It’s been nearly nine months since HFX Wanderers FC last played a match — an Island Games final they lost 2-0 to repeat champions Forge FC. After a stop-start preseason and an offseason longer than might have been anticipated, Halifax will finally get another chance at CPL supremacy when they open their third season in Winnipeg on June 26th against Pacific FC. While the two weeks before their first match will be vital in getting up to game speed quickly, coach Stephen Hart recognizes the challenges he faces in preparing his side for a season on short notice aren’t unique to the Wanderers. "In terms of everything that's happening not only on the East Coast but right across Canada and in many parts of the world, I'm just trying like everybody else," Hart told CanPL.ca on Monday. "We've gradually just got back onto the pitch, but we still can't play any games or anything like that." The Wanderers were initially one of the first CPL teams to begin preseason training before COVID-19 restrictions in Nova Scotia rightened late in the Spring. Once again getting the green light to resume sessions — albeit with limitations — the group is now playing catchup, not with the competition but rather with where their own fitness levels were before the most recent shutdown according to Hart.
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"The challenge with that really is the fact that the most you can do are a bit of physical training from an individual perspective." "So you just do as much of this as possible so that the players that we're back in good shape when we did get the opportunity to get back onto the field, at least they wouldn't have lost too much fitness and now we're just trying to get our player relationships going again." Working in Hart and HFX’s favour for building chemistry is the number of key players they’ve been able to retain from last year’s successful squad. Big names back with the Wanderers for 2021 include starting keeper Christian Oxner, centre back Peter Schaale, and reigning golden boot winner Akeem Garcia to name a few. The two notable subtractions from the 2020 group are Chrisnovic N'sa — now suiting up for York United — and Aboubacar Sissoko who joined Indy Eleven of the USL in February. To replace the holes in the squad left by N’sa and Sissoko’s departure, Halifax will look to "do so by committee" says Hart with additions Morey Doner, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and Marcello Polisi. "We lost (Aboubacar) Sissoko which is a difficult player to replace but luckily we got Laparé, he's a high-energy midfielder with good playing qualities so he should complement Andre Rampersad very well. [Polisi is a] good passer of the ball, sort of gives coverage to the midfield that we presently have which is a more attack-minded midfield. I wouldn't say he would replace (Aboubacar) Sissoko because that's pretty hard to do, but he's a different type of player, he's more of a traditional sort of holding midfielder." "[Doner is] no stranger to the league but he's new to us. He is a very dynamic fullback with lots of capacity to get up and down the field. We have good competition for the fullback positions which will allow us to rotate." Rounding out the fresh faces in the squad are Samuel Salter, Pierre Lamothe, Kareem Sow, and Stefan Karajovanovic – the latter two joining last week – which brings them to 22/23 roster spots filled. The time for waiting is nearly over for Hart and the Wanderers as they get set to head West for at least their first eight fixtures of the season. While you can sense the excitement in the HFX coach’s voice in speaking on the quality of the group at his disposal, the uncertainty of how it all pieces together can’t be dismissed. "I really don't know what the team's going to be like. Of course, we're doing some training sessions and trying to best prepare as possible but without actually seeing the team play it's rather hit and miss." Hart will have all his questions answered in just two week's time when The Kickoff gets underway.