HFX exceeds expectations with 2nd-place finish after first round: ‘We deserve it’

The HFX Wanderers FC rebuild might be ahead of schedule.

After replacing 16 members of their inaugural squad with 16 new players in the off-season, and only getting some international players into training camp days before departing for The Island Games (Alex Marshall, for instance), expectations weren’t exactly stratospheric heading into their CPL second season.

And yet, they’ll march into the next stage after finishing second in the league table, winning three games — including their first-round decider on Sunday against Atlético Ottawa.

They’ve come a long way after claiming the CPL’s first wooden spoon in 2019.

“We always felt we could get into the top four,” HFX coach Stephen Hart said after the 2-0 victory over Ottawa.

“I’m a little surprised at how quick things came together in some instances, because we didn’t have a lot of time together really. But all credit to the players. They’re a tremendous bunch off the field, but on the field they’re showing the sort of discipline, and balance from those who have come off the bench, to keep us in games or even help us get back into games late…

“Obviously it’s a willingness to go out and try and execute, not be afraid of failure. Just keep doing what we’ve been practicing, whether it works or not. At some point it begins to click and you’re seeing that.”

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Hart was vocal about how exhausted his side has been in PEI, having played through a grueling seven-game schedule along with the rest of the league. Although they beat Valour FC on Wednesday, they weren’t as energetic in the press as they’d been previously, and so Hart expressed that he was hoping they could manage the nerves and fatigue a little better this time around.

They did indeed do that, coming out of the blocks quickly and establishing themselves as, more often than not, protagonists against Ottawa. An early goal courtesy of Akeem Garcia helped settle them into the match, and for the second game in a row they scored their insurance marker by punishing the opponent for a defensive miscue.

“I think we deserve it,” said goalkeeper Christian Oxner, who made five saves on Sunday. “I think with the performances we put in early in the tournament and stuff, (we knew) if we keep playing the same way we’d get a few bounces from the soccer gods.”

A few bounces they got, although the best teams are those that create their own luck; had HFX not been so effective and relentless in closing down space, their opponents may not have gifted them the opportunities they did.

There’s absolutely no time for the Nova Scotian side to rest on their laurels, though. They play Wednesday night, which means they’ll have to contend yet again with the challenges of fatigue, just three days after Sunday’s intense battle.

“It’s gonna be difficult to be honest. Today was hot,” Hart admitted.

“We’re trying to play a high tempo game, and you saw in the last few minutes of the game we were feeling it. We had to make some substitutions because players had reached their limit. So it’s gonna be tough with just two days’ rest and then you go into it on Wednesday. But we have to manage it, it’s what the tournament is about, so we’re not complaining.”

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