2022 Canadian Championship — Preliminary Round
Guelph United FC vs. HFX Wanderers FC
May 10, 2022 at 7 p.m. ET
Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ontario
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For the second time in club history, HFX Wanderers FC will travel to take on a League1 Ontario side in the Canadian Championship this Tuesday, as they head to the University of Guelph’s Alumni Stadium to take on Guelph United FC in a preliminary round clash.
The Wanderers will be keen on maintaining their three-year streak of advancing past the first round, having topped PLSQ’s AS Blainville in 2021 and dispatching another League1 Ontario side, Vaughan Azzurri, in a 3-3 aggregate tie in 2019 that Halifax claimed on away goals.
Stephen Hart’s CPL team are hoping to continue rounding into form after an up-and-down start to the league season, having won two, lost two, and drawn one of their first five games. Most recently, they played out a frustrating 0-0 draw on the road against Valour FC last Saturday, failing to score despite 17 shots in the contest.
They’ll have some additional reinforcements this time, though, having signed defender Kareem Sow (familiar to Wanderers fans from 2021) and Senegalese forward Mour Samb on Monday.
Guelph, meanwhile, have their eyes on making history on Tuesday by becoming the first League1 side to eliminate a CPL team from the Canadian Championship. Vaughan came closest in 2019 when they won the away leg in Halifax, but the three goals they’d conceded at home left them empty-handed.
Led by associate coaches Keith Mason and Justin Springer (formerly a defender for York in the CPL, Guelph earned their spot in the competition by winning the League1 Ontario championship in 2021. They defeated Oakville Blue Devils in the final thanks to a trio of goals from former CPLers — two from Jace Kotsopoulos, and one from Tomasz Skublak. So far this season, Guelph have one win, one loss, and one draw from three matches.
RELATED: ‘A Hollywood script’: Guelph United’s meteoric rise in L1O ahead of CanChamp clash vs. HFX Wanderers
Guelph have plenty of names that will be familiar to CPL fans, from captain Kotsopoulos and Skublak to Marcel Zajac and Reggie Laryea. Alex Zis, an ex-Forge FC draft pick, is a skilled attacker for their side, while former Toronto FC Academy and Canada U-18 defender Marko Maletic is a physical, commanding leader at the back. Plus, of course, they’ll be bolstered by the return of goalkeeper Svyatoslav Artemenko, who recently arrived back in Canada after enlisting in the Ukrainian army in early March.
The winner of this tie will move on to the quarterfinals, which in itself is massive incentive. Perhaps more, though, is the prospect of hosting MLS club Toronto FC, which is the prize waiting for whoever wins on Tuesday night. As was the case in last year’s Canadian Championship, if this match is tied after 90 minutes it will proceed to a penalty shootout to determine who advances to the final eight.
3 THINGS TO WATCH:
- Wanderers seek clinical finishing: In their 0-0 draw with Valour FC on Saturday, the Wanderers did well to get into the attacking third and create opportunities, especially in transition, but none of their forwards was able to put the ball in the net. That’s been a pressing concern for the club, especially without João Morelli, and in a 90-minute cup tie against a team that could punish them with just one counter-attacking opportunity they’ll need to be much more clinical. Ideally, one of Cory Bent, Alex Marshall, or Akeem Garcia could step up and start filling the net for Halifax. “I’m happy we’re creating chances, but at the end of the day, we’ve had this discussion with players, they have to understand that it’s really up to them to execute,” head coach Stephen Hart told CanPL.ca. “They know that very well; it’s been a little bit of a problem for us last year… It’s something we will keep working on, but I would prefer that to be happening than us not creating the chances.”
- Familiar faces abound at Guelph: One look at the Guelph United roster is enough to convince that they will not be an easy out for Halifax. Their roster is replete with talented players, many of whom have at least brushed shoulders with the Canadian Premier League before. Tomasz Skublak, in particular, will be a familiar face for Wanderers fans, having scored four goals and played 25 games for them in 2019. There’s also former York and Forge striker Jace Kotsopoulos and ex-Forge winger Marcel Zajac, as well as CPL-U SPORTS Draft picks Alex Zis and Reggie Laryea (brother of Richie). Guelph coach Keith Mason pointed out that having such players who know what to expect with CPL opposition will be helpful to his side: “We have to be realistic of where we are in the pecking order of this pyramid of play in Canada,” he said on the CanPL Newsroom. “I have to remind them we’re the big underdogs, and we know that, but having people like Tommy Skublak, who’s not only played for Halifax but used to play for me at the university years ago; Jace Kotsopoulos, Marcel, and we have people like Amardo Oakley who played in Portugal, many players who have come from that professional level and dropped down to us, so we’ve got a good core who are used to those games. The big question now is we have to have them all on top of their game tomorrow and hope Halifax are a little bit off.” It’s also worth mentioning Halifax defender Colin Gander, who played for Guelph United last season before joining the Wanderers through the CPL-U SPORTS Draft this year.
- Focus required from Wanderers in unforgiving cup tie: CPL teams have seen cupsets in this competition from one perspective already, with Cavalry and Pacific having beaten the Vancouver Whitecaps in recent years, but they have yet to see the reverse side of that, where a League1 Ontario or PLSQ side knocks out professional competition. Guelph would certainly be thrilled to be the first, but from Stephen Hart’s perspective he’s seen that these matches against nominally lower-level competition can be tricky if a team is caught sleeping. “Some of the other coaches, they call these the banana skin games,” Hart said. “Your mentality has to be right, and their mentality is really one of they want to prove themselves, they have nothing to lose. They have some players that could play in this league, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot to prove, but we have to be professional in the way we approach the game and understand, one, yes we are away from home, but two, you need a result.”
First meeting between these sides.
“It would be out of the world; the potential of bringing Toronto FC into this community is something that dreams are made of… For us, it would definitely be a Hollywood script. That’s how far-fetched it would be if you’d talked about it 12 months ago. But here we are on the verge of being able to play the biggest game of not only our lives but the community of Guelph, with the opportunity of playing an MLS team in the next round… In terms of us being the first (L1O team) to win, someone’s got to do it. One day, someone’s gonna open that door.” — Guelph United associate head coach Keith Mason
“It’s a game we’ve all been looking forward to on the schedule from when it was announced. You can’t lie, it’s something everybody circled and it was on our minds from the first day of preseason. It’s a big test for each guy to go out there and prove themselves.” — Guelph United attacker Marcel Zajac
“It’s the beauty of the cup… I think it’s fantastic because it gives those teams that are not in MLS or the CPL the opportunity to have a huge night, and I’m sure we will see that tomorrow night.” — HFX Wanderers head coach Stephen Hart
“It was definitely funny out of all the teams we could have drawn… As soon as we drew Guelph in the Championship I got messages from everyone, I’ve been talking to guys about it so it’s good to connect with them all again.” — HFX Wanderers (and former Guelph) defender Colin Gander