New to the Wanderers, Zachary Fernandez is drawing attention for his skilled play. Photo: Trevor MacMillan
Newcomer Zachary Fernandez is enjoying a breakout season in Halifax, as he gets to know his city and its boisterous soccer fans
In late April, Hfx Wanderers FC played what observers call one of their “most complete” games in franchise history against FC Edmonton at the Wanderer’s Grounds.
It was the third time in its Canadian Premier League history the Halifax soccer team scored three goals in a game, but it was fullback Zachary Fernandez who really grabbed attention, making big plays that led to two second-half goals, securing the 3-1 win.
“He’s been very difficult for (coach Stephen Hart) to take off the pitch; he passes the ball exceptionally well,” says broadcaster and soccer insider Adam Jenkins. “He hasn’t shown fear of going into tackles, winning duels, and (he’s) defensively sound first. Then, the other part of his game is just how quick he is. He clearly reads the game well: he knows where and when he needs to be there. We saw the offensive explosion come out when they played Edmonton.”
Fernandez started playing the sport when he was four years old, long before there was even a Canadian Premier League.
“I always love to have the ball on my feet,” he says. “I told my mom that I wanted to play soccer. She put me in soccer, and I’ve been playing it for 16 years now.”
For his career development stages, Fernandez honed his skills at the CF Montréal Academy (a development program for young talent). Last year, he played for semi-pro AS Blainville in Quebec’s senior league, scoring three goals in 15 games.
During his time with Blainville, Fernandez travelled to Halifax to play against the Wanderers in a Canadian Championship game. The Wanderers won the game 2-1, and the city left a lasting impression. As did Fernandez.
“My agent texted me that Halifax was very interested, and I knew that I played a good game against them last year,” he says. “I knew that they were already interested in me … It became so true and so quick, so I was so excited.”
Coach Hart had his eye on Fernandez to fill a gap in the Wanderers lineup.
“We like, first and foremost, a player that can defend both in the air and on the ground, and then one who can contribute to the attack and give us some wisdom from these positions,” he explains. “It’s difficult because there has to have a lot of energy. And he fits the profile perfectly.”
In late January, Fernandez signed his first professional contract, a three-year deal with the Wanderers. And he’s excited to be here.
“The city is so beautiful, and the best city in the Canadian Premier League to be playing in,” he says. “I’m still discovering all it’s got, but the waterfront is so nice. My favorite thing to do is go with the boys on the waterfront.”
Fernandez sees his sport quickly making inroads in Halifax.
“Some people don’t know soccer, but they know the team, and they have the team in their hearts,” he says. “It’s a great city for soccer because it’s not only the fans who support us but because we’re a good team. That’s why it’s the best coaching club in a city to play in.”
The adjustment of playing in a new city and on a new team can daunt a young player. While it’s been challenging for Fernandez, patience and optimism has helped.
“It was difficult to leave my family; it was my first time to leave all my family and come here alone,” he says. ” The first one or two weeks were a bit difficult, but the group of players and the staff and the most important person in my life, my mom, and I talked every day. I was telling her sometimes I was sad, and she was giving me good advice to push me.”
On the pitch, Fernandez constantly feels the pressure to win.
“When you’re down by one, two or three goals, you need to continue because you never know what will happen, and you need to win,” he says. “If you have a bad day, you have to move forward and don’t look back.”
To prepare for the season, the fullback works with a personal trainer back home to help with the physical and technical aspects of the game. That includes drills, cross-training and working on his defensive skills. Equally important is mental strength.
When he takes to the field, Fernandez tries to emulate his role model, Brazilian soccer star Dani Alves.
“Dani was the best of all time,” he says. “He’s been my role model, and I always check video before a game and before going to bed about how he plays and wondering if I can play the same way.”
Jenkins believes the change of scenery and the opportunity to play for the Wanderers have built Fernandez’s confidence in his ability to grow into an effective player.
“From day one with Zack, he never showed any trepidation,” he says. “He came right in, excited for the opportunity. He wasn’t going 100-per-cent right from the first game; he was still learning the team … That is good for a player with his experience and age to see what it can mean to play for a group of supporters that love the side as much as they do. Halifax has become known for its passionate supporters. He’s winning penalties, setting up teammates, and … he’s up, down, and covers every blade of grass on that side of the pitch.”
Hart says that Fernandez has a lot of potential, but also a lot to learn.
“He needs to play a lot more,” he explains. “The more difficult opponents he sees, the better he gets. Once he sticks to the basic principles of playing the position, he then learns to solve the problem of different attackers — some that grow outside, some that come inside, and some that are very physical. His game will develop because physically, he is very good. So far mentally, he has shown that he is willing to learn.”
On the cusp of realizing his potential and becoming one of the league’s elite fullbacks, Fernandez wants to make more memories in front of the home fans at the Wanderers Grounds in the coming months.
“Sometimes we’re down and lose by one, but it’s fun to hear the cheers for us until the last minute,” he says. “The season is still young, and we have an objective as a team … I want to win.”