Valour training camp: Defenders have ‘showed glimpses’ of 2021 potential
Valour FC

Valour FC coach Rob Gale speaks to Ed Tait following training Friday.

Picture a building project where the foundation is poured and the walls are framed and drywalled. And then imagine that project sitting idle for months on end.

That, in a sense, is the state of Valour FC’s defensive backline.

One of the club’s biggest objectives heading into 2020 was to cut down on the grotesque number of goals conceded from a league-worst 52 in 28 matches in 2019. The signs at the Island Games in PEI last year – a seven-game stint that offered such a small sample size – were all promising, as the goals conceded per match dropped to 1.29 from 1.86 in the inaugural season.

The mission for Valour in 2021 is simple: to complete the project by re-establishing the backline as one of the sturdiest in the CPL.

Returning are experienced defenders Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Stefan Cebara and Arnold Bouka Moutou, who won’t be in Winnipeg until sometime in June. They’re joined by Federico Pena, who played well in PEI last summer and made his international debut with Trinidad and Tobago this Winter, Panamanian Amir Soto – signed last year but unable to come to Canada due to visa/pandemic issues – and CPL-U SPORTS Draft pick Tony Mikhael, who suited up for the Lebanese U-23 team this winter.

RELATED READING: CPL off-season roster tracker: Who’s in and who’s out for 2021? || Valour FC camp report: Who is Winnipeg’s no. 1 goalkeeper? || Newsroom: CanMNT’s big week abroad, Valour’s Andrew Jean-Baptiste

“We have a very solid backline when it comes to the Canadian Premier League,” began Cebara. “We have Andrew, a very solid defender and one of the best – if not the best – centre backs in the league. We have Arnold, who is a very good, experienced left-back who can produce and many things on the pitch.

“We’re still seeing who is going to play the right centre-back role – it could be any of our few new faces – and then there’s me on the right side. I try to go up and down as much as I can and provide offence just as much as defence. We all have communication skills; the whole backline communicates very well and we get along very well on and off the pitch.

“It was a bit too short last year. I think we only showed glimpses of our potential. I believe there’s a lot more in the tank from everyone on the team. Everyone showed glimpses of their good quality and if we had had more games last year we would have been much more successful.”

Stefan Cebara (right). (Valour FC)
Stefan Cebara (right). (Valour FC)

Valour head coach Rob Gale is still on the hunt for another centre back – a position so capably held last year by Julian Dunn, a Toronto FC II loanee.

Depth will be massively important, as the backline was crushed by injuries at the Island Games. All told, nine different players lined up along the back in seven matches last year, and Gale used five different lineup combinations.

Even with all that turnover, Valour posted two clean sheets last year after managing six in 28 matches in 2019.

“It’s unusual to have that many defenders go down,” said Gale. “As a coach, you don’t want to change a good combination and a winning combination. But 60 minutes into our first game (vs. Cavalry FC), our most-storied player in Arnold Bouka Moutou goes down.

“You have to adapt, you have to be flexible. Those players are key. You need to have the depth of a squad, rotate people in and cover for injuries with so many games.

“Ideally we keep with the continued strong partnerships back there, but we also feel that when injuries pop up we’ll have eight or nine players comfortable in playing across the backline.”

Critical in finding some continuity could be a healthy Bouka Moutou. The 32-year-old Congolese international with extensive Ligue 1 experience in France was injured in the first match of the Island Games and limited to just 70 minutes in the whole tournament.

“He’s smooth as a baby’s bum,” Gale said. “It’s a shame because what we saw in training… he’s a standout. He’s the fittest player in training and put the younger players to shame.

“He was key in Federico Pena’s development last year because in that return-to-play and small groups those guys were partners in everything and he helped Federico see his consistency and technical quality day in and day out. It was really unfortunate to have that serious of an injury on your debut and not make any more appearances other than re-injuring it against Forge in the last game.

“He’s dynamic. He’s good 1 v 1 and technically he’s as good as they come. He’s a big addition.”

Again, there’s so much promise for this position group for Valour. The key now to build it into something both sturdy and spectacular.

“If we can keep that chemistry going we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” said Jean-Baptiste. “That’s one of the things I saw and appreciated so much in our training sessions last year – there was a desire to not giving up goals, not only because it’s our job, but because it’s the feeling of going into your bet and picking out the ball. In training if you get scored on you don’t get the ball back, the team that scored gets it again and they’re coming back at you. It’s also personal pride. “You’ve got to set a standard for yourself and that transitions into games. That’s where it started for us. That mentality is contagious and it transfers over into games.”