Valour FC SEASON PREVIEW: Can Winnipeg maintain steady progression in year 5?
After four years of marginal improvement, Valour FC has a clear goal in 2023 - it’s time to make that next step.
Having finished in sixth place in their first two seasons, before finishing fifth in the next two, improving their points-per-game rate each season, there’s no doubt that Valour has done a good job of inching their way towards the elite of the CPL.
At the same time, they have no playoff appearances to show for it, making them one of just two existing CPL teams who are yet to have a taste of the postseason. Considering the other team is expansion side Vancouver FC, who are yet to play a game in the league, that’s not a group that Valour wants to find themselves in.
The good news is that Valour should change that this year, as the CPL did expand their playoff format to five teams, but given the advantage that this new system gives to teams who finish higher up the table, Valour will want to aim for much higher than fifth.
In their second full season under head coach Phil Dos Santos, who turned the team into a well-oiled, organized unit last year, they know that this is a big year for them, and they’re eager to prove it with a strong campaign.
Projected Starting XI:
3 key questions:
1) Is Rayane Yesli legit?
A huge part of Valour’s improvement over the last two seasons? The play of young goalkeeper, Jonathan Sirois, who impressed during back-to-back loan stints from CF Montréal.
With Sirois now permanently back with Montréal, however, that has left Valour to replace the 2021 goalkeeper of the year with a new face, that of Rayane Yesli.
There, the 23-year-old has big shoes to fill, but the good news is that he’s quite familiar with this Valour team, having arrived at the club at the beginning of last year, amassing 10 appearances in all competitions in his debut season.
Plus, anticipating the eventual departure of Sirois, Dos Santos made sure to give Yesli a good run of games in the second half of last year, as he was actually the team’s main goalkeeper as they mounted the late push that saw them just miss out on the playoffs.
On that run, he posted some impressive numbers, as well, picking up four clean sheets. Not only that, but his advanced numbers were sterling throughout the year, as he allowed eight goals on 10.44 xG, meaning that he saved 2.44 goals above expected.
For context, that was the second-most in the league, just 0.01 behind leader Nathan Ingham, who played over triple the minutes.
Because of that, it’s going to be intriguing to see if he can keep that up, because if he does, that could make him another goalkeeper of the year candidate for Valour to rely on.
A unique profile given his 6’7” frame, as he can move quite quickly for someone of that height, and is pretty good with his feet, it feels like Valour could have a monster on their hands if he takes a step forward from what he showed last year.
Therefore, look for him to try and prove that Sirois’s departure wasn’t as big of a problem as anticipated. Especially given some of the questions that they have elsewhere in the lineup, some stable goalkeeping from Yesli could go a long way for them as they try to integrate some new faces into their team elsewhere.
2) Who will score the goals after Rea, Dyer departures?
And speaking of those new faces, that leads nicely to arguably the biggest question that Valour will be asking themselves this season - who will score their goals?
After finishing tied for third in the CPL in goals for last year, they’ve been completely gutted up front, as four of their top five scorers are no longer with the club, including Moses Dyer (9), Sean Rea (5), Alessandro Riggi (3) and William Akio (2).
In particular, the losses of Dyer and Rea loom large, as Dyer headed to the US after leading the team in goals in back-to-back seasons, while Rea returned to CF Montréal after scooping up the league’s U21 Player of the Year award after a five-goal and 10 assist season on loan last year.
For a team that often relied on the individual magic of Rea and Dyer late on in the season, those are big shoes to fill, as their importance to the team extended far beyond their actual outputs.
Because of that, it’s going to put pressure on some new faces to step up.
The good news is that there are some players who could do just that, as Valour has some potential internal and external replacements that they’ll turn towards.
Internally, Matteo De Brienne is an interesting shout, as he converted into an attacker last year after being drafted to Valour from the Carleton Ravens as a full back, a change that he seemed to relish, scoring three goals on the year. Elsewhere, Walter Ponce will look to build on the two goals he chipped in with last year, as he looked dangerous in flashes, with consistency being his biggest enemy.
Then, externally, there’s a whole host of options.
Burundi international Pacifique Niyongabire is an intriguing addition from the Perth Glory, where he had a decent output of one goal and five assists across 40 career games, while Kian Williams (Iceland), Jaime Siaj (Ireland) and Jared Ulloa (Peru) are arriving from some pretty solid leagues.
Meanwhile, former Forge and Cavalry striker Anthony Novak arrives as a two-time CPL champion and with 12 CPL goals under his belt, which makes him a name to watch, although he is coming off of a major ACL tear.
If any of those names can step up and find some form, that would go a long way towards filling the hole left by Dyer and Rea.
There’s no doubt that this team should be competitive, as Dos Santos will have them organized defensively, and a threat on set-pieces, but their ceiling will really depend on their attack, so they’ll be hoping that some of those new faces really step up this season.
3) Can they become a threat on the road?
In one of the more intriguing storylines of the 2022 CPL season, Valour’s late playoff push was strongly boosted by their improved play at home, as they quietly turned IG Field into one of the tougher places to play in the CPL.
Pushed by their passionate fans, they ground out some memorable victories at home, such as back-to-back wins over Forge in late-August and early September, as they had one of the best home records in the league.
Yet, while they picked up some huge results at home, they faltered down the stretch in some very winnable games on the road, such as Halifax (1-0), York (3-1) and Edmonton (3-1). As a result, they finished with one of the worst road records in the league, picking up just 12 points away from home, good for sixth in the league.
If they’re to be a playoff team in 2023, that’s something that they’ll have to change, as those dropped points loomed large in the end.
Yet, it feels like it’s something that they could easily fix. Especially since they play a style of play that is suited to the road, it feels like they have the makings of being a solid road team, but they just need to take that step forward.
In particular, they need to defend better on the road, as they conceded 24 goals in 14 road games, which was the second-worst in the CPL. For reference, they conceded just 10 goals in 14 home games, which was the fewest in the league, just giving an idea of how much they struggled defensively away from home.
Player to Watch: Andrew Jean-Baptiste
A huge reason behind Valour’s late push? They finally were able to rely on the services of centre back, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, with the Haitian international able to string together one of his best stretches of health since arriving in the CPL, pairing nicely with Nassim Mekidèche.
One of the best centre backs in the league when healthy, he’s had some horrible luck with injuries, which has often hurt Valour in key moments, as they look their best when he is in the heart of their defence.
In fact, the numbers back that up, as over the last two seasons, they’ve picked up 45 of their 72 points in games that he’s played, which represents just over 61% of their total output. Given that he’s only played 44% of their games over that span, that just gives an idea of what sort of boost he can provide when healthy.
Because of that, he’ll look to stay healthy, helping Valour keep that stability that they lack when he isn’t in the lineup. If he can do that, that’ll be an immense boost to Valour’s hopes, even with Mekidèche gone, with former Pacific centre back Abdou Samake slotting in as a more than capable replacement.
As Valour does, they sneakily did really well with their 2023 kit offerings, doing a good job of sticking to their overall identity, while having some fun within that.
A great example of that is their darker kit, one that maintains the beautiful simplicity of their colour way, but has some fun by putting claw marks on the side, which is a nice touch.
Then, with their red kit, they lean into a colour that they haven’t played around enough with, maroon, which looks great on its own, but especially when the key details appear upon a closer look.
Overall, a pretty good showing in the fashion department over in Winnipeg (and that’s kit sponsor, aside).
Valour will do well if… they’re able to find some continuity in Dos Santos’s system. After a good end to the year, it will have hurt to have lost some key players such as Sirois, Mekidèche, Dyer, Rea and Brett Levis. At the same time, they’ve retained a solid spine of players, which should be a huge boost, especially for a coach like Dos Santos, who is one of the most organized in the league. Having preached the importance of continuity in his system, Valour will hope that facilitates the transition period for their new arrivals, allowing them to capitalize on the growth they’ve had under their coach over the last 1.5 seasons.
Valour will struggle if… they get another case of the midsummer blues. For two seasons in a row, they’ve struggled heavily in the summer, forcing them to play a lot of catch-up at the end, leaving them to just miss out on the playoffs. Often, in league play, champions are made in the middle 60% of a season, and Valour will need to take this lesson to heart in order to avoid leaving it to have to make another furious late push at the end of 2023.