May 20, 2024
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Forge FC Tristan Borges

A New Dawn Breaks: A CPL Opening Weekend Preview

By on April 12, 2024 0 1018 Views

After 168 days with no league action, the Canadian Premier League will finally return on Saturday.

The opening matchweek for the sixth season will be filled with hype, excitement, and nerves as we get a glimpse into how well each team has built leading up to the season. With plenty of storylines to go around, here are the previews for each of Matchweek 1’s fixtures:

Atletico Ottawa vs York United (Saturday, April 13th at 1:00pm ET)

This curtain-raiser is perhaps the most highly anticipated match of the entire weekend. The newly-dubbed ‘Super Team’ Atletico Ottawa will host the newly-owned York United in what historically has been a hotly-contested affair, and it seems destined to be a real eye-opener for both teams after their transformative offseasons.

For Ottawa, they come in with the highest of expectations. Head coach Carlos Gonzalez has amassed a plentitude of pure talent in the off-season, bringing back home stars like Ballou Tabla and Matteo de Brienne whilst stealing other CPL teams’ elite players like Manny Aparicio, Amer Didic, Rayane Yesli, and Aboubacar Sissoko to strengthen their ranks.

Many are calling this team the first ‘Galacticos’ team in the league (ignoring the Real Madrid moniker for an Atletico-affiliated team), and with that title comes big demands. The bare minimum for González’s team must be silverware, whether that be in the form of the North Star Shield, the North Star Cup, or – perhaps the most far-fetched of all – the Voyageurs Cup.

If this team comes away with nothing, surely heads will roll. The first step in that road to necessary success begin with this match at home, where all the fans will congregate to see their new stars shine.

Meanwhile, for York United, their off-season was a little less glamorous but still with plenty to talk about. After acquiring new ownership, the Nine Stripes have struck a balance between cashing in on their new owners’ contacts down in Mexico and maintaining their vision of bringing in top Canadian and international talent.

Names like Oswaldo Leon, Juan Cordova, and Frank Sturing have turned some heads as they look to fortify what was a rather leaky defense last season. Martin Nash will likely still look to CPL veterans Mo Babouli, Austin Ricci, and Brian Wright to get the goals in the attack while Thomas Vincensini looks likely to make his debut between the sticks for York in this match. The club will look to build on last-season’s resilient away form to spoil the party for Ottawa on Saturday and make a statement in the first chapter of this new era.

Forge FC vs Cavalry FC (Saturday, April 13th at 4:00pm ET)

We follow up that match with an absolute blockbuster as Forge FC face Cavalry FC in what is a rematch of *that* CPL Playoff Final from last October. Both teams have gone through busy off-seasons since then, losing some players and gaining some more, but the history and emotions surrounding this match-up shall ensure that there will be a level of feistiness that will enthrall all.

The hosts in Forge FC have undergone a dramatic and frankly gutting off-season, losing staples like Manjrekar James, Rezart Rama, Woobens Pacius, and Aboubacar Sissoko. Add the noise surrounding Triston Henry and his inevitable exit, and this off-season has left many worried – or perhaps hopeful, if one is a fan of the other seven teams – that Forge may finally break their dominant streak in 2024.

However, it has historically been a bad call to bet against Forge, who has always found a way to drop the hammer and break expectations regardless of the obstacles. After all, you don’t win four North Star Cups in five years on just luck. They’ve added former-Hammer Elimane Cisse back into their ranks, and have added another electrifying winger in Nana Opoku Ampomah. Former LAFC2 goalie Jassem Koleilat will have to fill the rather large shoes that Henry leaves behind unless Bobby Smyrnioitis has put his faith in young ‘keeper Christopher Kalongo after his displays against Chivas in the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Either way, their match against Cavalry will certainly be a test to see if Forge can continue forging their own dynasty by defeating their arch-rivals on opening day, or if their anvil has begun to rust.

Cavalry, on the other hand, come into this match with much more than just a desire to start the season off on the right foot. After being denied a historic double in last season’s CPL Playoff final, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and co. will be out for revenge.

The Cavs have decided not to alter a winning formula too much this off-season, keeping most of their starting eleven players from last year’s championship side. They have, however, strengthened in depth: they’ve brought in Australian winger Lleyton Brooks, the hardworking midfielder Diego Gutiérrez from Valour, and have even brought back ex-Eddies star striker Tobias Warchewski to Calgary to score some goals. Warchewski, alongside ex-Ottawa forward Malcom Shaw, will have their own big shoes to fill with the absence of Myer Bevan, Cavalry’s top goalscorer from last season who was placed on the club’s inactive list due to personal reasons. They still have 2023 Player of the Year and Defender of the Year Daan Klomp on their books, as well as 2023 Player of the Year nominee Ali Musse. Throw in the agile and lethal Willy Akio, Day One midfield general Sergio Camargo, and Captain Safehands Marco Carducci in goal and Cavalry have all the tools to make it potentially back-to-back league titles, with an eye for the double once again.

That all begins with this opening day grudge match against the old enemy, Forge FC.

Pacific FC vs HFX Wanderers (Saturday, April 13th at 4:00pm PT)

The third and final match-up on Opening Day sees the two furthermost sides face off in this true coast-to-coast clash. Both sides have had an obverse last few months. While one side has lost some key players this offseason after a disappointing end to the 2023 season compared to their high expectations, the other has trimmed the fat after a surprisingly positive end to the 2023 season where expectations were low.

The biggest stories coming out of Pacific were, unfortunately for them, all about their departures rather than their arrivals. They lost two of their best players to fellow CPL rivals Atletico Ottawa, and have moved on both of their rotational strikers in Easton Ongaro and Djenairo Daniels, even letting perennial journeyman Kekuta Manneh go after just one season.

Despite all the commotion, the Tridents have swiftly moved on from these players and brought in new ones to turn over a new leaf in their history. They’ve recruited Trinidadian international Reon Moore and fellow Victoria-native Dario Zanatta to fill out the attack, and have added Aly Ndom and Christian Greco-Taylor to strengthen the backline. While there may seem to be an Aparacio-sized hole in the midfield, Pacific have plenty of talent with Sean Young, Cedric Toussaint, and Steffen Yeates to call upon, alongside new signing Andrei Tîrcoveanu. Overall, the Tridents still have a strong squad, but their resolve will be tested when they face a team on the other side of the coin as them to open up their season at home.

Halifax, perhaps more than anyone, will be looking to start their season with three points away from home. After just missing out on second place in 2023 due to away goal difference, Patrice Gheisar’s side will be wanting to grab a hot start after going eight games without a win at the beginning of last season. As opposed to last season, Halifax has not undergone a massive turnover of players. Instead, they’ve let go of some players that perhaps were not cut out to play the intensely demanding style of Gheisarismo and added some more experience and talent to bolster their roster. Players like Christian Volesky, Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, and Ryan Telfer will look to use their wisdom to ensure that the team can grind out results when their backs are against the wall. On the other hand, Gheisar will be still be hoping to see the exciting upcoming players like Kareem Sow, Camilo Vasconcelos, Vitor Dias, and Giorgio Probo bring that energy and dynamism that is required to succeed in his system.

Overall, this squad looks bit by bit more like the team that Gheisar wants for his playing philosophy, and it has left many people wondering how good this HFX side will be in Year Two of Patrice Gheisar after the huge overachievement that was Year One. Those questions will begin to be answered in Starlight Stadium in their season-opener.

Vancouver FC vs Valour FC (Sunday, April 14th at 4:00pm)

The final matchup of the opening weekend is a battle between two teams that are looking to drastically improve upon a disappointing last season where they finished collectively in the bottom two spots in the league. Both have added plenty of talent, although with differing strategies, and will want to set the pace with this match as they look to fight for those coveted play-off spots.

Home team Vancouver FC has had one of the most feel-good offseasons in the entire league. After a dismal recruitment window at the beginning of their CPL tenure that saw many players fielded who were not up to scratch, the Eagles are now flying high after this off-season’s additions. They hosted the B.C. Homecoming Party by bringing back local boys such as Paris Gee, David Norman, Ben Fisk, Zach Verhoven, and Matteo Campagna (amongst others) to the squad. They’ve also continued their dedication to bringing up young domestic talent by signing 16-year-old Grady McDonnell, 16-year-old Joey Buchanan, 19-year old Elage Bah, and the aforementioned 19-year-old Campagna.

All these signings have significantly raised both the floor and the ceiling of the roster, with every position now contestable between quality players. Even captain Callum Irving cannot sleep to soundly as he has new signing Niko Giantsoplous gunning for his spot. With all these exciting signings, the expectations for Afshin Ghotbi to get the best out of them has soared. Playoffs is the bare minimum now for this team, and they will want to flex their new muscles and prove that they’re far greater than they were last year in this opening match against Valour.

For Valour, this opening game is the start of a very long trip away from Winnipeg. After it was confirmed that their home stadium, the newly-named Princess Auto Stadium, was to undergo serious renovations that would keep Valour out until June 2, many pundits and fans have already written this team off.

To try to get a team that has undergone serious turnover, losing 16 players and signing 13 new players, to gel and perform whilst consistently on the road is a tall order for Phil Dos Santos. He has lost massive players in Diego Gutierrez, Matteo de Brienne, and Rayane Yesli to rivals, and has to now bet on his new incomings to pull him through this trying period. On the bright side, after finishing dead last the year before, his team has nowhere to go but up: as damning as that phrase may sound, it could actually be a boost for Dos Santos’ team. He has players like Zachary Sukunda, Tass Mourdoukoutas, Jordan Faria, Themi Antonoglou, Abdul Binate, and Joe Hanson, who will all be itching to prove themselves after their previous stints not truly panning out as they wanted to. Perhaps no one will be more motivated to have a greater start than Shaan Hundal, facing up against his old team after being moved out for star striker Alejandro Diaz, despite Shaan being the Eagles’ first ever goalscorer.

It’s that mentality that Dos Santos will have to harness should his team have any chance of bringing back some valuable points to Winnipeg during this lengthy away-stead, and it has to start in this first match versus Vancouver.

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