After the announcement on Friday that the league is working toward kicking off at a single site in mid-June to early July, preseason preparations are ramping up ahead of the league’s third season, so now’s as good a time as any to look back on the first two.
From Ryan Telfer scoring the league’s first-ever goal, to Forge FC repeating as champions at the Island Games, here are two defining moments from each club over their first seasons.
Back in April 2019, Starlight Stadium (then Westhills Stadium) was the site of the first win in Canadian Premier League history. A day after the first match in league history, April 28th, 2019 saw HFX Wanderers make the 4,500-kilometre cross-country trip west to Langford, BC.
Pacific defender Hendrik Starostzik scored the only goal of the match, a header off a corner kick in the 23rd minute, handing the Tridents their first three points of the season. The match also saw the club’s first red card: defender Lukas MacNaughton was sent off in the 72nd minute for picking up a second yellow. Pacific ended the season with a 8-7-13 record in the CPL. Head Coach Michael Silberbauer was let go with one game remaining, replaced on an interim basis by James Merriman, setting up Pacific FC for another defining moment in club history.
Appointing Pa-Modou Kah as the club’s second head coach
On January 14th, 2020, Pacific FC appointed Pa-Modou Kah as their new head coach ahead of the 2020 season, with Merriman staying at the club as. At the Island Games, Kah’s first competitive matches as a head coach, he led Pacific FC to a 4-2-4 record and a fourth-place finish. With new signings Marco Bustos, Alejandro Díaz and others, Pacific scored 16 goals in 10 games, and looked like they had taken the next step as a club toward competing for North Star Shields. Of course, only time will tell if that translates over a full season.
Off the pitch, Kah appears to be having fun behind the scenes, while also remaining committed to things beyond the sport, like trying to bring about social change. Pacific FC seem to have gotten this managerial hire right, and after signing him to a three-year contract extension in March, they have set themselves up for years to come.
Memorable Canadian Championship win over the Whitecaps
Cavalry did a lot of winning in season one, but one of the lasting moments in the CPL’s history thus far is Cavalry’s win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2019 Canadian Championship.
After knocking out Pacific and Forge in the first two rounds of the tournament, Cavalry were drawn against MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps. After holding them to a crucial 0-0 draw at Spruce Meadows in the first leg, the Cavs went to BC Place as underdogs but emerged victorious. Jordan Brown gave Cavalry the lead just seven minutes in, but Hwang In-beom replied for the home side in the 67th minute.
While already going through on away goals as it stood, Cavalry kept attacking, and were rewarded. Dominick Zator headed home a corner from José Escalante in the 72nd minute to give Cavalry their most famous victory yet.
Missing the final at the Island Games
In 2020, wanting to get avenge their loss in the 2019 CPL Finals, Cavalry would come up short a second time.
After winning the first stage of the Island Games, back-to-back losses in the second stage to Forge and HFX (the eventual finalists) saw the Cavs leave PEI empty-handed. They looked to be in a good position to return to the final after a 3-1 win over Pacific to start the second stage, but battling injuries, they missed on a second-consecutive final.
“It felt like near the end we were taking a knife into a gunfight,” said head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr last year, of his side’s injury troubles. Had everyone stayed healthy, Cavalry may have won their first title, so missing out on the final should only make them more hungry for success in 2021.
With some of the new signings they’ve made, they certainly look like a very dangerous side, on paper anyway.
Star striker Easton Ongaro nearly didn’t play for FC Edmonton at all. Now 22 years old, Ongaro was drafted 15th overall in the 2018 CPL-U SPORTS Draft by Cavalry FC.
Ongaro didn’t sign with Cavalry, instead signing with his hometown team, and the rest is history. He’s tied for most goals in CPL history, with 13, and the signing has proven to be one of the better ones in the league to this point.
He signed a multi-year contract after the 2019 season, so he’s under contract for the coming season, but if he has another strong campaign, there will be a lineup of clubs looking to acquire his services.
This opened the door for Edmonton to hire Alan Koch as their second CPL-era boss. Time will tell how Koch, formerly in charge of MLS side FC Cincinnati (among other clubs) does in Edmonton, but Paulus stepping aside was a major one nonetheless.
Helping build the CPL from the ground up
It was Valour FC, and their ownership group Winnipeg Football Club, who helped get the theoretical ball rolling for the CPL way back in 2017. Along with Hamilton and what would become Forge FC, the city of Winnipeg was one of the first two cities to be awarded a CPL team
One of the initial two cities approved by Canada Soccer, Valour helped lay the foundation for the league, and would play their first game about two years later, a 2-1 away victory over Pacific FC.
Valour would finish the inaugural 2019 season with an 8-4-16 record, 6th place in the overall table.
In addition, Hamilton and Winnipeg ownership groups have been accepted as members, unanimously. #CANPL
In PEI last summer, Valour went 2-2-3, missing out on qualification for the second round by just three points. The defining moment of the 2020 season for them was a 4-0 crushing of newcomers Atlético Ottawa for the biggest win in their history.
After a scoreless first half, a red card for Milovan Kapor changed the game entirely. Fraser Aird scored on the ensuing penalty kick, opening the floodgates. About ten minutes later, Andrew Jean-Baptiste scored his first goal for the club from a corner, before Dylan Carreiro and José Galán scored within moments of one another, in the 90th and 91st minutes, respectively.
It was a big win for Valour, and while they didn’t make it to the second round, they were better than in year one, so Rob Gale’s side will be looking for continued growth in 2021.
Back-to-back North Star Shield wins
On the pitch, Forge FC have been the best team we’ve seen over the first two seasons. Back-to-back North Star Shields is obviously the best possible performance coach Bobby Smyrniotis could’ve asked for.
In both 2019 and 2020, Forge were consistently one of the best teams, peaking at the right time to win the games that mattered most. Their win in the 2019 CPL Finals was special for making them the first team to ever win the North Star Shield, but repeating as champions is special as well, especially given the circumstances around the 2020 season.
They’ve also dominated the individual accolades. In both seasons the league’s Player of the Year has been from the Hammers — in 2019 it was Tristan Borges and in 2020 it was Kyle Bekker. In 2019, Borges also picked up the Golden Boot and Best Under 21 Canadian Player of the Year awards, while in 2020 Triston Henry also won the Golden Glove. Smyrniotis is yet to win the Coach of the Year, but if Forge keep it up, it’s only a matter of time.
Within touching distance of a place in the Concacaf Champions League
In 2020, if the CPL crown wasn’t enough, Forge almost made it to the coveted Concacaf Champions League, while only playing road games in some of the region’s toughest locations. A berth in that competition would have been a major event in the short history of the CPL, but Forge came up just short on both occasions to qualify.
Their run in the Concacaf League started with a 2-1 win over Salvadoran side Municipal Limeño, thanks to goals from David Choinière and Anthony Novak. They then travelled to Panama to take on Tauro, where a 91st minute penalty from Daniel Krutzen was the game-winner in a 2-1 victory there as well.
With a win in their next match, a quarter-final tie in the Domincan Republic against Haitian club Arcahaie a month later, Forge would book their spot in the Champions League. Daniel Krutzen scored another penalty at the end of the first half, but missed his shot in a penalty shootout, and Arcahaie would advance 4-2 on spot-kicks. Forge had a second crack at the Champions League in a play-in round for quarter-final losers, but fell 1-0 to Honduran side Marathón.
While they did come up just short, their run in the Concacaf League was proof that they, and potentially other CPL clubs, can compete for continental silverware.
York United FC
Ryan Telfer: Forever First
Ryan Telfer’s goal in the first-ever CPL game on April 27th, 2019 is one of the most important moments in the league’s history thus far. Just three minutes in, after getting on the end of a Manny Aparicio pass through the middle, Telfer shot the ball across goal to give York the lead.
After such a long time without a top-tier professional soccer league in Canada, the goal, and match itself, marked the start of a new journey in Canadian soccer, and the first of many milestones in a historic inaugural season.
The club rebranded after the 2020 season, changing the York9 FC branding to that of York United FC. They became the first CPL club to rebrand, with Angus McNab — the president, CEO and General Manager of York United – saying that the “9” felt too exclusive to some people.
“It became clear that we were limited by some things in the identity,” McNab said when the new design was revealed. “We’re about moving forward. One of the great things with this league, and clubs around the country, is we are all so passionate and driven to make this succeed.
“It’s a bold action to take, but it’s one we feel is the right one to drive us forward.”
Bold it was, but York felt the need to change it up, and went ahead and did it. It takes a lot to admit you got something wrong, especially just two seasons into your existence.
If hearing that the CPL was expanding to an eighth city, Ottawa, for the 2020 season wasn’t exciting enough, Atlético Madrid backing that team was an even bigger step forward.
Ottawa getting a team was inevitable, but having the Spanish giants as the ownership group was a surprise to many. The ten-time La Liga champions “would like to bring our expertise to a very strong and structured league and will work together with the CPL and the rest of the clubs to contribute to the growth of Canadian soccer,” according to their CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín at the time.
One of the biggest benefits for Atlético Ottawa is getting to spend preseasons in Madrid with the parent club, where they’ve been preparing ahead of the 2021 CPL campaign.
They took the pitch for the first time in August at the Island Games, where they had a lot of firsts — Mohamed Kourouma scored their first goal in a 2-2 draw with York in their first game on August 15, with their first win coming 12 days later against Cavalry FC. Goals from Ben Fisk and Malcolm Shaw were the difference as the newcomers beat the Cavs 2-0.
They’d finish their inaugural season with a 2-2-3 record, seventh in the standings in PEI and just three points back of Pacific FC for the fourth and final spot in the second round.
Beating Forge for their first win, and turning Wanderers Grounds into a fortress
Back in 2019, HFX Wanderers picked up their first win in style, beating eventual North Star Shield winners Forge FC 2-1 at Wanderers Grounds. The club’s first goal, scored by Akeem Garcia, as well as an 82nd-minute winner from Luis Perea were scored on either side of a Kadell Thomas strike to get the Wanderers their first three points. It was also their first home game, in front of over 6,000 people, following a 1-0 loss against Pacific a week earlier.
They turned Wanderers Grounds into a fortress that year, only losing twice at home, both times to Cavalry FC. Their two losses came after an own goal in the June 19th game, and an 85th minute winner from Oliver Minatel in the July 13th game, so they weren’t far off from being the only club to be unbeaten at home. They were less successful on the road, and finished last in the standings with 28 points, making their successes in 2020 just that much sweeter.
At the Island Games, after a very busy offseason, HFX had a season to remember. With Akeem Garcia and new signing João Morelli firing on all cylinders, the Wanderers finished second in the first stage of the tournament. A 3-3-1 record, followed by a win over Cavalry and a second draw with Forge in the second round, saw HFX make it to the final, and within touching distance of their first North Star Shield.
In the final they were unable to dethrone Forge, falling 2-0 on goals from Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson and Maxim Tissot. It was a huge step in the right direction for the Wanderers who, with less player turnover this year, will be hoping to keep the momentum going in 2021.