The Canadian Premier League is back!
“The Island Games”, as dubbed by the league, will be a three-stage tournament that will replace the 2020 season with the winner taking home this year’s North Star Shield.
Hosted in Charlottetown, P.E.I., the tournament begins on August 13, and with the tournament rapidly approaching, and teams finalizing their rosters, we can finally start to get an idea of what each team may look like — on paper anyway.
This may go very well, or it may go spectacularly wrong, but here is one bold prediction for each Canadian Premier League club. I’ll go coast-to-coast in order, starting out west.
Prediction: At least one player gets called up to play for Canada
Pacific FC played their U21 players for an impressive 13,532 minutes, more than 13 times the 1,000 minute requirement. While some of these U21 players are longer eligible for the rule, they still have a young, talented roster of Canadians that have the potential to do big things in this league.
They have six players on their current roster who played 1,000+ U21 minutes for them last season, with two of those players — Terran Campbell and Kadin Chung — on the pitch for over 2,000 each. This group, now in their second year together, could have a breakout year, and with it, a few players getting on John Herdman’s radar for the Canadian national team.
Left back Marcel de Jong is probably the Pacific player most likely to get a chance with Canada, having played 56 times at senior level since 2007, and playing a position where Herdman could use a bit more stability. He was injured for a lot of 2019, but if he can stay healthy, he’ll be in the conversation for sure.
Terran Campbell, who finished second in league scoring last season with 11 goals, will be a focal point during The Island Games, and if he has a big tournament, might force himself into the national team.
Campbell was one of four Pacific players named to the Canadian roster for the (since postponed) CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying tournament, along with right back Kadin Chung, centre-back Thomas Meilleur-Giguere and midfielder Noah Verhoeven, who trained with the senior national team ahead of the 2019 Gold Cup, but wasn’t part of the final roster.
The future is bright for Pacific, and don’t be surprised if their standout players get rewarded.
Prediction: Don’t finish top two, but still reach the final
Cavalry FC were arguably the most dominant club in the CPL last season, winning both the spring and fall seasons, but just fell short in the CPL Finals. The Cavs, led by 2019 Coach of the Year Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Golden Glove winner Marco Carducci, will be a very good team again, but with a few questions about their roster, may not be as dominant as they were in year one.
It’s also important to remember here that finishing in the top two clubs in the first round of The Island Games doesn’t actually count for anything — it’s the top four that move on to the second round — but obviously finishing higher in the table gives the impression that you’re a better team than those below you.
While Cavalry still have one of, if not the best, squads in the league on paper, other clubs did more to improve on last year’s teams. That could also have a negative effect on the other clubs, as teams try to find chemistry quickly, while Cavalry have an established team with a lot of important returning players.
A few clubs have had trouble getting their international players into the country due to travel restrictions, according to OneSoccer’s Oliver Platt, including Cavalry duo Jose Escalante and Richard Luca. Both were expected to be key players; Escalante was a standout in 2019, and Luca was a new signing for 2020. There is now a big hole to fill on that left side, which will likely require another player, likely Sergio Camargo, to play on the wing, but with the tournament-style season, a lot of rotation is expected from Cavalry’s deep group of attackers.
There’s also a question of who is going to replace Dominique Malonga’s 11 goals. Malonga, who left the club following the 2019 season, was the focal point of a group that scored the most goals in the league. Cavalry do, however, have an impressive attacking group, including the likes of Camargo, Oliver Minatel, and Nico Pasquotti, who combined for 18 goals between them in 2019, as well as Jordan Brown, and new signing Jair Cordova, who is expected to be the starting striker.
Canadian international Marcus Haber has also been signed by the Cavs. He was with Pacific FC last year, but was injured at times and spent a lot of the season on the sidelines. He was limited to 15 matches in all competitions, scoring 4 goals. If he's on form, and gets minutes, he'll be an important player, and will be hoping to score some goals.
I haven’t even mentioned the likes of club captain Nik Ledgerwood, or 2019 standouts Elijah Adekugbe and Dominick Zator, among others. Cavalry will certainly be in contention for the North Star Shield, and are definitely capable of finishing first in the table, so I also think they'll end up back in the final.
I certainly wouldn’t bet against another big season for Tommy Wheeldon Jr’s men, so the first part of my prediction could be very wrong, but only time will tell.
Prediction: Easton Ongaro wins golden boot
Last season, Easton Ongaro found the back of the net 10 times in league action, and once more in the Canadian Championship. The towering striker, listed at 6'6, is a huge threat in the air, for obvious reasons, but can also score with his feet. Given good chances, he'll score goals, and with some of the new signings Edmonton have made — like Keven Aleman and Hanson Boakai — he may be set for a big tournament.
FC Edmonton have also added Toronto FC II left back Terique Mohammed on loan for The Island Games, and if he gets good minutes, could really help out Ongaro. He is capable of firing in some dangerous crosses, and if some end up on Ongaro’s head, the striker will test the goalkeeper.
Ongaro will be the key figure in an FC Edmonton team that will be in contention for a top 4 place, and hungry to improve on their 2019 campaign. If they move onto the second round (or final) they'll play at least 10-11 games and give Ongaro a real shot at leading the league in goals.
Prediction: Improve defensively and cut down the number of goals they concede
Last season, Valour's defence was sub-par considering the high expectations on the Winnipeg-based side. They brought in the likes of Jordan Murrell and Skylar Thomas among others, and were expected to be great defensively, but that didn’t go to plan as they conceded a league-high 52 goals.
Not helped by an 8-0 home defeat to Cavalry FC, Valour allowed 1.8 goals/game in 2019, a number that they’ll want to cut down. If they only play the seven first round matches, they’ll need to concede 10 or less to get to the 1.5 goals/game mark, which isn’t an unrealistic goal for a team that has rebuilt its group of defenders.
The big splash they made in the offseason was bringing in left back Arnold Bouka Moutou, signed from Ligue 1 club Dijon. The Congolese defender will want to form a strong bond with his backline, including Haiti international centre-back Andrew Jean-Baptiste, quickly if Valour are to have a chance at the second round.
Valour finalised their roster on Monday morning with the loan signings of Toronto FC centre-back Julian Dunn and Toronto FC II right-back/ midfielder Dante Campbell. The young duo will be pushing for playing time, and may get some big minutes as the squad will need to rotate to keep everyone fresh.
Prediction: Reach the final, and maybe even win it all
This is bold because it means one of Cavalry FC or Forge FC - last year’s most dominant teams and expected favourites again - dont.
It isn’t, however, when you look at how much The Nine Stripes have improved their squad, on paper anyway.
There’s also a youth movement in full swing. Their average age is under 23, and they only have one player aged 30+ — Kyle Porter, who is exactly 30. Six of their players are aged 20 or under, which sets them up for a few years of the players growing together, getting the valuable U21 minutes, and creating a club culture that sees young players thrive.
Among the offseason additions are former Valour FC forward Michael Petrasso, Ryan Telfer, who returns to the club after signing for a club in Cyprus during the offseason, and Chris Mannella, who most recently played for the Ottawa Fury. These are three of the biggest signings league-wide ahead of this season, significantly improving Y9’s already-decent roster.
There are no glaring holes in this roster. Up top, Telfer, Petrasso and another new signing, Gabriel Vasconcelos, will lead a promising attack. The midfield is expected to include club captain Manny Aparicio, Joseph Di Chiara and Mannella. At the back, one of the league's best players, left back Diyaeddine Abzi, will combine with Luca Gasparotto (who was the only player to play every minute of the 2019 season) and others to protect Nathan Ingham in goal, a 2019 Golden Glove finalist.
This York9 team is built to win now.
Consistency was one of the biggest issues for the club last season, and if Jimmy Brennan’s men can find it in this tournament, they should be a lock for the second round, and are good enough to win it all.
Prediction: Have an unbeaten season, and repeat as champions
This may be the boldest of my predictions, but I don’t think it’s outrageous.
Forge FC have brought back the majority of their title-winning 2019 roster, and probably improved upon it. If there’s any starting 11 better than York9’s, it’s Forge’s, and if you look at their 23-man roster from top to bottom, I don’t think it’s debatable that Forge has the deepest squad in the league.
The biggest question after 2019 league MVP Tristan Borges left the club was who would replace him, and Forge have brought in Paolo Sabak, a Belgian attacker that some believe may even be better than Borges. Sabak made his debut in the Belgian Pro League at age 16, interestingly coming on to replace Toronto FC star Alejandro Pozuelo for Genk. If he can form a bond with Kyle Bekker like Borges did, he's expected to do great things in the CPL.
Forge have also improved parts of their squad that they were already sorted at. At left back, for example, they already had one of the league's best in Kwame Awuah, but went out and got former Montreal Impact and DC United defender Maxim Tissot. Tissot has also been capped 13 times by the Canadian national team, and very well could be on the cusp of another call up, if all goes to plan.
Combining Awuah/ Tissot with one of the league's best centre-back pairings - Daniel Krutzen and David Edgar - and Forge will be a tough team to break down.
They also brought in former Toronto FC forward Mo Babouli last week, who, even if he is limited to coming off the bench to start the tournament, is capable of becoming one of the best players in the league.
With a maximum of only 11 matches if they make it all the way to the final, going unbeaten is a possibility, and if any team is going to do it, it would probably be The Hammers.
Even if they don't go unbeaten, winning a second consecutive North Star Shield is the goal for the Hamilton-based side.
Prediction: Ben Fisk is in contention for the MVP award
Atletico Ottawa may be the hardest team to predict, as they're yet to take the pitch for their inaugural season.
One thing is for sure, though, and it's that Ben Fisk will be a major contributor in 2020. The club's first-ever signing, Fisk will be one of the most important players as the club try to establish themselves during a shortened season.
Even if they only end up playing 7 games, Fisk will see a lot of the ball, and as a veteran leader, will be crucial to any success this team will have in year one.
The MVP award should not only be for the best player in the league, but the most valuable to his team, which could very well be Fisk for Atletico Ottawa.
Prediction: Challenge for the top four
After finishing at the bottom of the 2019 overall table, HFX needed a shakeup, and they did just that, getting rid of 17 of their 23 players.
Among the additions to the squad are former Valour FC standout Louis Beland-Goyette, Jamaican international winger Alex Marshall, USPORTS Draft first overall pick Cory Bent and promising Brazilian attacker João Morelli, among others.
The Wanderers should be impressive going forward in 2020, but like a few other clubs, were let down by a lack of consistency in 2019. A full season would have allowed Stephen Hart’s new-look side to build chemistry and work up to their best, but instead they’ll be hoping to hit the ground running.
HFX certainly have the players to put themselves in the conversation for 4th place, it's now up to them to make that next step.