Fri, Jun

HFX Wanderers striker Akeem Garcia (right) breaks away from a Cavalry FC defender during a 2020 Canadian Premier League match at the Island Games in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

No current Canadian Premier League player has scored more goals than HFX Wanderers star striker Akeem Garcia.

The 24-year-old Trinidadian attacker won the Golden Boot award for leading the CPL with six goals during the 2020 season to give him 13 over the first two years of the fledgling league. But even for someone of Garcia’s calibre, there’s room for improvement.

“The performance for me was good and I can only get better,” Garcia said in a recent phone interview from his family home in Arima, Trinidad and Tobago.

“One of the main things coach and some of my teammates asked me to do this season was to be more consistent. Even in training I would work on that and work a bit harder. I’m satisfied with the season. I’m a bit sad still that we didn’t win the final but I’m still satisfied with the team and how we played.”

The 2020 campaign was brief yet quite remarkable for the Wanderers.

After enduring through a disappointing inaugural season in which they finished in last place, the Wanderers returned to last winter’s training camp with only seven returning players in tow.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the second season until August, the heavily-revamped squad defied expectations at the league’s condensed summer tournament dubbed the Island Games. They earned a berth in the CPL Final but lost a 2-0 decision to the defending champion Forge FC.

Despite falling just short of capturing the North Star Shield, Garcia expects his club to make further strides in 2021.

“Next year, we can take it up a notch,” Garcia said. “We’ll have to spend a bit more time with each other. We only had a couple months to train this season because of COVID and we had to do it smaller groups.

“It was a brand new team with only seven players returning. Hopefully this time we get more accustomed with each other. Training is one thing but once you get on the pitch it’s different. There is a next level in this team that we haven’t seen yet.

“From what I’m hearing most of the guys are coming back. But like the fans, I have to wait.”

Garcia’s exploits earned him a nomination for CPL player of the year – the first Wanderer do so – but lost out to Forge FC captain Kyle Bekker at the league’s virtual awards ceremony on Thursday.

Ever the good teammate, Garcia deflected any praise to his teammates.

“I was getting the service this year to score which I didn’t really get last year,” Garcia said. “Adding guys like Joao Morelli, Alex Marshall, Cory Bent, everyone on the front line can score and took the responsibility to do so.

“This team will definitely move forward, especially offensively. Everyone on this team wants to do whatever it takes to win and help the team.”

The Wanderers were the only club with a nominee in each of the five categories at the CPL awards but bench boss Stephen Hart was the only other to come away with hardware, winning coach of the year.

Christian Oxner was nominated for the Golden Glove for goalkeeper of the year (won by Forge keeper Triston Henry) and defender Chrisnovic N’sa earned a nod for under-21 Canadian player of the year (won by Mohamed Farsi of Cavalry FC). N’sa recently signed with York9 FC where he joins his younger brother Felix.

Garcia said the recognition from the league is a testament of the teams’ successful turnaround in the abbreviated season.

“When I landed in Halifax two days after training camp, the training was intense. I didn’t feel as fit. I thought the other guys were way fitter than me,” Garcia recalled with a laugh.

“The team didn’t come to play around. They were determined. One of the differences with this team than our first year was that we were younger and everyone wanted to work for each other. It was a brotherhood. They did such a great job. Even when we went into our smaller groups during COVID, we were interacting with newer players. We were in groups where you learn something about your new teammate. It was quite interesting.

“Although it was a shorter season, I honestly think it was a legit season. Of course, with the situation with COVID, they did the best that the could with the Island Games. Everything went smoothly and the league and games ran quite smoothly. The only issue I had is that I had never played so many games so quickly in my life. Some were on consecutive days so it took some getting used to.”

Now the question is, what will 2021 look like?

The Wanderers players are scattered all over the Western Hemisphere doing their own off-season training program.

The league has set March 1 as a tentative reconvene date for players to rejoin their clubs. But, of course, the pandemic will dictate when it’s safe to return.

“It’s nice to see my family and relax a bit before it’s time to get back to Halifax,” Garcia said.

“I’ve been following the program from our strength and conditioning coach and doing extra stuff during my spare time. I understand the season’s going to be even harder next year so it’s time to get ready.

“I’ll be ready to go whether it’s next week, two weeks, January, February, I’ll be ready to come back.”

SOURCE: The Chronicle Herald