CPL: York, Halifax reflect on what’s next heading into first-ever offseason

As teams conclude the end of the CPL regular season, we reflect on what the 5 teams missing out on the finals will have to do to match the success of their peers, from building identities and improving the calibre of their squads. 

On a sunny Saturday in Toronto, the city doesn’t seem to stop moving, with people racing around as they try to keep up with the hustle and bustle that a busy weekend has to offer. With a Toronto Maple Leafs game at Scotiabank arena coming up in the evening, on top of Toronto FC’s home playoff opener vs DC United kicking off an hour earlier, it promised to be an entertaining day for sports in the city. 

It’s also easy to forget that earlier in the same day, up in the suburbs of the city at the York University campus, York 9 and the Halifax Wanderers kicked off the final game of their inaugural Canadian Premier League campaigns. Nestled right in the middle of the sprawled York campus, York Lions stadium is a nice little intimate venue, one that can fit just under 6000 people. 

In a brand-new league, it’s a perfect sized venue with a nice grass pitch, but one that has also been hit by the trek required to get out and access it. Within the 7 team league, they have been one of the teams that struggled the most with the location of their team, as they struggle to offer up some of the same draw other cities have to offer. The other 6 teams either play close to big enough cities to garner attention, or exist as some of the sole entertainment some smaller locales have to offer, making it easier to draw crowds to their various venues. 

The game itself proves to be an entertaining affair up in York, as Halifax and York 9 put in a spirited affair to conclude their CPL campaigns, looking far from 2 teams long-eliminated from playoff contention. 

Halifax opened the scoring early in the first half, as standout winger Juan Diego Gutierrez won a loose ball after a stop from York goalkeeper Colm Vance, nodding home the opener. They not long after doubled their lead, as attacking midfielder Kobi Iida curled a 25-yard peach off the run, banging the ball off the post and in for an exclamation mark finish. 

“I love it,” Gutierrez said of his goal after the game. “I knew that the keeper was gonna make a rebound, so I tried to be first (to it) and I think I did it well, I’m happy about that.” 

Despite the early lead for Halifax, York’s fans remained in high spirits, enjoying the last home date the schedule had to offer. Heading into the half, they sung and partied for one last time, before many of them headed out to the Toronto FC game in the evening. While it wasn’t quite at the capacity of 6000, it was a sizeable amount, and it made for a good Saturday football match.

The Wanderers then found some defensive resiliency to make sure that their clean sheet remained intact, stymieing several overtures from York’s persistent attack, which forced several five-alarm saves from Christian Oxner. 

Thanks to his big stops, and some help from some of his teammates, he and his crew were able to finish with a clean sheet. After a tough campaign, where his side often threw away leads and drew a lot more games than they would have liked, it was good to see a full 90-minute performance to close things off. 

“Yeah, I mean, it means a lot,” Oxner said after the game. “We said before the game if there’s a way we want to send off the season, it’s how we did it today”

He later added: “I don’t know whether to be happy with today or disappointed, knowing that we could have done that all season and been in a different place, but that’s just the reality of the results we’ve had, but if there’s a way to go out, it’s the way we did it today.”

On the flip side of the coin, it was a tough way to finish off the season for York, who still finished 3rd in the CPL fall standings, but couldn’t find a way to send off their home fans on a positive note. After a season of ups and downs, it was almost fitting to go out like that, as they played well enough to win, but Halifax just had what it needed to win on Saturday. 

“I think we could have been playing for another hour, and I don’t think that ball was going to go into the back of the net,” York 9 coach Jimmy Brennan said. “Because I still don’t know how it didn’t end up in the back of the net, with some of the saves and the blocks, and that’s credit to Halifax, I thought they defended well today.”

Offseason questions:

While the season is far from over, with league-leaders Cavalry and Forge still yet to play the two legs of the inaugural CPL final, it’s time to go back to the drawing board for the teams like York and Halifax, as well as FC Edmonton, Pacific FC and Valour, who all missed out on the playoffs.

With those teams all mostly starting from scratch this year, they have a lot of work to do if they are to lift themselves to the lofty heights set by Forge and Cavalry, who have run away with the competition this year. Thanks to cohesion in their squads, helped by bringing on loads of players from the Calgary Foothills and Sigma FC squads in their respective regions, they showed how important having continuity can be in a league. 

For many teams, that was never an option, and with a lot of this first year having been done on the fly, they now get time to sit back and find a way to compete for next year. It won’t be easy, as players and coaches will move on and unforeseen circumstances will arise, as it would in any league on the planet, so they’ll have to find a way to fight that and ensure success for 2020. With time now to rebuild squads, rebuild identities and even rebuild brands, it’s going to be up to the pillars of the CPL to build upon the solid foundation laid in year 1, as they strive for bigger heights. 

In a way, this Halifax and York game is fitting of that, as Halifax has been one of the teams with the best support this year, as their small town has rallied around the Wanderers in a way not seen possible, while York faces plenty of questions on how to get busy Toronto fans to commit to them in a busy sport market. On top of their quests to become competitive, it won’t be easy to try and connect all those dots at once, but it’ll be a necessary plight to follow for the 5 teams missing out on the final. As Cavalry and Forge have shown, having an identity helps, and the strong fan support on both sides shows that. But at the same time, it was also certainly helped by fostering in success and unity from the get-go, so now it’s up to the other teams (and whoever else comes in) to follow those blueprints and set out towards that goal. 

And as Hart said in his last press conference of the year, it was a learning year, as things often had on the fly, so now it’ll be interesting to see how things develop next season. In a growing venture, those second and third years are often crucial to success, so now it’s to see how the league and it’s teams get on for edition 2 of the CPL. 

“So you start putting the pieces together, but I didn’t know how my team would look, how they would react,” Hart said. “I didn’t know the mentality of the players, everything was was such a learning experience. But if there’s one thing that I learned is that with the injuries, we were in a situation where we had to design the team differently, and play differently than I usually like my teams to play. And what was good about that was that the players did everything to try and to fit into that understanding, (thinking): ‘this is what we need to do’.”