7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

When the Halifax Wanderers report for preseason training at the end of February, there will be more than the usual intrigue entering the Canadian Premier League soccer club’s new season. For perhaps the first time in the club’s six-year history (and with apologies to a pandemic-shortened 2020 tournament), there are real championship aspirations in Halifax. And more than that, a feeling that another playoff berth won’t satisfy. Such is the gift—and burden—of success: When you’ve had a taste, you want more of it. And the Wanderers had enough in 2023 to stoke a healthy appetite.

Four months after a franchise record-setting CPL season that ended in a first-round playoff defeat, the Wanderers will feel they have unfinished business to attend to. Under first-year head coach Patrice Gheisar, the club set franchise records in wins (11, besting 2021 and 2022’s mark of 8), points (42, up from 35), goals scored (39, up from 28), goal differential (+7, a 21-goal improvement from 2022), goals conceded (32, down from 35) and total passes (13,000, up from 12,128). But in their first-ever home playoff game—and with a playoff semifinal berth on the line—the Wanderers came up short. The team that attacked with fluid and beautiful passing sequences couldn’t seem to buy a goal, no matter how many chances they created.

“That’s the cruelty, or the beautiful part of this game,” Gheisar told reporters after the match. “It depends on which end you are on.”

Four months is a long time to dwell. And while the CPL offseason has been a frenzied one for some clubs—with new signings announced left and right—the Wanderers’ front office has largely opted to stand pat with the group that brought them results in 2023. Will that continuity yield results? That—and other questions—loom large as the Wanderers prepare for their return to the pitch. Here are 7 things to watch as the CPL club returns to action:

1. Are the Wanderers’ biggest names back for another season? Playing professional soccer in Canada is a little like being an actor in Canadian television, or a Canadian indie music darling: The lights will always be brighter—and the money better—elsewhere. That’s not a dig at Canadian soccer; more than ever before, the country is producing some of the world’s best talents. (Look no further than Brampton, Ont.’s Tajon Buchanan signing with global giant Inter Milan.) But the reality for teams in the Canadian Premier League—or any league, really, that isn’t at the top of the soccer pyramid in Europe or flush with oil money (or both!)—is that when your players are good, other clubs (with deeper pockets) will want them. And even if those players help you to win games, selling them onward can bring a tidy bit of business back through transfer fees. Behold: The circle of life.

Now, for the Wanderers: There were murmurings from as early as last August that Major League Soccer and Premier League scouts were watching Defender of the Year candidate Dan Nimick. And there have been other whispers—as reported by the Wanderers Notebook’s Joshua Healey—that full-back Zach Fernandez was generating “serious interest” from clubs in North America and Europe. Sources with knowledge of the Wanderers’ player personnel have told me that centre-back Cale Loughrey has attracted some interest, too. All three are under contract for 2024, but that offers no guarantee that they’ll be here when the CPL’s sixth season starts in April—just last week, the Wanderers sold midfielder Callum Watson to MLS Next Pro’s Chattanooga FC for an undisclosed sum. Will one of them be next to leave? Probably, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening before mid-season, at the very earliest. (Which bodes well, if you’re hoping for a strong run at the CPL Shield.)

2. How will Patrice play the new-look midfield? The Wanderers’ midfield will look both familiar and different in 2024. Most notably, league Player of the Year candidate and “mercurial conductor of the orchestra” Lorenzo Callegari is back. So, too, is captain Andre Rampersad, who’s been enjoying a fine run of form suiting up for Trinidad and Tobago, as well as creative playmaker Aidan Daniels and bulldog-in-soccer-cleats Tomas Giraldo. (Not a bad start.) Now, for the departures: Alternate captain Mo Omar is gone, having signed with the USL Championship’s San Antonio FC. Halifax also declined to pick up the option on defensive midfielder Armaan Wilson’s contract, leaving the 21-year-old as a free agent—and a decent young pick-up by any club who signs him. (“It certainly isn’t a criticism of his talent or how much we wanted him on the squad, we really did,” Wanderers president Derek Martin told Down the Pub Podcast in December. “But you only have so many roster spots, and you’ve got to make these tough decisions year after year.”)

click to enlarge

Trevor MacMillan / Canadian Premier League

Midfielder Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé is returning to the Halifax Wanderers in 2024. The 28-year-old has signed a two-year deal.

In their place, the Wanderers have brought back central midfielder Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and reports indicate they’ve also signed Italian central midfielder Giorgio Probo—a standout at Creighton University in 2023. (The club hasn’t officially announced Probo’s signing, but both the Wanderers Notebook’s Healey and Transfermarkt’s Manuel Veth have confirmed it. Consider it legit.)

Healey was the first to report on Gagnon-Laparé’s Halifax reunion after a season spent with York United FC. Speaking with The Coast, the 28-year-old midfielder from Magog, Qué., says it was an emotional departure from Halifax in 2023.

“When I left Halifax, I was unsure of what the future was going to be like with a new coach,” Gagnon-Laparé says. “You can never predict how that’s going to turn out when there’s someone coming in and taking over a team. But it turned out really, really good. And it was a little bit difficult, sometimes, to watch [the Wanderers] do really well.

See also  Alberta has dozens of wildfires still burning this winter. Here's why.

Looking back, you could say, it wasn’t the best decision, but sometimes in life, it’s tough to always choose the best path … at the time, I felt like it was a good time to [leave]. Now, I am trying to rectify that.”

Both Probo and Gagnon-Laparé favour the central midfield position, which leaves the Starting XI a little murky: Last year, Gheisar favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation (good for teams that like to dominate possession), but he wasn’t afraid to switch to a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, either, depending on his opponent or the moment of the match. It’s safe to say that Callegari—who CPL players voted among the best in the league—will factor into any Starting XI. But so far, Probo sounds like a very similar player: Both are undersized midfielders (Callegari is 5’9”, while Probo is 5’7”) who like to distribute the ball. Would Gheisar start them both? Maybe. Then again, maybe not—it would risk giving up ground to more physically imposing teams.

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

Trevor MacMillan / Canadian Premier League

In his first season, Wanderers midfielder Lorenzo Callegari established himself as one of the best players in the Canadian Premier League.

Gagnon-Laparé was one of the Wanderers’ bright spots in his two seasons, and at 28, figures to bring a veteran presence to a team of players mostly under the age of 25. (Goalkeeper Yann Fillion and Rampersad being the lone exceptions, at ages 27 and 29, respectively.) Does Gagnon-Laparé’s track record merit him a spot in the Starting XI? (On most CPL teams, it would.) And if so, does that send Rampersad to the bench? It’s not hard to imagine Gheisar alternating the two as double-pivot partners with Callegari at the back of the midfield.

Gagnon-Laparé isn’t thinking too much about positioning yet:

“[I’ll go] where the coach thinks I fit best,” he tells The Coast. “No matter what my role is, I’m going to enjoy doing it … with their system, maybe there’s going to be some adjustments to be made, and I’m eager to discover that—and build new relationships with players I’m less familiar with.”

If the midfield was already deep enough, then, there’s Giraldo and Daniels. The former will warrant more minutes—not least because of the fact that, at 20 years old, he can help the Wanderers reach the CPL’s mandated quota for minutes played by U-21 players. (More on that later.) And Daniels, on his day, can be the best player on the pitch.

If I were to guess, when Halifax begins its season against Pacific FC on Apr. 13, the club’s Starting XI likely won’t be far off from this:

3. Who is Derek Martin’s mystery right winger? Whew! That last burning question was a long one. Let’s try to rein this one in, shall we? Back on Jan. 10, the Wanderers president took to Twitter and promised his followers he’d answer whatever questions he could about the club. Supporter James Janssen asked Martin to share the position of the new signing he’s most excited to see joining the club. Martin’s answer? Right wing.

Looking around the Canadian Premier League, most of the marquee names at the wing are already accounted for. So, is Martin teasing an international signing? Or a Canadian returning from abroad? Back in December, I wrote that Jean-Aniel Assi and Pariss Mitchell would be natural additions to the Wanderers—though the former, at least, is now off the table, having inked a deal with MLS Next Pro side Crown Legacy FC. The 18-year-old Mitchell was ranked the #1 prospect in his age class by First Touch Football Canada and played under Gheisar and assistant coach Jorden Feliciano at Vaughan Azzurri in 2022. He’s currently committed to Wake Forest University and has already been a part of the Colorado Rapids’ MLS Next Pro set-up. Would a reunion with his old coaches—and a shot at first-team minutes—be enough of a lure? Could a deal even get over the line?

One other possibility could be a player like Michael Petrasso. The 28-year-old winger is out of contract with York United and has played for the likes of Queens Park Rangers and Montreal Impact over the course of his 11 years in professional soccer. The Toronto, Ont. native would be fresh off a loan spell with current FA Cup darlings Maidstone United, who upset Championship side Ipswich Town to earn a spot in the fifth round of the annual English tournament. Would his signing be the kind of splash that would excite Martin? Maybe, but if this is the signing he’s most looking forward to, I’m betting his sights are set higher.

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

CHANT / Canadian Premier League

Could winger Michael Petrasso find a home in Patrice Gheisar’s set-up?

One player whose CPL return would absolutely turn heads? Marco Bustos. Last year, he joined Swedish side IFK Värnamo after running roughshod over the Canadian Premier League for the better part of four seasons. Since then, Bustos has been in and out of his club’s rotation: He scored three goals and notched an assist in 18 appearances in Sweden’s top division, but finished the season, for the most part, on the bench. Would the 27-year-old consider coming back to the CPL for one last payday? He’s under contract with Värnamo through 2024, but there’s always the possibility of a loan arrangement—and he wouldn’t be the first CPL talent to return to the league after a year overseas.

To date, none of the above players have been linked to the Wanderers. (Were I to guess, Bustos would prefer to stay in Europe.) And maybe Martin’s eye is turned elsewhere. But they’d fit the bill—and a position of need, too.

See also  Halifax police charge 2 more teens over recent school bomb threats

4. How will the club meet its 2,000 mandated U-21 minutes? From the Canadian Premier League’s first season, every club has needed to reach certain targets of minutes allotted to young Canadian players. The goal of the U-21 minutes quota is to invest in talent that might one day feed into the Canadian men’s national team (or fetch a hefty transfer fee when sold to another league). And the penalty for failing to meet the goal—2,000 minutes played over the course of a season by Canadian players aged 21 and under—is stiff: Teams who fall short are ruled ineligible for the CPL’s playoffs. Last year, the Wanderers cut it about as close as a near-fender bender on the Armdale Roundabout, inching past the 2,000-minute threshold in the final game of the regular season. (Not that playoff champions Forge FC or regular season champions Cavalry FC were much better, finishing with 2,052 and 2,044 minutes apiece.)

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

Trevor MacMillan / Canadian Premier League

Tomas Giraldo (left) and Tiago Coimbra (centre) will form the core of the Halifax Wanderers’ U-21 talents in 2024.

Will the Wanderers give themselves a little more breathing room this year? The returns of 20-year-olds Giraldo and Tiago Coimbra will surely help. Even still, Gheisar could use more options at his disposal. And both youngsters Yorgos Gavas and Camilo Vasconcelos, who signed development contracts with Halifax in 2023, remain without a club at the moment. Either could return as domestic U-21 signings in 2024, but only Gavas—who turns 17 this year—would be eligible for another development contract (which doesn’t count against the Wanderers’ primary roster of 23 players), as the league rules restrict development deals to Canadian players aged 18 and under.

Gheisar could look to the Wanderers’ U-SPORTS Draft picks for U-21 minutes. The club drafted both goalkeeper Daniel Clarke and Halifax-born-and-raised midfielder Max Bodurtha in this year’s pool of Canadian university players. Both are still 20 years old. They’ll join the Wanderers in preseason training, but it remains to be seen whether either will earn a U-SPORTS contract. Last year, Halifax drafted Cape Breton University Capers fullback Anthony Stolar and Dalhousie Tigers goalkeeper Aiden Rushenas, but opted only to sign Rushenas to a U-SPORTS contract.

5. Will the Wanderers take advantage of the CPL’s Exceptional Young Talent roster spots? This one is a little more in-the-weeds than the rest. But for fervent followers of the CPL, it remains among the more intriguing questions. Last season saw the soccer league introduce a new roster clause, granting teams the ability to sign two players to Exceptional Young Talent contracts—a pair of additional roster spots outside of the standard 23-player list. The catch: Those players need to be Canadian and younger than 18. At the time, the league said the provision was created to help “develop the next generation of young talent in Canada.” Which is true. But in large part, it came about because the CPL’s old development contracts were proving too restrictive—and clubs were starting to break the rules.

Under the old rules, players on development contracts were limited to three match appearances in a season. (That includes exhibition matches.) A club could sign the same player to two development deals in a single season—so, in theory, a young player could play in up to six matches between two development stints. Any longer, and the club would need to sign them to a professional contract—which would count towards the 23-player list. That became an issue at Vancouver FC, where talented 18-year-old full-back James Cameron and 16-year-old winger TJ Tahid had blossomed into every-match starters.

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

Beau Chevalier / Canadian Premier League

Vancouver FC winger TJ Tahid became one of the country’s brightest soccer prospects in his debut CPL season.

Between June 11 and July 16, while on a pair of development contracts, Cameron came off the bench for 18 minutes in his first appearance and then made six straight starts, playing the full 90 minutes in each. Tahid, meanwhile, made 10 appearances between May 7 and July 8, scoring twice. On July 20—before Cameron’s eighth appearance, and Tahid’s 11th—the league announced its new so-called EYT contracts, giving teams free reign to play their young players without penalty (provided they were signed to one of two EYT roster spots). The accompanying press release claimed the new rule came into effect on July 14—two days before Cameron’s rule-bending seventh match, and a month after Tahid’s sixth appearance. (Hat tip to CPL supporter Derek Simon for noticing.)

Convenient timing? Sure. But also a smart rule. (Hamilton-based Forge FC signed 18-year-old Khadim Kane to an EYT contract that same week.)

To date, the Wanderers haven’t made use of the EYT roster provision. (They could have done so with Gavas or Vasconcelos last season, but didn’t.) It’s a missed opportunity: The rule allows teams to retain young players up to their age-21 season without their salary counting towards the cap.

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

Trevor MacMillan / Canadian Premier League

Patrice Gheisar (left) brought Kimani Stewart-Baynes (centre) to Halifax in 2023, to develop the 18-year-old winger ahead of his first NCAA season at the University of Maryland.

The club could have offered it to buzzworthy 18-year-old Kimani Stewart-Baynes, who joined on a development contract last spring and just signed a three-year contract with MLS side Colorado Rapids. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious choice. And maybe the Wanderers made Stewart-Baynes an offer. But the teenager had already committed to the University of Maryland, and maybe Gheisar felt the best way to do right by his former player was to send him onward.

See also  The Wanderer Grounds podcast: The Halifax Wanderers are playoff-bound—and damn, it feels good

“Kimani has a bright future ahead and is coming off an intense recruiting process; we’re excited to help prepare him for those next steps,” Gheisar said in a release at the time.

So, to 2024: Will the Wanderers use their EYT allotments this year? Vasconcelos has aged out of eligibility, but Gavas could still fit the bill. Or does sporting director Matt Fegan have his eye on other young talent?

click to enlarge 7 burning questions as Halifax Wanderers approach soccer pre-season

Canadian Premier League

Will Wanderers sporting director Matt Fegan (left, in jacket) find a player worthy of an Exceptional Young Talent contract in 2024?

6. Will the Canadian Premier League have a broadcast partner by April? Of all the questions surrounding the CPL this offseason, this one is the biggest. After a record-setting year for attendance across the league, the parent company that owns the CPL—Canadian Soccer Business—has become embroiled in a legal dispute with its sole broadcast partner. CSB and Mediapro—which owns OneSoccer, the streaming platform that broadcasts all CPL matches, along with the Canadian men’s and women’s national team games—struck a reported $200-million deal just five years ago. At the time, it was heralded by CSB’s CEO, Scott Mitchell, as the “single-largest commitment any company has ever made in terms of soccer in Canada.” Last week, both sides announced they were suing each other. Each alleges the other’s failure to meet various promises in their “landmark” 10-year deal, leading to damages in the tens of millions of dollars.

As part of the legal dispute, CSB has stripped Mediapro of the broadcast rights to the CPL and the Canadian national teams. That leaves the Canadian Premier League without an official broadcasting partner, just two and a half months before kickoff.

A short primer on the CSB is that, in effect, it’s the business wing of the CPL—which, itself, is jointly owned by the various team owners across the league. (Wanderers president Derek Martin being one of them.) In the wake of the dispute becoming public, Martin has been confidentif cryptic—on social media, sharing a pair of posts that don’t directly allude to the legal imbroglio, but sure seem to make reference to it.

So: Does CSB have a new broadcast plan in place? And if so, what will that look like for the Wanderers’ matches in 2024?

Martin was not made available to speak on the matter, but a league spokesperson referred The Coast to CSB’s statement from last week:

“Our decision to pursue legal action was not one we took lightly, but we felt it was necessary to protect the tremendous investments we have made to build the game in Canada. By taking back full control of our rights we will immediately have the opportunity to do so with new partners who have the ability to reach larger audiences.”

7. What does the future bode for a permanent stadium at the Wanderers Grounds? Hot damn, who knew the offseason could be so spicy? This one actually seems to be tracking in the Wanderers’ favour—albeit perhaps more slowly than the club would like.

If you haven’t noticed, the Halifax Wanderers’ stadium looks a little different than most. For one thing, it’s built from shipping containers and rented bleachers—and in hurricane weather, it’s liable to fall into disrepair. (All in all, not a dream situation.) But fixing it—and the matter of who foots the bill—is a trickier thing. The Wanderers don’t own the land. (The HRM does.) Every year since 2019 (save for 2020), the club has rented the field for home games and the occasional practice. That comes with its own array of quirks: Because there’s no running water on-site (and only a single washroom), the Wanderers have had to bring in porta potties for spectators and rely on food trucks to offer refreshments. Last fall, it meant soccer legend Christine Sinclair and her teammates on the Canadian women’s national team had to schlep their own water coolers to the field, as there are no drinking fountains at the Wanderers Grounds.

The Wanderers have pushed for the HRM to invest in a permanent 8,500-seat stadium at the Grounds. The club says it could be shared with Citadel High School’s sports teams and also double as an outdoor concert venue. The Wanderers estimate upgrades would cost the HRM $40 million—a sum towards which they’d be willing to contribute “substantially,” potentially in the form of a 30-year tenancy agreement. But there are opponents of the plan: Members of the Friends of the Halifax Common group believe they have grounds to sue the HRM over the alleged privatization of the Grounds. (The HRM, for its part, seems confident that it’s not breaching any land use covenants by leasing the field to the Wanderers. And the field remains publicly available for anyone to book—if somewhat difficult to reserve, in practice.)

Last month, HRM council approved a master plan for the Halifax Common. The mayor and councillors also directed CAO Cathie O’Toole “to complete detailed planning of the Wanderers Block” and return to council with a staff report, along with “updates to the Halifax Common Master Plan as may be required.” That’s welcome news for the Wanderers, who have launched a campaign to garner broader support for a permanent stadium. But would it be built and ready by 2025, as the Wanderers hope? That part remains to be seen.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button