Silly season is well and truly underway in the CPL, with another major domino now fallen in what’s sure to continue to be a fascinating winter.
Joe Di Chiara, once a fan favourite at York9 FC, is officially moving on to Cavalry FC in one of the biggest club swaps to happen within the league since the conclusion of The Island Games (but possibly not the last).
After the 2019 CPL campaign, most clubs saw at least some turnover, with a number out-of-contract players choosing to pursue opportunities elsewhere in the league. In total, 16 players signed to rosters in the league’s inaugural season ended up with a different club in 2020. So far, four more have made similar moves since the end of The Island Games, with Di Chiara joining Chrisnovic N’sa and Niko Giantsopoulos moving to York Region, and former Y9 captain Manny Aparicio landing at Pacific FC.
Past intra-league swaps have fallen into various tiers. There were the big-splash, free-agent signings, such as Marco Bustos’ move to Pacific FC from Valour, York9’s signing of Michael Petrasso from Valour, or Louis Béland-Goyette’s switch to HFX Wanderers from— well, you get the point. Ben Fisk’s move from Pacific to Atlético Ottawa fits here, and you’d certainly put the Aparicio and N’sa moves from this year in that same category. In terms of value to his team, Ajay Khabra’s departure from FC Edmonton in favour of Ottawa probably had that kind of impact, too.
Then, there’s a handful of players who did well when called on in 2019 but sought a larger role with a different club in 2020. Elliot Simmons found it at Cavalry FC, as did Malyk Hamilton at Atlético Ottawa. Even Marcus Haber’s Cavalry move could be considered in this category. Maybe Bruno Zebie and José Hernández, as well. Duran Lee too, if he’d been healthier. This year, that label applies to Giantsopoulos.
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Finally, we had the late arrivals — the players who pounced on a second chance in the CPL in July and August, as teams filled out their rosters with domestic players before The Island Games. Chakib Hocine, Austin Ricci, Matt Silva, and Jace Kotsopoulos fall here.
So, where does Di Chiara fit into it all? Obviously he’s in the first category; the midfielder put up MVP-calibre performances in York9’s campaign in PEI, playing 90 minutes in six games (missing out on one game through suspension due to yellow card accumulation). He scored three goals for the Nine Stripes, won 42 duels, and wasn’t charged with a single turnover.
Di Chiara has been one of the CPL’s best passers for two years running (hitting over 86 per cent accuracy both years, and leading the league in 2019). He’s one of the league’s most daunting players to battle with in midfield for his tenacity and ability to win the ball — for better or for worse, with his 11 yellow cards and 52 fouls over two seasons.
He’s a player who can set the tone for a match almost on his own, and he’ll fit Cavalry’s pressing style quite well.
The real question, then, is where Di Chiara’s move to Alberta fits among the major free agent coups from the past two off-seasons? We can look back at The Island Games to see how some of the movers from 2019 made out.
The biggest fish was Bustos, of course — and it was certainly worth it, with his Player of the Year nomination well-deserved for a good campaign with Pacific in 202o. Petrasso, probably the next-biggest name to move last year, barely played in PEI due to injury, and Matthew Arnone (who moved from HFX to Y9) was similarly stuck on the bench. Béland-Goyette wasn’t as important for HFX as expected simply because Aboubacar Sissoko outplayed him for a starting job, and he’s since been released.
Fisk was good for Ottawa (as was Hamilton) at The Island Games, and he’s an extremely important part of the organization off the field, as well.
After Bustos, though, the most successful CPL swaps were probably Simmons and Haber, both of whom performed very well in their roles for Cavalry. Simmons’ passing game fit better into Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s system than Stephen Hart’s, and he made a bigger impact because of it. Ironically, Di Chiara might compete directly with Simmons at Cavalry.
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It feels clear that, had Di Chiara’s swap happened before the 2020 season, it would’ve been no worse than the second-biggest free agent coup, slightly behind Bustos. With the trio from this year included, is it still so?
Di Chiara wasn’t the captain at York9, and he played four fewer games than Aparicio for the club across the last two seasons. Was he a more important piece, though? At The Island Games, he performed at a higher level than the skipper, although he didn’t make highlight reels with dazzling set-piece goals.
Still, the hard-nosed midfielder seemed in many ways to have been the engine of York9’s midfield in both seasons. He may be that again for Cavalry, in the way that Julian Büscher was in 2019 (a factor they weren’t quite able to replace in 2020).
On the condition that nothing be taken away from Pacific’s coup in landing Aparicio, Di Chiara’s move should be considered the biggest yet this year, and probably just behind Bustos all-time. Cavalry, a club whose fortunes dipped in PEI after a Finals 2019 appearance, went out and got their guy.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. hasn’t taken his group-stage exit lying down.