The Canadian Premier League is back -- nearly, at least. With all eight clubs in the final stages of preparation ahead of The Kickoff in Winnipeg -- a month-long single-site start to the 2021 season, beginning this Saturday, June 26 -- each CPL fanbase is dreaming once more of getting their hands on the North Star Shield. Of course, no side other than Forge FC (who won the league title in both 2019 and 2020) has done that so far, but with each side spending the past nine months racing to add to their roster and improve on last year, any of the league's teams could conceivably break out as a major contender this year.
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With the beginning of a new season comes a blank slate, and with that, unfettered optimism. After all, why can't this be your team's year? The last two seasons are in the past now; all that matters are the games yet to come. In that spirit of positivity, here's one reason why each of the eight CPL clubs could totally win the title this year.
FC Edmonton: New spark under Alan KochEdmonton has a lot to prove after finishing bottom of the table with just one point last year at the Island Games. That said, they'd certainly tell you this is a very different era for the Eddies: Alan Koch is at the wheel now as head coach, and the strong spine from the past two seasons has been complemented by some very interesting additions. Shamit Shome leads a cast of talented newcomers, alongside Kyle Porter and Fraser Aird who have arrived from other CPL sides. The Eddies were competitive in each of their games in 2020, and they showed real signs of promise in 2019; if they continue that progress, boosted by new blood, they could really make waves. Plus, Koch's tactical acumen could give the Eddies a new spark as well; Koch has been successful at the helm of several clubs before, at levels quite comparable to the CPL -- plus, he's the only CPL manager with experience as head coach of an MLS side. Is this the year Edmonton takes a step forward?
Atlético Ottawa: Pre-season chemistryAfter having very little time to prepare before 2020, Atlético Ottawa might be the most match-ready side heading into The Kickoff. They had the luxury of spending around two months this spring in Spain, training at the facilities of parent club Atlético de Madrid. They've got a fairly new squad, although a few key contributors from 2020 are returning. Last year was a very difficult way for Mista to begin his professional managerial career, but he set up his team admirably given the circumstances. Now, given much more time to plan and build out his squad the way he wants, Ottawa could really make waves in 2021. They've added some major talent and experience with the likes of Ryan Telfer, Chris Mannella, and Drew Beckie, and a pair of Atlético Madrid academy players on loan could give them a bump too. Expect Ottawa to look good right from the off at The Kickoff; other teams may catch up to them down the stretch, but could Ottleti bank enough points early on to make themselves contenders near the end of the season?
Valour FC: International experienceIt'd be reasonable to argue that Valour FC's core of international players is as good or better than any of their CPL rivals. Returning from last year are Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Arnold Bouka Moutou, José Galán and Moses Dyer, all of whom have excellent experience at some very good levels, whether for club or country. Joining them this time are some outstanding newcomers. Midfielder Rafael Galhardo was once in the Brazilian Serie A's team of the year, and defender Rodrigo Reyes recently captained the U-20 side for Mexican giants Chivas Guadalajara. Amir Soto, as well, is a Panamanian centre-back who will finally get to appear for the club after missing 2020 due to travel restrictions. Add to all that some of the other top-notch new faces, like Peruvian-Canadian Jared Ulloa, and Rob Gale may just have put together the most fascinating side in the CPL. With many of their key players in their mid-20s or later, this is a team built to compete now. Plus: might home field advantage at IG Field do them any favours in the first month of the CPL season?
York United FC: Youth & hungerYork is one of the most-changed sides in the CPL, with 13 new players dropping in. Those that do remain from last year, aside from a handful of core leaders like Roger Thompson and Michael Petrasso, are mostly young, developing players hungry to make a difference, like Ijah Halley, Max Ferrari, and Isaiah Johnston. This is probably one of the youngest sides in the CPL, which wasn't necessarily the case in previous years. Most of the old guard -- Joe Di Chiara, Manny Aparicio, Ryan Telfer, and the like -- has moved on, so this year could represent a kind of torch-passing in a way, with some of the youngsters from the Island Games getting more responsibility this time around. Jimmy Brennan has always ensured his sides are defensively responsible and dominate possession with a strong midfield, but might they find a little more attacking spark with some youthful flair this time around?
Pacific FC: Overwhelming attackThere's a lot to like with Pacific's roster. There's strength in every position, with players like Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Kadin Chung among the best defenders in the league and a formidable midfield. The real beauty of this Pacific team is in the attack, though. Led by Marco Bustos, who seems on a mission to win that Player of the Year award this time around, this team will cause problems for defenders anywhere they go in 2021. Frankly, this team has far too many attackers to fit into one lineup; alongside Bustos (a nailed-on starter), they have Victor Blasco, Alejandro Díaz, Terran Campbell, Ollie Bassett, and Gianni dos Santos, plus Manny Aparicio is likely to play in the number 10 role. There will be no afternoons off for defenders playing against Pacific; this team can throw wave after wave of attacking force at an opponent, and they can do it with fresh legs for 90 minutes if they make good use of their bench. Don't count this side out of any match, even if they go down by a goal or two. They'll score some goals this year.
Cavalry FC: Consistent identity with revamped coreCavalry has always had an identity in how they play: a feverish press, some physicality, and a 90-minute wall of energy. That worked tremendously for them in 2019, but injuries at the Island Games doomed them at the end. This year, Cavalry looks quite different on paper: they're a good bit younger than they have been in the past, but they've added primarily players who will still fit that identity. Joe Di Chiara, one of the most physical midfielders in the CPL, should fit perfectly into a role as Cavalry's chief ball distributor, and Anthony Novak should be excellent as a target man (perhaps better than Marcus Haber last year). At the back, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has been sure to add defenders who are comfortable on the ball and can cover decent ground, to try and mitigate the losses of Dominick Zator and Nathan Mavila. This is still Cavalry FC -- well-drilled, motivated, and ready to make their opponents work -- but with some new talent involved.
HFX Wanderers FC: Major difference-makers stay togetherSimilar to other sides, Halifax chose not to fix what isn't broken heading into 2021. Five key attackers from last year's run to the CPL Final -- Akeem Garcia, Joao Morelli, Alex Marshall, Alessandro Riggi, and Cory Bent -- are back. So, too, is Andre Rampersad, as are defensive stalwarts Peter Schaale and Jems Geffrard. This was a good team last year, with a lot of talent on the counter-attack. They've brought in Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé in midfield to try and account for the loss of Aboubacar Sissoko, and Morey Doner at right-back to replace Chrisnovic N'sa -- two very good players from 2020 who will be missed -- but this team should still be able to play roughly the same style that worked so well in PEI. Turn over the ball against this team at your own risk; the Wanderers were probably the best in the league last year at punishing mistakes and finishing counter-attacking chances with pace. Considering their massive improvement from 2019 to 2020, can they jump that final hurdle in 2021?
Forge FC: They're Forge FCEnough said, right? We need not explain why the two-time champions could very well do it again. Not only is the bulk of their core the same -- Kyle Bekker, Daniel Krutzen, Kwame Awuah, and far too many others to name -- they've also supplemented it with a guy called Tristan Borges (remember him?), plus defender Dejan Jakovic and a couple key internationals. Anytime you add a former MVP and Golden Boot winner to a team that just won the title and went deep in the Concacaf League, they're going to be scary. Of course, it's fair to wonder how good Forge might be out of the gates -- the Hamilton-based side wasn't able to train as a full team until it arrived in Winnipeg -- but over the course of a season it would be shocking if they're not near the top of the table again.