Going into Valour FC’s final match as part of the bubble portion of the season, they already found themselves in absolute control of the table with 18 points earned out of a potential 21 total in their previous seven contests. They wished to leave “The Kickoff” with just one loss, and Halifax was poised as the final hurdle. Since having defeated Halifax in their second match of the year, Valour have certainly more than held their own, dominating basically every squad that dared take to the pitch against them.
Having won just one match and managed just two draws for a total of 5 points in seven previous clashes, the HFX Wanderers have struggled to match their opponents. They currently sit at the bottom of the table, a whopping 13 points behind the club they would face today. This could be a great day for them to start their climb out of the basement, should they be able to take down the top team in the league, ending a disappointing start to the year on a positive note.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste is out for the rest of the season after suffering an ACL tear early in their July 18th match against York United. While AJB will be sorely missed, this does offer an opportunity for Rodrigo Reyes, on loan to Valour from Chivas (C.D. Guadalajara) in Mexico. Having played just over an hour and a half total over three matches, he will need to show that he can play big minutes. Listed as right back on the pregame sheet, he actually ended up playing the center-back position between Stefan Cebara and Federico Peña. This alone shows the trust that Head Coach and General Manager Rob Gale has in the twenty-year-old. He has some big shoes to fill, both figuratively and literally.
GREAT FIRST HALF (OF THE FIRST HALF)
The story of the first thirty minutes, if I could sum it up in one word, would be “control.” Valour was calm, cool, and collected throughout the pre-drink-break period. So much heads-up short passing, mixed with smart switches to the opposite side to relieve any pressure Halifax was able to muster.
While Halifax did have a mild amount of possession in the first half of an hour, and a few potential scoring opportunities, ultimately the pace of the match was dictated almost entirely by the Winnipeg side. While this didn’t translate into any goals, or any shots on target for that matter, it was nice to see Valour dominate possession like that.
After the drink break, things would deteriorate for the hosts and Halifax would get their turn to press, causing much chaos for the Valour backline. The Wanderers’ strategy turned to a contain-and-counter style that proved quite effective against a Winnipeg side that wanted to slow the pace of play. From the drink break to the end of the half, it was almost all HFX.
Have I mentioned how good Valour’s keeper is? Jonathan Sirois was an absolute monster back there again today, stopping not one, but two opportunities point-blank to keep the score 0-0 late in the half. The man hasn’t conceded a single goal in the six matches he’s played before today.
Having just said that, the unfortunate truth is that all good things must come to an end eventually. In the 44th minute, a gorgeous strike from Pierre Lamothe off a volley found its way into the top corner of Valour’s net. It was quite a beautiful strike, to be completely honest. After 584 minutes of clean-sheet football, Sirois has now officially conceded his first goal in the 2021 CPL season.
This is also just the second time all year that Valour has found themselves trailing in a game.
Personal opinion: I thought, after the first half, that Valour’s passing could be paced up a bit. Having control and keeping it is important, yes. But I’d argue that some very good runs were being made by the likes of CPL goals leader Austin Ricci, Moses Dyer, and Keven Alemán, and holding the ball too long is wasting some of these great opportunities to attack. They needed to move the ball more quickly to take advantage of the great positional play, while simultaneously avoiding offside situations that ruin the flow of an attack.
I also felt that the speed of William Akio or Jared Ulloa could be quite useful in the second half, considering that neither of the two speedsters was given the start. Would Rob Gale agree with me? Time would tell.
To start the second half, Sean Rea would take a seat to allow Masta Kacher to get out on the pitch. At the same time, Ulloa took to the field, relieving Dyer of his duties for the day. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who thought some changes needed to be made immediately.
The first ten minutes of Valour’s second half were more about resetting their control. They were trying to slow down Halifax’s dangerous attack by not allowing them the ball.
Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t start panning out right away. The Wanderers continued to push, earning a few chances that forced Sirois to be on top of his game. HFX wanted to remind everyone how they finished second in last year’s Island Games tournament in Prince Edward Island. They can move the ball, and they can shoot. There is a lot of quality in the Halifax camp, and they were trying their darndest to put that on display.
In the 63rd minute, Captain Daryl Fordyce would make way for the Brazilian set-piece master, Rafael Galhardo. Immediately after this, Valour started to push back, briefly, before Halifax started to swing that momentum back their way.
To this point, while Valour had dominated the possession, they certainly had not dominated the attack. By the drink break in the 73rd minute, Halifax was out-shooting Valour 17 to 5, and on-target shots were even more lopsided with Halifax destroying Winnipeg 10 to 0. This is quite uncharacteristic of this Valour side, who regularly get more shots on target than their opponents.
After the second half drink break, William Akio would finally make his appearance. Despite this, Valour still seemed reluctant to make the long through-balls needed to send fresh-legged Akio or Ulloa rushing towards the goal.
Even in the dying minutes, Valour still seemed intent on forcing the slow build to work for them, making cheeky wall-pass style passes to advance up the field. While I commend them for not panicking, there certainly didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency that is required when trailing late in a game. Gale attributed this to the gruelling nature of the schedule by saying, “Thirty degrees on the turf, eighth game in twenty-four days or whatever it is, twenty-five days, just lacked a little bit of the probing, a little bit off the shoulders, the dynamics, but it wasn’t for the want of trying. We finished with seven attackers, one real center-back on the field, so I think the players’ effort was not in question.”
Even though Halifax came into this match in last place, they are certainly not considered a bad team. Valour knew this would be a battle, and the Wanderers proved that. Alessandro Riggi, who had 3 shots on goal himself today, said after the game that the Halifax club has “had some ups and downs,” and while discussing this fact he called the downs “demons,” referencing the temporary loss of their head coach due to minor surgery, the multiple player injuries they’ve had to deal with including his own concussion, and some game-altering referee decisions that didn’t go their way. It needs to be said that even though they only won two games out of eight, we have yet to see what a fully healthy HFX Wanderers team looks like. Halifax will continue to be a more dangerous squad as they get their roster healthy and once they fully get their regular coaching staff back.
One thing to note with Halifax is that many of their players have never played a game in their own facility, or “fortress” as they call it. This team is going to have a lot of fun when they get to play in front of their own fans, who easily rival Winnipeg’s supporter base as far as their numbers and enthusiasm. It’s great to see the support each of the CPL teams is getting, and home-field advantage is going to change the entire dynamic of the year.
To put a positive on a negative, we finally got to see what Sirois looks like after he gets scored on. After conceding his first goal of the year at the end of the first half, he stood on his head through the whole second half, giving his teammates every opportunity to level the match. An argument could certainly have been made for Sirois to be named Man Of The Match, despite the loss. “He’s a top-class goalie,” says Gale after the match, “he’s been the best goalkeeper in the league, he’s been fantastic. He had a lot of long-range sighters today, a few highlight-reel ones,” he said before joking, “I think he was just playing up to the cameras.”
Sirois himself had praise for his teammates, saying, “It’s all a team effort. All the guys in front of me, whoever it was, whether it was Drew [Jean-Baptiste], Stef [Cebara], Rodrigo [Reyes], or the guys coming in like Amir [Soto] and Tony [Mikhael], whoever was on the field was sacrificing everything to keep a clean sheet for me. At the end of the day, yeah, it’s me that’s holding the record, but it’s really a team thing.”
Reyes is a player that I think is ready and willing to step up, which is particularly important now with Jean-Baptiste out for the remainder of the campaign. When I asked Gale about Reyes’ play today, the bench boss said, “I thought he was terrific. He won his one-v-one battles, used the ball well, I thought he was very good today.” The Valour FC supporters out there should be relieved that a man of Reyes’ quality is able to fill in for the sidelined co-captain. While AJB is considered by many to be one of the best players in the league, Reyes proved to be a very capable option for Gale and his squad.
As a whole, Valour FC is in great shape. A full four points ahead of Pacific FC and Cavalry FC, Valour stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field. They are second in the league in “goals for” with 12 in eight games and are first in “goals against” having only conceded 3 in all that time. Given that over a quarter of the season has now been played and Valour is still leading the pack, the shock of Valour winning games and scoring goals should be behind them, the naysayers, and the supporters. As I stated in my last game report, THIS IS NO FLUKE. They have earned everything they have at this point.
When asked about the next week and what their plans are with the ending of the bubble, Gale made the mental health point quite clear. “The mental health of my players is paramount,” he said, “and they need to go and be kids, or some of them see their kids. Get home-cooked food, relax, get a complete break from football, where you’re not walking into other teams or your teammates every couple of hours and just have a complete mental break. Because they’ve been magnificent.”
Valour FC will play their next game on July 31 in Edmonton. You can watch all their road games at OneSoccer.ca. Their next home game will be on August 16th when Pacific FC comes back to town. The full CPL schedule is available at canpl.ca/schedule.