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The Wanderer Grounds podcast: The Halifax Wanderers are down bad right now

The Canadian Championship, like all good cup competitions, is a thing of magic: On any night, a plucky David is ready and eager to take down a Goliath. Potential Cinderella moments abound. Stars are born. Remember-where-you-were-when memories are etched in soccer lore. Last night at the Wanderers Grounds, in front of a crowd of 4,500 onlookers, all of that proved true once again—only this fairy-tale ending didn’t belong to the Halifax Wanderers. The moment was CS Saint-Laurent’s to savour. Despite the rust of not having started their Ligue1 Québec season, the semi-pro side from Montreal came into Halifax and put on a hell of a show. They pressed tirelessly. Dangerously. They played with poise and confidence. And in the do-or-die scenario of a penalty shootout, they held their nerve, winning 7-5.

Their reward: A two-legged quarterfinal date with Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, home of Federico Bernardeschi, Lorenzo Insigne and Jonathan Osorio. It’s the kind of opportunity semi-pro clubs dream about—and one the Halifax Wanderers desperately wanted as well.

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Trevor MacMillan / HFX Wanderers FC

CS Saint-Laurent supporters celebrate their semi-pro club’s victory over a Canadian Premier League opponent.

Only after Thursday night’s defeat at the Wanderers Grounds, one is left to wonder what blowout would’ve awaited the Wanderers had they advanced to play TFC. Through three Canadian Premier League matches and a lone CanChamp appearance, Halifax has yet to muster a win. The club—favoured by some to win the CPL at the start of the season—looks like a team in desperate search of its identity. In large spells of the Wanderers’ matches in 2024, they’ve played as if Space Jam‘s Nerdlucks came in from Planet Moron and robbed them of their once-formidable powers. Forward passes miss their mark. Shots sail over the crossbar. Attacking runs end without a shot. Balls bounce against them. In four competitions, the Wanderers have been outscored 8-3 in regulation time and managed a shade over three shots on target per match—the lowest tally of any CPL team.

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Thus far, the Wanderers have preached patience in their dressing room.

“We had a slow start last season as well,” Wanderers assistant coach Jorden Feliciano told reporters after Thursday’s match. “We didn’t win our first game until eight or nine matches into the season. Just dwelling on that, we have the experience to kinda be in the dumps. It’s just coming to work every day and doing the right things every day.

“We fully believe in our system, our style, our philosophy… it’s just having the execution.”

The loss marks the second time in Canadian Championship history that a semi-pro club has eliminated a CPL opponent, after Richmond, BC’s TSS Rovers upset Valour FC 3-1 last April. (The Wanderers lost at home to the semi-pro Vaughan Azzurri in 2019—coached, incidentally, by Feliciano and Halifax head coach Patrice Gheisar at the time—but managed to advance on aggregate goals in a two-legged round.)

“Credit has to go to Saint-Laurent,” Feliciano told reporters. “They had a game plan, they stuck to it, they were creative and inventive in their set pieces.”

The Wanderers’ season is far from over. Gheisar’s club has the benefit of a pair of home games ahead, against 2023 regular-season champions Cavalry FC on May 11 and league cellar-dwellers Valour FC on May 20. And there have been glimmers of what they could still become. New forward Ryan Telfer got his first goal of the season in a late-game equalizer against CS Saint-Laurent—one which will surely instill some confidence in the striker. Centre-back Dan Nimick has returned to form as a backfield ballast. Fullback Zach Fernandez, for his occasionally fiery foibles, gave Halifax a shot of adrenaline against CS Saint-Laurent when they needed it. This, and the club is still only three points behind where they sat at the same juncture last season, in what turned into the Wanderers’ best regular season ever.

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“We’re top three in the league amongst a lot of the big stats: Chances created, crosses, touches in the opponent’s box,” fullback Riley Ferrazzo told The Coast before the Wanderers’ match against CS Saint-Laurent. “So I’m really not too concerned with where we’re at right now. I think it’s just going to take time.”

The Wanderers have the benefit of time right now—the club won’t play again until next Saturday. But there will be plenty to dwell on in the meantime.

In this week’s episode of The Wanderer Grounds podcast, The Coast’s Matt Stickland and Martin Bauman look back at the Wanderers’ 7-5 defeat on penalties and try to make sense of what’s not working. Plus, fullback Riley Ferrazzo joins the show to talk about scoring his first professional goal, roommate life with Massimo Ferrin and what to take away from Halifax’s winless start to the season.

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