The calendar is about to flip to 2023 and in thinking about how that relates to Valour FC, an old expression comes to mind: ‘You can’t drive forward while looking in the rearview mirror.’
That’s especially important as our Valour Year in Review series concludes with the final chapter we’ve titled ‘Change and Looking Ahead.’
Before we get to looking at what 2023 will look like for Winnipeg’s Canadian Premier League side – and it will feature a ton of change – it is still necessary to take a quick peek in the rearview mirror without taking our eyes off the road.
Valour FC missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season in 2022 and, make no mistake, fielding a consistent winner and playoff contender is massive in establishing a new franchise. Yet, while Valour has shown progress over the last two years – setting a club record for points in 2021 and then breaking that mark this past season – it has also been just out of the playoffs with two consecutive fifth-place finishes.
Change is inevitable in all professional sports and Valour FC will not be spinning its wheels chasing a postseason spot with virtually the same lineup, as was the case with the squad that returned in 2022 after finishing one point back of the playoff line in 2021.
“Right now, we just feel that we need to be bold, and we can’t be afraid,” said Valour GM and head coach Phillip Dos Santos in a season-ending chat with valourfootball.club. “Being in that fifth spot and knowing that run we were having until the last five games could have blurred many decisions. But if you think about it, there were spells of inconsistency throughout the season, either collectively or in individual performances. We have to look at everything and we need to do it in a pragmatic way. It can’t be in an emotional way.”
The changes already underway clearly won’t be a minor nip and tuck. All-time leading scorer Moses Dyer and veteran left back Brett Levis have already moved on, both to Tulsa FC of the USL Championship. Dynamic attacker Willy Akio exited at the end of the summer for Scotland’s Ross County and the club also recently made it official that Stefan Cebara, Federico Pena and Alex Riggi will not return in 2023. As well, midfielder Sean Rea and goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois – both on loan to Valour FC the last two seasons from CF Montreal – seem unlikely to return.
And there could be much more change by the time the squad opens training camp in February.
“We’ve looked at the teams consistently in the playoffs and, of course, you need to look at what the trends are in the league,” said Dos Santos. “There’s a consistency to their lineups, but it can’t be us being stubborn and thinking ‘OK, let’s keep going with these guys because of the consistency.’ Take Atlético Ottawa as an example – they made a dramatic change to their roster when you look at the 13-14 players they’ve used the most. We’re talking about 80 percent of a change and they ended up having one of the best seasons in the existence of the CPL.
“You have to change for the right motives. I think continuity is good in the right place and with the right pieces. You need a foundation that you’re sure is a successful one. I look at Cavalry, at Forge, they have had that.”
Dos Santos has already plunged into the CPL free agent pool, landing veteran left back Jordan Haynes and versatile defender Abdou Samake – both formerly of Pacific FC – to help stabilize a back line that still features Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Andy Baquero working in front of promising goalkeeper Rayane Yesli.
The midfield will be bolstered by the return of ‘The Rhino’ – Raphael Ohin – who missed all of 2022 and will feature holdovers Diego Gutiérrez and Kevin Rendon, while Walter Ponce and Matteo de Brienne provide options up front.
The plan is to add more CPL experience, like Haynes, because of their familiarity of the league and playing in Canada.
“There’s an easier adaptation to a player who has played in the CPL before and that has value,” Dos Santos said. “Of course, it has to be the right player who, one, meets a positional need and, two, is someone who has the profile that we think fits our team and our style of play.”
Dos Santos will also rely on the scouting work of his entire staff – including assistant coaches Damian Rocke, Jay Bhindi and Patrick Di Stefani – to find talent in other North American leagues and abroad.
What they won’t be dealing with in ’23 is ongoing visa issues that often delayed the arrival of international talent. Dos Santos: “There’s no way we’re going to be here next April and May and not have a guy available to help the team right away.”
Also coming aboard are two additions announced before Christmas – Pacifique Niyongabire, a winger most recently from the Perth Glory of the Australian A-League and a member of the Burundi national team and Kian Williams, an English winger who last played with Keflavik in Iceland.
The club also added two intriguing prospects in the CPL U-Sports Draft a few weeks ago in centre back Guillaume Pianelli-Balisoni and Samuel LaPlante, both of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.
All of this is to say one thing for Valour as 2023 dawns: the franchise is now beyond talking about landing a playoff spot. To be blunt, it’s put up or shut up time.
“We need to nail recruitment,” Dos Santos said. “The more I’m in this business the more I understand we’re not magicians as coaches. We need to make sure that every piece that comes in fits this puzzle. That makes recruitment important.
“We’re keeping a good core. We have a spine, and we feel we can work around it, but we can’t be afraid to be bold. Look, we love these guys and we’ve built a relationship with them, but at the end of the day it’s a results-oriented business and we need to make sure we’re making decisions that are best for the club and sometimes we have to let go of all the emotions.
“We trust that everything is going to come together in a way that the team is going to be extremely competitive next year.”