2021 CPL regular season (The Kickoff) — Match #31 HFX Wanderers FC vs. Valour FC July 24, 2021 at 2:00 pm ET/1:00 pm CT IG Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba Watch Live: OneSoccer.ca



The Kickoff comes to a close on Saturday, as HFX Wanderers and Valour FC open up one final matchday in the bubble between two sides at opposite ends of the CPL table.

High-flying Valour are the most in-form team in the league right now, sitting in first place with six wins and just one defeat from their first seven games of the year. The Winnipeg-based side has been almost perfect so far, conceding just two goals (both of them in one game against York United), with Rob Gale's men quickly becoming the team to beat in the CPL so far this season. They've won three games in a row, the most recent triumph being a 3-0 win last Sunday over York to avenge their only loss of the year.

So far, Gale has been extremely impressed across the board with how his players have conducted themselves in the bubble, explaining that he really sees something special building at this Valour club:

"They're fighting for something bigger than themselves," Gale said Friday. "It's a we, and a brotherhood, rather than a me-first attitude, and I've got to say they've impressed me so much. There's not been a raised voice, a cross word other than in banter, Uno games or cornhole competitions. If you're in quarantine for five weeks with this amount of men and no sort of release for them, that's impressive. For me, that's what I'm proudest about, is how these guys conduct themselves and represent the values of our football club on a daily basis off the field."

The Wanderers, meanwhile, are still looking to truly get into gear this season with a result they can rally around at the end of The Kickoff. They have just one win from seven games so far this season, with two draws and four losses to leave them at the bottom of the league table in the early going. The 2020 CPL finalists have struggled to put the ball in the net at times, currently ranking second in the league in total shots but have just three goals (last place by some margin) to show for it. They'll be very keen to turn that around with a statement performance against a team that's been exceptionally hard to break down so far. A strong result for the Wanderers could go a long way toward galvanizing them ahead of a return to Halifax.

"It would be very energizing, it would be a weight and pressure off our backs knowing that we're going back home in front of our fans with a win," said Wanderers assistant coach Mesut Mert on what it would mean to beat Valour in this contest. "Everybody on the team right now will be very accepting of that, and I think it would just put us in a position to look forward to getting back home in front of our crowd with three points."

Mert went on to add that there's much more pressure on his side than on Valour in this game, going as far as to call the Wanderers' final match in the bubble "must-win" before they head back to Nova Scotia.

The only other time these teams have met so far this year was a 2-0 win for Valour in both sides' second game of the season, which saw Andrew Jean-Baptiste and William Akio pick up goals for the Winnipeg club in a match where HFX fired a stunning 25 shots at their opponents but couldn't find the net.


Make your match picks prior to kickoff at canpl.ca/predictor for a chance to win prizes, including the grand prize of a trip to the 2021 CPL Final!


3 THINGS TO WATCH:

  • Can HFX defend a powerful striker? Two games in a row now, the Wanderers have conceded goals to teams whose centre-forwards are dangerous with direct play. Anthony Novak scored his first goal for Cavalry by barrelling through the middle before firing his shot, and Easton Ongaro scored for Edmonton on Wednesday (though it wasn't his physicality or pace that brought about that goal). Anyway, they'll have to contend with an extremely in-form striker on Saturday in Valour's Austin Ricci, who leads the league with four goals after a tremendously strong start to the year. He's been a real handful for defenders in recent games, and he'll likely fancy himself against the Wanderers as well. With Peter Schaale still injured and Jems Geffrard away on international duty, Mateo Restrepo and Kareem Sow have shouldered most of the burden at centre-back this year. They've done quite well, all things considered, but this game against Valour's intensity might be their greatest test so far.
  • Valour defence forced to adapt without Jean-Baptiste: The first-place team was hit with some devastating news earlier this week, when they announced that defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste will miss the remainder of the season with an ACL injury. Jean-Baptiste, the first CanPL.ca Player of the Week for this year, was enjoying a phenomenal start to the season as the anchor of Valour's defence and co-captain of the club, but an unfortunate incident in the 14th minute against York United has put him on the sidelines for the rest of the year. Now, Rob Gale will have to adjust his lineup at the back. Stefan Cebara, typically a wide player, has seen a lot of minutes early on at centre-back, so expect him to do a job there. Tony Mikhael has played well in that position too, and this is probably the perfect time for Rodrigo Reyes (a defender on loan from Mexican club Chivas) to start taking on greater responsibilities.

"Andrew went down and it was 0-0 in the game, and we probably put on our best performance of the season at both ends of the park, so very confident in the group," Gale said on Friday about his squad's defensive adaptability. "I'm devastated mainly for Andrew himself, gutted for him really because he's such a great character... You can't replace him, it's the equivalent of a Forge losing a (Kyle) Bekker, (Marco) Bustos going down at Pacific, that's the level of player.​

"For me he's the best player in the league. But that's football, it's a reality; it's next man up. It always has to be that way. Andrew will be around the group and still be a key figure around us and that's how we want it as the tight-knit family that we are. And as long as I'm at this football club, there's a place for Andrew Jean-Baptiste as my skipper."​

  • Additional rest a factor: One wrinkle in this game will be that HFX played a match midweek, while Valour didn't. The Wanderers, having skipped a midweek slate earlier this season, will enter the Saturday game after playing against FC Edmonton on Wednesday night. This doesn't necessarily mean Valour will be completely free of the physical toll of the first seven games, though some extra rest time will be much-appreciated by a group of tired players. Gale mentioned that his players have made good use of the week, spending plenty of time recovering their battered bodies in the pool. Wanderers assistant coach Mesut Mert said there's definitely an advantage for Valour: "It's a massive difference, there's no doubt about that. Definitely, they have the upper hand but we have to be smart about how we manage our game and the way we want to execute our plan, so we have to manage our emotions, we have to manage our fatigue." Fortunately for both sides, each team will have at least a week off until their next contest after The Kickoff, so they should be able to play out a strong 90 minutes to close out the bubble before the CPL regular season continues.


ALL-TIME SERIES

Valour wins: 3 || HFX wins: 3 || Draws: 1

Previous match:

June 30, 2021 – Valour FC 2-0 HFX Wanderers FC

KEY QUOTES

"Continuing to build game by game has always been the mantra. There were some real positive signs from the last game, and we want to be able to get out on the front foot and keep building our game, our principles and our dynamics. I'm hoping it's not too hot out there tomorrow." -- Valour FC coach Rob Gale

"We're sitting in bottom of the table and we're aware going into this game what we need to do. This will be no different to any other game, going into it looking to get the maximum amount of points... We know that (Valour) is going to be a team that's going to be ready to play and there's no real pressure on them, whereas we know that it's a must win for us." – HFX Wanderers assistant coach Mesut Mert.


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