Watching HFX Wanderers FC’s 2023 Canadian Premier League season is a bit like if every Saturday was a Father’s Day gift: No matter the presentation, the end result is a tie. On May 13, on the road for the soccer club’s second straight match, the Wanderers’ winless woes continued against an equally frustrated Calgary side at Cavalry FC’s ATCO Field. It was a match that came with defensive lapses, bursts of luck—and temper—botched calls and bountiful yellow cards. It was the Wanderers’ best offensive result of 2023. It was also—barring a 3-1 Canadian Championship defeat to Atlético Ottawa—the club’s worst performance of the year.
Both the Wanderers and Cavalry FC entered the match looking for any way to steal a win. Four games in, the clubs’ 2023 campaigns had been remarkably alike. Entering Saturday’s affair, the two clubs boasted identical 0-0-4 win-loss-draw records. Both sides’ fan bases felt they were deserving of a better record than fate had handed them. Both the Wanderers and Cavalry FC had shown a knack for scoring first, only to lose momentum—or focus—and concede in weak moments.
On Saturday, it was Calgary’s side that struck first, when a Wanderers turnover in their defensive end led to Cavalry FC forward Ali Musse with the ball at his feet and no defenders around him in the 19th minute. Sitting just outside the 18-yard box, Musse took three touches to his left, wound up and curled the ball past the outstretched arms of Wanderers keeper Yann Fillion. It was the first time all season that Halifax had failed to score before their opponents.
Speaking with reporters after the match, Wanderers defender Mo Omar called the result a “frustrating one.” Playing in Calgary, he added, “is not an easy task.” Prior to Saturday, the Wanderers had never managed to score a goal at ATCO Field. In 2019, 2021 and 2022, Calgary outscored Halifax 8-0 in five matches on home soil.
Collomb, Fernandez lift Wanderers’ spirits
One of the central motifs of the Wanderers’ early season has been a nervy relationship with the closing minutes of halves: Extra time has not been kind to Halifax. In the club’s season opener on April 15, the Wanderers saw a brilliant 1-0 lead vanish at the feet of Atlético Ottawa midfielder Ollie Bassett, two minutes into stoppage time. A week later, the Wanderers frittered away a late 1-0 lead over defending league champions Forge FC in the 89th minute. Yet another week later, in Halifax’s home opener against league debutants Vancouver FC, the Wanderers watched an early 1-0 lead disappear before halftime, courtesy of an equalizer from forward Shaan Hundal.
“We’ve talked about it every single time,” Wanderers head coach Patrice Gheisar told The Coast after his club’s home opener. “All of these things that are happening to us is because we’re trying to play [aggressively]… it’s going to take some time.”
Gheisar’s words sounded prophetic on Saturday. Trailing by a goal before half and outmatched by Cavalry FC for the bulk of the first 45 minutes, the Wanderers, through some mix of determination and kismet, answered with a pair of goals from striker Théo Collomb and winger Zach Fernandez, all in the span of two minutes. In mere moments, the Wanderers had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. Not even the players themselves seemed to believe it.
GOAL🌊🌊— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 14, 2023
Madness in Calgary as Zach Fernandez scores @HFXWanderersFC second goal in the first half extra time to take the lead over @CPLCavalryFC in #CanPL action🍁⚽️#CavsFC | #TogetherFromAways
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/tTCrnw5wjk
“Sometimes you get a bit of luck, but sometimes you have to make your own luck,” Omar said. “I’m so proud of this group being resilient and just showing a level of fight that is what you need in this league to get results… To get two goals in such quick succession like that really set the tone for the second half.”
Late controversy leads to equalizer
The Wanderers kept a 2-1 lead into the final 15 minutes of regular time. But when the Halifax side needed a hand most to secure its first win of the season, it came in the exact opposite form that the club hoped for—and in truth, it wasn’t a hand at all. With his arms outstretched, Wanderers defender Cale Loughrey took a ball off the stomach and chin in the 75th minute, somewhat awkwardly stalling a cross into Halifax’s 18-yard box from Cavalry midfielder Fraser Aird. Calgary’s forwards protested for a handball. Head referee Fabrizio Stasolla agreed and awarded Cavalry FC a penalty kick. Television replays would show the ball missed Loughrey’s arms, but—without the benefit of in-game video review—the call stood. Cavalry forward Myer Bevan levelled the score at 2-2.
GOAL🐎🐎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 14, 2023
Myer Bevan equalizes from the spot and chaos ensues🚨@CPLCavalryFC and @HFXWanderersFC enter the final 10 minutes of the match all tied up🔥#CanPL | #CavsFC | #TogetherFromAways
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/78A4VB6wah
It would prove a combustive moment for the two teams: With the ball in the Wanderers’ net, Bevan ran to scoop it up and bring it back to the centre of the pitch. Fillion wanted the ball for himself, and the two ended up in a tug-of-war. Bevan pushed Fillion. Loughrey raced in and pushed Bevan. Both Fillion and Bevan tumbled to the ground. More shoving ensued. Stasollo would hand out three yellow cards in the aftermath, and six altogether in the match.
Neither side could break the deadlock from there.
Both Omar and Gheisar were guarded in their comments about the awarded penalty kick after the match, with the latter referring to it as “unforeseen circumstances” out of the team’s control.
“It happened, but it’s part of the game,” Gheisar said. “For me, we’re undefeated. I’m sure Calgary feels the exact same. A couple of other bounces, it would’ve been different. So for me… [the result] is a step in the right direction.”
With the result, HFX Wanderers FC dropped to 7th in CPL standings, with five points from five games. The club returns to Halifax for its second home game of the season next weekend, when visiting York United comes to town.
After the whistle
- Considering the Wanderers had never scored a goal at Cavalry FC’s ATCO Field until Saturday, two feels like progress, even if it comes in a draw. It’s not just a Wanderers issue: At 1,000 metres above sea level, Calgary proves a difficult road stop for most of the league—especially for a club used to training more or less at sea level.
- Wanderers head coach Patrice Gheisar has a fullback dilemma—notably, at left back. In back-to-back weeks, opponents have exploited the Wanderers’ lack of strength at the position—first with Valour FC’s Pacifique Niyongabire giving defender Riley Ferrazzo fits, then Cavalry FC’s Ali Musse proving a difficult match for Jake Ruby. Ryan James has looked like the sturdiest of Gheisar’s options through five matches, but at 28, he’s also the Wanderers’ oldest player—and there’s a long season ahead. Finding a rotation that gives Ruby and Ferrazzo reps while protecting the Wanderers’ wing will prove critical.
- As much as the talk about the game will revolve around the handball and penalty kick, the Wanderers are lucky to leave Calgary with a draw. For 90 minutes, Cavalry FC out-possessed and outshot the Wanderers, and likely could’ve had two or three other goals from Ali Musse and Mikaël Cantave—including a dangerously-close free kick in the game’s dying seconds that beat Fillion but hit the post.
- Winger Aiden Daniels was a bright spot for Halifax. He didn’t end up on the scoresheet on Saturday, but he’s been among the Wanderers’ best attacking options through five matches—especially in the passing lanes he’s managed to thread in between opposing defences. If he’s not quite a must-start (and he’s close to it), he’s been consistent in creating opportunities for Halifax.
- The Canadian Premier League needs VAR. A rule of thumb for good refereeing is to be invisible in the outcome of a match. If you’re the talking point of the game, it likely means that you’re exerting too much of an influence on the outcome—intended or not. (And let’s be clear: The good intentions of the league’s referees is not in question, but there are bound to be errors. That’s just humans being humans.) Introducing the same level of video review that the world’s biggest soccer leagues use isn’t going to happen—it’s far too expensive for an eight-team league that isn’t yet breaking even, financially—but there’s room for something like VAR Light, which would use fewer cameras and cost the CPL less money. There are whispers that the league is already entertaining the idea. It’s long past due.