Canadian Premier League Opening Weekend – Tactical Review

The Canadian Premier League is back! After just a few months away, the CPL finally has its second sense of normality for the first time since the inaugural season, with a full calendar of matches set to play. The opening weekend saw two fairly stale matches to kick off the campaign, but a repeat of last season’s Playoff Final set to take place this Sunday brings hope for what is to come as we cover the tactics of each and every team this season. Here is our opening weekend tactical review of the Canadian Premier League’s first four matches.

YORK UNITED 0-1 halifax wanderers fc

In the opening match of the season, Halifax Wanderers FC walked to a 1-0 win over York United, with two dubious penalty shouts failing to go the way of York in their quest to find their way back into the game.

While York took some time to get going in the match, Halifax Wanderers FC achieved a greater balance between defensive solidity and a free-flowing nature in attack. They frequently ventured down the right in possession, with Zach Fernandez overlapping Alex Marshall down the wing. The two outside central midfielders also roamed forward and wide as Andre Rampersad held position, where Aidan Daniels created several chances for himself in the left-half-spaces.

Out of possession, their 4-3-3 became more of a 4-1-4-1, as Rampersad again held position, and Halifax used Gagnon-Laparé and Daniels to overload central spaces and force Lowell Wright to come deeper toward the ball. Compacting central channels in this manner, Sebastian Gutierrez was practically anonymous as York’s number ten and failed to find his footing in the match.

With Morelli buzzing up top individually, York passed the ball around to no avail for large spells, and couldn’t find a way through the wide areas. In fact, both in and out of possession Martin Nash’s team looked completely disjointed for the entire first half.

The Nine Stripes couldn’t cope with Halifax’s pace in transition, constantly giving away fouls, and failing to deal with Halifax’s attacks down the right. Defending in a 4-4-1-1 formation, York failed to deal with the movement of the likes of Aidan Daniels and Joao Morelli from left-half spaces into central channels, not to mention any injection of pace whatsoever. Eventually, their incessant fouling came back to bite them when Roger Thompson lost his head and took Cory Bent down in the box. Last season’s Golden Boot winner Joao Morelli stepped up to slot the penalty home, and from there it was an uphill battle for York.

But the goal sparked more life into The Nine Stripes, particularly after the introductions of Isaiah Johnston and Diyaeddine Abzi. With Martin Nash clearly laying into the side at halftime, Noah Verhoeven dropped deeper to pick up possession, pulling the strings from deep as he situated himself in between or on top of the centre-backs.

From this position, he sprayed diagonal long passes left to right with a high degree of precision. Noah Verhoeven’s passing map shows a man who influenced the match in all phases of possession, from his six long passes to five key passes.

Credit to the Canadian Premier League (CANPL.CA)

Michael Petrasso also stepped up his efforts in the second half, utilizing his pace and carrying ability to break lines and create fouls, finally giving Zach Fernandez something to sweat about. Despite failing to advance across the thirds throughout the match, York United created a few genuinely good chances to score, including Lowell Wright’s toe-poke onto the post. They even claimed two penalty shouts in the match, and a 1-1 draw would have been a fair result despite Halifax’s dominance. But it wasn’t meant to be for Nash’s men, and Stephen Hart can walk away happily after his side’s commanding performance.


ATLETICO 1-0 CAVALRY

In the second match of the weekend, Atletico Ottawa clawed their way to a narrow 1-0 win, after Cavalry’s Jose Escalante brutally handled the ball in the box.

From a tactical perspective, Atletico played the most intriguing role in the match with their fluctuating changes of shape. In possession, Ottleti attacked with a lopsided 3-4-1-2, where Aleman floated into left-half-spaces, Tissot roamed higher than his defensive partners, and Tabla played high and wide on the right.

As the centre-backs patiently circulated the ball and Drew Beckie tucked low on the right of the back three, Atleti worked their way into the wide areas toward Ballou Tabla. Adapting their shape in this manner created the potential for central overloads, but Cavalry limited central penetration in their 3-4-3 press, and Aleman only ventured into central spaces after wide progressions down the right. In fact, their best chance of the first half came from an audacious Aleman strike from outside the box, which Tabla rebounded onto the crossbar. With time and space to get their head up, Atletico Ottawa had little issue progressing into their front two – Malcolm Shaw and Brian Wright, who threatened in front of Calvary’s back-three and made a nuisance of themselves – winning eight fouls between the two of them.

As the match progressed, Carlos Gonzalez made smart tactical tweaks, primarily utilizing like for like substitutions as players tired. Miguel Acosta added flavour down the right as he came on for Ballou Tabla, while Zach Verhoven entered the frame for Keven Aleman. Those two substitutes combined for the goal as Ottawa overloaded the left and worked the ball into a position where Acosta fired at goal, and instead found the outstretched arms of Jose Escalante. Brian Wright converted the spot kick with just his third shot in the match, sending his team into the lead.

Out of possession, Ottleti shifted into a 4-4-2, with Aleman tucking in on the left and Tissot retreating back. They pressed individually as a player in their zone prepared to receive the ball, limiting space and time across the pitch. As Cavalry circulated the ball between their centre-backs, Shaw and Wright allowed the Cavs to hit long passes over the top. These moves resulted in some positive moments for Wheeldon Jr.’s team, but they were generally ineffective at breaking Atletico down, even despite several successful first contacts. It was however the Cavs who created more chances in the match, and Atletico had to rely on Nathan Ingham to come up clutch in his debut for the team, with 4 saves. The former York United keeper was a standout on the day for his role in behind Atletico’s back-four, brilliantly commanding his penalty area and claiming 4 crosses.


Cavalry on the other hand had moments of dominance in possession too, utilizing Joe Mason’s pace and strength in behind to take advantage of long passes over the top, and passes out wide for the striker to chase down. Daan Klomp pushed higher than his centre-back partners in possession, in the same line height as Charlie Trafford. The progressive Dutchman played a few beautiful long passes in the first half, one of which perfectly found Mason’s chest before Espejo barged him over at the edge of the eighteen. Had the barge come a millisecond later, Klomp’s precision pass would have won his team a spot kick.

Wheeldon Jr.’s team worked the wide left well and had a few bright moments where Loturi combined with Fisk and Camargo in a wide triangle. But they had more success down the right with Ali Musse’s pace and skill, where Mason could play on the shoulder of Atletico’s changing defensive shape and seek space for himself. Musse made himself a constant threat in the match, taking four shots, winning four dribbles, and forcing two fouls. His substitution from the match was a strange one, as Cavalry lacked the necessary thrust going forward for the final twenty minutes. Further, while he was often one of their first passes upon possession gains, the Cavs could have taken more advantage of Tissot’s high role, by playing quicker down the right in transition.

Out of possession, Wheeldon Jr.’s team pressed in a 3-4-3 shape in both their high and mid-block. In moments where Atletico were able to play passes over the top of Klomp’s slightly advanced position, Karifa Yao excellently stepped up to close down the space and deal with the situation. Out of the front three, Ali Musse was again the one actively stepping on the pedal to press high and make something out of nothing, pushing the envelope as Atletico circulated the ball. Charlie Trafford and Victor Loturi also held firm out of possession, and their sound positioning meant Atletico resorted to long-passes in order to find their strikers.

While Gonzalez made smart but subtle moves to influence the game, Wheeldon Jr. struggled to make the same mark from substitutions. Not only did Ali Musse come out of the match to no avail, but another substitute in Jose Escalante gave away the penalty that led to the only goal of the match. In the end it was those substitutions that influenced the match at the death, helping Atletico Ottawa to their fourth win in five against Cavalry FC.


FC EDMONTON 1-1 valour fc

The third fixture of the weekend saw possession-based Valour FC take on the defensively sound FC Edmonton, producing a fascinating chess match. While Valour were far and away the better team in the first half, they took their foot off the pedal in the second, allowing Edmonton to eventually claw their way back in and claim a late draw, with what is being described as one of the best goals in the league’s history.

The match started in typical fashion, with Valour completely dominating the ball, and FC Edmonton sitting deep in a 5-4-1, soaking up the pressure and then enacting proactiveness closer to goal. Valour built out from the back in what we call a “box build-up” utilizing two central midfielders ahead of their centre-backs – who expertly dropped into the back-line in different moments – creating a wide 3+1 shape. This in turn pushed full-backs Andy Baquero and Federico Pena further forward, and both were exceptional in charging forward down the wings and contributing to the attack. With their full-backs maintaining the width and their wingers inverting into half-spaces, Valour switched play from side to side using diagonal long passes. However, FC Edmonton were excellently up to the task in dealing with 1v1 situations down the wings and both of their fullbacks played their part – particularly the warrior man T-Boy Fayia.

With Edmonton sitting deep in a 5-4-1, Phillip Dos Santos’s team were restricted to shots from range – which were utterly ineffective in troubling Andreas Vaikla. Only three of their fifteen shots hit the target, and they were incredibly lackluster in working the ball into dangerous shooting positions against Edmonton’s stern defensive structures. Unsurprisingly, their only goal of the game came from a brilliant piece of skill from Baquero to cut inside on his left foot and let fly from range – a shot which gave the TFC II goalkeeper no chance.

Valour will be particularly disappointed on the day, having held 62% of the possession, whilst Edmonton sat back and defended like their lives depended on it. Even in moments where Edmonton were able to win back possession, Valour counter-pressed in numbers excellently well, and stole back control. Rocco Romeo and Stefan Cebara had very little pressure to contend with as they sprayed long passes and carried the ball into midfield areas, and Moses Dyer made himself a particular threat as he rummaged around Edmonton’s defense. The occasional rotations of Diego Gutierrez with Daryl Fordyce also allowed Valour space to progress through the thirds, but again, they failed to progress past Edmonton’s back-line.

With Edmonton’s defense holding strong, the Eddies ultimately found a way back into the match through their increased attacking intent in the second half. Upon regains, Valour’s counter-press started to fall flat, as Edmonton immediately targeted space in behind Baquero with passes into the path of 20-year-old wing wizard Azriel Gonzalez. The man on loan from York United for a second successive season made himself one of the top threat’s on the day, perfectly delivering for another York loanee – Julian Ulbricht more than once. Ulbricht picked up some remarkably open positions in the box to receive the ball close to goal, but had a disastrous afternoon in finishing off his chances. He even missed an absolute sitter, that absolutely should have levelled the score at 1-1 long before the ultimate leveler. Immediately after, Edmonton’s other main threat in Tobias Warschewski (another York loanee) moved into the centre-forward position, with Wesley Timoteo entering the frame to run wild down the right instead. It was these two players that combined for the final goal at the death, with Warschewski bicycling the ball into the back of the net for a dramatic equalizer, shortly after Timoteo worked desperately hard to keep the ball in play. Overall, a draw turned out to be a fair result, even despite Valour’s dominance. Cale Loughrey stood out on the day for his defensive work in the middle of Koch’s back-three, helping keep Valour at bay for the majority of the second half until Warschewski’s tireless work effort eventually paid off.

PACIFIC FC 2-1 FORGE FC

The final game of the weekend saw a repeat of last season’s Playoff final, with Pacific FC getting one over on Forge yet again (literally), this time by a score of 2-1. While Forge dominated possession and generated more chances, Pacific pacified much of Forge’s central penetration, and were clinical in front of the goal in securing the win.

The tactical battle between two of the league’s top teams turned out to be the battle of the 4-3-3’s that look much more like 4-1-4-1’s. Both teams defended in a 4-1-4-1 formation, particularly when in a mid-block, and attacked with various rotations that pushed one central midfielder forward as the other held a more reserved position. For Pacific FC, that reserved role was given to team captain Jamar Dixon, who dropped to the right of Amer Didic at the back, and pushed high-flying wing-back Olakunle Dada-Luke forward in the attack. Dada-Luke’s electric speed frustrated Forge throughout the afternoon, with substitute Kwasi Poku having a difficult time handling his ninja-like prowess.

With Dixon wide right and Baldisimo low, Pacific built out from the back in a 2+3 shape, allowing the likes of Bustos, Aparicio, Heard and Diaz to drop in and out toward the ball, and seek space in between the lines. Matthew Baldisimo and Amer Didic were excellent in circulation stages at calming the play down and allowing Pacific to get a sense of control of the ball – something that they lacked for the vast majority of the game. But their best moments came when using Dada-Luke’s pace out wide or the space seeking of Marco Bustos as he roamed in and around Kyle Bekker. While he excelled in most areas of the match, Amer Didic failed to truly connect with his teammates high up the pitch and enhance the situation through long passes, with Thomas Meilleur-Giguère instead standing out as the better progressor – completing 5/9 long passes on the day and only failing on one other pass throughout the ninety.

Credit to the Canadian Premier League (CANPL.CA)

His best diagonal on the day was that exceptionally long green arrow you see at the bottom right, which was expertly picked up by Marco Bustos moments before winning a foul from Kwasi Poku. That momentary Poku hold ended up leading to the second goal of the game, a towering header from debutant Amer Didic – who (unsurprisingly) won all four of his aerial duels on the day. But a player like Thomas Meiller-Giguere will never steal the headlines on a day like this, despite his role in helping Pacific maintain some level of ball speed and control. Instead, the players further up the pitch, who rotated in and out of position brilliantly, will always standout – and for good reason.

Merriman’s team were fantastic on the break and in transitional moments, making their best moments count seconds after winning back possession. Their first goal of the game didn’t come from a transition, but a clear intention to play forward after winning possession and work the right moment to shoot. About twenty seconds after Amer Didic calmly picked up the ball and worked a progressive pass to Manny Aparicio in between the lines, the ball again found its way forward to Alejandro Diaz to receive with his back to goal and return the ball for eventual assister – Josh Heard. The wide-man heard the stomping feet of the two Forge players trying to double team him, but had no issue breaking free of the pressure and finding Diaz in the box. In the process, Dom Samuel dropped too close to goal and allowed Diaz acres of space to punch the ball into the back of the net – where the Victorian club were able to soak up the sun (and pressure) from there.

Alejandro Diaz’s successful passes and shots on target (credit to CANPL.ca).

Their second best moment of the first half came shortly thereafter, with Manny Aparicio applying a fantastic bit of pressure to win the ball back and again find Diaz in the box, but this time the Mexican’s finish was too close to the keeper. With all of the front three making themselves a complete and utter nuisance on the day, Diaz stood out in particular – contributing much more than just as a target man. He frequently roamed toward the ball on throw-ins to allow his team an undeniable first option, helped lead their press from the front, and often floated toward the ball when his wingers were in possession, helping to increase the overload against a team that so often dominate the wide channels.

Speaking of the wide channels, Pacific FC knew Forge’s game-plan in and out, almost as though they had studied it themselves. While they allowed switches of play and couldn’t stop Forge’s long diagonals from occurring, Merriman’s men were always quick to close down wide spaces in numbers. Both fullbacks won the majority of their 1v1 duels on the day, making for a very quiet afternoon for both David Choiniere and former Pacific man Terran Campbell. Even if Forge’s wide men found space in front of the centre-backs to receive, the excellent organization of Pacific’s back-line frustrated Smyrniotis’ side going forward, and they couldn’t find adequate avenues to work the half-spaces. But we cannot be all negative on Forge FC and their role in making this an entertaining match, as for long spells Smyrniotis’ side were excellent too.

The opening minutes of the match signaled a clear intent from Forge to utilize the wide channels, particularly on long diagonal switches to Ashtone Morgan down the left. Despite Smyrniotis setting up with a back-four, Morgan played more like a wing-back down the flank, and frequently overlapped Terran Campbell as he drifted inside. Unfortunately for Forge, the plan only lasted the first twenty minutes before the former TFC man needed replacing, and Kwasi Poku was never able to adapt to the evolution of the match in the same manner.

Despite the change of personnel, the over-arching ideologies behind the tactic stayed the same. Kyle Bekker held a more reserved role down the left-hand-side of the midfield, using his expert passing range to spray long passes forward. With Bekker and Achinioti-Jönsson holding, the Hammers built out from the back in a 3+2 shape, with a solid mix of patient possession and progressiveness into the wide channels. Alessandro Hojabrpour found himself in more of a free role down the right as a result, playing almost as a ‘number 10’ in attack and getting on the end of many of Forge’s best chances – in fact their two ‘big chances’ in the match. Despite our raving review on Pacific’s press, it also must be said that Samuel and Metusala held their own in circulation stages, confidently passing the ball around and in Metusala’s case – taking moments to carry the ball forward and break lines on his own (I love when he does this). Terran Campbell also played a role in inverting into left-half-spaces to facilitate the high position of the left-back, but never got up to full speed.

In the second half, Aboubacar Sissoko found himself more involved down the right-hand-side. Even after moving into a central midfield position, the Malian defender found himself drifting over to the right to pick up the ball, pushing Jonathan Grant forward down the wing in the process. This Smyrniotis inspired substitution allowed Forge to continue prioritizing the wide areas, where toward the end of the game Abdou Samake had no choice but to knock Jonathan Grant’s progressive pass toward Chris Nanco down the wing out for a corner kick. With Kyle Bekker on the dead-ball, Forge always have a chance of scoring – and that’s exactly what happened. Samake was caught flat-footed in Pacific’s zonal marking system, when Achinioti-Jönsson ran unmarked from back-post to near-post (Forge’s frequently targeted delivery zone from Bekker’s corners), to take full advantage and nod the ball into the back of the net. The goal capped off a brilliant individual performance from the Swedish midfielder, who we were thoroughly impressed with in both legs last month against Cruz Azul. Jönsson controlled the tempo of Forge’s possession in midfield, excellently screened the back-four and met six of his eight long-passes forward with ease. Despite Pacific’s dominance on the day, he was a genuine man of the match candidate yet again, highlighting his importance to this Forge team and one of the most prominent reasons for Hojabrpour’s advanced role in the match.

Moving forward, Smyrniotis’ team will need to continue to work on defending set-pieces, as they’ve now conceded a goal from a free kick in each of their three competitive fixtures so far in 2022. Pacific FC meanwhile have much to look forward to this season, with every single starting player impressing on the day.

MORE TO FOLLOW!


The Canadian Premier League is back! This season TheMastermindSite will be covering the CPL from start to finish, with a multitude of Match Analyses, Player Analyses, and in-depth coverage of every single team and their tactics. In the meantime be sure to follow both @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite on Twitter, to never miss an update. Thanks for reading our opening weekend tactical review, and be sure to check back in when the final two games finish up. See you soon!

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