GANGUE-RUZIC: How Valour FC went from CPL afterthought to playoff contenders

Valour FC have arguably been the story of the summer in the Canadian Premier League.

After not tasting much sustained success during their first three seasons in the league – other than a hot streak here and there – Valour FC has done their best to try and change their fortunes in 2022 as they looked to secure a playoff spot for the first time in their short history.

Thanks to a strong run of form over the past two months, they’re now closer than ever to making that dream a reality. The Winnipeg-based side currently sits in the top four with three matches left in the season, and are very much in the race for both the playoffs and the CPL’s regular season crown.

Having completely bought into the system and ideas of second-year head coach Phil Dos Santos, as well as developing some much-needed chemistry and understanding on the pitch, things are starting to come together quite nicely right when it counts for Valour FC.

“It’s been really exciting,” Valour midfielder Brett Levis told OneSoccer last week. “It’s not something that I don’t think was surprising to us, maybe it was to other people, maybe it was to the league, but you could definitely see what we were building, day-in, day-out.”

“I think there were a lot of results towards the beginning and middle of the season that weren’t necessarily in our favor in terms of score lines, but were in terms of our performances and the progression that we were making on the field, we could see that. So once the results started to fall into place, it was really nice to see.”

With three games remaining in their CPL season, Valour are trying their best to push what they’ve started over the line and earn a CPL playoff experience, hoping to bring post-season soccer to the city of Winnipeg for the first time.

Buying into the Phil Dos Santos system

To understand how Valour got to this point, it’s important to look back to a single date – September 23rd, 2021.

That day, the club hired former Vancouver Whitecaps assistant coach Phil Dos Santos to be their head coach, replacing the outgoing Rob Gale, who had just been relieved of his duties after nearly three years at the club.

After a bright start to the 2021 campaign where Valour burst out of the gates in the “Winnipeg bubble” to open another COVID-troubled season, the team just couldn’t hold onto their strong position after eight games, falling to fifth by the time Gale was fired at 18 matches into the campaign.

Once the club brought in Dos Santos, Valour enjoyed a slight uptick in performances. While it didn’t lead to them ultimately changing their fate in finishing the year in fifth and missing the playoffs by just one point, there was a new optimism that they could really do some damage in 2022.

So far this year, that’s proven to be exactly the case. It took a bit of time out of the gates, as Valour started the year with a record of 2W-4D-4L, but around June, things started to click, leading them to go on a run that has seen them go 8W-3D-4L in the 15 games they’ve played since.

Playing in a rigid system that defends as a team, limits space and hurts teams in transition, Valour have become one of the most tactically disciplined outfits in the league – and rather tough to beat on their day.

Combine that with difference-makers in key positions – from goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois, to Andrew Jean-Baptiste at centre back, as well as Sean Rea and Moses Dyer across the attack – along with a solid mix of players all over the pitch who might not get as much recognition as they should, and you’ve got the recipe for the exact kind of talent-meets-determination that makes an underdog side a winner.

That formulation is a credit to the work that Dos Santos has put into the side. He’s found a way to both maximize his team’s strengths while getting his players to play an extremely tactically disciplined style of play – no small task considering how many different kinds of players and personalities he’s got in his ranks.

Yet, as he continues tinkering to perfect his formula, Dos Santos has also shown he’s not afraid to try something bold if he believes his team is up for it, too. That penchant for risk-taking has seen Valour adapt and evolve well, despite the ever-changing circumstances around them.

“What a fantastic coach Phil is, in terms of both the tactical side of the game, but also the mentality side of the game, and he’s helped us for sure,” Valour captain Daryl Fordyce told OneSoccer. “We’ve worked on our system all year, but then it wasn’t until last month where he took himself out of his comfort zone to change our system and install new belief into the players, for us to believe in that little bit of change. And over the past month, we’ve really taken to that new system and have gotten ourselves into fighting contention for the top four.”

Valour FC head coach Phil Dos Santos
Valour FC head coach Phil Dos Santos

Paced by an approach that looks to keep his players on an even keel as much as possible, Valour FC has also shown they can remain relatively consistent throughout the season, taking things one game at a time.

As a result, they’ve only lost more than one game in a row just once this season, and that was when they had a losing skid of a whopping two games back at the end of July. Otherwise, this team finds itself rebounding well and avoiding the sorts of losing streaks that can throw a season off its rails.

“Phil keeps the group together,” Fordyce said, of that resilience. “We don’t stray too far from each other, we don’t get too high when we’re high, and we don’t get too low when we’re low, and and I think that’s the thing that’s really helped us to go from where we were in preseason to where we are now, where we’re not really playing as much catch up as we have been doing the last few years, and instead were now in spot to actually give it a real go.”

Driven by his detail-oriented approach – one that leaves little to chance both internally and in scouting of their opposition – Valour’s players have felt a boost in confidence of preparation, an asset that has paid off handsomely in the table.

“I would use the word ‘militant ‘to a certain extent, just in terms of the detail, the structure that goes into our team,” Levis explained. “Whether it’s the game plan, whether it’s our training sessions in the week leading up, we know what we’re doing each day, each section, what we’re working on, what he wants it to look like, it’s all very detailed. And that makes it easy for the players, right, to understand your role, really know your role.

“And, Phil is open to questions too, so if players don’t understand their role, they’ll understand it very quickly once you ask him or whoever else on the staff, and I think that’s very important. Those fine details matter so much, especially when you see how tight the top five is, those details a lot of times make the difference in games.”

That collective buy-in has paved the way for positive results, though not at any cost – crucially, Valour is winning the Valour way.

For a team in a young league, finding an identity is key. Under Dos Santos, Valour have done just that, and then some.

“Everybody sees the end goal, everybody understands their role on the team, they understand their role inside of our structure,” Levis offered. “I think with any team, once you have the right personnel, and once you have everybody on the same page striving for the same goal, once you have the results coming together, everything just starts flourishing.”

Finding balancing in youth and leadership

While it’s important to have a strong tactical gameplan, you also need a good group of footballers willing to buy into the philosophies that are being laid out in front of them.

In that regard, Valour has been quite intriguing to watch. From relying on past veterans that were there from before Dos Santos, such as Levis, Fordyce, Jean-Baptiste, Dyer, Stefan Cebara, and Andy Baquero, to bringing in some new veterans such as Billy Forbes and Alessandro Riggi, the Winnipeg-based side has done well to find a strong core of experienced players.

From there, they added their real kicker; a group of young and hungry players bursting with talent. Led by CF Montreal’s young attacking midfield star Rea, Valour boasts some of the CPL’s finest young footballers, such as Sirois, Rayane Yesli, Matteo de Brienne, Nassim Mekidèche, and Rocco Romeo, to name a few.

By looking through every player acquisition model possible, from loans, the CPL-U SPORTS Draft, free agency and more, Valour has put together an unusually-balanced team filled with a good mix of veteran and young talent.

That, in turn, has created a unique and dynamic team environment, one that has blended together quite nicely in Dos Santos’s eyes.

“Yeah, it’s been good,” Dos Santos told OneSoccer of his team’s dynamic. “I think it’s important to have that mix, I even think that it’s important to create micro dynamics when it comes to having that mix, and I’ll give you an example: A player like Andrew Jean-Baptiste playing next to Rocco Romeo will help Rocco to grow, but when you have two or three young guys (like Rocco) together, and they have to figure out everything on their own, there’s not much leadership in the way that dynamic is created, it’s more difficult for those players, so it’s good to to have players paired up in way where a younger player could look up to an older player and get those cues, to have those dialogues on how to address certain things in certain moments of the game.

“So I think that that’s important in the dynamic of the team, it’s about finding a good mix of experience with that youth, especially in a league like the CPL where you need to play young players, there are rules put in place for that, you want to make sure that you also surround the young players with players that will allow them to grow, that can get them out of the water when they’re a little bit underwater.”

That mix has allowed young players, in particular, to shine, as a veteran-led environment has given them the freedom to learn and grow from those around them, especially as the season has gone along.

“It’s good to have that feedback that older players will always be giving to younger players in games,” Dos Santos continued. “But also the rest of the time, letting them know that it’s not all gonna be sunshine and roses, and that we can go from a week where we were receiving a lot of praise, and then you lose one game, for some young players, it could look like the mountain suddenly got very high in front of them. So having that experienced player come in and say ‘Hey, it’s just one game, we have another one right around the corner,’ that’s important.

“I expect guys that are a little bit more experienced, a little bit older to right away turn the page, know that the next one is coming, and just have the ability and the maturity to show an inner strength and put it out there to make sure that the group understands that we stumbled, but we have to go, get up and fight for the next one.”

Valour players celebrate a goal
Valour players celebrate a goal

This mix of personalities is starting to pay off in other ways as well.

Valour’s youngsters have been keeping the veteran core on their toes since day one. But now? They’re really starting to push them in other ways too, showing how comfortable they’ve become in the team.

That’s something that Fordyce in particular noted, saying that he’s really seen the youngsters step up and try and push up the veterans when they might not be at their best, making sure that no one is left behind in that regard.

“It’s a great mix,” Fordyce said. “But you can talk about veterans and young people and the guys in between but for me, it’s all about being a good person. And as it says something that every single player we have in the group, first and foremost, is a good person. They’re willing to chip in when work needs to be done. And we’re willing to pull each other further up and we’re feeling a little bit down, and that’s been a great mix.

“It hasn’t just been the leaders that have been doing it, either; it’s the younger players, too. I even have young players coming to me when they can sense that maybe I’ve had a rough day the day before, with my little kid running running around, and haven’t had a good sleep, they can sense that, and they come over and pick me up, and pick Brett (Levis) up, pick Andrew Jean-Baptiste up, us older guys, so yeah, it’s a great group that we have, everyone’s been proud to work together right from the first day right until now, and I believe that every single player will continue to have that until the end of the season.”

Through that, the team has created a strong baseline of respect amongst themselves. It’s a respect that is evident on the field when they play, and looks to be strong in the locker room, too, something that they believe has really given them the edge this season.

“It’s really important to have that balance,” Levis said. “You see that a lot with successful teams, they have that blend of young and whatever you want to call it, old, mature or experienced players, players who have played in different leagues around the world, higher leagues, lower leagues, and just having that that mixture, while at the same time having respect for one another, too.”

Fan connection advantage not lost on Valour

Through all of the hard work that they’ve put in on and off the field, it’s not just paying off for them in the standings, either, but in other areas, too.

The biggest of them all? The growing relationship between them and their fans, which while always strong, has seemed to hit a new level this season, on many fronts.

Already known for the passion and respect that they show to both their team and others around the league, to their charming rebelliousness in during the COVID bubble in standing outside the stadium for Valour games to bang a drum even when not allowed in, Valour’s supporters have fuelled an electric atmosphere at IG Field.

Although it might not always be visually obvious given how cavernous the grounds look on camera, the noise they bring is very noticeable through the broadcast, especially after goals.

ValoursupportersThe club has made sure to try and reward them for that support, both in terms of wins, as well as their overall commitment to the club and the community, something that Dos Santos has noticed, saying his team feels very at home in the city.

Because of that, it has become his team’s goal to not just make the playoffs to stay in title contention, but to give their fans the home playoff game that they feel they deserve, too, adding further motivation in their push to make that happen.

“We have great fans,” Dos Santos said. “I think it was hard (for us before) to be here in this stadium, and see how they bring noise and now they commit to us, and not be able to reward them for that, so it’s very good when we have a chance to be able to give back and work for them, as we’re very close with them. We have a few local boys, and some who have made Winnipeg their home in many ways.

“So I think the connection has been good. It’s also credit to the fact that we have players that love to engage with the community, and with the fans, and it shows. And, of course the fans, they’ve been here for us in the difficult moments, so it’s great that we’re able to give back a little bit, and hopefully we can continue to do that, and bring a playoff game to the city and and just reward our fans with something special like that, because they deserve it.”

A city always known for its strong support of other sports, such as hockey with the Winnipeg Jets, as well as with football with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Valour’s fanbase have proven that support can now translate over to soccer, too, despite Winnipeg not being what some might expect to be a typical “soccer hub.”

Yet for Levis, who grew up in a similar city in Saskatoon, he notes that’s the sort of thing that these towns do, as they love their sports, and although that might surprise some outsiders, one of those sports is most definitely soccer.

“Winnipeg is such a sports city,” Levis explained. “I always say it’s very similar to Saskatoon, these prairie provinces, they love their sports, so once you start winning games, it gets more exciting, and the fans really get behind you, not that they weren’t prior to that, but once you come to the end of season, and you see playoffs are in reach, it just gets more and more exciting, and the team has really built off that.”

As a result, it’s led to some fun moments between the fans and the players.

For example, there was the time that a suspended Baquero was actually spotted with the team’s supporters group, the Red River Rising, in their section, the Trench, for a game last month, a practice some of his teammates have also done.

Then, there are the videos that sometimes come out from the locker room after a win, in which the team dances and sprays water around, flying the flag of the Red River Rising with pride while doing so, displaying it prominently as they celebrate.

Along with their penchant for celebrating their goals by running towards the section, and singing with them after games, there is no doubt about the connection that has been developed there.

Yet, that just shows what has been brewing in Winnipeg over the past year, as the city has truly embraced its team, especially as the team has started to come together nicely on the field.

So as they push to bring a title home to the city, look for that connection to continue to shine through, further adding a spark to Valour’s so far memorable campaign – one that they’re now looking to finish off in style.

Fordyce said: “Our fans are always there, every time we have a home game and we even get some fans when playing Pacific away, Ottawa away, Edmonton away, so that’s a really good relationship that we’ve built up with them, because at the end of the day, the game doesn’t really exist without the fans. You know, it’s a fan’s game, one where the players put on a good show for them and hopefully get wins.

“But the connection that we have built up with them, again that speaks volume to the group that we have, there are some great guys in there. I know Andy Baquero was in the stands when suspended, I know Raph Ohin, who has been out injured for most of the year, he always sits in the stands of the funds. And then you see the video in the locker room, that week it was Brett (Levis) that was in the bin that time, but the week before it was Matteo (de Brienne) that was in the bin, and we had the Red River Rising flag in there as well both times, that was great.

“We have a great group, and that extends to the fans, because whenever we score a goal at home, you see the players run straight to the fans and celebrate with the fans, so it just shows you what the fans mean to the players.”