St. John’s, NL- 34 matches into the Island Games and just two teams remain in Charlottetown as the Halifax Wanderers and Forge FC face off in Saturday’s CPL Championship Final. It’s defending champs and the 2019 fall season last place going head to head for the right to join Toronto FC in the Voyageurs Cup final.
HFX and Head Coach Stephen Hart have made great efforts to improve their squad after a disappointing debut CPL campaign. Thanks in large part to the fresh faces they’ve acquired from U SPORTS, both through the draft and as free agent signings, the Wanderers have turned things around in a hurry in 2020. Boasting a sextet of former U SPORTS stars, Halifax stands as a prime example of the previously untapped talent that exists within Canadian university soccer.
Forge FC has been the class of the league alongside rivals Cavalry FC since the opening day last season. After going through their inaugural season without any U SPORTS products, the Hammers have changed that in this campaign, adding another attacker to their potent frontline via the CPL-U SPORTS draft.
Be it the lone Forge representative or the mob of ex-varsity players on the Wanderers roster, 49 Sports looks at which U SPORTS alumni have the chance to make history on Saturday and how they’ve fared so far in the tournament.
Jake Ruby- Trinity Western
Playing 312 minutes across eight appearances, the Wanderers wingback has given Halifax some much-needed depth at the position as squad rotation has been vital in such a congested competition. Ruby signed with Halifax just weeks before the tournament began and has not disappointed as a last-minute addition to their Island Games roster.
The former Trinity Western Spartan has shown quality in distribution, making 134 passes from the backline, or a pass every 2.33 minutes of play. Defensively, he’s won eight of his ten aerial duels, one of the top ratios on the roster in that category.
While the Vancouver native might have to settle for a spot on the bench for the weekend, any questions over his ability to play at this level can be dismissed after what has been a quality run of appearances for the 20-year-old.
Cory Bent- Cape Breton
The former Capers standout has been of the brightest new additions on this Halifax team, appearing in all but one match in the competition. Bent managed to score on his lone shot on target in the tournament against Valour FC back in round one. While his output on the scoresheet hasn’t jumped off the page early in his CPL career, his work rate and pace certainly catch the eye when watching the Preston, UK native play.
The 2019 CPL-U SPORTS Draft is a legitimate option for Hart’s starting XI in Saturday’s final. If he is selected for a substitute role, his energy makes him an attractive option off the bench if HFX finds themselves chasing the game late.
Peter Schaale- Cape Breton
Prior to Tuesday’s evening tie against Pacific FC, one which had no impact on the standings with the Wanderers ticket to the final already booked, Schaale had played every minute in the heart of the HFX backline in PEI.
The German defender has led Halifax with 376 passes in PEI, a key asset to their build from the back. At the other end of the pitch, the former CBU star is tops on his team in several departments, including blocks, clearances, and aerial duels won.
Assuming fitness is a non-issue heading into the final, Schaale is as sure a thing for a spot in the starting XI as any on the Wanderers teamsheet.
Omar Kreim- U of Montreal
The ex-UdeM midfielder has made nine appearances in his first season as a pro for a total of 363 minutes played. Kreim scored a pivotal goal against York9 to equalize in stoppage time in round one from a dead ball situation.
Since starting the tournament off with his minutes few and far between, the former Carabin has shown great discipline, drawing eleven fouls while conceding just two in the process. Much like his teammate Ruby, the Casablanca native is unlikely to start on Saturday but could be one of the first options off the bench if Stephen Hart is searching for a spark.
Christian Oxner- St. Mary’s University
Boasting one of the least decorated U SPORTS resumes on the team, the hometown goalkeeper hasn’t let his university shortcomings dictate his game at the CPL level.
Oxner has made 19 saves in six appearances in the tournament, adding two clean sheets while allowing just four past him in the process. His PK stop earlier in the tournament has become common ground in his time in the Halifax goal and a big contributing factor to the deep admiration he’s received from the Wanderers faithful during the past two seasons.
In the four matches ‘Ox’was out of the XI, his side has conceded ten times. The contrast in this department alone makes him a sure thing starter for Saturday’s final.
Aboubacar Sissoko- U of Montreal
Of all the impressive U SPORTS graduates the Wanderers wisely swooped up ahead of this season, Sissoko has been the crown jewel. Playing 617 minutes across nine appearances, the holding midfielder ranks third among Wanderers in passes completed with 337.
The ex-Carabin also boasts top three numbers in many defensive categories including shots blocked, recoveries, and duels won. His deep-lying midfield presence offers coverage for the HFX backline to get involved in the attack and play the kind of soccer that’s brought them so much success in 2020.
While many of his teammates can more than match the flash and skill Sissoko displays on the field, it’s his poise and calming presence that makes the 24-year-old standout among the rest. Just as hs head coaches Twitter bio states, “simplicity is genius
Forge FC Hamilton
Gabriel Balbinotti- UQTR
As the lone representative from U SPORTS in Hamilton, the Montreal native has had a difficult time establishing himself as a first-team option in a reigning championship Forge team.
Balbinotti has managed to grab six appearances for a total of 203 minutes played to date in the tournament. Although he is unlikely to start for Bobby Smyrniotis in the final, he could be an option off the bench to provide a different look to the Hammers attack.
In what has been a difficult format to break into as a first-year pro, Forge has been as consistent with their XI as any team in the tournament. Although Balbinotti would have likely hoped to play a few more minutes along the way, playing his part in securing a second straight CPL Championship for his new club would surely add up to a successful rookie season for the 22-year-old.
Cover Photo: Canadian Premier League/Chant Photography