From playing on Prince Edward Island to the five-substitute rule, the 2020 Canadian Premier League season will be an unprecedented one.
The Island Games will play out as a 35-match sprint in Charlottetown with the North Star Shield at stake. It’s a unique regular season format: eight teams set to duke it out over two group stages and one final, all in one city.
With the season hinging on seven-to-11 matches, CPL clubs don’t have much room for error before, well, they’re voted off the Island.
Coaches are set to face the brunt of this challenge; rotating players to keep them fit, using additional substitutions to earn a result, and dealing with players’ mental states as they spend over a month away from home.
Here’s what some CPL coaches have told CanPL.ca about how they are approaching The Island Games.
With matches in quick succession, more subs available, and each and every point a crucial one, rotating and keeping players fresh will be a high priority.
FC Edmonton’s Jeff Paulus has already mapped out a “minute load” strategy for his squad, starting from 30-minute shifts to the full 90.
“I think this format suits us really well as a team, because I’ve got two strikers in Tomi Ameobi and Easton Ongaro that I can always keep fresh,” said Paulus, before adding that midfielders Allan Zebie and Erik Zetterberg can be rotated as well.
“We think we can rotate them enough to keep them fresh, where one player would play 90, then the second player would play 60 and the third player would play 30. And then the next game, the 90-minute player gets to rest for 60 minutes. So we think we’ve got a good balance.
“The fact that we’ve got, now, the signing of so many left-footed players, we know that we’ve got players that can step in now, and replace the ones that are starting. So we like our chances in an event like this. I imagine every manager’s saying that, as they should be, but we think we’ll be ready for it.”
With five substitutes on offer, it’s certain that forwards and attack-minded players will be added and subtracted quite often in P.E.I. Valour FC’s Rob Gale has targeted that tactic with his “score by committee” approach, looking to chop and change a forward line which could feature any combination of Austin Ricci, Shaan Hundal, Brett Levis, Fraser Aird, Moses Dyer, and Darryl Fordyce.
“I feel like we have a number of players who, if we challenge them, can get in and around double-digit goals – or the equivalent of that in a shortened season,” Gale said. “That’s encouraging. You just hope you can avoid injury, have some good luck and confidence and that all comes together at the right time.
“But with Moses, Fraser, Brett, Darryl… those guys are likely to shoot more. Then the opposition has to respect that and the defence has to get a bit tighter. People knew last year we were over-playing and then just sit off a little more off us because we were less likely to shoot.”
Wheeldon Jr., Smyrniotis targeting ‘tactical battle’ of five-sub rule
In Calgary, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has put emphasis on Cavalry FC’s “12th-to-16th man” with strong off-the-bench options set to play a factor – especially in the seven-match opening group stage.
“The five substitute rule is a great addition considering where these players came from but it’s also a new position – it’s now the impact 12th-to-16th man that comes on to seal a match,” Wheeldon Jr. stated. “We need to play it like a tournament and think about the training load.”
Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis seems best equipped for the five-substitution rule, having years of experience with it in League1 Ontario. While the circumstances are different (subs at The Island Games can only be made in three instances, rather than five), Smyrniotis feels confident – especially using Forge’s well-known depth.
“It’s not that you want to make five subs to kill time or something, but it’s something that’s tactical in nature – where you need to freshen things up,” Smyrniotis explained. “But we learned a long time ago to keep things under control – you make five subs and you have half your team replaced.
“It’s very important you don’t go crazy with it.”
Pacific’s Kah, Wanderers’ Hart keep mum
On the Canadian coasts, first-year Pacific FC coach Pa-Modou Kah and HFX Wanderers FC gaffer Stephen Hart offer much more subtle takes on The Island Games.
Kah, who will bring just 17 outfield players to Prince Edward Island, isn’t looking too far ahead. Pacific has been pegged as a favourite by CanPL.ca pundits, with off-season additions such as Callum Irving and Marco Bustos boosting the club’s reputation after 2019’s disappointing 8-7-13 record.
“I’m more focused on how we’re going to play, so the players understand the philosophy as best as they can,” Kah explained. “Working on keeping that mental sharpness and trying to do as much as we can. It’s about finding those methods that keep everyone sharp.”
But, with the single-site format requiring a special set of mental attributes, Kah insists his Pacific players will need to be ready to adapt to the lifestyle brought to them in Charlottetown.
“You have to go in there ready to perform. We’ll need a level of adaptability – but that’s life,” Kah offered.
Hart is staying cautious, keeping an eye on the 2021 campaign for his Wanderers side.
“I think that’s going to be the overall approach and of course you want to win, but I think a lot of the coaches will give it a good go and see what they have to work with and see what happens in 2021,” Hart stated.
“I think it’s tough. You get seven games under your belt in a short period of time. It will be hard for us to hit our best stride.”
But, you never know. The Wanderers, like every other CPL club, have a very real chance of winning the 2020 CPL Championship. With this abridged format, a few wins and suddenly a team is a favourite. Hart acknowledges the chance of winning a championship but – like most supporters, players, and coaches – is thrilled to finally have games to play.
“I’m happy for the players because, even when we went back to training in June, I would have said no chance to a tournament like this,” Hart admitted.
“It was pie in the sky at the time. Now it’s real.”