Two weeks ago, fans of HFX Wanderers FC received some very good news: At least 12 players, including 11 of the 13 who played in the 2020 CPL Final, will be donning a Wanderers kit again in 2021. After a turbulent off-season between 2019 and 2020, which saw 16 players leave the club and just eight remain (if you include Jan-Michael Williams' conversion to coaching), a little bit of stability was a breath of fresh air after HFX saw its fortunes skyrocket at The Island Games. The list of returning players for 2021 featured most of the club's key pieces, from fan-favourite goalkeeper Christian Oxner, all the way to the full high-octane attacking corps of Akeem Garcia, João Morelli, et al. According to Wanderers coach Stephen Hart, the current squad is more in line with the vision he's always had for the club, admitting that building a roster for the inaugural season had its share of difficulties. "Nobody really knew what the league would look like," Hart told CanPL.ca. "You had some teams that were already established, and they were just strengthening, while on the other end you had teams that were starting from scratch. That's the disadvantage of starting from scratch, you start to get a feel for the players that are available, their mentality, how much passion they have for improving their own game, and you build from there."
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That's not to say the Wanderers' entire approach in 2019 was off; several key pieces from that squad (Elliot Simmons, Mo Kourouma, and Matthew Arnone, to name a few) found jobs elsewhere in the CPL for 2020. Plus, of the six players who stuck around — Oxner, Garcia, Peter Schaale, Andre Rampersad, Chrisnovic N'sa, and Alex De Carolis — four are confirmed to be returning in 2021, with N'sa recently signing for York9 FC and De Carolis still in negotiations. Many of the club's newcomers were indispensable parts of the overall success, of course; the attack wouldn't have been as impressive without Morelli or Alex Marshall, nor the midfield as dominant without Aboubacar Sissoko (who is also still negotiating with the club). Still, it was the returnees who set a tone and laid the foundations of the club's ultimate identity. "In terms of building, we thought that the identified players were important to the identity of the club and the culture of what we were trying to achieve," said Hart, explaining that there's a reason he's continuing to build his squad around leaders such as Oxner, Garcia, Schaale, and Rampersad. Still, Hart himself mentioned on several occasions throughout The Island Games that he hadn't expected things to come along so quickly; that they made such a jump from Wooden Spoon 'winners' in 2019 to CPL runners-up in 2020 was faster progress than even he anticipated (although some players disagreed slightly). After all that happened in the last calendar year, Hart isn't shy to admit his pleasant surprise at some parts of the team's improvement. "The attacking part yes, because in the game it's usually the most complex. We didn't have the proper training preparation, because of the situation, and so really and truly I was a little bit surprised at that," Hart said. Now, though, a bar has been set; the Wanderers and their fans will surely expect to be contenders again in 2021, having done so well at The Island Games. Of course, having the core of their roster in place will go a long way toward maintaining stability and a reliable course of steady improvement. Hart pointed out that they can't stagnate either, though. "I think we're not gonna be a surprise next season," he said. "We definitely have to add some strength and depth to the squad. We also have to consider that you potentially have players that will be on international duty, and really you don't want to fall behind because of that. We've identified all of these areas, and now is the more difficult part, which is getting the player that you want at a price that allows you to stay within the salary cap."
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Hart's point about international duty could be important; Jems Geffrard is a regular starter for Haiti, and Marshall is likely to return to the Jamaica squad at some point. Garcia and Rampersad, too, could be on the radar for Trinidad and Tobago (as the former head coach for Trinidad, Hart may know more than we do on that front). Over a longer season with regular international calendars, that could all be a factor. The Wanderers' roster is already maxed out for international players, with the seven slots afforded to them by CPL roster rules currently filled. One of those spots is occupied by Brazilian centre-back Eriks Santos, who will join the club in 2021 after missing out on 2020 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. This all suggests that HFX will now be looking to Canadian players to strengthen the roster, which may make things more straightforward for Hart and the rest of the club. "I really felt sorry for (Santos) because he wanted to be here," Hart said. "We got Alex Marshall in, just within the quarantine period before he steps on a bus to get to PEI, and with the present climate full of uncertainty, we don't want to be in that situation again."