Alessandro Riggi hasn’t even trained with HFX Wanderers FC since signing with the club last December.
But the 26-year-old native of Montreal admits he has had his mind expanded and looks at the game differently thanks to the sage words of Wanderers coach Stephen Hart.
Riggi joined HFX after spending the past few seasons in the USL with Phoenix Rising, where he played alongside Didier Drogba. He also previously featured for FC Montreal in the USL and represented Canada at the under-20 level.
CanPL.ca recently chatted with Riggi about his decision to come to the Canadian Premier League, his time in the Montreal Impact organization, and how Hart has already made a huge impact on him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This period of self-isolation must be difficult in terms of team bonding, especially as you have yet to train with the Wanderers since joining the club. Aside from the daily workout routine you’re assigned, has Stephen Hart given HFX players any other work to do in preparation for when the 2020 CPL season eventually kicks off?
Riggi: Once a week we have a call and he gives us some homework to do. We speak about the tactical game and how he sees it from his point of view, and what he’s expecting from the team. It’s actually my favourite hour of the week.
I’ve never had a coach like him. He really pays very close attention to details, so I’m very excited to get going with him because it seems like he’s very wise.
What are these one-hour sessions typically like?
Riggi: He gives us videos to watch of certain teams that he likes, and ones that underline the beliefs that he has and wants to put forward for our team. He sends us the videos on Mondays and we meet on Thursdays, so we have a few days to assess it and give our own feedback on it, and he goes over the videos. So, if we were talking about defensive work, he’ll start off by saying, “this is what I believe,” or “this is what I saw.” When he’s done he turns it over and wants to hear from us, and he listens and then challenges what we say.
How useful do you find these sessions?
Riggi: Very useful. Why I find them useful is because I’ve been playing my whole life, since I was three-and-a-half years old, and it’s very interesting for me because I’ve never spent this much time on the tactical analysis part of the game. Now I understand that I should have been doing a lot more of this earlier on. I feel like he’s opened my eyes to a different part of the game, and making me understand that I have a lot of work to do.
What were the circumstances that led to you joining the Wanderers this off-season?
Riggi: I knew I wasn’t going to remain with Phoenix in the USL. They told me before the end of last season that they weren’t going to bring me back. I spoke to my agent about other possible opportunities, and there were teams in the USL interested in me, but something told me I needed a new challenge – I felt I wasn’t going where I wanted to go in the USL.
There was a lot of interest in the CPL when my name came up. My agent came back to me with three or four different options, but he really sold me on Halifax. He raved about the city, and he knows my character and knows I like a challenge, and the chance to help them after a poor season last year really appealed to me. How cool would it be if I went there and was able to help flip the switch? I love that type of challenge.
I chatted with Stephen and expressed my interest in the team, my interest in the challenge and my interest in the role I’d like to have, to see what he was thinking for me, and it was very similar. He seemed excited that I was interested in the project and after I spoke to him I had a good feeling, and I was ready to commit to Halifax.
Has Stephen given you an idea of how he’s going to use you, whether as a forward or out wide?
Riggi: It hasn’t really fallen together because we even haven’t trained together yet to see that come together. I’m open to whatever comes my way, but I love playing in the no. 10 role. But it depends exactly on what the coach requires from the position because it can be played in several different ways. If it’s not the no. 10, then my preference is on the left wing.
HFX’s roster features a lot of players who are from Quebec and/or spent time with the Montreal Impact’s senior team or academy system. You’re from Montreal, and you played for the Impact’s youth academy and FC Montreal in the USL. Do you have a theory as to why so many Quebec-based players are flocking to the Wanderers?
Riggi: On my end, once I signed, the coach gave me the responsibility to help go after Louis Béland-Goyette, to try to convince him to come to the team and sell him the project. So I called him and really sold him on it, telling him we’re going to play the Impact in the Canadian Championship, and he was sold on it. And then I reached out to Jems Geffrard.
I don’t know, maybe it’s because when one guy signs, another is more likely to come because a lot of us have history together, and we’ve done some good work in the past.
You played two seasons for FC Montreal in the USL before the team disbanded in 2016. Did you see that coming? What went through your mind when you heard the news the club was shutting down?
Riggi: Ah, man. That was a tough period for me. I didn’t like it, I wasn’t okay with it, and I thought it was done very quickly. I saw a lot of good players never have the chance to play ever again because of how that unfolded. Only a certain amount of us managed to get contracts with teams elsewhere. It was done at the worst time when guys didn’t have a chance to look for other clubs. It wasn’t done in the best way.
It was a shock for all of the players. I remember when they told us, we were all in the same room just sitting there, and our jaws were on the floor, like “What are we supposed to do now? The season starts in a month and a half and we have no team.”
The way things played out for me with the Impact was a little strange. I was with FC Montreal for two seasons, top scorer both years, team MVP, leader in assists, and I never got a shot with the senior team (in MLS). I was training with the first team, and guys were convinced I was going to get signed, some were already congratulating me. It was weird because nothing was signed and then one day I heard the news they signed (Impact academy product) Mathieu Choinière, and I knew my time wasn’t going to come.
As a teenager, you spent time abroad while training with Italian club Sampdoria and at Celta Vigo’s academy in Spain. What were those experiences like for you?
Riggi: I left home at a very young age, a confused little boy who just wanted to play, and didn’t understand much and wasn’t very responsible. I was always good on the field, but I was making mistakes off the field – I had too much time on my hands and I was a young kid. Europe was good experience because I learned a lot very quickly, and I matured a lot. It was a challenge because there was a lot of self-isolation due to my schoolwork – I was always on my own because while my teammates went out after practice, I had to focus on my schooling. But it helped me grow a lot, and I learned a lot about the game while I was over there.
The passion over there from the fans for the game is so huge, so that was a different experience to toughen up a little, because I wasn’t used to getting criticism. Growing up in Montreal, I never struggled too much to dominate games, but going there was a big slap in the face, and I matured very quickly. It changed my perspective on life.