It’s impossible to describe 2020 with a single adjective that encapsulates everything which has unfolded over the last 366 days.
Oh sure, no doubt most of us could string together a series of curses that would fit, especially as the entire planet struggles through this horrible pandemic.
Sadly, it’s also been a year in which so many social injustices were spotlighted and the ongoing fight against racism continues. It was also about a much-publicized election south of our border that seemed to unfortunately dominate so many news cycles.
Yet, there is also hope on the horizon as a Coronavirus vaccine begins to roll out and we push forward to a days when our interactions with each other won’t be limited by restrictions.
So as we reach the conclusion of our ‘Valour Year in Review’ series, let’s end on a positive note and with our eyes focussed on a brighter 2021.
There is optimism in the Valour camp, you see, as the next Canadian Premier League campaign nears. That vibe surely began growing in the months leading up to the summer’s Island Games where it was only strengthened further.
Now, Valour managed two wins, two draws and three losses in the first stage of the Island Games and failed to advance to the playoffs. But as the event unfolded Valour’s collective game improved, as did the camaraderie.
And before the tournament had even concluded there was a sense of unfinished business for a crew that had undergone such a massive roster makeover and was just finding its groove when it was over.
“To be honest with you, with the team we have now and how close we are we could have finished dead last and I would have said I was coming back,” said Jean-Baptiste. upon the announcement of his return for 2021.
“We felt like we left a lot of stuff unfinished and we want to bring back a lot of the same guys, and maybe a few extra pieces, so that we can have a bigger fight next season.”
Jean-Baptiste was the first to re-sign and others soon followed. Since the end of the Island Games 10 players have recommitted, including Panamanian centre back Amir Soto, whose visa problems prevented him from getting to Canada.
The others include critical pieces like Brett Levis, Arnold Bouka-Moutou, Masta Kacher, Moses Dyer, Raph Ohin, Federico Pena, Austin Ricci and Stefan Cebara.
“There’s so many different personalities and characters on this team and we got along very well,” said Cebara in late October when the club announced his return for ‘21. “(The Island Games) felt like a warm up. We had some kinks we had to work out, but it felt like we were getting better with each game. If we had a proper preseason I think we could have gone a lot further in the tournament, if not won it..”
Valour still has considerable work to do in shaping its roster for ’21, especially with the uncertainty around the possible return of goalkeeper James Pantemis – loaned by the Montreal Impact, before playing with the MLS club after the CPL season concluded – and defender Julian Dunn, loaned by the Toronto FC organization.
They also need to find goals, whether that is through the addition of another forward or continuing to unlock the talents of players like Dyer and Ricci.
But where there were issues in Valour’s inaugural campaign – a locker room occasionally fractured by frustration over playing time and the club’s record – it was a much more united bunch in 2020.
Indeed, life in a sporting bubble can expose potential conflicts, but also build a bond, too.
“You had to be there or watching us to know there is something special there and to feel it,” Kacher said in October, after his re-signing was made official. “In a few words I will say this: we were in the bubble for almost a month and a half. It wasn’t always perfect, but there was no fights or swearing at each other.
“It’s hard to explain. We just had a very good mix in terms of youth, experience and nationalities, as well. The coaching staff brought a positive energy to the group and it reflected on everyone. There’s just a good overall vibe on the team.”
Interestingly, the pandemic that led to the Island Games also meant many of Valour’s new faces never experienced playing in front of IG Field. That’s part of the allure to return, but most of all it’s about the foundation the players feel they have helped build and the potential for more.
“I followed (the CPL) a little bit last year, but I heard it from Jose (Galan) and Raph (Ohin) and the other players who played in Winnipeg last year about how good the fan base was,” said Levis. “Ultimately that’s the goal, to play in front of your home fans, to show them how good you are and get results for them.
“This team is fully capable of doing that and exceeding expectations. If all goes well, hopefully we can play in front of our fans next year.”