Cavalry were built to be a prime example of the Canadian Premier League, day one. And they were.
In a new league, that’s smart. Nobody, not even Tommy Wheeldon Jr., knew what this league was going to look like. Cavalry set up to prey on those mistakes and made it all the way to the last game of the season doing it. Wheeldon Jr. built a team that didn’t always play attractive soccer (it did sometimes, though!) but always played effective soccer.
Fans will blame the league’s format–not without some reason–for costing them the title.
For me, they won the yet-to-be christened Supporter’s Shovel as regular-season champions.
What it meant
They might need the shovel. I mean, they play at a stable. In the actual foothills. In November. You can never have enough shovels.
High ticket prices and some ill-timed (if not exactly surprising) summer construction meant a lot of empty seats early on. This team needed to be good. It was, and probably needs to continue to be.
It helps that winning breeds support. Cavalry fans were passionate beyond their number, and that’s essential for bringing out curious newcomers in hockey-mad Calgary. Plus, they had my favourite banner in the entire league.
More important, though: Cavalry have proven there can be a link between PDL and professional football–something the PDL had never quite achieved even in the US1It’s USL League Two now and it’s still not obvious they’ve bridged that divide.. And Tommy Wheeldon Jr. took exactly the opportunity Canadian coaches have always needed and ran with it. Enjoy him while he’s here.
My projection: Spring 3rd / Fall 1st
I called Cavalry a “promoted team” back in the spring. But it was a little inaccurate, looking back on it, just because the 2018 Calgary Foothills weren’t built like a PDL side. They were built for CanPL.
It showed a commendable level of ambition to go and do that, not to mention foresight and generosity on the part of Foothills to get a pro team off the ground. PDL is an amateur league. Getting professionals like Nik Ledgerwood and Sergio Camargo to commit required a level of intent that will pay off for Foothills in playing opportunities going forward.
The payoff for the CanPL side was most evident in their communication–something nobody could really see until a ball was kicked. When I watched this team in-person for the first time, I wasn’t actually struck by the pressing or the physicality so much as the organization of it all.
Pressing constantly is hard. Both on the legs and the mind, because the slightest mis-step means you’ve opened up valuable space behind the line. Through all of Cavalry’s success, Jonathan Wheeldon and Dom Zator were there, barking through it all so guys ahead of them nailed every assignment.
That’s how they survived an early injury to Mason Trafford, won the spring handily, and went on to win the fall, too.
Key game: Nov. 2nd v. Forge, 0 – 1
Then it all fell apart.
There’s no other game I could pick, sorry. No other loss means more for the league. Bear with me, here.
Cavalry were consistent all year. Until the final, when Forge played the press perfectly by letting Cavalry have the ball, then playing around the exposed parts in midfield. It was particularly obvious in the second leg, where the not-suspended-after-all Tristan Borges tormented Nik Ledgerwood by running either side of him. Forge stayed narrow, limiting Cavalry’s ability to drive in from wide. Cavalry struggled with the ball, part of an ongoing difficulty breaking teams down, particularly when Sergio Camargo was out or off form.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. only got out-coached in one game all year. It was the one he needed to win the most.
Style of play
Everything Cavalry did was about their style–maybe even more than Forge and their “principles”.
Commentator Steven Sandor termed it the “ninety minutes of hell”. It was. The pressure was relentless, and it preyed on the lack of familiarity and, later on in the season, lack of fitness in other CanPL teams.
It was the perfect Year One strategy.
But CanPL grew a huge amount between April 27th and Nov. 2nd. Cavalry went 2 – 1 against Forge in the first two months, winning in both the league and in the cup.
They lost 1 – 0, at home, on June 22nd on a goal that came because Tristan Borges got away from Nik Ledgerwood. Guess I could have picked that as my key game, too.
The thing about the “ninety minutes of hell” is that, once teams start to figure out not just that Cavalry press, but how they press–who goes when, where the trap is hidden–it can be, slowly, undone by precise passing and movement of the sort Forge displayed. After that June 22nd game, Cavalry went 1 – 4 against Forge for the rest of the year.
I think, deep down, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. might be happy that the league is growing beyond just pure athleticism, and I wonder if he might make a few tweaks to get better at using the ball to break teams down next season. I don’t think he necessarily needs to change that much, though–Steve Nicol built an MLS dynasty playing this way with New England all the way through the late 2000s.
Buried in the growth of the league is one of its larger and more interesting challenges: the salary cap.
In a capped league, teams that do well tend not to last. It’s particularly tough on Cavalry given they didn’t quite get over the bigger of the two (three?) finish lines. Ten years from now, do we remember how good Cavalry were? Or that Forge won?
There’s unfinished business.
With most players in the league on one-year contracts and several break-out stars, the biggest challenge for Tommy Wheeldon Jr. isn’t figuring out how to get good–he’s figured that already–it’s figuring out how to keep guys like Sergio Camargo and Dom Zator, as well as veteran internationals like Oliver Minatel and Julian Buescher.
Working in his favour is familiarity again. I’ve never heard a player question Tommy Wheeldon Jr., and you can feel his energy the second he walks into a room. He’d be a great coach to play for, and the core of this team loves playing for him and has for years.
There are also young players coming up through Foothills–the club has done well to treasure that PDL connection so it can continue to bear fruit. They signed both CanU17 Aribim Pepple and Tofa Fakunle from Foothills mid-season.
I figure they’ll do just fine even if a couple bigger names do try for MLS or pastures new. There might be a slight secondary concern that some of the younger players–Victor Loturi, Gabriel Bitar–didn’t really break through, and Wheeldon Jr. talked at the draft about finding a way to get them more time in the Alberta Major Soccer League, where Cavalry have a team.
This is a club that does things smart.
They’ve already re-signed Marco Carducci, so that’s a coup. He’s a fringe Canadian international and the best ‘keeper in CanPL–he’d have had interest from MLS were the Canadian clubs, particularly Vancouver, not already reasonably deep in domestic goalkeepers.
To an extent, too, guys like Jose Escalante, Julian Buescher, and Oliver Minatel have had their shot at higher levels, which makes them really smart CanPL signings for the long-term.
(It’s worth noting that when I spoke with Stephen Hart a couple weeks ago, he mentioned USL as a primary challenger for talent–USL teams can pay quite a bit more than CanPL teams right now.)
Mauro Eustaquio did his knee again towards the end of the season and Elijah Adekugbe was just okay this year–defensive midfield is a bit of a question, as we saw in the final. Nik Ledgerwood re-signing doesn’t really answer that, but it’s nice to see him re-sign since it’ll give him another shot at going out with a trophy–he’s never won one.