With the arrival of the 2021 Canadian Premier League season comes a fresh slate for all eight teams as the league’s third season gets underway, starting with The Kickoff in Winnipeg — a month-long single-site start beginning this Saturday, June 26. Whether it be back-to-back champions Forge FC or a much revamped Atlético Ottawa — fresh off a preseason trip to Madrid to start their sophomore season — there’s cause for plenty of optimism around each club.

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With all that said, to help keep humility high among supporters (yes even Forge fans), let’s take a look at the potential causes of concern for each side. Here is one major reason each CPL club could conceivably fall short of taking home the title in 2021.

FC Edmonton: Too offensively reliant on Ongaro​

It’s not the hottest take to suggest a side that took just one point from seven matches at the Island Games won’t be crowned champions in 2021. In either case, let’s look at why they might not have the tools to win the whole thing by starting with Easton Ongaro. To clarify, Ongaro is far from the problem for the Eddies. The issue lies in the supporting cast surrounding the 6’6 striker. No other Edmonton player managed to score more than a single goal in 2020 while the 23-year-old found the net on three occasions. Sure they’ve brought in intriguing pieces such as Shamit Shome and Fraser Aird but both players act more as facilitators than finishers Ongaro remains one of the strongest scoring threats in the CPL but relying solely on the big man’s shoulders in the final third might prove fatal for Edmonton in 2021.

Atlético Ottawa: No Acuña, no party​

Mista and his staff have done a great job of recruitment in the offseason all while spending some time in the Madrid sun to get prepared for the 2021 campaign. Things are looking up in the nation’s capital. The major issue that could hinder their chances of climbing the table is replacing Mexican midfielder Francisco Acuña. The 33-year-old was comfortably Ottawa’s best player last season and the case could be made for him as the most talented player across the CPL in 2020. Even with Acuña pulling the strings in the middle of the park, Mista’s team finished second from last at the Island Games and creating offence was one of their major downsides — Acuña managed to score two of their seven goals in the competition. Adding Ryan Telfer should go a long way in bringing life to the Atlético attack but none of their midfield additions feel near a like-for-like replacement for Acuña, now back in Liga MX with Sonora. Don’t be surprised if Ottawa does better than 7th this time around, but ambitions for a title with the loss of a genuine MVP candidate may be lofty for the time being.

Valour FC: No ‘fox in the box’ forwards​

Quite conversely to Edmonton, Valour’s biggest issue lies in a lack of a proven goalscorer at this level. Their eight goals scored in 2020 came from eight different players and while scoring by committee is a good thing to a degree, how sustainable of an option is it over the course of a full-length season? Rob Gale has brought in some interesting assets over the past nine months to try and find a spark in the final third this year including CF Montreal loanee Sean Rea and 18-year-old Canadian-Peruvian winger Jared Ulloa. Expected to inject some youth and dynamism to the front three, Rea and Ulloa remain mostly raw talents with limited professional experience. Getting the opportunity to play host to the rest of the league at IG Field for the opening month of the season can’t be dismissed but Gale will need a striker who can find a home in the opposing box and serve as a consistent source of offence. If none of their newcomers or familiar faces can assume the position, it’s tough to picture Valour atop the table to close the year.

York United: Too much turnover, not enough time to prep​

It feels harsh to point out all the recruitment Jimmy Brennan and York United have done since last season as a potential downfall but such is the reality of the current climate. 13 new players out of 23 feels like a lot of fresh faces to try and situate into the squad — factor in the much reduced preseason and the task becomes that little bit tougher. Between rebranding and adding players in virtually all positions, it was certainly an eventful offseason for York, but with limited time to prepare (a factor out of their control) it might be unfair to anticipate the Nine Stripes piecing it all together in essentially their first season with this particular group of players (and these colours.) The element of uncertainty makes York one of the more intriguing sides to keep an eye on as they get back onto the field in Winnipeg but also likely places them in the ‘dark horse’ category for 2021 CPL title favourites.

Pacific FC: Tridents too top-heavy​

Much has been made of the free-flowing attack of Pacific FC in the past two years — given their showing during the Island Games on the back of five goals from 2020 Player of the Year finalist Marco Bustos, the praise is largely warranted. The attack has only gotten deeper since PEI as Pa-Modou Kah added internationals Ollie Bassett and Gianni Dos Santos as options during the offseason. Given the lack of additions at the back, the one main question that arises over Pacific’s title hopes consists of their ability to win tight, cagey contests. Scoring three goals a night makes for exciting soccer but can be hard to sustain over the course of a gruelling season. While names like Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Kadin Chung jump off the page in looking at the back four, the collective unit doesn’t necessarily scream solidity as we’ve seen in Forge and Cavalry teams of the past. Pacific probably slot into the upper second tier of title contenders in 2021 but if there are potential shortcomings with this side they look more likely to come in the defensive half of the pitch.

Cavalry FC: Departed defensive duo of Zator-Boskovic​

The Cavs have been rock solid under Tommy Wheeldon Jr. since the inception of the league back in 2019 and quite frankly nothing has changed this time around. Exciting additions up front are highlighted by former standout Forge striker Anthony Novak and Englishman Joe Mason. Mason comes to the CPL from MK Dons — who competes in the third-tier of English football — with the 30-year-old boasting arguably the most extensive CV of any player the league has ever seen. Partnering with Novak, the pair has the potential to build a potent one-two punch in 2021. What might concern Cavalry supporters are losses at the other end of the lineup with defender Dominick Zator leaving for York United and Robert Boskovic back with TFC II after the centre back spent 2020 on loan with Wheeldon’s group. David Norman Jr. is a natural midfielder who joined during the offseason who could slot in for Zator while a slew of other young defenders are also projected to get minutes at the back but replacing ~1400 minutes played between Zator and Boskovic in last year’s Island Games could prove tough. Cavalry remains a true contender for the CPL title in 2021 but the defensive losses (particularly Zator) have at the very least raised a few eyebrows ahead of the season.

HFX Wanderers FC: Lack of major transfer market splash​

Continuity within the squad is one of the major strengths of Stephen Hart’s HFX Wanderers side heading into 2021. Chrisnovic N’sa and Aboubacar Sissoko stand out as the two lone subtractions that really hurt the quality of the starting XI — adding Morey Doner and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé among others was meant to soften the blow. While these additions and several others give Hart plenty of depth to support the first-choice group from last year, there are no eye-popping additions to the Wanderers for this year. While it’s fair to applaud Halifax’s self-belief, falling short of a Forge group in 2020 that arguably improved in the offseason leaves them as the consensus bridesmaid for 2021 at best.

Forge FC: Loss of key leadership​

It really is hard to bet against the reigning repeat champions going into the third CPL season. Bringing back 2019 MVP Tristan Borges along with several other interesting attacking options should have opposing backlines far from excited about this fixture. The one possible red flag for Bobby Smyrniotis may be the departures of Anthony Novak (now with Cavalry and David Edgar (retired as a player but serving as an assistant coach.) Joining from LAFC, veteran Canadian defender Dejan Jakovic is as good an Edgar replacement on paper as Forge could have asked for, but could the chemistry of the group be altered without leaders like Novak and Edgar on the field for the Hammers? Add in the fact that their first full training session came in the Winnipeg bubble and Forge could be slow coming out of the gate. If they can refind their form before the season grows old, it may spell trouble for the rest of the league.

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