Valour FC lost their captains, their three most talented players and their most promising young prospect.
On paper, that sounds like a horrendous off-season, one that would make you grab a red marker and give it a big, fat F for a grade.
But keep the cap on your marker, at least for now, because it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, Valour passed the winter with flying colours.
Despite losing local standouts Marco Bustos and Tyler Attardo, the team that hit the field Monday for the opening day of training camp is much better than the one that ended the inaugural Canadian Premier League season at the bottom of the table.
To put it nicely, Year 1 was a major disappointment for Winnipeg’s professional soccer team. They had trouble scoring goals (third-lowest total in the league), couldn’t stop the other team from scoring (allowed a league-high 52 goals), lacked leadership (captain Jordan Murrell was stripped of the armband after an embarrassing meltdown) and constantly found new ways to disappoint their supporters at home (highlighted by an 8-0 loss at IG Field to Cavalry FC).
So, yeah, it’s safe to say Valour needed to swap out some nameplates in the locker room. Many had hoped new talent would be brought in to play with the team’s original core of Bustos, Attardo, Michael Petrasso and Louis Beland-Goyette, but that didn’t end up being the case.
Bustos became the first Winnipegger to sign a CPL deal with a team other than Valour as Pacific FC recently made the attacking midfielder the highest-paid player in the league. Defensive midfielder Beland-Goyette also received a raise outside of Winnipeg as the Quebec native joined HFX Wanderers FC. Petrasso, a high-scoring winger from Toronto and Valour’s top player when healthy, signed a contract to return home to play for York9 FC. Attardo transferred to a Chilean club and hopes to latch on with a team in Europe.
While fans online were calling for head coach/general manager Rob Gale’s head and predicting another futile season, Gale preached patience and said those players would be replaced with guys who boast more impressive resumés.
He was right.
One of the first key additions was forward Daryl Fordyce. Not only does the 33-year-old Belfast, Northern Ireland, native bring some much needed experience to the table, he also has a goal-scoring touch. Fordyce is FC Edmonton’s all-time scoring leader as he suited up for the Eddies from 2013-2017. Does he have anything left in the tank? Fordyce scored two goals in 29 games for the Sligo Rovers in the Premier Division of the League of Ireland last year.
The Winnipeg club also brought in a younger goal scorer in Moses Dyer. The 22-year-old versatile forward from Auckland has made 11 appearances for New Zealand’s national squad and captained the youth team at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
There’s also an unknown in winger Solomon Kojo Antwi. The 19-year-old from Ghana, West Africa has never played professionally due to visa issues, but is an intriguing prospect, as European clubs have tried to sign him.
The back end is where Valour made the biggest splashes. The signing of Congolese defender Arnold Bouka Moutou turned heads around the league. He’s the first player with experience playing in one of the world’s top five leagues, France’s Ligue 1, to sign with a CPL club. He made 42 appearances in Ligue 1 between Angers and Dijon from 2015-19. He also has 70 appearances in Ligue 2 to his name to go along with 21 international caps for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But can Bouka Moutou handle a large role? Last season, he played less than 250 minutes total and has been without a club since July.
If Bouka Moutou doesn’t live up to the hype, Valour still has some valuable pieces on defence. Saskatoon’s Brett Levis returns to the Prairies after six years in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ system. The 26-year-old, who can also play midfield, made 24 caps for the MLS club between 2016-19.
Levis isn’t the only player on the club with MLS experience as Gale recruited centre-back Andrew Jean-Baptiste. The 27-year-old from New York scored twice in 31 appearances for the Portland Timbers between 2012-13. In 2014, he saw action in 10 games for Chivas USA. Jean-Baptiste played in Sweden’s top division for Umeå FC last year.
Lastly, another interesting addition on defence is 22-year-old Amir Soto of Panama. He played last year in Panama’s top division and has trained with the country’s national team.
In 2019, Valour’s defensive unit was disorganized and surrendered 20 goals on set pieces, by far the most in the league. With Skylar Thomas and Murrell gone, as well as veteran Adam Mitter, Valour completely revamped their defence. It needed to be done.
Valour’s midfield features the most familiar faces as José Galán, Dylan Carriero, Diego Gutiérrez and Raphael Ohin are all staying in Winnipeg. The group will be joined by Toronto’s Fraser Aird, a 25-year-old with eight caps on Canada’s senior national team. Aird is another talent with MLS experience as he played in 18 matches for the Whitecaps in 2016. Outside of a season in Vancouver, Aird has spent his career in Scotland, which is where his family emigrated from.
His last team was the Cove Rangers of Scottish League Two. Aird scored three goals for the Cove Rangers before he was released in late December shortly before his deal was set to expire. He was caught on camera making a rude gesture in the stands while cheering on the Rangers of the Scottish Premiership in a 2-1 win over Celtic. As long as Aird can keep his inappropriate gestures to a minimum, he’ll be one of Valour’s most important players.
Lastly, it’s no secret Valour needed to make an upgrade in net. The defence didn’t make their jobs easy, but Valour’s goalies weren’t exactly making highlight saves, either.
Mathias Jannsens, a 22-year-old from Belgium, showed promise at times, but was far too inconsistent to supplant Tyson Farago, even though the Winnipegger often struggled. Jannsens was let go and Farago is in Valour training camp this week. However, the starting job this time around will likely belong to James Pantemis. The 23-year-old is on loan from his hometown club, MLS’s Montreal Impact. He made two appearances for the Impact last season, both coming in the Canadian Championship, where he picked up wins against CPL teams York9 and Cavalry FC.
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In a league as unpredictable as the CPL, it’s hard to say how Valour will fare with a revamped lineup. There are question marks surrounding the club as Valour has several roster spots up for grabs in camp. But the main structure of the team is in place and if they can stay healthy, a shot at the CPL’s third and final playoff spot isn’t out of the question. The league will still likely belong to Cavalry and Forge, the top two teams from last season.
It would be a miraculous turnaround for Gale, who has quickly become one of the most criticized figures in the league. But if Gale’s second attempt at building a winner doesn’t pay off, it would be hard to argue that he’s deserving of a third chance. Not many general managers, in any sport, are given a third opportunity after dropping the ball twice. This is a make-or-break season for him.
While it may seem Gale passed the test this off-season, we won’t have an idea until the team opens the season on the road in Toronto on April 17 against York9.
Valour will play their home opener at IG Field on May 2 against the newest team in the CPL, Atlético Ottawa.
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.