Derek Martin has something to smile about.
On the last day of November, as the frost melts across Halifax, the HFX Wanderers FC founder and president is grinning as he greets reporters at the club’s Sackville Street office and holds forth on his soccer club’s future.
For the first time in the Wanderers’ four-year history as a Canadian Premier League team, Martin has a coaching change to reveal: On Wednesday, the club announced Patrice Gheisar as its newest bench boss, concluding a near seven-week search for a successor to longtime coach Stephen Hart.
“I wanted to find a leader, and I wanted to find a builder,” Martin says.
Gheisar arrives at the club after three seasons as head coach (and five more as assistant coach) with the semi-professional League1 Ontario side Vaughan Azzurri, where he led the club to the 2022 league championship and won back-to-back league honours as Coach of the Year. In his three years helming Azzurri, Gheisar compiled a regular season record of 41 wins, five draws and two losses.
The Wanderers, in their four seasons, have finished with 26 wins, 30 draws and 38 losses.
While an on-field overhaul might be merited, Gheisar stresses he doesn’t see the need for “drastic measures,” telling reporters, “we just have to have our culture and… [for] every player to be committed to the cause—and our cause is to be perfect every day.”
Though Gheisar has never coached in the Canadian Premier League or within Major League Soccer, his fingerprints are all over the sport’s highest levels in North America. Three of his former charges—CF Montreal’s Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller, and Minnesota United’s Dayne St. Clair—are representing Canada at the men’s World Cup in Qatar. (Johnston, ever ascendent, is about to complete a $4.8-million transfer to Scottish club Celtic FC.) Wanderers forward Ryan Robinson joined the club from Azzurri in 2022 after a pre-season friendly. And four more of Gheisar’s former players have suited up for the Wanderers in seasons past: Matthew Arnone, Duran Lee, Alejandro Portal and Tomasz Skublak.
Still, there will be pressure surrounding Gheisar’s arrival and whether he can deliver in a bigger league. That hasn’t fazed him, he tells The Coast.
“It's still 11 against 11, three refs and one ball,” he says. “I’m representing all those other coaches that are waiting to show that you can make a jump from PLSQ, or League1 Ontario, or League1 BC to the CPL… Whenever I've started, I’ve always been an underdog. And it’s a story that motivates me and I love.”
The Wanderers, for all of their fan support, have not had much to smile about since 2020.
Gheisar inherits a team in desperate need of firepower. For two years running, the Wanderers have scored the fewest goals (28 and 24) of any CPL club.
That’s made it hard on the Wanderers to win games—and to Martin’s chagrin, reach the playoffs. This past season, the gap between the seventh-place Wanderers and fourth-place Pacific FC, which held the final playoff spot, was 17 points. The return of star forward João Morelli should help the Wanderers’ odds, but still, they could use a boost.
Martin told The Coast in October that he expects “around 50%” of the Wanderers’ roster could turn over this offseason, with a number of expiring player contracts. Already, former leading goalscorer Akeem Garcia has left the club to pursue a coaching career, midfielder Pierre Lamothe has joined Pacific FC and key midfielder Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé announced he’d be moving on from the club.
“I wanted to find a leader, and I wanted to find a builder.” @WandererDerek announced @patrice421 as the new Wanderers head coach. #CanPL pic.twitter.com/bDwXdIgxUb— Martin Bauman (@martin_bauman) November 30, 2022
Assistant coach Alex Dorado also announced on Instagram that he wouldn’t be returning, telling his followers that it was the “right time for me to seek a new challenge.”
Martin envisions Gheisar tapping into his League1 Ontario connections to bring a pipeline of talent to Nova Scotia.
“There’s no denying, given our location, our geography, we’ve struggled to bring players out to Halifax as opposed to [reigning champion] Forge FC,” Martin says. “No one else has better connections and a better opportunity in that Ontario market to identify those talented players and also recruit them to come out here and join our project.”