The 2021 Canadian Premier League (CPL) is due to get underway in mid-June or early July, pending government approval that the state of the COVID-19 pandemic is under control in the country. They are hoping to run a full 28-game campaign, starting with a single site.
And for fans of the league, which is still in its infancy, having first been launched in 2019, it is a time for hope and expectation.
Supporters of Valour Football Club are no different, although they have seen little success on the pitch – finishing bottom of the league in their first season and third from bottom in 2020, although that was a foreshortened campaign because of Covid.
One additional complication facing all teams in the CPL this season is that the amount of playing time given to players under the age of 21 must be increased from a minimum of 1,000 minutes to 1,500 over the course of the campaign.
Defence is an area where the team showed improvement last season over their 2019 showing, with Haitian Andrew Jean-Baptiste forming a strong partnership with another loan player, Julian Dunn.
Valour were unable to secure the services of Dunn for another season, so instead they will have to rely on the Panama player Amir Soto.
In terms of midfield, manager Rob Gale has the advantage of continuity, with Kiwi Moses Dyer, Diego Gutierrez, Raphael Ohin, and the Northern Irishman Daryl Fordyce all returning to the club again.
As outlined below, goalscoring was a problem for Valour last season – they were the joint second-lowest scorers in the league, and not one of their players found the net more than once.
Another question mark also lies over the goalkeeping position.
Last season, James Pantemis put on some fine performances for the side on loan from CF Montreal, but he has returned to his parent club, and, at one stage in the pre-season the team did not even have a keeper on their roster.
They have now signed Matt Smith, who was back-up to Pantemis last year, but he is still unproven at this level, although another CF Montreal loanee, Jonathan Sirois, is also available.
Some may argue that the balance of the squad looks uneven and that there aren’t too many options in the forward line and not even in defence.
Clearly, the attack needed reinforcing, but a major injury to one of their central defenders may leave them short of options.
The 2020 season was unusual because of the impact of the Covid pandemic, meaning that, in the end, it was decided to hold a cutdown event, known as The Island Games, held at the University of Prince Edward Island between August and September.
With all matches played behind closed doors, the format of the competition saw all the teams play each other on a league basis once, with the top four sides advancing to the playoffs.
Valour began their campaign with a two-goal defeat at the hands of Cavalry, before recovering in fine style to put four past the 2020 expansion team Atlético Ottawa. A goalless draw with York United kept them in playoff contention, but then they were beaten again by Pacific.
They did recover to beat the league whipping boys, FC Edmonton, but their hopes were effectively ended when they lost to HFX Wanderers, finishing with ten men.
A draw with Forge, the eventual champions, in the last match, was a creditable result, but it ultimately counted for nothing.
In the end, Valour had to settle for a sixth-place finish, finishing three points off a playoff berth, although their fans can argue that it represented an improvement over their bottom-of-the-table performance in the CPL’s 2019 campaign.
Areas For Improvement
Goalscoring is clearly an area in which Valour needs to improve.
They only managed eight in all last season and no individual player scored more than once. The club has chosen to resign forwards Austin Ricci and Masta Kacher, but they have now brought in Venezuelan forward Ronny Maza, and they will be hoping that he can add some potency to their attack.
This will be the first time though that the 23-year-old has played outside Venezuela, so the club will be hoping he can adapt to life in the CPL.
To bolster him they have acquired Sean Rea and Jared Ulloa, who have been loaned from CF Montreal and Sporting Cristal, respectively.
Rob Gale has been with the club since it was founded, having previously coached Canada at all levels up to under 20.
Born in Zambia, he began his footballing career in England with Fulham, before taking a break from the game to focus on his coaching badges, before appearing for Canadian clubs in Manitoba, an area of the country he knows well and is passionate about.
In fact, it is his love of the club and the area that has enabled him to attract some foreign imports to come to Winnipeg, which is not the most obvious destination for those from outside North America.
Gale knows well the challenges of managing in the CPL. Not only is it a question of finding the right players, but there are strict criteria every manager must adhere to in assembling a squad. Each roster needs to contain at least six Canadians, three of whom have to be under-21. Meanwhile, a maximum of seven international players are permitted, and again four of those have to be under-23.
A thoughtful coach, Gale places as much emphasis on the emotional, psychological, and social traits of a player – as their physical attributes and ability on the ball. He knows that, when a game is on the line, it is the innate character of a player that comes through.
That is why he deliberately chooses hungry, ambitious players, who are motivated to succeed.
Prediction For 2021
Anybody expecting Valour to be transformed into title challengers overnight is setting expectations too high. Rob Gale himself has chosen a three-to-five-year plan and the club is in the middle of that cycle.
However, if the club can force itself into playoff contention this time around, that would represent significant progress.
2020, albeit that the season was truncated, suggested that the club was headed in the right direction. The defence had got tighter, and they were generally harder to beat. If they can sort out their goalscoring issues, a top-four finish is not beyond them.