Something one learns when one writes fantasy fiction: there’s actually quite a lot of tactics behind a good cavalry charge. Doubly so if you’re dealing with chariots.
Among other things, you need a good, flat battlefield where your cavalry can get up to speed. A place like Winnipeg, for instance.
The idea is to get through the initial charge and regroup, rather than get individual riders surrounded by lesser foes, where they’re vulnerable. A lot of thought goes into direction, changes of direction, and communication.
Once you’ve regrouped, you take stock of what you have and then you re-organize it all on the fly.
This metaphor is getting belaboured now, you might say, like we’ve charged into a quagmire, but you’d also have to admit it beats the usual sports clichés about rebuilding and reloading, the actual distinction between which is a matter of semiotics that would make Tolkien blush. Read more good fantasy, is what I’m saying.
The point I’m trying to make is that Cavalry FC, the team, are doing this exact kind of organization on the fly, and it deserves more nuance than just “reload”.
Cavalry’s inaugural team was planned the way a veteran general would plan his charge. Tommy Wheeldon Jr., then coaching Calgary Foothills, built a pressing system engineered to prey on unfamiliar opponents. It wasn’t always “ninety minutes of hell,” though no good general would be opposed to that. It was full of precise, planned release points. He chose specific lynchpins to communicate his vision on the field–his brother, Jonathon Wheeldon, among them. And like any good general, he went down fighting when it didn’t quite work out.
Last summer, Cavalry were the picture of a defeated army, full of played-out veterans with lots of experience but never quite the glory. They were battered and broken and they eventually went down after one last rush into the second round.
It needed a rethink. A regroup. The touch of a proper evaluation and some precision drilling. And that is exactly what the Cavalry have done.
It’s a brand new group leading from the back, and it’s a lot younger.
Daan Klomp and Tom Field are the two biggest names, replacing Dom Zator and Nathan Mavila, more or less. Those are two pretty huge names departing, too, and it gives you a sense of both the scale and risk of this undertaking. A lot of people would have rated Zator and Mavila the best at their positions in the league.
There are other, less heralded changes at the back. Karifa Yao isn’t that well-known, but shouldn’t be overlooked. He’d have been in Canada’s U23 side but for circumstances around the pandemic, and is in Calgary on loan from CF Montreal. David Norman Jr., another CanU23 fresh off the failed Olympic qualifying bid, will also likely spend some time at the back. Both are different players–Yao is big and rangy, Norman more of a ball-mover–but both will know their roles and both can fill them well.
In midfield, you need guys who can win a knife fight1For the more astute among you, I am now mixing my sci-fi and fantasy metaphors. when the going gets tough, and that is absolutely Joe Di Chiara, who’s been doing that for years, but most recently at York. He takes some hits but he gives more than he gets, and is going to fit in perfectly in Cavalry’s midfield, particularly, I suspect, once they’re back at Spruce Meadows.
And then there’s your front-line. The big guys to push you through, and it’s here that Cavalry faltered first last year: Jordan Brown was often inventive but he put up only nine goals across 42 games with Cavalry, and that’s not enough to lead a line.
Arriving then, are Anthony Novak and Joe Mason, two proven forwards with vastly different styles who share a tendency for big goals in massive games. Neither is necessarily the most outright talented technician–both are quite comfortable scoring a goal the dirty way and letting someone else curl it in the top corner. Novak, though he overperforms his expected goals, is one of the smartest target men in the league with his movement into spaces that are difficult to defend, which is how he gets so many high-quality chances.
Richard Luca might be the guy scoring the pretty goals. He couldn’t get in the country last year but has arrived now. He’s a bit of an enigma, maybe a wingman or maybe a warlock in midfield. He’s had an absolute time of it in his career with visa issues, first in Mexico and now in Canada, and as such he’s a 23-year-old with a big reputation but relatively few games to actually show it. Cavalry will expect him to stay with the pack, however.
Finally, it’s nice to see Oliver Minatel patched up once again and back after that horrific leg break on PEI last year. If only the same were true for Cavalry’s other wounded veterans.
Nico Pasquotti is not back after his injury. Note that he publicly criticized the league this winter for leaving him out in the cold with his rehab, something Cavalry have now done several times with several different players.
Will there be compensation for injured players? What about the costs associated with rehabilitation and return to play? https://t.co/lxpiagNuwS
— Nico Pasquotti (@nicopasquotti) March 9, 2021
It’s an utterly classless move. This team plays a high-octane style and that leads to injuries for the sake of our entertainment. They should do a better job tending their fallen, and it may be the league needs a father figure to explain the basic outlines of dignity and respect. Unfortunately, Dave Clanachan is too busy freezing out the player’s union to fill that job.
Tactics & Positional Depth
Cavalry remain a fairly deep team, but that depth has been torqued around in its shape. Perhaps understandably given the way 2020 unfolded, they are now much deeper, and more flexible, up front. There will be no need for Tofa Fakunle to suit up (not that it wasn’t tremendous fun when he almost scored).
Marco Carducci is back in goal, and remains the best goalkeeper in the league. Cavalry signed former Valour goalkeeper Tyson Farago as a back-up, which is fine even if the likely factor here is cap hit. Farago deserved more of a chance than he got in Winnipeg.
Speaking of which, they’ve recently signed another ex-Valour player in Ali Musse, who battled injuries in 2019. That gives us a good reason to look at how Cavalry will line up, because while Musse is primarily a winger, I could see him dropping deeper in Calgary, similar to how Jose Escalante is sometimes used. Musse is probably the Honduran’s back-up.
I think Wheeldon Jr. will keep the 3-4-3, partly because it provides a bit more flexibility in how the team uses Tom Field. The Irish left-back, who has a similar profile to Mavila if slightly more experience, can get forward but is also able to play centre-back. Plus, dropping Escalante deeper takes advantage of his two-way defending while minimizing his lack of finish in the box.
Going to three at the back would minimize Mo Farsi’s defensive liabilities (he’s also a converted winger) and also give Norman Jr. some cover if/when he plays centre-back.
There are only three true centre-backs on the roster, and no true right-back unless you consider Farsi’s conversion complete. Daan Klomp can play either position so you could slide him over, but in either event, you’re relying heavily on Mason Trafford to stay healthy, something he’s never managed in CanPL.
Eli Adekugbe is already out for the year, which is a real shame because he came on in leaps and bounds last year. But he’s done his Achilles two years after doing his knee, and that’s a very tough break at this point in his career.
Nik Ledgerwood is going to have to play real minutes again, and there’s a very real time limit on how long that can continue while Cavalry remain a high-level team. More will be asked of Elliot Simmons, who had a quiet 2020, and Norman Jr. may now have to spot in central midfield, too.
Di Chiara is a tremendous add and should take some of the creative pressure off Sergio Camargo–Di Chiara scored three goals last year and was often York’s most creative player. He thrives in the direct, progressive game Cavalry play, too–maybe more so than Camargo.
Up front, Tommy can go with a forward two or three. If Jose Escalante does play out wide, I’d expect the two with Joe Mason and Anthony Novak working together and probably Richard Luca free behind them. But that set-up can also suit a front three with Luca off the left and Mason on the right in the channel. I expect we’ll see plenty of shifting between those two, and either way it’s threatening.
I am tempted to call Cavalry’s regroup nearly perfect and put them first. They’ve recruited very, very well, they have one of the best coaches in the league, and they’re built specifically to succeed on the bumpy pitch at Spruce Meadows.2It’s been re-laid, but as long as they have show-jumping on it, it’s going to be a mess, and they’ll have show-jumping as long as they play at Spruce Meadows. They may actually get a reprieve this year since the pandemic will likely scupper the show-jumping season more so than the soccer season.
Like any military historian, I respect Wheeldon Jr.’s approach and the tactics are meticulous, the execution flawless. The Canadian Premier League can sometimes feel like it’s designed to be as grueling as possible. The travel, the weather, the pitches, the physicality. In so many ways, Cavalry are built for that, but it’s also just defeated them each and every year.
I’m reminded of one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs, “MacDonnell on the Heights,” in which a general scales the heights only to fall just short again and again before the end.
Cavalry lost the 2019 final because they ran out of strength at the end of a long campaign. They lost in 2020 because they ran out of warm bodies after playing every three days. It is almost a tradition now; in one more year, it will be, and Cavalry have yet again assembled a team that is full of mettle and medals but perhaps a touch injury-prone.
This season is going to be unforgiving. It’s eight games in a month in Winnipeg, in the heat and bugs, every three days. That pace can only continue as the league tries to squeeze 20 more games in between August and the end of respectable soccer weather in October. Add the travel and the snow and the rest of it and you can only imagine the hell this is going to be.
Plus nobody gets every signing right, even Cavalry. Daan Klomp is a very promising prospect but he’s 22 and will be asked to lead a line through nearly every game. If he becomes the 2021 version of Robert Boskovic, or even if he needs a couple of months to find his feet, there is less depth to cover.
If, in that scenario, Trafford were to get hurt again, Cavalry are looking at a back-line of Yao-Norman-Field, which while not bad, is not championship calibre.
Then you have Novak, Di Chiara, Mason, Camargo, and Ledgerwood, all of whom are key players for this Cavalry side and all of whom are varying degree of injury-prone. In a normal season, with a game roughly every week and some breaks, I think they could just about do it. That core is the best in the league, a wrecking ball with skill, and everything you want in a cavalry charge up the standings.
In 2021? In the mud and blood? They are not all going to make it. It is the reality of Canadian soccer and it is the cruelty of time and history that we don’t remember those who falter.