Nearly five years since Halifax’s professional soccer team first took the pitch, there’s little doubt that the city is quickly becoming a soccer capital.
As the Halifax Wanderers gear up to host their first playoff game on home soil in franchise history, an already sold-out crowd of 6,500 fans are set to march into Wanderers Grounds on Saturday afternoon to see their Boys in Blue take on Victoria’s Pacific FC.
Win, and the Wanderers will see themselves qualify for the Canadian Premier League (CPL) semi-final match and face the loser of Saturday’s other playoff clash between Calgary’s Cavalry FC and Hamilton’s Forge FC.
Derek Martin, the club’s founder and president, described the excitement around Saturday’s events as a full-circle moment that gives the club an opportunity to acknowledge the work of both current and former staff members.
“It’s really a great chance to reflect on everything that’s gone into this project to date and show some appreciation for not only the people behind the scenes that have helped make it happen but the fans that have supported us through thick and thin,” Martin said.
A devoted fanbase
Since their inaugural season in 2019, the Wanderers have continuously topped the league’s attendance charts and built a formidable reputation as a team with some of the most devoted supporters in the Canadian topflight.
“The fans are everything,” Martin said.
“It’s not professional soccer if you don’t have fans and you don’t have people who are encouraging you, who are demanding of you, who are holding you accountable. It’s what gives life to this entire project, it’s what spurs our players on, it’s what drives them to get that final goal.”
Due to a highly competitive Canadian Premier League regular season and a newly introduced playoff format, Wanderers fans didn’t know who they’d face until the results of the league’s first playoff fixture on Wednesday were finalized. Prior to that, they also weren’t sure of when their first playoff match would be scheduled.
Both factors proved to be irrelevant for supporters, as tickets were snatched up before details were confirmed.
“Selling out the venue a week and a half before the game, before we knew the opponent, before we knew the time, before we knew the weather… those things don’t happen often in professional sport,” Martin said, acknowledging the team’s continued support might help strengthen the club’s recent bid to the Halifax Regional Municipality for a stadium expansion of about 2,000 seats.
“I hope it is a real moment for those that are viewing our proposal maybe with a bit of trepidation. These guys have done something here that is real and it’s working.”
Martin added that his hopes for a stadium expansion will be to see it serve the greater community and allow for other major sporting events in Halifax.
“We’ve announced the Canadian women’s national team is coming at the end of the month… those tickets haven’t even gone on sale to the public yet and I believe we’re sold out through presale opportunities.”
Martin said his “community-minded” approach is being shown to be worthwhile from the success of the continued events at the Wanderers Grounds.
Halifax has had no shortage of standout players during the 2023 season, as the likes of centre-back Dan Nimick, forward Massimo Ferrin, and midfielder Lorenzo Callegari all grabbed seven separate appearances in the CPL’s Team of the Week line-ups.
As certain young players continue to shine in league play, reports of interest in some of the Wanderer’s players from bigger leagues in England and the United States continue to circulate.
Martin said that the attention some players are drawing is a testament to the squad that the newly hired coaching staff has helped put together.
“Those young men have short, athletic careers so we want to help them move as quickly as they can through different levels,” he said.
“One of the reasons those guys are getting looked at is because we’re having success. And when you have success as a team then the individual players as part of that team can start to get the accolades and the respect and interest that they deserve.”
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Martin said that “without a doubt” some players on the Wanderer’s current roster are “certainly going to earn themselves a greater opportunity to continue their careers at higher levels.”
A long road to the playoffs
The closest the Wanderers have come to a trophy was during the 2020 season, which was modified due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. They reached the finals of The Island Games and fell 2-0 to Forge.
Following a disappointing 2022 season which saw the Wanderers finish second-last in the league, the franchise’s staff decided to undergo an adventurous rebuild. That included the acquisition of 17 new players and a new head coach, Patrice Gheisar, who became only the second person to hold the position in the club’s short history.
After going winless in the first eight games of the 2023 season, registering six draws and two losses, Wanderers’ supporters started to wonder if this season wasn’t going to look too different from the last. But when the demand was at its highest, this young, 26-player roster began proving that it operates best under pressure.
With no shortage of nail-biting finishes, late winners, and disciplined group performances, the Halifax Wanderers finished their regular season in third place and achieved a franchise record of 42 points.
This year’s team also topped previous team records in goals scored, the fewest number of goals conceded, and the most wins.
If the Halifax side had scored one more goal, they would’ve finished the regular season in second place — as they finished tied on points, wins, and goal difference with defending North Star Cup Champions Forge, with the decisive tiebreaker coming down to an away-goal differential.
As for Saturday’s match, Martin said he’d like nothing more than to celebrate a win with the players, staff, and fans.
“It’s really just going to be a great chance to say thank you to a bunch of people,” he said.
“And if we can win that game, you’re in a final, and if you’re in a final, as we’ve seen, anything can happen in a game of soccer… There’s a lot to play for.”
If the Wanderers are victorious against Pacific on Saturday, they will play in the league’s semi-final match on Oct. 21 — and if successful, they’ll book a spot in the championship game on Oct. 28.