The U Sports Draft and Open Trials: How HFX Wanderers made the most of its resources

The U Sports Draft and Open Trials: How HFX Wanderers made the most of its resources

It was back in January that Stephen Hart first mentioned Halifax’s geographical disadvantage in the transfer market. There were challenges, he admitted: obstacles that weren’t unique to Atlantic Canada, but ones that were certainly more pronounced here. Take housing as a quick example: other Canadian Premier League clubs, with their large local talent pools, didn’t need to worry about the logistics of housing an entire squad. HFX Wanderers did.

What became clear early on was that the club would have to get a little creative with its player recruitment to compete with the more populated CPL markets and their in-province shop windows.

Fortunately, more attainable reservoirs of talent existed beyond Nova Scotia, and evidence of this came quickly with the arrival of the Trinidadian quartet: Jan-Michael Williams, Andre Rampersad, Elton John, and Akeem Garcia. Stephen Hart’s big book of contacts, the first ace up Derek Martin and co.’s sleeve, had been played.

With restrictions on international players in place, it was impossible to rely solely on this avenue though. Another recruitment strategy was required. Enter then, the U Sports Draft and the CPL Open Trials.

There was an understandable degree of skepticism towards both of these ventures early on. Some considered the Open Trials to be little more than a money spinning exercise, while others had doubts concerning the level of player that could be found in the Canadian university system.

In Peter Schaale, Andre Bona, Christian Oxner (U Sports), and Kodai Iida and Kouame Ouattara (Open Trials), HFX Wanderers have single-handedly launched a rebuttal against these doubts, with an injury to Ouattara the only thing stopping all of them from being considered an unmitigated success.

At the season’s start, the most immediately impressive of the group was Peter Schaale. The first-round draft pick from Cape Breton University slipped seamlessly into the team, spending the opening game against Pacific FC with the much-lauded Marcus Haber tucked tightly into his pocket.

The big German had joined Wanderers with PDL experience so presented less of a risk than some of the others, but regardless has still exceeded early expectations.

The biggest compliment you can give him is that he’s looked good whoever he’s played with this season – be it N’Sa, Hocine, or Arnone. There’s a robustness to him, a steely fuck-off-this-is-my-ball determination that he brings to duals. He must be a right bastard to play against.

Just as an aside, his on-field persona couldn’t be more removed from his off-field one. A documentary crew from Ontario recently spent a month in Halifax recording a series about the club. Over drinks on their final night in the city I asked which of the Wanderers players they’d enjoyed talking to the most during the making of it. “Peter”, they all swooned in unison, “he’s just so nice”.

The issue now is what happens next with him. While Christian Oxner and Andre Bona are both signed on for the remainder of the season, Peter Schaale’s future is less clear. As things stand he’s scheduled to return to school in August, but should there be a desire from both club and player to extend beyond that – and you have to assume there is – the chance of a compromise with Cape Breton University and the retention of his services until the end of the season may be possible.

That would certainly be the wish of the Wanderers fan base…

To Schaale’s right during all but one of the league games this season has been another U Sports draft pick, albeit one who finds himself in Halifax via a slightly different route.

Andre Bona, at 29, must wake up some mornings a little confused to find he’s a professional footballer. After a spell with Olympique de Marseille of his native France as a youngster, Bona decided to focus his athletic talents elsewhere by competing in national events as a 60m, 100m, and 200m sprinter. This was followed by a move to Canada for university and the likelihood that football was probably only ever going to be a recreational activity.

Stephen Hart had other ideas though, recruiting the right-back via the U Sports Draft from Université du Québec à Montréal, and his importance to the team continues to solidify with each passing week.

In his first few appearances, Bona seemed to be behind some of his teammates on a technical level, but the more minutes he’s gotten under his belt, the less apparent that’s become. We’re at the point now where he seems completely at home at this level.

The physicality he brings as a defender aside, the Frenchman is such an effective attacking outlet for Wanderers on the flank. With our right sided midfielders and forwards more interested in playing narrowly between the opposition centre-backs and left-back, Bona provides crucial attacking width.

His pace has the potential to kill teams, and this past Wednesday it did exactly that by propelling him towards an open goal for Wanderers’ second. As he accelerated past a flailing Valour defender his mind surely jumped back to those days as a sprinter in France. It was a wonderfully visceral display of his strengths. Or, as someone texted me to say as the goal went in, “hahaha Bona has literally scored a goal just by being a sprinter”.

The final U Sports draft pick was Christian Oxner, Nova Scotia native and darling of The Kitchen.

He’s likely quite surprised at how often he’s found himself in the starting line-up this season. With the arrival of established Trinidadian international Jan-Michael Williams, it was expected that the Ox would spend much of his first season as a rarely used understudy, learning as much as he could before looking to fight his way into the first XI in year two.

Instead, the Saint Mary’s graduate already has four starts under his belt, including one away versus Cavalry FC. He’s rarely looked out of place, either. We knew he was a good shot stopper, but what was a little more unknown was how good he is at dealing with two other goalkeeping fundamentals: set-pieces and organization.

While Williams will remain first-choice for this season at least, Wanderers will be comforted by knowing that not only do they have a highly competent back-up, they also have a player who’ll eventually end up as the team’s number one well into the future.

The U Sports Draft wasn’t the only avenue in which Wanderers sought to unearth gems. The Open Trials (or #GotGame if that’s more your thing) was a multi-city trial that charged players a considerable fee for the privilege of proving themselves worthy of a professional contract. There were doubts over anything beyond a depth player being discovered via this route, but in Kodai Iida at least, Wanderers have struck gold.

The signing was an intriguing one, mainly due to his classification as an international player. Had Stephen Hart and his team really found a player at the Open Trials who was good enough to occupy one of the seven designated international spots? In a word, yes.

Iida has been a breath of fresh almost every time he’s stepped onto the pitch this season. The 24-year-old is a relentless presence: never static, rarely quiet, just an endearingly chaotic bundle of energy. Or to put it another way, the adult incarnation of an 8-year-old at a birthday party moments after a sugar rush has kicked in.

There’s room for improvement with him too, as Stephen Hart alluded to last week. Often, he said, on-pitch instructions will get lost in translation and he’ll will have to wait until half time to get his point across.

It’s for this reason and more you can see Kodai becoming somewhat of a passion project for the Hart this season. He’s been given an incredibly promising, but relatively unpolished diamond to tinker with. For a coach who is just as focused on developing players as he is on winning football matches, this pet project must be a dream for him, and one it’ll be fascinating to see the end result of.

The second player to join Wanderers via the Open Trials is a little harder to judge. Due to injury, Kouame Ouattara has only managed two appearances this season – seventy minutes in the home win versus Forge and the final few minutes of Wednesday’s 2-0 victory in Winnipeg.

He certainly fits the profile of someone with the attributes the Wanderers midfield may require at times this season. While Elliot Simmons and Elton John are certainly now the first-choice central midfielders, neither are the most physically imposing of players. Should a match call for it, having a player nicknamed The Beast on the bench may prove to be vital.

All in all, the players that have arrived via the U Sports Draft and Open Trials have been evidence of a successful use of resources from the Wanderers management team. Crucial to the club’s success going forward will be their ability to repeat this trick season after season. It’s clear now that the talent is out there, the key is knowing where to look.

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