CPL clubs have dealt with a myriad of squad-building issues for the past seven months. Since the Island Games concluded, clubs have been back hamstrung by COVID-19 restrictions around training, worked tirelessly to get international players into the country, and adapted to the uncertainty of the upcoming 2021 season. Commissioner David Clanachan said Wednesday the league will offer an update on its season May 15, giving clubs, some of which are training, a rough idea when news of the 2021 campaign will come out.
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Despite many obstacles the early months of 2021 brought, CPL clubs still managed to assemble some impressive rosters – improving on the Island Games with shrewd signings both home and abroad. In this CanPL.ca debate piece, Charlie O'Connor Clarke and Marty Thompson answer a simple question: Which CPL club has had the best off-season so far?
Cavalry FC – Charlie O'Connor-ClarkeWe were all a little skeptical when we saw the number of players that departed Cavalry FC this off-season. Key previous contributors like Dominick Zator, Nathan Mavila, and Jordan Brown all moved on, as did veterans like Dean Northover, Jay Wheeldon, and even Marcus Haber. After just missing out on the 2020 CPL Final (in no small part due to the heavy toll injuries took during the Island Games), it seemed Tommy Wheeldon Jr. was preparing to retool his squad significantly for 2021. Cavalry hung on to a lot of their veteran core, though – Nik Ledgerwood, Mason Trafford, and Sergio Camargo, as well as younger keystones like Marco Carducci and Mo Farsi. Soon after, the newcomers began rolling in: Joe Di Chiara was the first, jumping over to Calgary after an incredible stint at York (really – he could've been an MVP candidate in 2020 had the Nine Stripes made the second round). Then came some lesser-known additions, like Ahinga Selemani, Tom Field, and Daan Klomp, before an MLS loanee in Karifa Yao joined the mix as well. The club topped it all off with a couple familiar faces in David Norman Jr. and, finally, Anthony Novak. Those latter two names alone would make for a pretty strong off-season, especially given Norman's apparent conversion into a top-notch young centre-back. Novak is exactly the kind of forward Cavalry needed as well, especially after Haber's departure – a strong finisher who can hold off defenders and use his feet in the box. With attackers like Richard Luca and José Escalante (re)joining the group, the Cavs look very dangerous going forward. Perhaps more impressive than the retooled attack, though, is how Cavalry seems to have fully rebuilt its defence. Although replacing Zator is borderline impossible, bringing in Klomp, Yao, and Norman should be enough to remain strong at the back. In the course of retooling his squad, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has managed to add depth, as well as make the team as a whole younger and perhaps better-equipped for a longer CPL season, especially if they continue to play a taxing high-press style.
Pacific FC – Marty Thompson
Let’s look at the teams that made the second round at last Summer’s Island Games: HFX Wanderers, Forge FC, Cavalry, and Pacific FC. While Charlie makes a fair point about the Cavs, they are still entering a time of significant transition – six of their all-time top ten players in minutes played have departed the club this year, including leader Dominick Zator. Pacific, meanwhile, has held on tightly to their core. Pa-Modou Kah snagged 16 returning players from their Island Games squad – most of the top four teams from 2020 – led by Player of the Year nominee Marco Bustos, standout fullback Kadin Chung, and Canadian Olympic team call-up Thomas Meilleur-Giguère. It’s an impressive group to retain and, ultimately, what makes the PFC off-season so effective. The club has also strengthened quite well with its handful of signings. Former York midfielder Manny Aparicio was Kah’s number one target this season, bringing set-piece prowess and passing ability that gives Pacific a completely different look in midfield. Left-footed defender Duran Lee was an underrated addition to their backline but was sidelined for the season after rupturing his Achilles. International attacker Ollie Bassett is a promising attack-minded midfielder that should prove stiff competition for Victor Blasco and Josh Heard. Marcel de Jong’s retirement served as the biggest off-season departure, while Zachary Verhoven (Atlético Ottawa) and Noah Verhoeven (York United) appeared to not be part of Kah’s plans anyways. More international signings will only help flesh out this core which, if we’re being honest, rivals only Forge in terms of squad consistency – something that's been at the heart of Bobby Smyrniotis' success in Hamilton. The team’s young grouping, many of which are entering their third season with the club, is only getting closer to peak years, too, while clubs like Forge and Cavalry hold onto much older groups.