Canadian Premier League ready to kick off Island Games in Prince Edward Island

With Major League Soccer having successfully concluded its MLS is Back Tournament, now it's the Canadian Premier League's turn.

The Island Games kick off Thursday in Charlottetown with a rematch of last year's inaugural final between defending champion Forge FC and Calgary's Cavalry FC.

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Like their MLS counterparts, the eight CPL teams enter their tournament with limited preparation. But unlike MLS, which was two weeks into its season when the pandemic forced a halt March 12, the CPL sides have had no games in advance of the tournament.

Still, hopes run high.

"On the first day everyone starts with zero (points), everyone's excited. Everyone believes that they can be the champion for 2020," said Bobby Smyrniotis, technical director and head coach for Hamilton-based Forge FC.

"And especially in a shortened season like this, everyone believes a lot more. This isn't a season where we're building over 30 matches. It's literally what you do in your first four (matches) will dictate a lot of things that go forward."

The teams will play each other to start, with the top four advancing to the second round. The top two clubs will then meet in the championship game.

It means there's not much room for error.

"It's a sprint," said Valour FC coach Rob Gale, a former Canadian international youth coach. "I've been there before with national teams and you need a little bit of luck. You need to try and keep as many of your key members injury-free as possible for as long as possible."

Cavalry FC coach and GM Tommy Wheeldon Jr. predicts it might come down to organization — and some key moments.

"I think it will be about a bit of magic. I think it will be about mistakes. And some type of maverick on a set play," he said.

The 276-member CPL bubble is based around the Delta Hotels Prince Edward and the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) Alumni Field, where all 35 matches will be held.

"I've got no complaints, to be honest," said Wheeldon. "It's as good as it can be under the current circumstances."

Unlike Florida, which produced some worrying COVID-19 numbers during the MLS tournament, P.E.I. offers a more benign embrace.

As of Tuesday, the province had recorded a total of 36 cases of COVID-19 with no deaths. Florida's total through Wednesday read 550,000-plus cases and some 8,900 deaths.

Players, staff and officials went through quarantine and testing before the tournament with more testing throughout the competition.

Smyrniotis likes what he sees of the CPL plan.

"We all want to play. We all want to get on the field and do what we love to do. But at the end of the day, we've got to make sure it's safe for everyone and I think the league's done a good job of organizing thing," he said.

FC Edmonton head coach Jeff Paulus acknowledged he lost sleep thinking about the tournament and safety when it was first suggested. "But I'm satisfied (now)," he said.

The question-marks will likely be on the field, with expansion Atletico Ottawa presenting "a lot of unknown," according to Smyrniotis. Teams like Valour FC, York 9 FC, Pacific FC and HFX Wanderers FC have also made extensive changes.

"How quickly can you jell?" mused Gale. "Because we haven't had an exhibition game ... We've got to hit the ground running."

Tournament football is different, he added.

"It's not always the favourites right out of the gate. It's the team who can blend together the quickest, hopefully get the train on track and keep those wheels turning as the tournament progresses."

While full-contact training sessions have been limited until recently due to local restrictions, Gale believes his revamped Winnipeg team has come together nicely.

"There's a great spirit and camaraderie that's been built in the group — a real good togetherness that really the pandemic has helped with because we've all gone through it together, from self-isolation and quarantine to Zoom practices to fitness sessions. Everything from yoga and karaoke sessions virtually, we've done it all together.

"And I think in a strange way that's really helped the group and also given us some time together to work things individually and maybe some of the tactical stuff that you wouldn't normally get in a season because you don't have that time."

Paulus also had his players analyse opponents, among other video homework.

"It definitely kept us on our toes, kept us engaged. With everything that was going on, it would have been easy enough for us as players just to put football to the back of our mind and focus on other things — or lose focus," said Edmonton captain Tomi Ameobi.

"But I think the coaching staff did a good job of keeping us engaged throughout that time. But I tell you it was a relief when we were able to come back in and train in smaller groups ... rather than speaking to someone through a screen."

The pandemic-caused delay to the season may have helped Ottawa, given it had to build a team from scratch on short notice. But it has made life difficult for other teams, some of whom have seen import players unable to get into the country.

Cavalry FC midfielder Jose Escalante and midfelder Richard Luca, for example, couldn't make the journey from Honduras and Brazil, respectively.

Others like 2019 league MVP Tristan Borges have moved on. The stylish Forge FC attacking midfielder was sold to Belgium's Oud-Heverlee Leuven.

Teams are playing for the North Star Shield, the trophy awarded to Forge FC last November.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2020.

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