HFX Cookbook: Building a U23 team in Halifax

The CPL is a developmental league, by its own admission. As such, it’s illustrative to look at which sources of Canadian players each team prefers. Forge has Sigma FC and League1 Ontario at its backdoor. Pacific will be paying close attention to the new League 1 BC. Cavalry still enjoys a strong connection to the Foothills. HFX Wanderers are different, though: they have almost no development in their own provinces, instead going through PLSQ, the CF Montreal academy, and the USports draft.

The facts are somewhat more balanced, of course, but the concern is real: the Maritime soccer network has a severe deficiency in youth development. Part of that is the simple matter of a lower population, but it doesn’t help that there are also travel and provincial barriers to organizing semi-pro teams in the area.

Another complication is that the attempts already made to fill these holes rarely bridge the gaps. Soccer Nova Scotia does an admirable job organizing youth soccer, but they’re not mandated to operate at the semi-pro level. The universities in Atlantic Canada are a fantastic showcase for young players, but these high school graduates are (hopefully) committed to their studies, and the USports drafts are open to all clubs across Canada. Despite these two investments in youth soccer, the crucial 16-19 age category sees almost no support at all.

A Wanderers academy has been discussed often by fans, but owner Derek Martin has always been very clear on the subject. He doesn’t believe an academy would produce enough players to be worth the cost — especially since a Wanderers academy would be relatively small, and compete not only with Soccer Nova Scotia and the universities but with MLS academies as well.

The question remains, though: Where will Nova Scotia teens get a chance to play, in a way that keeps them within the Wanderers sphere of influence? The club’s always said that they want at least six local players on the squad by 2026. How do they get there?

Enter, the U23 Wanderers Camp.

The idea is to take young local players, recommended by coaches across the region, and have them practice with the Wanderers players and staff. Already that’s a good appetizer, but the spiciest soup will be a schedule of exhibition games for them against international youth teams. Not only will this be a great test of their ability, but it’ll also be a chance for fans to attend, and be introduced to the new prospects themselves.

It’s also a clever way to turn a limitation into an opportunity. The Wanderers’ deal with the City of Halifax only allows them a limited number of games per year on the Wanderers Grounds. But a U23 game could be played for fans in New Brunswick or PEI, and expand the Wanderers’ reach without interfering with city or league obligations.

It does bring up the question, though: what sort of exhibition games are we talking about? Sporting Director Matt Fegan has focused on international teams in his description of the program. We’ve already had Fortuna Düsseldorf send a youth squad to Halifax in the past, and it would be nice to maintain that relationship. Flying in British or Irish teams would be potentially cheaper and shorter than flying a team in from BC! Perhaps Halifax’s distant geography can prove an advantage in this case.

In theory, it sounds like a good solution to multiple problems. And how did the first ID Camp turn out?

Saturday: the cold kept fans away just as effectively as closed doors, but players have a special technique for keeping warm, known as “playing hard”. Photo: Chris Searl

For starters, it was freezing cold on both days of that weekend, but there’s a benefit to playing in November, while students are still in good athletic form. Players were there from all three maritime provinces, many of them teammates playing against each other while Wanderers staff looked on from the side. They were happy to be there, and the game was full of chatter. It’s a bit early to give scouting reports and rosters, though, and the Wanderers themselves have said that they won’t announce the names of attendees until one or two more camps are completed, and prospects who couldn’t make it to the November camp can be properly assessed.

There’s one name, though, who can be announced and assessed: Scott Firth. The Wanderers midfielder (and Halifax local) was released from the main roster at the end of the 2021 season, but at 20 years of age, he’s still younger than some of the invitees. Reports from the Saturday game say that he dominated the pitch, and with that task completed, he served as a linesman for the Sunday match.

Sunday: Brighter skies attracted some attendees, including the author (yellow coat, far right, trying not to pester Stephen Hart). Photo: Anthony Abbott

In an article about bridging gaps and finding ways to solve multiple problems, Firth is yet another example of that approach: by staying tightly integrated with the club, he can provide coaches and invitees with a benchmark to compare the camp against CPL performance levels, and he can still develop his skills in competitive matches where he’ll take on more responsibility.

Competition is the driving force of sport, but the underlying theme of the Wanderers’ development strategy seems to be one of collaboration instead: their U23 program will have benefits for (and receive support from) youth and university soccer organizations, without trying to push them in a direction they don’t want to go. Then, once those benefits finally reach the fans in the form of young local players with professional experience signing Wanderers contracts, the competition can begin in earnest.