HFX Wanderers have a lot to do, perhaps the most of any Canadian Premier League side this off-season.
After seeing his club finish bottom in the overall table in 2019, HFX coach Stephen Hart has already begun rebuilding a team that will look to make significant strides and climb the standings next season.
Rampersad is the big-ticket player for Hart thus far. While not flashy, Rampersad, 24, was a regular starter and one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league in 2019 – so smart positionally, good in the tackle, with much-needed patience in the box.
“He showed promise every time he played but as the season went on and he started to become more comfortable, he showed the freedom to bring his qualities to the games,” Hart said of Rampersad.
Garcia represents the other big re-signing. His seven goals led the team, and he could have easily reached double digits if he had better service. With speed to burn and a wicked ability to finish, Garcia was an off-season priority for Hart.
“He made significant contributions and I’m happy he decided to return,” Hart said. “Akeem’s willingness to run the channels and score goals is extremely important to us.”
Local products Oxner and Firth offer first-team potential and aspirations. While still early days, this group rounds out a light-but-tight core.
We saw numerous players take to social media to thank Wanderers supporters earlier this month. A mark of departure, gratitude or both?
Still, there are a lot of holes to be filled in Halifax, whether via former players or new ones – an important segment of squad building we’ll address later.
There is one big thing Hart is looking for: Goals. It was the word on his lips at this month’s 2019 CPL-U SPORTS Draft – an informal conclusion to his side’s inaugural campaign which ended with just 21 goals from 28 matches.
The Wanderers had multiple chances to win matches this season with just a bit more firepower – especially looking back at those six consecutive draws in the Fall. Defending was good, and the midfield was solid. They just needed to create more and convert.
Which brings us to the top of the checklist: Hart needs a day-in, day-out centre forward with a few decent attacking midfielders.
Forward Thomaz Skublak, while inconsistent, had a good run. However, as a native of southern Ontario with deep connections to Forge FC and York9 FC, Skublak could move back home in 2020. Luis Alberto Perea spent most of the season out injured, so that didn’t work out well.
This turns our attention to Cory Bent, the first pick in the 2019 CPL-U SPORTS. A CPL-ready winger and goalscorer, he offers a potential cure to that attacking curse, although he remains unsigned. More attackers could be expected to head out east in time for 2020.
Looking to the backline, there’s a big, German elephant in the room. Hart had the pleasure, or perhaps burden, of seeing Peter Schaale perform so admirably for his side in 2019 before returning to Cape Breton University.
Arguably the best pick from last year’s CPL-U SPORTS Draft, the 23-year-old centre back is a would-be lock for a return; he stays in the region, the fans already love him, and he’ll likely start from Day 1. But things have been quiet on this end. Perhaps that’s due to Schaale’s schooling. He earned a bronze medal at the 2019 U SPORTS Championship earlier this month and still has another semester of school left.
Still, it would be another top priority for Hart to capture his signature and give his side a much-needed anchor moving forward.
As mentioned, Hart is in the first stages of developing his 2020 squad. There are positives, of course; he’s re-signed his best goalkeeper, midfielder and striker. But significant player turnover is coming, as it is for most CPL clubs in Year 1. Halifax’s outlook lies in replacing – and improving – on those players they decide not to bring back.
Hart’s biggest selling point to potential future Wanderers? The hometown crowd. Wanderers Grounds became the hardest CPL home ground to visit in 2019, even with a below-average team. Fans that love you and a stadium packed every match – who loves the sound of that?
We’ll soon find out, as the Wanderers search for new names over the winter months.