DEBATE: Which CPL team is best-equipped for a single-site start to the season?

We’re nearly there.

With the Canadian Premier League’s Saturday announcement that a return to play is coming soon, with the 2021 season to kick off on June 26th in a bubble in Winnipeg, actual soccer matches are once again coming over the horizon. Clubs will congregate in Manitoba to begin the 28-game campaign, but they will hopefully be able to return to their home markets during the season. The eight CPL clubs have been busy during the off-season — some have completely retooled their squads, while others have been more sparing with their major additions.

So, now that we know more about how these sides will begin their journeys this year, we can start debating: which team will come out of the gates fastest? Which side will ultimately come out on top? contributors Marty Thompson, Benedict Rhodes, and Charlie O’Connor-Clarke each had their say on one major question: Which CPL team is best-equipped to begin the season in a single-site format?

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Cavalry FC — Marty Thompson

For me, this was a toss up between Pacific FC and the Cavs. While both are decent selections, I can’t help but be drawn to the quality in Cavalry’s squad despite the off-season makeover with contributors like Dominick Zator, Jordan Brown, and Jay Wheeldon departing.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. famously faltered at the final hurdle at the Island Games thanks to some pretty unfortunate injuries. A half-dozen players or more were missing when a chance at the CPL Final rolled around.

Assuming lightning (aka bizarre streaks of injury trouble) won’t strike twice on this Cavalry team, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented 20-odd-player group in the CPL.

Recent addition Joe Mason is arguably the most high-profile player to join the CPL… and his addition came just a handful of days before Friday’s announcement. Then you have Anthony Novak, one of the top handful of no. nines we’ve seen in the CPL’s short history, and a healthy Oliver Minatel confirmed last month. Toss in the return of Jose Escalante and Richard Luca – two exciting wingers that could be on-paper starters for most CPL teams – and you start to grasp just how stacked this Cavalry side is, especially up top.

David Norman Jr. is an exciting and young addition that is a no-brainer replacement for Zator. Daan Klomp and Karifa Yao also look to take the mantle left by Wheeldon and Robert Boskovic. The loss of Elijah Adekugbe to a season-ending Achilles injury is offset by the addition of Joe Di Chiara – one of the Island Games top performers.

Do I need to continue? Mo Farsi is back for another season fresh off a CPL Under-21 Player of the Year award. Marco Carducci is in net and Nik Ledgerwood is back for another campaign at 35.

While chemistry and familiarity could play a big factor in team success during this early single-site kick off, you can’t look past just how bolstered this Cavalry team is and, with a handful of extra roster spots, we could see a few more pieces added.

HFX Wanderers – Benedict Rhodes

HFX Wanderers in a huddle before a first-stage match at The Island Games. (Photo: CPL/Chant Photography)
HFX Wanderers in a huddle before a first-stage match at The Island Games. (Photo: CPL/Chant Photography)

At the Island Games, it was partly Stephen Hart’s experience in managing teams at tournaments that helped guide HFX to the final, and won him the Coach of the Year award.

Hart has coached at five Gold Cups, for example, three with Canada and two with his native Trinidad and Tobago, so he knows from first-hand experience how to manage teams in a single-site environment.

Both on and off the pitch, Hart’s leadership was evident. On the pitch his team were playing attractive soccer, and off of it, Hart “knows what it means to be on the road with a team, to entertain 20–25 guys at the same time to keep them all together in a hotel situation for a couple of weeks,” according to defender Peter Schaale.

The start of the 2021 season won’t be tournament-style like the Island Games was, but there are some elements of it. If Hart can use that experience to get his team settled in quicker than others, HFX could get off to a hot start and put down some big numbers early on.

Unlike some clubs, especially those from Ontario, the Wanderers have also been able to have a bit of preseason training already, a chance to get fit, and build the familiarity needed ahead of a new season.

Bringing back a lot of their key performers from 2020, after an offseason with a lot of turnover the year before, should also be in their favour. Akeem Garcia, who scored six goals in ten games a season ago, is back, as is João Morelli — the other half of one of the top forward duos in the league.

They’ve also brought in new blood — Morey Doner and  Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, among others.

HFX are an underdog in 2021, but they were in the exact same position last year, and that ended up going pretty well.

Forge FC – Charlie O’Connor-Clarke

Forge FC players Mo Babouli and Kyle Bekker (Photo: CPL/Chant Photography)
Forge FC players Mo Babouli and Kyle Bekker (Photo: CPL/Chant Photography)

This feels like an easy answer.

Yes, it’s true Forge will enter the CPL season after a much shorter training camp than almost every other club due to restrictions in Ontario. However, it’s also true that this club has shown in the past that it’s able to pull together quickly. Forge came into the Island Games last summer and won (although each club was pretty much in the same boat). Later that fall, they managed to topple two opponents in the Concacaf League, despite both Municipal Limeño and Tauro FC being in much better match fitness.

The point is that the two-time CPL champions have shown time and again that they can win in difficult circumstances. Until proven otherwise, Forge is the team to beat in the CPL; not only is the vast majority of their title-winning squad returning, they’ve also added a former MVP and Golden Boot winner in Tristan Borges, as well as a near-perfect David Edgar replacement at centre-back in Dejan Jakovic.

Forge’s players have spent more time sequestered together than almost any other side (Atlético Ottawa’s camp in Spain probably makes it close), having traversed the continent last fall for four road games in four different countries. In the CPL bubble at the Island Games, they thrived more than any other side on the tight schedule and routine within a matchweek.

Other teams in the CPL have put a lot of effort over the winter into building a team that can beat Forge, who have indisputably been the league’s top side over two seasons. Although it’s possible they don’t come out of the gate as sharp as some teams that have been training for longer, count them out at your own peril.