HFX Wanderers SEASON PREVIEW: Wanderers look for new beginning after total overhaul
After four mixed CPL campaigns, the HFX Wanderers are switching things up for year five.
As a result, some familiar faces have moved on, opening up space for a bit of a reset over on the East Coast.
The biggest change is at head coach, where former Canadian Men’s National Team manager Stephen Hart is out, replaced by Patrice Gheisar, who makes the jump up to the CPL after a successful stint running League 1 Ontario’s Vaughan Azzurri.
And for his first year as coach, Gheisar is freshening things up, putting together one of the youngest squads in the league. With no player over 30, and just four players over the age of 25, this is a young Halifax team, one that will be expected to become a force when their players all click.
Until then, however, it should be interesting to see how things stack up for them in CPL play, as they try to hit the ground running with their new pieces.
One thing is for sure, though - this Halifax team is one to watch long-term, as they try to get back to the heights that they hit in the shortened 2020 season, where they made the CPL final, a landmark they’ve otherwise not even come close to getting back to since.
Projected Starting XI:
3 KEY QUESTIONS
1) Can their young defence build off of strong end to 2022?
It’s not often something seen in the sport.
Typically, while teams might not be shy to inject youth into attacking positions, coaches are usually more hesitant to trust younger players in defensive positions, where experience is crucial.
Halifax flew in the face of that notion at the end of last year, however, as they finished the year by throwing together a back five and goalkeeper combination that averaged just over 22 years of age for a couple of games.
Which, to give them credit, worked quite well, as they looked their best defensively when they did that.
Because of that, they’re embracing that again in 2023, as their defensive group has remained relatively unchanged from the unit that finished the season, bar the departures of Gabriel Escobar and Kieran Baskett, and the additions of Daniel Nimick, Ryan James, Cale Loughrey and Riley Ferrazzo.
As a result, keep an eye on the group of Loughrey, Nimick, Cristian Campagna, Jake Ruby, Mo Omar, and Zachary Fernandez, who are all 22 or younger, and should play a big role defensively in 2023.
In particular, Campagna is one to watch, as he spent the offseason training with 2. Bundesliga side FC Nürnberg and at 3. Bundesliga club FSV Zwickau in Germany, and is highly rated from his time with the Vancouver Whitecaps 2nd team last year. He may have only joined the Wanderers halfway through the season, but he was impressive when he did, and should be an even bigger piece this year.
Along with someone like Ruby, who has been so versatile for Halifax, as well as Fernandez, who impressed in his rookie season in 2022, and the potential of the others, those are some good pieces for Gheisar to build around going forward, giving the team a defensive identity that they lacked for most of last season.
2) Will they be able to overcome João Morelli absence?
It’s no secret - Halifax struggles to score goals.
Despite having produced two of the league’s four golden boot winners, they’ve been last in goals for in three out of the four seasons, including last year, where they scored just 24 goals in 28 games.
Because of that, it was big news when it came out that 2021 Golden Boot winner, João Morelli, would miss at least half of this season, after missing most of 2022 with an ACL tear he sustained in just the second game of the season.
After scoring 19 goals in the 32 CPL games he’s played in his career, it was a big loss, and that became clear as the year went along, with Halifax spending most of the year struggling to muster up enough offence.
Therefore, it’s going to be interesting to see where the goals will come from in 2023, given that Morelli isn’t to return for a while yet. Especially seeing that their two leading scorers from 2022, Sam Salter (11 goals) and Akeem García (four goals) are no longer on the team, with Salter having been bought by Atlético Ottawa in a landmark transfer, and with García having retired to pursue a coaching career, that’s a huge hole they must find a way to fill to begin this season.
The good news? There are some reasons for them to feel like they could take a step forward offensively this year.
Firstly, there’s the reality that they did significantly underperform their xG last year, as they actually generated 34 xG, far more than the 24 actual goals they had. That means if they can improve their finishing even just marginally this year, it’d help them a lot.
Secondly, the arrival of Gheisar is also very key. His Vaughan team scored a whopping 76 goals in 21 regular season games in League 1 Ontario last year, and a further seven in two playoff games.
For reference, the next-best League 1 Ontario team had 58 regular season goals, just giving an idea of how dominant they were offensively. Therefore, if he can bring that offensive flair to Halifax, that’d be huge.
Lastly, they’ll hope that some new faces can help out the attack. They might be relatively unproven, but someone like new arrival Tiago “Canadá” Coimbra showed good scoring touch with Canada’s U20s last year, while Théo Collomb had a decent 2022 for Whitecaps 2, scoring two goals in nine games. Otherwise, Massimo Ferrin scored 24 goals in 17 games (regular season+playoffs) under Gheisar in League 1 Ontario, which is definitely worth monitoring.
Along with Ludwig Amla and Lifumpa Mwandwe, who had some good flashes after arriving late last season, those are some names that they’ll hope can break out, helping Halifax find enough goals to last them until Morelli’s return.
3) Can they recapture home-field advantage?
Since day one of the CPL, Wanderers Ground has been a fortress for Halifax.
One of the loudest grounds in the league, one that is consistently filled to the brim with passionate fans, it’s given the Wanderers a key edge, allowing them to have one of the best home records in the league between the fall 2019 season to 2021.
In 2022, however, they took a big step back there, as they had the second-worst home record in the league, picking up just 18 points in 14 games. In a league with tough travel, that was a tough deficit to overcome as they also struggled on the road, and that ended up sinking the Wanderers.
As a result, it’s important that Halifax fixes that this year. Especially given how passionate their fans are, they’ll have every reason to reward them with strong performances and victories at home, which should in turn help them climb up the table.
Player to Watch: Wesley Timoteo
Speaking of the attack, the arrival of Timoteo is also expected to be a big boost for Halifax.
After a strong season on loan to Edmonton after signing for Halifax last year, the 22-year-old comes to the Wanderers eager to be a key chance-creator for this team, having picked up an impressive three goals and five assists on a struggling Edmonton side in 2022.
A creative player, one who can create something out of nothing, sitting fourth in the CPL last year for chances created with 31, he brings creativity that Halifax could certainly use in the attack, which they’ll hope can unlock some of their other offensive players.
A team that always brings innovation to their kits, they’ve got another solid offering in 2023.
At first glance, their blue kit looks a bit boring, but has some excellent details on the shirt, and is an interesting change from the light blue they’ve usually employed, although it feels like it’s missing a bit of pop compared to past offerings.
Meanwhile, the white kit is a little quieter than what we’re used to seeing from them, although the accents on the collar and sleeves are a nice touch, one that they could’ve potentially leaned into a tad more.
Halifax will do well if… their kids play to their potential. With such a young team, there’s a lot of upside in this squad, and if Gheisar can tap into that, his team could impress early. Especially given that he’ll want to play an up-tempo style of play similar to what he played at Vaughan, that should suit his younger team, making it easier for them to hit the ground running with their new head coach.
Halifax will struggle if… they struggle to replace Morelli, again. It’ll be hard, as Morelli has been one of the best players in league history, but they’ll need to find a way to overcome his absence in the first half of the season. If they can do that, and welcome him back into a team where he can ease back in, that would help their hopes massively, instead of having to potentially rely on someone who will have been absent for over 16 months to be their saviour if those goalscoring struggles persist.