It isn’t hyperbole to suggest HFX Wanderers FC are entering the biggest game in their short history.
HFX will face Forge FC in the 2020 Canadian Premier League Final on Saturday (2 p.m. ET/3 p.m. AT, CBC & OneSoccer), and Wanderers Grounds will be rocking. While the Wanderers will be taking on Forge in Charlottetown, hundreds of HFX supporters will file into Wanderers Grounds for a socially-distanced viewing party, which sold out earlier this week.
This show of passion from the fans back home touched coach Stephen Hart.
“Football without fans is just sweating,” Hart told reporters on Friday. “To the fans, we thank you, we appreciate your patience, and we love you.
“They have been behind us all along – even in lockdown they have been supporting us … It’s been a breath of fresh air. We’re really touched and grateful that we have the fanbase that we do have.”
While HFX could be considered underdogs vs. Forge after finishing in last-place last season (more on that later), recent history tells a different story.
The Wanderers are the lone CPL team to post a .500 record or better against Forge over two seasons, and back-to-back 1-1 draws at The Island games make the margins even narrower. In fact, Forge has yet to score in open play against the Wanderers in PEI, with both their goals coming via controversial penalties.
The Wanderers are coming off a 5-0 loss to Pacific FC. HFX fielded a heavily-rotated side featuring two teenagers, but questions about the side’s mental state after such a heavy loss were quickly dismissed by Hart.
“I haven’t mentioned the game once,” Hart said. “The game… it doesn’t matter.
CPL Awards nominees ‘were a bit underrated’
Friday brought nominations for the 2020 CPL Awards, and four nods for the resurgent Wanderers.
All three player nominees are returnees from the 2019 season when HFX finished bottom of the standings: goalkeeper Christian Oxner for the Golden Glove award, defender Chrisnovic N’sa for best under-21 player, and attacker Akeem Garcia for Player of the Year.
“If you look at the results we put together last season we were a bit underrated,” Oxner said. “We’ve just been missing the cutting edge to win games.
“The guys that stayed… we’ve established a good culture here at the club and we’ve transformed into a winning side and you can see what the guys who’ve come in, they’ve adopted a culture really well. Going forward the club has a culture to build off of – we’ve set the bar high and now we have expectations for the next few years.”
Hart agreed, adding the seven returnees players have infused quality into his roster.
Garcia leads the Golden Boot race with six goals, as he and fellow danger man João Morelli have combined for 10 goals in 10 matches.
“He played out of position in order to help the team and that’s just the nature of the player,” Hart said of Garcia.
“He will do anything that’s asked of him. He’s worked diligently on improving and as a consequence, of course, compounded by the variety of service, he can now get from both inside feel and under wide positions. He’s done well and played well.”
That extra attention to young, up-and-coming players also gave Hart reason to puff out his chest.
“Ultimately, these players will get a little more respect because they’ve achieved this. And really and truly that’s the goal of the club that’s the goal of the league,” Hart stated.
The Wanderers are somewhat healthy, according to Hart, with only a few knocks affecting the side going into Saturday’s final.
“We’ve been lucky… our medical staff has worked very hard to ensure this happens, we change some of our preseason training a bit because we had so many muscle injuries last year and we were fortunate to play in a tournament and get away without too much contact injuries,” Hart said.
“It sort of helped us, and of course, also the ability to rotate the squad a bit more this year and we could have lost him.”
‘We’ve worked on penalties’ ahead of Saturday’s final
Saturday’s match will go straight to penalties if tied after 90 minutes, with no extra-time session. Hart admits he’s worked his side from the penalty spot in training.
“Everybody’s confident to step up when nothing’s on the line,” Hart said.
“We have worked on it from a goalkeeping perspective and from a shooting perspective… We try to cover as many details as possible for the players.”
Oxner, meanwhile, had a bit of fun about the potential of facing a series of season-defining penalties: