For the players on the team, that means all the closed training sessions over the past few months (that have happened under strict health guidelines) are building towards something specific.
“There’s a stress,” says defender Chrisnovic N’sa in a phone call from Charlottetown, knowing the team is about to play their first game this season.
“You’re very excited to start, finally start back to play soccer because we all love the sport. I mean I think we’re ready and we just can’t wait to just start the first game.”
That game comes Saturday, August 14 at 4pm in an East Coast vs. West Coast showdown against the Vancouver-Island based Pacific FC.
N’sa used the words “big time” to describe the coastal showdown against at team the Wanderers struggled against last year with one win, two losses and two ties.
“Against Pacific, we lost at their stadium or tied, we won only one game against them last year. There’s a team for sure we want to beat and show them that this year, even if last year [we] have a good team, this year it’s even better,” N’sa says.
Struggles—particularly on the road—were the norm for a Wanderers squad that finished bottom of the standings and didn’t win a league game on the road until the final game of the season in October.
The team also led the Canadian Premier League in total distance travelled, zig-zagging 36,588 km across the country in the regular season—not including the extra miles from three Canadian Championship games in Ontario and Manitoba.
Ironically, now the Wanderers had the shortest trek to the tournament in PEI. Although there are no home or away teams at the neutral site, the Halifax team feels quite comfortable.
“We feel comfortable here, I think we feel at home, that’s going to be a good point with us because I know we’re good at home,” says N’sa, pointing out that Canadian soccer fans would travel from the PEI to Halifax for games last year.
This tournament offers a chance to re-write the narrative of the Wanderers road struggles since it’s the same for everyone this time around. But there’s also a healthy amount of roster turnover with only seven of the 21 players on the roster returning from last season.
This year is going to be a totally different team writing a new story.
"I think this year, people are going to notice in front, we've got a lot of quick player, fast player, a lot of technical player, that's something for sure you're going to see [one-versus-one], I think we're really good offensively with that,” says N’sa, who knows first-hand from going head-to-head against the fresh attackers in practice.
“This year we've got a lot of new players that like to play the ball on their feet, like one-touch, two-touch, play, pass, control and everything.”
Fan favourite and local goalkeeper Christian Oxner, formerly of the Saint Mary’s Huskies, was hurt late in training while still in Halifax last week, meaning newcomer Jason Beaulieu will get the start against Pacific. It also means player-turned-coach Jan Michael Williams will serve as a third goalie while Oxner is out. Williams was a captain with the team last year, retired and joined the team as a goaltending coach, but may end up seeing the field again on the island.
As for N’sa, the centre-back could be an important piece for the team as Brazilian centre-back Erik Santos wasn’t able to make it to Canada in time for the Island Games.
“I know also we're going to play a lot of games back-to-back and they're probably going to need me also in the left-back, right-back and also in the midfield. I'm just ready to play anywhere [Coach Stephen Hart] is going to put me on,” says N’sa who played across the backline and dabbled in the midfield briefly last year.
And while goals from defenders are a rare treat, it’s hard to not pull for N’sa to score at some point in Charlottetown. After all, this is a player the coach calls “Tik Tok Man” because of social media presence (It’s @chrisnoo for those keeping track at home).
When asked if he had the best Tik Tok in the league, N’sa wasn’t shy.
"I think I'm the [best] not even on the team, in the league probably,” N’sa boasted with a laugh. “I like to dance, I like to sing and I joke and do my stuff."
“I hope this year I'm going to score my first goal and have some dance for all the fans."