The Wanderer Grounds podcast: Where does Halifax fall in the CPL’s pre-season power rankings?

Pre-season in sports is a strange and wonderful time. Like the week after New Year’s Day, it’s the one time of year—maybe the only time—that we give ourselves the grace of a blank slate. The detritus of a team’s past—the wins, the losses, the squandered points, the last-minute heartbreaks—is wiped clean, and for however brief a spell, any future seems possible. Championship aspirations? Sure. Playoff vengeance? Record-breaking seasons? An endless supply of mind-bending assists pulled out of thin air by a Brazilian midfielder with a pair of wizard’s wands for feet? You bet.

The Halifax Wanderers and their supporters are in that camp right now. A year after the Canadian Premier League soccer club’s best season yet, there’s hope that an even better season is to come. Maybe a deeper playoff run. A moment of Canadian Championship magic against a Major League Soccer opponent.

The squad—bolstered by the additions of winger Ryan Telfer, centre-back Julian Dunn, midfielders Giorgio Probo, Vitor Dias and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and forward Christian Volesky, along with the returns of star talents Massimo Ferrin, Aidan Daniels, Lorenzo Callegari, Dan Nimick and Zach Fernandez—is deeper than any Wanderers team previously assembled. Head coach Patrice Gheisar and fellow coaches Jorden Feliciano, Jed Davies and Jan-Michael Williams are back after a joy-filled 2023 run that saw the CPL club tie for the second-best record in the league.

“I think we have the team to reach a good level this year—even better than last year,” Fernandez says, speaking with The Coast after a training session.

The third-year Wanderers full-back has seen his share of Halifax’s ups and downs. After arriving from Ligue 1 Québec side AS Blainville in 2022, the 22-year-old Laval, Qué. native has worked to develop from a raw and hungry prospect into one of the CPL’s most reliable full-backs—a tireless defender who, at his best, can almost single-handedly will his team to a win.

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For a spell, it seemed like Fernandez might have left Halifax this off-season for an MLS club. Per the Wanderers Notebook, there was “serious interest” in Fernandez’s skills from multiple North American clubs, as well as parts of Europe. Ultimately, any prospective deals fell through—an added motivator for Fernandez ahead of 2024.

“That’s my objective—and to draw interest from Europe and North America was good,” Fernandez tells The Coast. “I didn’t get the move, unfortunately, but I’m focusing on Halifax now. And I’m ready to go for an even better season.”

Fernandez and his teammates will face a tall order: While the Wanderers have retooled, so, too, has the rest of the CPL. Regular season champions Cavalry FC have retained the core that propelled them to a 55-point season and added the likes of midfielder Diego Gutiérrez (one of Valour FC’s brightest spots for four seasons) and Sporting Lisbon’s Lucas Dias. Meanwhile, Atlético Ottawa have spared no expense in their pursuit of a North Star Cup, inking deals with star winger Ballou Tabla, Canadian international Kris Twardek, reigning U-21 Player of the Year Matteo de Brienne, Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Rayane Yesli and—it seems increasingly likely—Pacific FC’s Manny Aparicio and Amer Didic, two of the league’s best players.

Do the Wanderers have enough firepower to match?

Like many of his fellow coaches, Gheisar is not in the habit of showing his cards—but in one brief remark, he offers The Coast an insight that seems especially telling of Halifax’s roster-building approach.

“I think we’re getting winners and guys who have scars,” he says. “They’ve been through ups and downs. They’ve been in different places, and now they’re looking to only go up.”

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In this week’s Wanderer Grounds episode, Coast reporters Martin Bauman and Matt Stickland dive into the Wanderers’ off-season retooling approach and chat about kit reveals, the CPL’s version of the Avengers and what Halifax could learn from Wrexham AFC.

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