TORONTO — Tristan Borges. Manny Aparicio. Noah Verhoeven. Chrisnovic N’Sa.
Few of the 23,611 fans in attendance for the Canadian Premier League’s opening weekend will have known much about those players, among others, prior to Saturday’s match in Hamilton and Sunday’s on Vancouver Island.
They do now. We knew the CPL had the potential to provide young Canadian players with vital opportunities but to see theory become reality so quickly made for compelling viewing.
The two things I liked most about the on-field product at Tim Hortons Field and Westhills Stadium were linked.
The first is the way those aforementioned young players caught the eye. Borges’ vision and accurate left foot made him a constant threat for Forge, while York9’s Aparicio produced a first touch and pass of the highest quality to create the league’s first goal. A day later, Verhoeven was the star of a precocious Pacific midfield and N’Sa, just 20, didn’t put a foot wrong at the back for HFX Wanderers.
The second is one of the key reasons they were able to shine: the ethos that has been instilled in each of the teams we have seen so far by their coaches. All four clubs made a conscious effort to keep the ball on the floor, build through midfield and play to the strengths of the most technically gifted players in their lineups.
Yes, it’s early and the sample size is very small. But the 15 defenders that played 45 minutes or more on opening weekend completed 85% of their passes on average, which demonstrates they were not often playing longer, low-percentage balls upfield. In most major leagues, that number is usually around 80%.
So far, the CPL coaches that promised an attractive, progressive style of play are walking the walk. That’s crucial because it shapes the profile of the player the league will produce.
Forge’s potential is clear
Big things are expected of Bobby Smyrniotis and Forge, and he will not be discouraged by the way his team played despite failing to pick up three points against York9.
It is clear Forge do not lack talent; Smyrniotis’ task will be arranging his many pieces in the right combination on a game-by-game basis.
At centre-back, for example, Forge looked a whole lot more comfortable after Bertrand Owundi had been introduced and Giuliano Frano, a surprise selection in the middle of defence, had shifted to right full-back.
Up front, it was no coincidence that the equalizer came almost instantly after Marcel Zajac had come on.
York9’s back three struggled to deal with Chris Nanco’s wide play on the left all afternoon but as good as Borges was on the opposite side, he tended to drift infield rather than exploiting the space available on the flank. Zajac’s introduction pushed Emery Welshman into that wide-right position and he promptly ploughed down the wing, drew the defence towards him and found Kadell Thomas in space at the back post.
More than any other coach in the CPL, Smyniotis has the options at his disposal to make adjustments and find solutions according to what the opponent is showing him. That should mean plenty of goals at Tim Hortons Field.
York9 dynamic, but lacking control
York9, as Jimmy Brennan said, did its job by picking up a road point and taking two off of a strong contender for the spring championship.
The first few minutes of the game showcased this team’s strengths. Aparicio and Wataru Murofushi are both excellent on the ball and had plenty of runners to set away in Ryan Telfer, Cyrus Rollocks, Simon Adjei and Kyle Porter.
In goal, Nathan Ingham was arguably the man of the match despite eventually being beaten and the back three defended the box stoutly.
The bad news? They had to deal with more of an onslaught than Brennan would have ideally liked.
The problem was simple: when wing-backs Telfer and Porter stayed in line with the midfield, Nanco and Borges had all kinds of space either side of the back three. They combined to create seven chances.
But when Telfer and Porter dropped into the defensive line, the York9 midfield was overrun. The issue was compounded by the way Joseph Di Chiara would often drop deep, too, leaving Murofushi and Aparicio swamped. Neither is much of a destroyer; Murofushi looked gassed by the time he was substituted and Aparicio’s four fouls resulted in a second yellow card late on.
The back three may be more effective on York9’s narrow home field, but on Saturday they rode their luck.
Pacific & HFX two-thirds of the way there
I’m going to group Pacific and HFX Wanderers together — Michael Silberbauer and Stephen Hart set their teams up in a similar way and they almost cancelled each other out.
Both teams benefited from strong, confident presences at the back in N’Sa and Hendrik Starostzik and played through deep-lying midfielders Verhoeven and Elton John. Those players dominated the ball: Starostzik and Verhoeven attempted 143 passes between them and N’Sa and John combined for 113.
There was so much control and organization that each team struggled to break the other open. Wanderers won the expected goals battle thanks to a late push after Lukas MacNaughton had been sent off but the majority of their chances, like Pacific’s goal, came from corners.
Only one “big chance”, as defined by Opta, was created all game.
Up front, the setups were similar again — a striker, two wide players and a link man in behind. Silberbauer will need more from his wingers, who did not complete a cross all game, and Hart will hope the best is yet to come from Juan Diego Gutierrez. Getting Luis Alberto Perea back from injury will surely help.
All in good time. For now, the two coaches can be satisfied with how their game plans came to life in the defensive and middle thirds.