced miracles before.
Why they won't win the Shield: It's simply not a level playing field. Finishing seventh will be an achievement.
Story of the offseason: There is more of a transitional feel to Forge's roster than at any point since Bobby Smyrniotis built his first squad back in 2019. Key players such as Kwame Awuah, Mo Babouli, and Elimane Cisse are gone, while injuries to Daniel Krutzen and Jonathan Grant made the side that took on Cruz Azul in the Champions League feel even more unfamiliar.
When those two players are available, Smyrniotis will be able to name a first XI that Forge fans are more used to. But a host of intriguing new faces will be providing competition for places.
On paper, a midfield group that boasts two Player of the Year winners has to be considered the strongest in the league — especially after the additions of Alessandro Hojabrpour and Aboubacar Sissoko, two players who have been quality starters on CPL finalists. And Smyrniotis has spoken highly of Sigma graduate Noah Jensen, comparing him to Kyle Bekker.
For all Forge's success as a team, they have only one representative — Tristan Borges' debut campaign — among the top 15 individual goalscoring seasons across three years of the CPL. They will be hoping that Terran Campbell, who appears in that top 15 twice, can change that.
Why they will win the Shield: A ridiculously deep midfield group runs games week after week and Campbell provides the finishing touch that was missing in last year's final.
Why they won't win the Shield: Grant and Ashtone Morgan have had injury trouble in the past and Krutzen is coming off a major one. That could be a vulnerability.
Story of the offseason: HFX Wanderers' big problem last season was a lack of goals: they netted a league-worst 28, half of which were provided by Player of the Year Joao Morelli.
Stephen Hart and his staff had two choices: tear the attack up, or believe that they can draw more out of the existing supporting cast. They have opted for the latter, with winger Aidan Daniels the only significant addition up front so far — though the creative Toronto FC academy graduate could be an important one.
The big hope, of course, will be that Akeem Garcia can return to the kind of form that saw him become an instant fan favourite in 2019 and claim the Golden Boot in 2020.
Whether or not you think that is a good bet — and whether players who have shown glimpses of quality such as Alex Marshall have more to offer — likely defines your assessment of this Halifax team.
Better luck with injuries would help, too. Halifax was remarkably healthy in 2020 and remarkably hurt in 2021, and the difference in results speaks for itself.
Why they will win the Shield: Halifax lost the same number of games as Pacific last season and one fewer than Forge. I don't think they were as far away as their league position suggested and I think they are right to bring the bulk of the same group back.
Why they won't win the Shield: The addition of Daniels alone won't be nearly enough to fix the attack if that internal improvement does not arrive.
Story of the offseason: How will the champions respond to losing four key players and their coach?
The early indications under new boss James Merriman are promising. While losing Alessandro Hojabrpour and Terran Campbell to Forge was a shock to the system, there was a feeling at Pacific that a healthy Marco Bustos and Matthew Baldisimo kept their starting XI in a very good place.
The same will apply for Kunle Dada-Luke stepping in for Kadin Chung. And to replace Lukas MacNaughton, in comes one of the top centre-backs in the CPL in Amer Didic.
After that, attention turned from replacing outgoing players to improving the squad. Ex-Cavalry man Nathan Mavila is a proven performer at left-back, a position where a few players filled in last season, and ahead of him youngster Kamron Habibullah, who arrives on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps, is highly rated.
Djenairo Daniels and Abdul Binate provide different options up front — Daniels as a target man who can help offset the loss of Campbell's aerial presence, and Binate as a direct runner with the pace to beat his man and run in behind. In midfield, Umaro Balde is a ball-winning alternative to the string-pulling Baldisimo.
Why they will win the Shield: The champions could be even better than last year if Bustos is fit and firing come the playoffs.
Why they won't win the Shield: Pa-Modou Kah had a profound psychological impact on this team. Now they must find a way to refocus and motivate themselves all over again without him — and do it with a target on their backs.
Story of the offseason: If you're looking for a dark horse, you may find yourself drawn to Valour, who started the 2021 season on fire and later showed real promise under new coach Phil Dos Santos.
The bit in the middle wasn't too good, of course, and that downward spiral was sparked by the loss of star centre-back Andrew Jean-Baptiste to a season-ending injury. His return to full health is an essential starting point.
With Jean-Baptiste, this is an intriguing group. The rest of the defence does not lack for depth or experience and is backstopped by the league's top goalkeeper in Jonathan Sirois, who returns on loan from CF Montreal. Up top, Moses Dyer was a revelation at centre forward and William Akio ended the campaign looking like an emerging star.
The composition of the midfield is more of an unknown. Dos Santos rolled out a 4-2-3-1 last season, but both of his No. 10s — Rafael Galhardo and Keven Aleman — have departed. Is youngster Matthew Catavolo ready to be the main man in that role? He has played big minutes in preseason but will be missing early on to join Canada's Under-20 camp.
Deeper in the middle of the park, the long-term injury suffered by Raphael Ohin is a real blow.
Why they will win the Shield: Valour has been a playoff-calibre team with Jean-Baptiste in the lineup.
Why they won't win the Shield: This group still feels vulnerable to being derailed by one or two injuries in key spots, as was the case last year.
Story of the offseason: A few eyebrows were raised when York United decided to make a coaching change despite making a first appearance in the playoffs last season.
It's a gamble made with the intent of turning a fourth-place side that did not cause Forge a real problem in the semi-finals into a legitimate contender. And in Martin Nash, York believes it has the man to evolve the team's style of play in a manner that can bridge that gap.
If his time as an assistant at Cavalry is anything to go by, expect Nash to switch between a back three and a back four and prize flexibility. York has the players to pull that off, with Max Ferrari and Diyaeddine Abzi able to shift into wing-back roles and Chrisnovic N'Sa and Jordan Wilson providing plenty of defensive versatility.
In the transfer market, York's focus has clearly been on finding the reliable source of goals they lacked last season. That area of the pitch could remain a work in progress early on, with Lowell Wright headed to Canada's Under-20 camp and Martin Graiciar's preseason disrupted by a concussion. Lisandro Cabrera's long wait for a visa has delayed his arrival, while Osaze De Rosario — son of Dwayne — has been in on trial.
Why they will win the Shield: With another year under their belt, the talented crop of young players who carried York into the playoffs — namely Ferrari, Abzi, N'Sa, Wright, Noah Verhoeven, Isaiah Johnston, and Cedric Toussaint — have the potential to evolve into CPL stars.
Why they won't win the Shield: York likes to roll the dice on big upside rather than proven commodities, and if the new additions don't hit they could lose ground in what was an exceptionally tight playoff race last year.