The Canadian Premier League’s 2020 season provided a lot of food for thought for soccer fans from coast to coast.
Forge FC repeated as CPL Champions, hoisting the North Star Shield for a second consecutive year after beating HFX Wanderers FC to cap off a wild and entertaining Island Games in PEI.
HFX completed an amazing turnaround, going from last place in 2019 to coming oh-so-close to being crowned CPL Champions in 2020. Atlético Ottawa punched above its weight as the league’s first expansion franchise under very difficult circumstances, while York9 FC fell flat after bringing in a number of high-profile recruits ahead of the season.
All of which got us thinking: With 2020 in the books, what might the next 12 months bring us?
Will Akeem Garcia repeat as the Golden Boot winner? Will one of the league’s many promising youngsters make the move to MLS? Will one of them get scooped up by a team in Europe? Who will be the next CPLer to break into the Canadian men’s team?
CanPL.ca’s Marty Thompson, Charlie O’Connor-Clarke* and John Molinaro offer three thoughts each for 2021.
* Charlie has an extra thought because he’s special – actually, he has four because if each member of CanPL.ca was limited to three we’d only end up with nine, and the title of this article is 10 thoughts for the 2021 CPL season!
In year one of the CPL, there was Forge FC, Cavalry FC, and everyone else. In 2020, that gap closed quite a bit, and the introduction of a top-four format gave us a first-time finalist in HFX Wanderers. In year three, could we see even more parity? Certainly, by this point, Forge is firmly ahead of the pack, and will need to be brought down before anyone else has a real shot at the championship. Still, every other team is likely to be better in 2021 than they were in 2020.
Could York United FC join the mix, with their (literally) new-look, younger squad? Or Valour FC with a much-improved defensive record? Perhaps even FC Edmonton, with a new coach and a renewed sense of optimism? This league will only continue to get more competitive as each team becomes stronger, and that’s good for us all. — Charlie O’Connor-Clarke
Radically different FC Edmonton
The only team that’s likely to look more different than FC Edmonton in 2021 is York United (for, uh, obvious reasons). The CPL’s eldest club had a difficult tenth year, failing to win a match at The Island Games and leaving with just one point.
As a result, change has come. Jeff Paulus stepped down as coach, and in his shoes now stands Alan Koch. The South Africa-born gaffer brings a new outlook to Edmonton, with as much experience as most of his rival CPL managers (he’s the only one with MLS head coaching experience, for one).
We’re still not sure just how different the squad might look; a handful of players have returned from the 2020 roster, and all of them were key contributors — Easton Ongaro and Jeannot Esua stand out in particular. Plus, players such as Kyle Porter, Fraser Aird, and league newcomer Paris Gee should give the side a healthy veteran presence.
This brand-new FC Edmonton might give fans in the Albertan capital a little more to cheer about. — Charlie O’Connor-Clarke
Multiple CPLers at the Gold Cup?
This year is shaping up to be a huge one for the Canadian national teams. On the men’s side, the summer is likely to be rather busy, with World Cup qualifiers and the Concacaf Gold Cup running right up against one another.
So, some have speculated that the two competitions might mean two quite different squads, which will test Canada’s depth chart. Certainly, at least a few CPL players will belong in one of those groups (probably the Gold Cup, since the World Cup qualifiers will surely get the stronger squad).
Marco Bustos has already been invited to a camp later this month, and he wouldn’t be eligible for the Under-23 Olympic squad (oh yeah, that’s coming up too). Could he be on John Herdman’s watchlist for the Gold Cup? Surely a few defenders, such as Amer Didic, Dominick Zator or Kadin Chung, might be there as well. And Marco Carducci? Triston Henry, even?
It’s going to be a busy year for Les Rouges, and they might need some help from the CPL to get through it all. — Charlie O’Connor-Clarke
More MLS-to-CPL loans
After Ryan Telfer got us started in 2019, the year 2020 saw a good handful players loaned from MLS teams to CPL clubs (six players, to be precise). A few of them — Julian Dunn, for instance, and goalkeeper James Pantemis — were serious difference-makers for their clubs.
Although a lot of the arrangements were fairly last-minute, as the MLS sides’ reserve teams had their seasons cancelled, the benefits of loaning to CPL teams were quite clear. Players get competitive first-team minutes, and in return their loan clubs get significant contributors from talented players.
Might we see a few more of these moves in the future? It’s unclear what exactly the USL League One season might look like, which could leave MLS teams’ young players needing minutes. Regardless, though, the CPL has proven to be an excellent place for young players’ development. — Charlie O’Connor-Clarke
More off-season, intra-league swaps
This has been a crazy CPL off-season, with a number of high-profile players moving from one team in the league to another. Joe Di Chiara swapped York United FC for Cavalry FC, Manny Aparicio moved from York to Pacific FC, Chrisnovic N’sa traded life with HFX Wanderers for York, and Fraser Aird left Valour FC for FC Edmonton. There are still plenty of marquee players out there who remain unsigned for this year (most notably Ryan Telfer) so it’ll be interesting to see how the CPL’s free-agency market plays out in the next few months ahead of the 2021 season. — John Molinaro
More CPL players move to MLS
Last off-season saw Joel Waterman make the jump to MLS, as he signed with the Montreal Impact following a solid 2019 CPL season with Cavalry FC. Amer Didic nearly joined him in MLS after training with Vancouver in camp ahead of the 2020 MLS season, but the Whitecaps decided not to sign the FC Edmonton defender. The Island Games highlighted the league’s depth of young talent and with two seasons under the CPL’s belt, MLS teams will be more inclined to sign players from Canada’s top domestic league. So, look for a number of CPL players to be signed by MLS clubs this off-season. — John Molinaro
Time for Bobby Smyrniotis to move on?
You can’t help but wonder how much longer Bobby Smyrniotis will remain a coach in the CPL before an MLS team or a club from abroad takes notice of what he’s accomplished at Forge and hires him away. With two CPL Championships to his credit, and having guided Forge to a great Concacaf League run in 2020, Smyrniotis should be fielding plenty of job offers in the near future. Any team would be lucky to have Smyrniotis, but would he want to move on from a Forge club he had a major hand in building from the ground up into CPL Champions? — John Molinaro
Valour FC are CPL championship contenders… if Julian Dunn returns
If continuity is key to CPL success, then Valour FC is on the path to a North Star Shield. Rob Gale can count on 10 returnees for 2021, all of whom were key contributors at The Island Games, keeping together the core of a side that showed promise defensively but lacked that final ball. If Toronto FC loanee and starting centre back Julian Dunn returns to Winnipeg, which Gale is certainly targeting, this side will have one of the strongest cores in the CPL. — Marty Thompson
Forge has set a Concacaf League precedent for CPL
Forge FC’s incredible run in Concacaf League was, for me, the story of the 2020 domestic Canadian soccer season. While Forge eventually came up short, they did clinch a spot for this year’s Concacaf League after winning The Island Games. Expectations are high, especially considering Bobby Smyrniotis’ side will be playing consistently during 2021’s competition – no more complaints about match fitness or self-isolation periods, hopefully. A precedent has been set. Let’s see if they can match it. — Marty Thompson
Better club transparency in CPL
Canadian Premier League clubs are making it easier to be fans. Teams have been much more transparent about player movement, something we expect to see more of in 2021. For example, CPL clubs have begun to disclose player contract lengths to the public. York United FC even published a 21-player squad list with player numbers before other clubs had formally released their first batch of players. — Marty Thompson