When the calendar turns over for the year, everybody suddenly fancies themselves a master prognosticator and offers their predictions for the New Year. We here at CanPL.ca are no different. Pre-season camps still have to be scheduled, and coaches are still in the middle of finalizing their rosters for the 2021 campaign. But that hasn’t stopped us from rubbing our respective crystal balls in a vain attempt to predict what will transpire over the next 12 months in the Canadian Premier League. With this in mind, CanPL.ca’s Marty Thompson, Charlie O’Connor-Clarke and John Molinaro offer their boldest predictions for 2021. Make a note of our prognostications and pat us on the back when they come true, or throw tomatoes at us when we get it spectacularly wrong.
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Mo Babouli -- CPL’s Player of the YearAfter seriously doubting Mo Babouli’s potential to impact the CPL less than six months ago, I’m here to make a pitch: Babouli will win the 2021 CPL Player of the Year Award. Coming off the bench as an Island Games super sub, Babouli performed above expectations – especially as a late addition to the squad. He went on to notch a goal, two assists, and three big chances created. The finessing forward was tied to some of Forge’s biggest moments of the season: an outside-the-boot pass in the lead up to Kyle Bekker’s go-ahead goal in its opener versus Cavalry FC, a similar play to Bekker in a winner vs. Pacific FC, a chip goal against Cavalry in the second round closer, and a key assist in the CPL Finals. "There’s some freedom in that organized chaos – being here for the past month and a half has helped him buy into that concept," coach Bobby Smyrniotis told CanPL.ca after The Island Games. Smyrniotis showed Babouli’s ability to excel in that "organized chaos" in Concacaf League, slotting the winger in the starting lineup for all four games. Babouli was arguably Forge’s best player over their Concacaf run. Babouli was tireless, and consistently finding a second wind when facing Forge's Central American opponents, allowing his technical ability to shine in the extra space left by lagging defenders. Think back to their Concacaf League opener against Municipal Limeño in El Salvador. Babouli ripped apart their defensive unit after Forge went down to 10 men, slipping the ball between lines and evading tackles. Babouli’s hold-up presence late in the match kept possession deep in Limeño’s half and eventually led to Anthony Novak’s winner. In short, Forge’s attack has been slowly moulded in Babouli’s shape over the past half-year – and he’s shown how effective he can be when he’s match fit. Coming into his prime years, why wouldn’t you build the CPL’s best attacking force around Babouli? -- By Marty Thompson
Forge FC wins the Canadian ChampionshipWe said bold predictions, right? Seriously, though; it’s pretty obvious that there’s no CPL team better-suited to knockout football right now. Plus, Forge would technically have two opportunities to fulfill the prophecy in 2021 — they’ll take on Toronto FC in what, I suppose, is technically the 2020 final sometime, and then (if all goes to plan) they should be involved, with their fellow CPL sides, in a full 2021 Canadian Championship tournament. The first of those two chances might be their best, though; whenever it is in the next couple months that Forge plays their Toronto neighbours, it’ll be the CPLers who have played more recently (thanks to the Concacaf League run in December). Plus, there are plenty of question marks surrounding TFC (they need a new coach, for one) while Forge should be as sure and steady as ever. Whenever this game is played, it’ll probably be Toronto’s first game under a new coach. How will they treat a matchup with Forge? That contest will be there for the taking for Bobby Smyrniotis’ team, who have proven to have the tactical flexibility to take on a possession-focused opponent. With the likes of Kyle Bekker and Mo Babouli coming up against their former club, there will be plenty on the line for Forge, who missed their first two chances to qualify for the Concacaf Champions League. And if it doesn’t work out in that final, I’d still give Forge a pretty good shot at knocking off a few MLS teams in the full 2021 tournament. -- By Charlie O'Connor-Clarke
HFX Wanderers FC hoist the North Star ShieldHFX Wanderers FC enjoyed an incredible turnaround in 2020 by reaching the finals of The Island Games after finishing last place during the CPL’s inaugural season. In 2021, I predict that they’ll do one better and take the next step in their remarkable evolution: HFX Wanderers will be crowned CPL Champions and hoist the North Star Shield. Stopping Forge FC from three-peating won’t be easy, as Bobby Smyrniotis’ side has to be considered the early favourites to win the 2021 CPL Championship. Then there’s Cavalry FC and York United FC to contend with after they’ve made impressive off-season moves to bolster their rosters ahead of the 2021 campaign. But HFX are poised to come out on top in 2021 after a fantastic run at The Island Games in PEI. Coach of the Year Stephen Hart did a fantastic job of bolstering his team before the 2020 campaign with the additions of João Morelli and Alex Marshall. You can’t help but think that Hart has more tricks in his bag this off-season, and is poised to further strengthen his squad. Aside from that, the core of HFX’s team that reached the 2020 CPL Finals remains in place, including Golden Boot winner (and league MVP finalist) Akeem Garcia, goalkeeper Christian Oxer (a 2020 Golden Glove nominee), dynamic attackers Morelli and Marshall, midfield general Andre Rampersad, and top defenders Peter Schaale and Jems Geffrard. Plus, Brazilian defender Eriks Santos, who didn’t play at The Island Games due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, is essentially a new signing for the club, and makes up for the loss of the departed Chrisnovic N’sa. This HFX team is set up to be very successful for a number of years, and don’t be surprised if they end Forge’s championship streak and end up hoisting the North Star Shield at the conclusion of the 2021 CPL season. -- By John Molinaro