Toronto,ON- Seven games down, four teams gone, but a lot more soccer to be played. The Canadian Premier League finished off the first round of The Island Games, the 2020 season stand-in tournament, and half of the sides have advanced, while the others are escaping the PEI-based bubble.
U SPORTS alumni have been front and centre, through the first stage of the tournament, and the top teams have all had a former university player star for them. While nine U SPORTS players on the bottom four teams are packing their bags, those in the top half get another set of matches.
Of all the U SPORTS players who appeared for the advancing teams, some showed better than the rest and were prime examples for the existence of the CPL. 49 Sports takes a look at the top player from each advancing side after seven matches.
Cavalry FC: Dominick Zator
For the majority of the tournament, Cavalry FC has relied on the U SPORTS alumni centre back pairing of Robert Boskovic and Dominick Zator, and that duo led the Calgary club tied for the best defensive record in the CPL, conceding a mere seven times.
While midfielder Nico Pasquoti also spent time in U SPORTS, it was Dominick Zator who earns 49 Sports’ praise for his play in the round-robin. Not yet a veteran professional, Zator was a constant piece in the Cavs backline in 2019 and has continued in 2020.
The former University of Calgary defender opened the Island Game’s scoring with a blistering header against Forge FC in the opening match, before turning to his defensive work for the other six matches of the group stage.
Only Pacific FC was able to dissect the Cavalary backline with their high press, but overall, Cavalry and the colossal play of Dominick Zator conceded the lowest high danger chances per 90 minutes, according to CanPL Data.
Playing with Cavalry is a blessing for a central defender, with one of the league’s finest goalkeepers in Marco Carducci between the sticks, and one of the tightest midfielders in the CPL, led by the aforementioned Pasquotti and former Canadian international Nik Ledgerwood.
Consistency is key for Zator, and that is exactly what he has found with Cavalry in 2020, despite playing about as far away from Calgary as possible.
HFX Wanderers: Aboubacar Sissoko
The HFX Wanderers have made the second group stage, and they boast six former U SPORTS players the most in the tournament. Despite the large contingent, the player of the first round was simple to choose: Rookie, Aboubacar Sissoko.
The 2019-20 U SPORTS Male Athlete of the Year has simply stolen the show since making his debut with the maritime club. While Peter Schaale earns praise for his defending, much like Cavalry’s Zator, the sheer talent of Sissoko in the midfield earns him the nod.
He has made tackles when needed, and his distribution from his position in the deep-lying midfield has changed the style of play for the Wanderers. For a club that finished in the bottom half of the table in 2019, Sissoko has been key to the rejuvenated Wanderers. On the ball, he’s shown composure and always has his head up, looking to break defensive lines. Off the ball, he is a hound, chasing after every loose ball with a strong defensive work rate.
Considering that the former University of Montreal man was cut by Forge FC, the eventual 2019 CPL Champions and the team that selected him in the inaugural U SPORTS-CPL Draft, the fact that he has dominated with the Wanderers is only more impressive.
Forge FC: Gabriel Balbinotti
Ah yes, Hammertown, the inaugural champions, yet the ones who struggle to play young players, let alone U SPORTS alumni. The Hamilton club narrowly avoided having to pay a fine for not hitting the league-mandated playing time requirement for U21 players. Although their two young players got enough playing time, that did not include their only U SPORTS alumnus, Gabriel Balbinotti.
The former UQTR striker took a little while to earnt the call of head coach Bobby Symrinotis but eventually was interested in the Starting XI in the third match against Pacific FC. In his pro debut, he played 56 minutes, reigniting a shot on goal, but did not look out of place against conditioned professionals.
The former Patriote also played a half in Forge’s 3-1 rivalry win over York 9 FC and made a 17-minute cameo against the expansion Ottawa side in the final day of the initial group stage. While he failed to get on the scoresheet, he made an impact in the tournament. While Balbinotti is a solid player, he is no gamechanger on a Forge side that already boasts solid attacking options, and he could very well be better suited to another CPL team.
He may be a Forge piece right now, but I would like a player of his style in the lineup for Valour FC, who dropped out of the tournament after a late draw with Cavalry. Valour has a decent midfield and are able to get the ball to their forwards, but a true centre forward is their missing piece, and Balbinotti could fill that.
Pacific FC: Lukas MacNaughton
The Vancouver Islanders have found success on a different island, and U SPORTS players have played an integral part. Jordan Haynes made his CPL debut and started ahead of former MLS left-back Marcel de Jong, and Zach Verhoven scored a goal, but the honours from the first round go to Lukas MacNaughton.
The former University of Toronto centre-back appeared in six of Pacific’s seven matches, with his most notable moment coming against York 9 FC, where he scored a late equalizing goal, stripping the nine stripes of a pair of points. That tally and the further final result ended up being what PFC needed to advance in the tournament, otherwise they would be hopping on their plane back to Langford, BC.
Although his goal was critical, his calm demeanour on the backline was the envy on other mid-table teams. Pacific is a team that is defined by its attack, something that can leave the defence exposed at times. He has built quick chemistry with new defence partner Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, which came as a bit of a surprise, especially with no preseason.
As a centre-back, it’s often better to be so calm that you go largely unnoticed, and that is exactly what MacNaughton has done with Pacific.
Stay tuned for Part Two, highlighting the best U SPORTS players on the teams going home.
Cover Photo: CanPL/Chant Photography