Valour FC opened week two of training camp with much the same short-term goals as the first: to get the players ready for the 2021 Canadian Premier League season – whenever it might start – by working on their game models and pushing the fitness levels. There is a much bigger goal/question in play here, too, and it will be critical in the months ahead – can Valour take that important step in evolving into a playoff squad, both this season and beyond? "It’s not enough to just do what we did last year, because the results weren’t good enough," assistant coach Damian Rocke said recently in a chat with CanPL.ca. "We can be pleased with the progress we’ve made, but we can’t be content. "It has to be clear to people that despite the fact we felt we made progress from the first year we still didn’t make the playoffs and we want to make that next step. Everybody has to make sure they are re-inventing themselves on a yearly basis to make sure they are bringing something new every day they come into the building." Valour finished with an 8-4-16 win-draw-loss mark in 2019, the CPL’s inaugural season, and out of the playoffs. There were signs of progress show in last summer’s Island Games in Prince Edward Island, as the squad cut down considerably on its goals conceded and finished with a 2-2-3 record – still not enough to advance past the First Stage of the tournament.
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The progress is also measured beyond the record, as several players re-signed with the club in the offseason after citing the chemistry the team showcased all summer and especially inside the Island Games bubble. That spoke of the culture Rocke, GM and head coach Rob Gale and goalkeeper coach Patick Di Stefani have worked to build since the franchise’s inception. Now, those advancements haven’t been forgotten. But professional sports is a win-now bottom-line business. And Valour needs to improve its bottom line. "We’re happy to be where we are and now it’s time for us to show as a club that we want to be in the conversation for what it’s going to take to be a championship team," said Rocke. "That’s the new challenge: it can’t be the same as last year. You have to make the next step." This is a message that is reinforced daily with Valour, both on and off the pitch. It’s why management pushed for a more mature roster in 2020; one that could stay true to the club’s values and handle the ups and downs that come in a season. That last part is massive because when things go sideways the team-first approach can often be abandoned. "This is the challenge for any team, any organization," Rocke said. "There’s always going to be a level of self-interest and that’s natural. But in a high-performance environment, whether it’s sport or otherwise, for you to evolve and be a winning culture you have to evolved from that me-first mentality to a we-mentality. "If this club is going to be successful we need to build a winning culture. The basic starting point is to make sure we have the character so that the culture can be right, but it’s not going to be enough to just be a group of good people. We need to want to win. We want to make sure that long-term this is a competitive environment, that Valour is going to stand up and be in the conversation as one of the top clubs in the CPL."
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It’s also of no coincidence that Hamilton’s Forge FC is the two-time defending CPL champion or that Calgary’s Cavalry FC has had success in the early going of Canada’s new professional soccer league – both have been formed from the remnants of previous clubs in those areas and benefitted from having already established their culture and core principles. Valour FC was a new start-up and management has stressed the importance of establishing the franchise in the community. Again, though, any successful sports franchise that boasts about a good culture invariably has the accompanying success on the pitch. "There’s a lot of different ways to solve that puzzle," Rocke said. "We feel the right approach is starting out with the right culture so that it brings in the right habits so that people know what is expected of them when they come into the building and what they’re going to be held accountable for, whether it’s extra work and the things they are doing on and off the field – the core competencies we have to demand. "Now it’s evolving and trying to find our personality as a club. We have to build a unique culture as to what winning looks like for our club. A lot of teams are different. You look at a lot of the classic clubs around the world – a lot of them have a defensive mindset and they look to win in transition, some are going to look to win possessing the ball. Our evolution is going to be how the personalities and characters on our team define that, but trust is going to be a good part of that." Rocke said the three players in quarantine – William Akio, Keven Alleman and Andy Baquero – will be free to join the club on the pitch this week, perhaps as early as Thursday… Veteran defender Arnold Bouka Moutou won’t be joining the club until sometime next month.