It’s not always easy for a new player, whether they’re a domestic or international, to settle into life in the Canadian Premier League. There are a host of challenges to overcome: New city, new club, new teammates and, for some, a new language or a culture. The Island Games didn’t make anything easier, as the league’s newcomers had to hit the ground running in PEI – they didn’t have the luxury of assimilating to the CPL over the slow-burn of a traditional regular season. Every club arrived in Charlottetown with at least a few players on their roster who were new to the league. But while the CPL campaign’s rapid-fire format was hardly an easy way to transition into a new team, some newcomers took to the CPL like ducks to water. Who was the best newcomer, though? Was it someone who came in and lit his team’s attack on fire? Or perhaps it was a defender who brought much-needed stability to the back line? CanPL.ca’s Charlie O’Connor-Clarke, Marty Thompson and John Molinaro off their thoughts below.
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Mo Babouli of Forge FCI didn’t expect much from Mo Babouli after his late addition to Forge just before The Island Games. A known quality in Toronto soccer circles, I was skeptical about his ability to assimilate into a side such as Forge on such short notice. But, a few short weeks later, the former Toronto FC attacker was providing brilliant attacking play and key passes on point-earning goals, specifically Kyle Bekker’s late markers against Pacific FC and Cavalry FC. Babouli has proven to provide contrast to Forge’s attack: selfish, direct, and willing to take risks. He’s been coach Bobby Smyrniotis’ secret weapon in 2020 – including during Concacaf League, where Babouli notched a goal and an assist in four matches. The 27-year-old continually found a second wind when facing Forge’s Central American opponents, allowing his technical ability to shine in the extra space left by lagging defenders. It’s the kind of attacking play that many, including me, dismissed as not to the CPL level just months ago. He and Smyrniotis proved us wrong. -- By Marty Thompson
Andrew Jean-Baptiste of Valour FCValour’s defence was bad in 2019. There’s no way to sugar-coat it. That’s why it was such a breath of fresh air this year to see Jean-Baptiste (alongside Julian Dunn) shut things down so thoroughly at the back for the Winnipeg club. The Haitian centre-back was one of the most rock-solid defenders in the CPL this year, and he was a real pain for attackers to deal with in PEI. Together with Dunn, Jean-Baptiste was the defensive stalwart Valour needed. They had, perhaps, the most formidable backline of the first round of The Island Games. Jean-Baptiste was strong, but disciplined (not a single booking in six games), and he could play passes up the wing with incredible accuracy. Even better for Valour is the fact that Jean-Baptiste will be returning for them in 2021. That kind of stability is an incredible foundation to build on, and they can now be quite confident in their ability to keep the ball out of their own net moving forward. -- By Charlie O'Connor-Clarke
João Morelli of HFX Wanderers FCJoão Morelli was only five years old at the time, but the memory of watching his idol Kaká play for Brazilian powerhouse São Paulo left an indelible impression on him. Kaká, of course, would go on to greater fame after he left São Paulo, playing for AC Milan and Real Madrid, and being named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2007. But for Morelli, a native of São Paulo who signed with HFX Wanderer FC in February, he’ll never forget when Kaká debuted for his hometown club. "I supported São Paulo growing up, and the one player I always felt who was similar to my style of play was Kaká. I remember the first time he played for São Paulo, I was in the stadium. No one knew the kid at the time. … and then he started playing in the first team and he grew up so fast," Morelli told CanPL.ca before the start of the season. Perhaps inspired by his idol, Morelli took the CPL by storm this year, much like Kaka did in Serie A when he burst onto the scene at AC Milan. Morelli was a key figure in helping HFX Wanderers go from last place in 2019 to reach the 2020 CPL Finals. The dynamic South American scored four goals (third-most in the league) and added one assist during his nine appearances at The Island Games, forming an effective partnership in attack with Golden Boot winner Akeem Garcia. -- By John Molinaro