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Canadian Premier League coaches open up about roster construction

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Let’s dissect quotes from some CPL managers, shall we?

Canada v Australia - International Friendly Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

With just about six months to go until the Canadian Premier League’s intended kickoff in April 2019, it seems that talk about roster construction is starting to heat up. A Kurt Larson article published on the league’s website today featured some very interesting quotes about what the seven CPL coaches have been looking for in assembling squads — both in marquee signings and the Open Trials that have been touring the country the past few weeks.

The league has indicated that major announcements are coming; the kit deal with Macron means we’re on our way to seeing jersey reveals, and the season ticket information released by some clubs suggests we might be close to learning how the inaugural CPL season will be structured. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the prospect of finding out who will be playing for these fledgling teams next spring.

Each club has its manager in place: Tommy Wheeldon Jr. helms Cavalry FC, Jeff Paulus is in charge of FC Edmonton, Forge FC has Bobby Smyrniotis, and HFX Wanderers FC will be led by Stephen Hart. Michael Silberbauer is coach of Pacific FC, Rob Gale that of Valour FC, and finally former TFC skipper Jimmy Brennan has taken charge of York 9 FC.

That makes six out of seven that have already coached or played in the communities they now represent, with former Danish international Michael Silberbauer the only relative outsider. Four of them have worked with a Canada Soccer national program as well. Only Silberbauer hasn’t been a head coach before, and even he has coaching experience at a top-flight club in Switzerland. The CPL’s commitment to local talent thus starts at the top, and it will certainly be just as evident in the teams’ rosters.

Kurt’s article this morning revealed that we’re getting pretty close to player signings. It seems that clubs will be constructed around experienced “Foundational Players,” who will surely be early betting favourites to wear the first CPL armbands — think of players like Nik Ledgerwood, who’s heavily rumoured to join Cavalry, or even the likes of Atiba Hutchinson (perhaps not at first, though).

CPL clubs will also be looking to fill out their rosters with talented Canadian players under 23 years old, plus, of course, some of the standouts from Open Trials — commissioner David Clanachan suggested that 15-20 trialists could get invites to training camps.

So, what can we expect from these clubs as they fill out their rosters over the coming months?

Wheeldon said in the article that he wants Cavalry FC to be “hard to beat,” echoing a phrase that Toronto FC’s players and coaches said many times in 2017. That can mean a lot of things, but when I think of a team that’s hard to beat, I think of a solid, clinical side that won’t give you the ball easily.

Brennan didn’t give much away in his quote, saying in more general terms that he’s looking for players who fit a certain philosophy. What exactly that means is unclear, although York 9 FC’s website says that Brennan is keen on teams that play with the ball on the ground — something he apparently picked up from his time at Nottingham Forest.

Jim Brennan of Nottingham Forest and John Oster of Grimsby Town

The game is a little different in the eyes of Silberbauer, who seems intent on forging an original identity for Pacific FC. He won’t commit to any one philosophy, instead proposing a flexible approach where he’ll adapt the club’s style to the players they have. If there’s to be a draft of any sort in the CPL, Pacific FC definitely seems like the most likely team to commit to a “best player available” kind of strategy.

Rob Gale of Valour FC seems to have a similar approach, not necessarily going for a specific kind of identity, but he definitely wants players who set a good example on and off the pitch. He told Kurt that he’s keen on players who have the right “DNA” for a Manitoban soccer club. What that means is pretty unclear, but it still give us a little information about his thinking in assembling a team from scratch.

All the managers sound pretty set on hard-working, athletic players (who can do it on a cold, snowy night in Winnipeg). That’s fairly par-for-the-course coaching jargon, but the subtle differences in what they say can be pretty enlightening.

Some coaches provided a lot more insight into their process, as well.

FC Edmonton’s Jeff Paulus said explicitly that he wants a holding midfielder, implying that that’s the position he’d want to build his squad around. TFC fans who have lamented Michael Bradley’s shifts at centre-back will certainly agree that a reliable connection between defence and attack is paramount to success. FCE’s website mirrors this call for a hard-nosed, durable midfielder, saying that Northern Albertan soccer players take pride in their “toughness.”

Stephen Hart, the Wanderers gaffer, said he wants a goalkeeper first and foremost, followed by central defenders. “Build from the net out” is definitely a more common saying in hockey— I remember Brian Burke saying that about the Leafs a while ago (despite his pretty questionable track record with judging goaltending talent). Still, your team is probably gonna win if you don’t get scored on.

Finally, Bobby Smyrniotis’ quote was my favourite. He takes a deeper dive into specifics, reminding me of Greg Vanney describing the game.

“All of my players need to be very good on the ball,” he said. “We will play in small spaces, we will play in bigger spaces. They need to be able to do the basics at a very high level — the passing, the receiving and getting out of tight spaces. We want that from each and every position.”

So far, that’s the most attractive philosophy to me. Smyrniotis describes a technically skilled team that would be pretty damn fun to watch. A side filled with players that can pretty interchangeably move the ball around and execute tactics sounds like many of the top clubs that have conquered Europe in recent years, or even the tiki-taka of the Spanish national team.

Of course, we still know very little about how these teams are going to be composed. How many major signings will we see before April? How many international players are going to come? What we can probably bank on, though, is that the rosters are going to be youth-driven and reasonably local. It sounds like we’ll be hearing about some signings as early as November, which should be fun.

Which coach’s philosophy inspires the most confidence in you? Whose first moves will interest you the most?

Expect some more CPL content at Waking the Red soon.