June 22, 2024
  • June 22, 2024
Canadian Premier League

Three Things We’ve Learned From The First Five CPL Matchweeks

By on May 18, 2024 0 689 Views

We are now five full Matchweeks into the 2024 Canadian Premier League season and in the midst of the sixth, which means teams have shaken off enough pre-season rust to showcase what they’re all about in this stellar start to the season.

While these first five matchweeks have given us plenty of points to discuss, here are just three of the biggest things we’ve learned so far this CPL season.

Pacific FC Aly Ndom
Photo Credit: Sheldon Mack / Pacific FC

#1 Pacific’s Defense Mean Business

Many people were concerned for Pacific FC after their transfer dealings in the off-season, especially after the departures of stars like Manny Aparicio and Amer Didic. Didic, in particular, left a rather gaping hole in that back-line, one that is not easily replaceable. But then the Tridents went and got Aly Ndom, a midfielder-turned-centreback that has almost seemlessly slotted into that Pacific backline, and has helped elevate that defence to new heights.

Across the first five matches, Pacific have conceded zero goals from an incredible 5.35 xGA. That’s five straight clean sheets, a club record to start the season. Ndom has played his own part in that record, with his fantastic positional awareness and confidence to play out of the back, but he’s not alone: Thomas Meilleur-Giguere has stepped up massively after the departure of Didic, and looks to be coming into his own so far this season alongside Ndom in the centre of defence. Paul Amedume and Georges Mukumbilwa did well in the opening two matches pair alongside those two and to rise to the occasion as Kunle Dada-Luke was suspended for those matches.

But after Dada-Luke’s re-intergration, plus the re-addition of young U-SPORTS defender Eric Lajeunesse, Pacific’s defense has looked near-impenetrable. Lajeunesse has grown leaps and bounds since his appearances last, and now forms part of the “French Connection” in that defense with Ndom and Meilleur-Giguere. It’s not just the backline itself that has helped Pacific to earn this feat, it’s also the players behind and in front of them as well.

Cedric Toussaint has been a rock in that midfield, doing excellently to break down attacks before they can even reach the Trident’s backline. He leads the league in Successful Tackles per 90 with 4.1, and is second in his team for Interceptions per 90 with 1.4. His gritty, pestering nature usually ends up with either him winning the ball, forcing them to go back and allow his side to re-organize, or taking out the man all-together.

On the other side, Emil Gazdov has been in rejuvenated form this season, making some spectacular saves to keep his side in it. He’s made nine saves so far and also has a league-leading nine clearances (including punches). He looks far more confident and focused than his inconsistent form from last season, and now looks like a man possessed in between those sticks.

With all of these players playing so well and contributing to the team’s defense, it’s no wonder that Pacific have been able to boast such a spotless record through their first five games. What James Merriman and co. will need to do now is be able to get their attack firing at the same level, as they’ve only been able to score an average of a goal per game, the third lowest in the league. Once they get that going, they’ll be one of the most difficult sides to play against in the entire competition.

Valour FC Tass Mourdoukoutas Kadin Martin Pereux
Photo Credit: John Jacques

#2: Valour’s Listless Away Form Needs Serious Work

It was always going to be hard for Valour FC to start this season off on the right foot. With stadium renovations keeping them out of Winnipeg until early June, and wholesale changes in the squad from last season, the prospects of Valour getting points early on in the season were slim – but I don’t think many expected them to be at this level.

Five straight losses, 13 goals conceded and only three goals for (not including the 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Atletico Ottawa in the Canadian Championship) is not exactly championship form. Phil Dos Santos has tried his best to rally his troops in the face of adversity, but often times it ends up short by the final whistle. Valour simply have too many fires to put out at the moment, with individual mistakes, organizational concerns, confidence problems and travel weariness just a few of the factors that are dampening Valour’s chances for a successful season every week that goes by.

‘The Minimum You Ask Is The Fight’: Dos Santos Wants More Growth From Valour Squad

They have had some positive signs in the midst of all those struggles: Themi Antonoglu has taken on the mantle of ‘young, energetic and attackingly-talented left full-back’ from Matteo De Brienne and made it his own. His consistently crisp curling crosses are one of Valour’s most dangerous weapons in the attack so far, making up two out of the three assists of the season so far. Valour veteran Dante Campbell has done his absolute all to try to motivate his team from the midfield, going so far as to score a goal and defend a certain goal within one half in the last match against York United. But one or two men cannot carry a whole team on their back when the competition is so stiff in the league.

Players like Charalampos Chantzopoulos and Shaan Hundal need to pick up form in the next few games after severely underwhelming performances. Hundal was brought in to be the big Number Nine up top to score all the goals for Valour, but has only come up with blanks so far in his return. Chantzopoulos was brought in to shore up the defense, and to guide young Gianfranco Facchineri after being thrust into the starting eleven with an injury to Tass Mourdoukoutas, but the only thing that he has shown is a symphony of errors and bad decisions that have cost Valour dearly.

If Valour want to bring any points back to Winnipeg by the time that stadium is ready, Phil Dos Santos will need to dig deep and find a new level to turn this side around. They have shown glimpses of being a true competitive team, like in the game against Forge where it took a last-gasp winner from Noah Jensen to deny the draw, or that first half against Pacific where they looked the more comfortable of the two sides…but such good performances being so few and far between aren’t good enough to get Valour on the board right now.

In all fairness, the season is still young and there are still plenty of games to play, but a terrible start such as this could have lasting effects on the psyche of a team – as well as potentially fatal effects on Dos Santos’ job prospects – should this trend continue.

Forge FC Tristan Borges
Photo Credit: Jojo Yanjiao Qian / Forge FC

#3: Forge FC’s Players, Both Young and Old, Are Stepping Up Big Time

Forge playing very well is not the most suprising thing in the world, especially considering the brimming trophy cabinet that only seems to grow every year. For 2024, though, it is the manner in that they are playing very well that has piqued many people’s interest over the last several weeks. The massive exodus of key players like Manjrekar James, Woobens Pacius, Rezart Rama, and Triston Henry made it seem like Forge FC were – for the first time in their short history – in a really tough spot. While they made signings like Nana Opoku Ampomah and the returning Elimane Cisse to try to fill some of those holes that those outgoings created, it still felt like Forge FC had not done enough in the off-season to keep them on the same level as they were last year, and those players also saw visa issues delay their arrival.

As should be well-known by everyone following the league: you should never doubt Forge. For Forge have not only began this season on the front foot, but they’ve done it in style. For example, longstanding players like Tristan Borges and David Choiniere have truly come alive so far this season.

Brilliant Borges: Forge’s Title-Winner Off To Hot Start In 2024

Borges is on MVP-form currently, boasting two goals and three assists in just four CPL games for Forge in 2024. He is finally looking like the evolution of that 20 year-old Tristan Borges that many had been expecting after his incredible debut season in 2019. But now, at 25 years old, Borges has upped his game by becoming a more all-around, mature, and experienced player that has come into his prime right on time for Forge.

Choiniere, on the other hand, is also coming into his own this season. After an injury-plagued 2023 season, he has come back to form a stellar partnership with Borges, Kyle Bekker, and Beni Badibanga. The Quebecois winger has scored two goals so far this season, already equaling his league goal-tally from last year, and looks poised to score more. His off-the-ball movements and deft dribbles have made him a danger on that right side, creating headaches for defences that must contend with Badibanga and now himself. If he continues this form, he will likely succeed his 2022 form where he starred for Forge and scored six goals in league play.

It’s not just about scoring goals for Forge, as they have been aided by a rather young backline that has stepped up to the plate so far in 2024. Christopher Kalongo, Daniel Parra, and Malik Owolabi-Belewu in particular have been monumental for Forge in defence. Owolabi-Belewu leads the league in interceptions per 90 with 4 and is only second to Toussaint in tackles per 90 in the league with 4 as well. For a 21-year-old, Owolabi-Belewu has performed at a level far older than what his young age may proclaim. Confident and composed on the ball, and ruthless and effective off of it, he has thrust himself into the early conversations for Defender of the Year.

Meanwhile, Parra has become an unexpected threat on that left side, forming a unique trio with Badibanga and Borges that wreak havoc. His clever runs forward and sumptouous passes into the box has him creating 7 chances so far this season already, with his efforts being rewarded twice in assists. And between the sticks, Kalongo has exceeded all expectations in taking up the mantle of Forge FC legend Tristan Henry. It is not easy succeeding someone that was as pivotal and as present for the team like Henry, especially at such a young age, but Kalongo has been faultless so far. He has made 10 saves and conceded only two goals, but his commanding presence and bravery are what make him fit right in with the levels and expectations that are demanded at Forge.

So far this season, all of these players have come together to elevate this team. It no longer looks like a side that only comes into gear for the playoffs. It now looks like a team that relishes every challenge, and rises to every occasion. So don’t be surprised if Forge become title favourites well before the first leaves fall in Autumn.

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