Patrice Gheisar is pacing across the indoor BMO Soccer Centre pitch in Clayton Park, brow furrowed in concentration. For the better part of an hour, the 48-year-old HFX Wanderers FC head coach has been running his new charges through drills, 8v8 scrimmages and line sprints. The intensity seldom wavers. It’s day three of the Wanderers’ 2023 preseason in Halifax, and the players’ competitive edge is spilling over.
“FINISH YOUR RUN!” second-year fullback Zachary Fernandez shouts to a teammate.
The tolerance for error is low. Gheisar understands this. So, too, do the Wanderers players suited up in green and orange Macron pinnies on the artificial turf. After back-to-back seasons of missed playoff appearances, there’s hope that a newly assembled roster—complete with a new coaching staff—will lead to new heights for the fifth-year Canadian Premier League club.
“We fell short the last couple of years,” says third-year defender Jake Ruby, speaking pitchside with The Coast. “I think we owe it to the fans in the city, having the amazing support that we have, to make the playoffs and make a deep run.”
The team’s upside is high. But it’ll be facing a steep climb—and no shortage of hurdles—on the path to playoff contention. In the spirit of the Wanderers’ new expectations, here are The Coast’s seven burning questions as the club enters its fifth preseason.
1. How quickly can this new roster gel? Turnover in professional sports is like Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s films or slow-grinding bureaucracy in Canadian governments: It’s a given. In this, the Canadian Premier League is no exception. (That tenet extends, even, to the victors: Langford, BC’s Pacific FC won a championship in 2021 and still turned over half of its roster the following season.) But the Wanderers’ 2023 squad is different, different. Of the Halifax soccer club’s 25 players listed on its training camp roster, just eight have suited up for the Wanderers in seasons past. And looking at the team’s projected starting lineup, it’s not a stretch to imagine at least half could be new faces.
That’s a significant departure from the Wanderers’ approach in previous seasons. Sixteen players returned between 2021 and 2022. Of those same players, 10 were also on the Wanderers’ roster in 2020. That bet on continuity didn’t lead to the results that the Wanderers had hoped for—the club hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2020’s pandemic-shortened Island Games tournament, when then-coach Stephen Hart’s side fell 2-0 in the final to Hamilton’s Forge FC. A shuffling of the deck was to be expected.
“We’ve had to make a really difficult decision to change from a style and a coach that we’ve had from, you know, our birth to going in a new direction,” Wanderers president Derek Martin told Down the Pub Podcast at the end of October.
But how quickly will that new direction form under first-year head coach Patrice Gheisar? And can a team that has struggled to find wins in seasons past build any forward momentum? For his part, Gheisar has downplayed the Wanderers’ hill to climb.
“We don’t have to take drastic measures,” Gheisar told The Coast upon his arrival in November. “I think 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.”
2. Where will the goals come from? Two of the Wanderers’ three all-time leading goal scorers will no longer be wearing Halifax’s double-blue this season. The team’s co-leading scorer Akeem Garcia, who netted 19 goals for the Wanderers in 68 league appearances over four seasons, announced in October that he’d be stepping away from playing professional soccer to focus instead on his coaching career. He plans to stay in Halifax with an opportunity in Soccer Nova Scotia.
Meanwhile, third-place scoring leader Samuel Salter (13 goals, 46 games, two seasons) will be suiting up in Ottawa. The Wanderers sold him to Atletico for an “undisclosed fee,” in what marked the first-ever intra-league player sale in the CPL’s history. Those absences aren’t easily replaced: Combined, Salter and Garcia accounted for 14 of the Wanderers’ 22 total goals in 2022.
Gheisar has turned to two familiar faces to fill the scoring gap: Massimo Ferrin and Kosi Nwafornso. The Wanderers’ bench boss coached both of the forwards, aged 23 and 26, at Vaughan Azzurri in the semi-pro League1 Ontario, where they combined for a staggering 42 goals in 15 games.
Assistant Wanderers coach Jorden Feliciano believes the potential is there. Speaking with The Coast, he calls Ferrin a “proper professional” and Nwafornso a forward who “has all the physical and technical tools to be a super dangerous player.”
But the biggest question mark—and potential tidal shift—in where the Wanderers’ scoring will come from still rests at the feet of a 26-year-old from a small city in Brazil.
Which leads us to our next burning question…
3. How healthy is former league MVP João Morelli? Everything is larger than life in Morelli’s hometown of Itu. If you visit the historic São Paulo municipality’s Praça dos Exageros, you’ll find basketball hoop-height Coke bottles, a phone booth the size of Halifax’s Old Town Clock—and an 18-foot-tall statue of a soccer player, sitting on the bench and awaiting his return to the field. It’s a fitting comparison for the fourth-year Wanderers forward, whose scoring output (19 goals in 32 league games) makes him a giant among his CPL peers: The sixth-highest leading scorer in league history, despite playing less than half as many games as three of the CPL’s top five scorers.
The math only gets wilder from there. If you took Morelli’s goals-per-90-minute average across three CPL seasons (0.76) and assumed he was healthy for as many games as league leader Terran Campbell (29 goals, 90 games, four seasons), the Wanderers forward would end up with 68 goals. That’s all you need to know about his impact on Halifax’s attacking efforts.
But here lies the problem: Just like the statue of the sidelined Ituano footballer in his hometown, Morelli is awaiting his return to the pitch. He hasn’t played a competitive game since April 16, 2022 against Atletico Ottawa, when he left the field near the game’s end with a “serious” ACL injury. The immediate forecast doesn’t offer much optimism: This week, the Wanderers quashed any hopes that Morelli would be fit and ready to go for the season opener on Apr. 15, instead sharing that the Brazilian striker would miss “at least the first half” of the 2023 season.
“We’re continuing to support João throughout his recuperation as his long-term health is our No. 1 priority,” Wanderers sporting director Matt Fegan said in a release. “We’ve built our roster so that we were prepared for this scenario and look forward to the possibility of João rejoining the squad when the time is right.”
There’s reason for hope, if somewhat long-term: An ACL injury isn’t, on its own, a death knell for an athlete’s career. Professional soccer is littered with greats who have returned from long absences to perform at a high level—in some cases, even better than before they were injured. Alan Shearer ruptured his ACL early in his career at Blackburn Rovers and still went on to become the top scorer in English Premier League history. Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi tore his ACL in 2006 and was named Player of the Tournament two years later at Euro 2008.
Let’s assume, for a moment, the best case scenario of Morelli returning mid-2023. Fourteen games is still plenty of time to make an impact, assuming a relatively crowded playoff picture for the third and fourth seeds. But there’s a lot of room for outcomes in the words “at least.” ACL injuries can take anywhere from six to 12 months to heal, and Morelli’s recovery is already stretching beyond that marker. Is that a sign of the Wanderers practicing caution and good judgment—and perhaps confidence in their new squad to shoulder the load? Or is that a sign of a nagging injury that could resurface?
4. What are the odds of Patrice Gheisar winning Coach of the Year? Wanderers president Derek Martin and sporting director Matt Fegan took a bold swing in tapping Gheisar to replace departed bench boss Stephen Hart, the CPL’s 2020 Coach of the Year. The Wanderers received “over 80 applicants” for the coaching position, Martin told reporters at Gheisar’s unveiling at the end of November. In hiring Gheisar from League1 Ontario’s Vaughan Azzurri (considered a tier below the CPL in terms of its professional standing), the Wanderers’ brass side-stepped a field of higher Q-scored candidates, including Toronto FC great Jim Brennan (a former coach with York United FC) and 2021 CPL champion Pa-Modou Kah (still the only coach to beat Forge FC in a league final, after guiding Pacific FC to a title in his second season).
That’s not a strike against Gheisar, but a testament to the respect he’s earned in coaching circles. In three seasons as head coach at Azzurri, the 48-year-old won back-to-back league Coach of the Year honours and racked up a regular season record of 41 wins, five draws and two losses. Under Gheisar’s charge, the Vaughan, Ont. soccer club went undefeated two seasons running. That’s like the TV equivalent of David Simon following The Wire with Treme, or the music equivalent of A Tribe Called Quest going from The Low End Theory to Midnight Marauders.
“I wanted to find a leader, and I wanted to find a builder,” Martin said of hiring Gheisar in November.
Will it lead to immediate on-field success? That’s harder to predict, but the precedent is there. It took Spaniard Carlos González a single season to lift Ottawa from the league basement to winning the regular season title. If Gheisar can accomplish the same—or at least guide Halifax to its first winning record since 2020—the new Wanderers head coach will find himself with a strong case for becoming the second first-year CPL coach to take home Coach of the Year honours.
5. How narrow is the talent gap between League1 Ontario and the Canadian Premier League? This, at its core, is the question looming over the Wanderers’ season in 2023: How much of Azzurri’s lightning-in-a-bottle success can Gheisar replicate at a higher level of competition? In his first season as Wanderers head coach, he’s brought along Vaughan charges Ferrin, Nwafornso and defender Riley Ferrazzo. That’s still a small share of the club’s 25 players, but it’s a sign of Gheisar’s confidence that the gap in skill between League1 Ontario and the CPL isn’t all that significant.
In interviews, Gheisar has stressed the abundance of untapped talent within League1 Ontario’s ranks.
“You could watch a League1 game and leave every game saying there’s one top player,” he told The Coast in November.
He’s got a point: At Azzurri alone, Gheisar coaches the likes of eventual Canadian national team stars Alistair Johnston (now with Scottish giants Celtic FC), Kamal Miller (now with Major League Soccer’s CF Montréal) and Dayne St. Clair (a reigning MLS All-Star goalkeeper with Minnesota United).
Can Ferrin bridge the gap as a CPL striker on the level of Salter and Garcia? Could Ferrazzo earn a starting role in the Wanderers’ back line? And most importantly, do the soccer principles and coaching philosophy that made Vaughan a success translate into the CPL?
6. What is the Wanderers’ plan for a backup goalkeeper? Halifax is entering its 2023 pre-season with one signed goalkeeper and a U-SPORTS trialist. The former is Ottawa-raised ‘keeper Yann Fillion, 26, who joins the Wanderers after five pro seasons spent backstopping clubs in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Fillion projects as a solid starter: He’s tall—6’4”—and looked sturdy in a preseason glimpse at BMO Soccer Centre on March 3.
“Being one of the older guys, there’s certain expectations—and I think it’s the right time in my career to have those expectations on me,” Fillion tells The Coast. “And I’m hoping that helps me push my game and elevate it.”
The bigger question mark is who the Wanderers see as Fillion’s competitor for the starting role—or successor in the case of injury. Dalhousie Tigers ‘keeper Aiden Rushenas has joined the club’s preseason camp after the Wanderers selected him in the second round of the U-SPORTS draft in December.
“We had him with our keeper coach Jan-Michael Williams last year, and he has massive upside,” Gheisar said in a release. “He has great feet, which suits our style, has great size and agility and in my conversations with him, I was impressed by Aiden’s attitude.”
“I tell the guys, he’s as good as anyone,” he says.
In 12 games with the Tigers in 2022, Rushenas kept a save percentage of 0.827 over four wins, five losses and three draws. He also earned AUS second-team All-Star honours. It’ll be worth watching how the 19-year-old fares given an opportunity between the sticks.
7. What’s happening with plans for a permanent stadium? Wanderers president Martin has made no secret of his plans to upgrade his club’s home stadium at the Wanderers Grounds. Since the Halifax club’s 2019 debut, the temporary downtown stadium—built largely from shipping crates and metal bleachers—has been a near-unimaginable success story, but it hasn’t come without growing pains. In each of the Wanderers’ three seasons in front of their home crowd (all of 2020 was played in PEI), Halifax has averaged among the highest attendance records of any CPL team. All of this without running water or electricity that isn’t powered through spools of extension cords.
“We took this on to try to prove that the Wanderers Grounds should be the spot [for a stadium],” Martin told Down the Pub Podcast in December. “And, you know, it’s so inefficient in its current setup—yet we’ve turned it into this really magical little place.
“Which shows you the potential of what you can do with an idea, right?” he added. “But we need running water.”
Martin has pegged the cost of a permanent stadium at $15 to 25 million. He’s hoping for the HRM council’s financial support in the venture—not to mention its backing of the Wanderers Grounds as the right location, given it’s public land. The sticking point: Halifax council had $20 million set aside for a stadium, but last fall, facing a mammoth budget crunch, directed CFO Jerry Blackwood to stop saving the money and put it to other uses. Could the Wanderers find deep enough pockets elsewhere to make a permanent stadium happen? And if so, will HRM council sign off on it? That part remains to be seen.