5 reasons for the Halifax Wanderers’ slow start to the 2024 Canadian Premier League season

Through five matchweeks in the 2024 Canadian Premier League season, perhaps the biggest surprise has been the team that currently sits seventh of eight: the Halifax Wanderers.

After making headlines for the opposite reasons last season, as they rose from seventh in 2022 to secure their first-ever home playoff match in 2023 in Patrice Gheisar’s first year in charge, there were internal and external expectations of another big step forward in 2024.

With just four of 28 matches played this campaign, it is far too early to jump to any permanent conclusions about this team. Halifax, after all, did not win last season until the ninth match of the year (ten in all competitions) and still finished tied with the second most points in the CPL.

They did, however, have four points in the bank at this stage in 2023, versus having just picked up their first and only point of the campaign so far in a 1-1 draw with Cavalry FC this past weekend. Coupled with a loss in a penalty shootout to League1 Québec side CS Saint-Laurent at home in the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship, which meant a missed opportunity to play Toronto FC in a home-and-away in the quarter-finals, it has seemed to be a somewhat demoralizing start to the campaign. Halifax head coach Gheisar, however, pushed back against this notion over the weekend after his side’s draw with Cavalry FC — feeling his team and players have received undue criticism so far this year.

“I come from a different world,” said Gheisar. “It hasn’t been a hard week. I feel like it’s you guys that are destroying these poor guys. I think there’s a lot of negative comments and we’re not playing poorly. I have to remind everyone, [Cavalry were] the league champions by 13 points and we missed five big chances. I’m not going to go and say this is a step in the right direction and all that stuff. That’s a great effort where you have a goal disallowed, you have five big chances, you hit the crossbar; that’s a valiant effort.”

With this in mind, what do the numbers say about the start of the Wanderers’ season? Where does the club still need to improve and how worried should fans be about the slow start?

Offensive struggles and bad luck in front of goal

Wanderers’ striker Christian Volesky (Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC)

Let’s start with the most alarming number beyond the amount of points that the Wanderers have accumulated: the fact that they have scored the fewest goals in the league so far this year (two).

The attack started slowly last year as well, it’s worth noting, as Halifax scored just three goals in their first four matches of 2023. Just like this time last year, however, the underlying numbers suggest they are significantly underperforming in front of goal. Through four matches, they have already underperformed their expected goals by a stunning 3.44.

Halifax’s expected goals per game are down from 2023 (1.36 vs. 1.52), a season where the Wanderers had the second-highest xG in the league. But they are still third in the league in expected goals per match, including being ahead of the offensive juggernaut that is Forge in this statistic. They also have more touches in the opposing box per match (24) and passes in the opposition half (173 per match) than they did last season, suggesting they are still getting into good areas of the pitch.

Further evidence of their poor luck in front of goal, they have already hit the woodwork a league-leading three times so far this season. From an individual standpoint, new signing Christian Volesky has yet to score despite 1.07 expected goals and getting into good positions on the pitch, while leading goalscorer from 2023, Massimo Ferrin, has started the year dealing with an injury. Ferrin scored just once in Halifax’s opening 11 CPL matches last season, however, before hitting his stride in the second half. Once the first one goes in for both of these players, expect many to follow given their history.

Still figuring out the defensive side of the ball

The area where there is concern to start this season is at the back, as only last-place Valour have allowed more goals against per game (1.75) than Halifax.

The Wanderers’ expected goals against per match have also been significantly up from last year, at 1.52 compared to just 1.19 in 2023. This comes with allowing five shots on target (up from 3.71 last year) per match over their first four CPL games.

Gheisar’s group has experimented with a back four and back three, with the highly-touted Julian Dunn joining Cale Loughrey and 2023 Defender of the Year nominee Dan Nimick this year. It is clear that the team as a whole is still looking to find defensive balance, however, as the absence of a steady presence like captain Mo Omar, who departed the club this off-season, in defensive midfield has been clear.

The club’s defensive issues this season do seem to be more related to individual error versus obvious systemic problems. For example, Dunn’s penalty conceded in the opening match, Jeremy Gagnon-Laparé’s ill-advised header back to Yann Fillion against Vancouver FC, or Dan Nimick’s giveaway later that game. Three of the goals they conceded, meanwhile, came while down a man against Atlético Ottawa.

Those errors are perhaps easier to eliminate than a more all-encompassing issue with their defensive structure. But unlike the team’s attack the numbers do suggest that they need to change something if they want to stop shipping goals and improve results.

Lorenzo Callegari’s absence

Lorenzo Callegari was sent off for a high challenge of Atlético Ottawa’s Manny Aparicio (Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC)

It has been a season of difficult moments for the Halifax Wanderers, but perhaps none — in CPL action at least — had the early season impact of Lorenzo Callegari’s 19th-minute red card against Atlético Ottawa in the team’s home opener.

Not only did that mean the club played 70 plus minutes a man down in a 3-1 loss to Atleti, but also meant that the Player of the Year nominee in 2023 missed this weekend’s clash with Cavalry, and will be suspended for Monday’s match against Valour. The league’s passing leader in 2023, he has again played the most successful passes per 90 (75.24) of any player who has played at least 45 minutes to start this campaign.

Considering Halifax as a team have played the fewest successful passes in the league so far this season, the impact of Callegari’s absence in the midfield has been evident. He is critical to setting the tempo and breaking lines in a way that Halifax like to play with the ball, while also critical to recovering possession defensively.

Starting games on the front foot

The Halifax Wanderers are the only team in the Canadian Premier League so far this season that haven’t yet led in a match. They have allowed the opening goal in all four games they have played in the league this year, and only they and York United have failed to score a first-half goal this season. They also have the lowest xG number in the league in first halves (just 1.83, compared to 3.59 in the second half), further underlining their need to start games a little more proactively.

Taking the lead in matches was a huge hallmark of Halifax’s success in 2023, as they did so 17 times last season. This was especially true at the Wanderers Grounds, where opening the scoring in 10 of their 14 home matches was critical to a club-record 28 home points in 2023.

It was, however, a bit of an issue early last season as well, as in four straight matches between May 13 and June 3, 2023, they allowed the opening goal — and went five straight in total without scoring the opener. Gheisar’s men certainly won’t want to better that streak to start this year.

They ended that streak, and picked up their first win of 2023, perhaps coincidentally, with a 2-0 home victory against Valour who they face on Monday for the first time this season.

Difference in expectation and pressure

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last year cannot be measured by numbers. It is the level of expectation that has been placed on this team and its players after a historic 2023 in which they stunned the entire league by making a 13-point year-over-year improvement.

They’ve kept most of that core together, including Player of the Year nominee Callegari and Defender of the Year nominee Nimick among others, while adding players like Dunn, Gagnon-Laparé and Volesky.

But as 2022 regular season champions Atlético Ottawa learned the hard way last season, in a league as close as the Canadian Premier League maintaining year-over-year success can be immensely difficult. Atleti fell to sixth in 2023 and missed the playoffs.

There are still a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Halifax, and like last year any discussion about early-season struggles could easily be overshadowed by what follows in the next 24 league matches and beyond. But whether or not, and how quickly, the Wanderers can turn things around remains a fascinating story to watch early in this Canadian Premier League season.