Preview 2020: Charging Back Edition

Pictured: Soccer. In Canada.

My recurring theme through these previews has been that this competition is nice to have but not that important in the long-term.

That doesn’t apply to Cavalry. Whatever the 2020 season is, it will be an opportunity to get back at Forge, right from the opener. There was real bitterness at Cavalry when they lost the final. It was the first time you could see through the cracks in that group.

So this absolutely matters. 2020 is a chance to win the microwave plate, damn the circumstances.

They’re not exactly favourites, either, thanks in part to some departures and also to some of the new international signings not making it yet. That will suit them fine.

Cavalry’s bedrock isn’t top-end talent, but communication. No team talks like Cavalry talks because they know each other.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr., communicating.

Communication isn’t just something coaches yell about. It means players know where each teammate is going to be, when and how to make supporting runs, and when they’ve got cover to pressure for a second ball. The cliché in sports is that this is down to desire, and that sure helps, but it’s coached, and developed.

I’ve been watching a lot of 2019 CanPL games during lockdown and Cavalry’s coordination is more and more evident every time. I wrote about it last year after watching them live, which is where it’s easiest to notice, but pull up any of their games on One Soccer and watch the way the midfield engages.

This advantage will slowly diminish with time as other CanPL teams develop the same familiarity and leadership that Cavalry have. But it will still be an advantage in 2020. It shows up the most when they’re tired and playing badly, actually–lacking desire, you might say, which happens to everyone sometimes, especially over the course of congested games–but Cavalry will still get into those spots to snuff out a counter or score a critical goal because they can simplify their job down to the very basics. It becomes instinct, but it’s instinct borne out of understanding.

It is going to be tough to sustain form over the course of a month in PEI–as I mentioned in Forge’s preview, it’ll take eleven games in just over thirty days to win this thing, and Cavalry will be planning for all eleven games. What undermined them last year, however, was the cumulative effect of fatigue over a season. They were at their best in the ten game spring sprint.

Key Additions

Cavalry put a lot of effort into re-signing key players who might have tested deeper waters (namely USL) but for that same familiarity and cohesiveness. Players value what helps them win.

The only major arrivals, however, are Robert Boskovic on loan from TFC and Jair Cordova from the Peruvian wilderness–more on them below. They did make a couple inter-CanPL moves by signing Elliot Simmons, Bruno Zebie, and Jose Hernandez after their preview clubs cut ties.

Key Departures

Dominque Malonga was probably the best player in CanPL in year one but he’s made his career by being a mercenary-for-hire, as players at this level do. He’s in Bulgaria now, and had interest from Inner Mongolia as well. As one does. That leaves a big hole up front–again, more below.

Cavalry also sold Joel Waterman to Montreal Impact, which represents a very nice return on investment for a USPORTs pick–other teams should take note.

Unfortunately, injury has ended Chris Serban’s career and may be close to ending Mauro Eustaquio’s as well. Dean Northover probably benefited the most from the delayed season as he signed last week after rehabbing his injury and training/trialing with Cavalry as a free agent.

Julian Buescher is also gone, and Jose Escalante re-signed with the team but couldn’t make it back into the country–whether that counts as a departure or not is up to you. Either way, they round out a lengthy list.

Key Players

Robert Boskovic (centre-back)

Joel Waterman really was worth $100K. He was great for Cavalry last year. In Boskovic, they might even have an upgrade. He was one of the most MLS-ready players on TFC II last year, and given TFC’s centre-back problems, I imagine he’s got a lot of motivation to show well. Coming to Calgary will really help him adjust to playing for a top team with more pressure and expectations.

He can handle it, too. Boskovic is big, mobile, and reasonably good with his feet. He may or may not start depending on where Jay Wheeldon is at–but Tommy’s brother isn’t young and, in a tournament setting, you need three good centre-backs.

Jair Cordova (forward)

Richard Luca and his hype are no longer coming1He came through La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. He’d also been on the bench in Georgia. And somehow signed by Tigres. Then out of contract. I’m very glad I don’t have to try and write anything coherent about him here, actually, because I’d have no idea where to start.. Cordova is the only other replacement for Dom Malonga, a 21st Club signing from Alianza in Peru’s Liga I.

He hasn’t actually played for Alianza, however. At 23, he has a similar profile to Jordan Brown, with whom he’ll be competing and/or alternating with between left-wing and striker. Brown had one CanPL goal last year, and Cordova hasn’t scored much anywhere on a series of loan adventures since 2015. To an extent, I trust the Wheeldon/Nash talent ID combo, but they really need one of Cordova or Brown to score something approaching Malonga’s eleven goals. Splitting it between them would probably be fine, too.

Jose Hernandez (striker)

I wrote a lot of this before Cavalry signed Marcus Haber. I could rewrite this, but I want to give some more attention to Hernandez because I’m curious to see if he gets time and I’ve really liked what I’ve seen of him in the league so far.

He was with Pacific last year, and only had one goal, but also only played spot minutes. He’s still 20, put up all kinds of numbers in the youth system in Vancouver, and has that instinct and understanding of movement that Cavalry are all about. That they signed him after Pacific cut him suggests they think he has more to show.

Nor am I necessarily negative about Haber. Used as what he is, he can be an effective player. He was never going to put up golden boot numbers in Pacific–that talk was silly–but he did score four times between various injuries. He should and will battle for minutes–but I hope they give some to Hernandez, too, as he’s a lot younger.

And it would free Haber up for more punditry work.

Win-win.

Tactics and Positional Depth

I’ll be interested to see how Jordan Brown fares without Malonga looming over him. He’s the de facto guy now. That one goal was actually Cavalry’s first, and not exactly a gorgeous finish, but he also had that wicked strike against Vancouver in the cup, so there is skill.

He was used a lot as a sub or as a wide forward to run at tired defenders last year. It’s possible he could play up to with Cordova on the left in place of Escalante. Wheeldon Jr. mostly used either a 4-3-3 or a variant with a three-man backline, but the core tactic was lots of channel running around the main striker.

Cavalry don’t really have the offensive pieces for much else, though one wonders if getting off the pitch at Spruce Meadows and onto turf at UPEI might actually help them play a bit in possession. Guys like Sergio Camargo and Elliot Simmons have the tools to do hold a bit more of the ball.

Losing Julian Buescher hurts, not just in possession but in the German’s ability to press and control space. He struggled to break defenses down with the ball in 2019, but I’m not sure who else on the roster is going to make that kind of pass.

Oliver Minatel should get more time to try, though, and they’ve signed Bruno Zebie, so there are pieces if they wanted to try and play through teams a bit more.

Looking at that, though, Cavalry are still at their best when Pasquotti and Mavila are free to wreak havoc out wide. Watch for how fit and capable Dean Northover is after injury, since before he went down he was a big part of mopping up potential counters and Cavalry were never quite the same without him.

Strengths

As mentioned, these guys know each other and, tactics aside, that sometimes means a group can just grit out a few points they probably don’t deserve on the balance of play. Cavalry did that a few times last year and will definitely have to do it in this tournament because there just isn’t as much scoring danger.

However, they still have the league’s best goalkeeper in Marco Carducci and with a back-line featuring some combo of Northover, Dom Zator, Boskovic, Nathan Mavila, and Jay Wheeldon. Going behind against Cavalry is going to be lethal. Score first or else.

Weaknesses

The pressing is key to Cavalry’s identity, and that’s fine, but it sometimes masks–as is often the case with pressing teams–that they can lack ideas about how to actually break teams down.

That became a problem last year, most noticeably in the final but Forge had done it to them twice before, as had Edmonton, and Wanderers had tried and succeeded for 85 minutes.

If the strikers do not deliver what Malonga could, and Sergio Camargo gets hurt again or can’t carry them in possession, get ready for a lot of Nico Pasquotti long throws, a lot of running down cul-de-sacs, and frothing analysis from One Soccer about why Cavalry aren’t winning.

That said, I’m not sure this league is at a stage of growth, certainly after the Covid layoff, where teams can consistently contain that physicality and instinct. It will likely happen someday. A more interesting question might be how that lay-off affects Cavalry physically.

Wildcard

At some point in Charlottetown, Cavalry are going to have to address the fact that Nik Ledgerwood is 35 and just cannot cover the field like he used to. It cost them dearly in the final last year when Borges just tormented him. I would be shocked if Forge did not exploit that again in the opener, assuming Ledgerwood plays.

He might not. He maybe shouldn’t. There are lots of other things he can do, and he’s already a player-coach. Maybe having him come off the bench wouldn’t be the worst idea? If they do, will Cavalry’s press be as coordinated? Because it wasn’t last year when either Eustaquio (who’s gone) or Eli Adekugbe played. Cavalry’s first and only loss of the spring season came against Pacific when they rested Ledgerwood. He’s the general on the field.

Adekugbe has never really lived up to his potential after a bad knee injury. He’s three years into his Foothills-based reclamation project and couldn’t crack the starting line-up much at all last year. He also just turned 24. This season matters for him, too.

Prediction

I had them second in April, more on attrition than actual improvement. Over a longer season I’d be even more tempted to lower that guess, but tournaments are what the Cavalry is made for. Their talent and cohesion, not to mention Wheeldon Jr.’s coaching, gives them a substantial edge. This is still a very good team but other teams know each other that bit more now.

They should be in the second round easily. After that, it may come down to form, luck, and game-breakers, as tournament play often does. Betting against Cavalry in those games is silly.

About Dylan Matthias 161 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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