No more isolating, no more kicking the ball around the apartment, and no more communicating with teammates and coaches on a screen.
Valour FC is finally back on the pitch.
Winnipeg's professional soccer club kicked off training camp Monday at IG Field and had the majority of the 2021 roster participating. Attackers Keven Alemán and William Akio are still quarantining, but Valour head coach/general manager Rob Gale had 23 players in total, including several trialists, on opening day. As a professional team Valour is allowed to practice. Staff must wear masks at all time and outside of drills, players are expected to social distance.
"There was a bunch of excitement and a bunch of positivity," said Croatian-born right-back Stefan Cebara on Day 1. "Everyone's happy to get started and get back to playing football. Nobody wanted to be sitting around at home anymore. We're excited to start the season, we're excited to train, we're excited to work, and everyone's out there fighting for their spot."
Players and staff now have an idea what they're working toward after the Canadian Premier League announced its vision for the 2021 season on Friday. The plan is to have a 28-game schedule with the eight teams all starting the season in one location, playing in an empty stadium. If the COVID-19 landscape improves, clubs will return to their home markets and begin playing matches in front of supporters. The CPL is aiming for the season to start in mid-June or early July.
"Yeah, hoping early July obviously, as we just got together. So six weeks (to prepare) would be ideal," Gale said. "What I liked is the intention from the league for a full season. I think that's fantastic, 28 games, a balanced schedule. That will give us a proper idea of where we're at, whereas last year it felt like a preseason."
The CPL was forced to get creative in 2020, scrapping the regular season and replacing it with a single-site tournament in Charlottetown, P.E.I. called The Island Games. Valour failed to advance to the second round with a 2-2-3 record that put them in sixth place. Valour rolled into 2020 with a totally revamped roster from their inaugural 2019 season — in which they went 8-4-16 to put them in a tie for dead last. But, the tournament format worked against them since they had no time to build chemistry. Now with a full season, the club — with 12 players back from last year — will have all the time in the world to show what it is capable of.
"I think it'll give us an actual fair indication of where we're at," Gale said.
"Realistically, it's going to be four Island Games back to back in terms of number of games in that amount of time... We know it's going to be a battle. We're going to need the depth of the squad and I think that familiarity from last year and camaraderie has been built."
Winnipeg will be missing two important pieces, however, as visa issues are keeping midfielder Nestor Monge and forward Ronny Maza away from the band. Both international signings were expected to be big-time contributors. Monge, 31, has played for the Costa Rican men’s national team and Maza, 23, was coming from Venezuela’s top-flight professional league.
"It's unfortunate. We can't hide the disappointment about that," Gale said.
"A starting centre-forward with a proven track record in a very difficult league in South America... then you've got a top-level international midfielder. We're looking diligently to try and find replacements of the same calibre because you want to keep the quality of your squad. We don't want to just find players for numbers."
Whether they find suitable replacements or not, a third straight season near the bottom of the table won't go over well with the Valour faithful. But according to Cebara, who's heading into his second season with Valour, this year's group has what it takes to right the ship.
"I think last year we showed glimpses of very good performances and a lot of potential. That potential has re-signed and has come back to the club this year," Cebara said.
"And we've added a few very interesting pieces. We've added some attacking threats, we've attacked the places where we needed improvement and we've added those players. We're very hungry. We're very hungry to win and want to show our fans (our) appreciation and support. We want to pay them back for sticking with us for the first two years that didn't go as successfully as planned. But I think this year we're gonna make up for it."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.