In a brand new league, Calgary’s Cavalry FC will be, in effect, a promoted team.
Calgary Foothills rolled to the PDL championship in 2018, led by Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Nik Ledgerwood, and a host of other talent that immediately made it’s way to Cavalry’s roster.
Familiarity is both Cavalry’s biggest advantage in the coming Canadian Premier League season and perhaps its biggest question mark. Foothills were very good last year, and were built unlike most other PDL teams with lots of veterans and high-end talent auditioning for a chance in CanPL, but it was still a PDL team.
Here’s Nico Pasquotti’s title-winning goal in the PDL final:
Pasquotti picks it up out wide, almost in the corner. There is nobody near him. He cuts back across the left-back, who is yards away from him. The centre-back doesn’t close him down. He takes three touches and then absolutely smashes a belter across the keeper into the top corner.
This is a very PDL goal. I see a lot of similar goals in USPORTs. In CanPL, that time out wide won’t exist. Neither will time for three touches in the box. Later in that video, you’ll see Pasquotti cut inside and hold the ball, beating two or three defenders with his dribbling. In CanPL, that’s a turnover and a counter-attack the other way.
Amongst all the chatter of building teams from scratch in this league, Cavalry have kept pretty quiet. They’ve added players with solid experience on mid-tier USL and NASL teams to keep the team above water if and when things get rocky. This is smart shopping by Wheeldon Jr., very much the game plan of a manager seeking to make sure his team doesn’t get relegated right back down a league–the dreaded “yo-yo” team.
Cavalry won’t have to worry about that, as there’s no relegation (yet) in CanPL. They’ve bet hard on guys who know each other and are proven both in mentality and in Wheeldon’s system. That’s a huge advantage over other teams, even if Cavalry have been a touch more conservative in talent acquisition, at least outside of Calgary-South.
Nik Ledgerwood, various
There was no surprise at all when Cavalry announced the long-time Canadian international as its first-ever signing. He’d been with Foothills last year and FC Edmonton the year before that1This somehow doesn’t get mentioned much in all that nonsense about the Alberta rivalry. and is effectively a player-coach, especially because he’s struggled to stay healthy the past couple seasons.
His résumé is as good as anyone’s in CanPL: a career made as a true–and often valuable–journeyman in Germany’s second and third divisions. He’s never the flashiest player, sometimes bordering on outright frustrating in attack, but always redeemed by incredible work ethic in defense. His real asset is his positional flexibility–traditionally a right-back, Ledgerwood can play pretty much anywhere in midfield when necessary.
He’ll be Cavalry’s captain, and his mentorship and organizational leadership amongst the younger players will be critical. He is another guy who has seen it all in CONCACAF. At 34, they need him to stay healthier than he has been–he managed 20 odd games in 2017 and only seven last year, although PDL has a short season. He’s played mostly in defensive midfield for Cavalry in pre-season, but I’d expect him to play some right-back and maybe even centre-back at times.
Jordan Brown, forward
When I wrote above that Cavalry have been conservative in their out-of-town signings, I didn’t necessarily mean they hadn’t been ambitious. I mostly meant they’d signed Jordan Brown.
Brown’s got press because he played for England’s U17 team a couple times. You hear the lions roar and all that. He also came up through Arsenal’s academy and West Ham’s youth teams, both of which are good systems. He played alright for West Ham’s reserve teams as a teenager, but after that the story changes.
After a decent 2013, he stopped scoring. In 2015, get gets loaned to… Chelmsford City in the National League South–the sixth division, basically. He does not play. West Ham recall him, play him in the youth teams for a while longer, then release him2Yes, he made an appearance in the Europa League. But it was 10 minutes at the end of a tie for which they’d qualified only via Fair Play, in which the BBC questioned whether West Ham even wanted to be there–Slaven Bilic was suspended and handed the reins to his academy director. Interesting Canadian connection: this game was also Doneil Henry’s debut for West Ham.. He moves to Hannover II in the German fourth division, plays mostly off the bench, and puts up six goals in 26 games, followed by three in 14, and is released last summer. He signs in the Czech second division, plays 54 minutes across four games, and gets cut. Hear them roar.
I bring this up not to harp on Brown but to illustrate that CanPL is, as much as it’s anything yet, a league of second–and even third, fourth, and fifth–chances. This is not an uncommon career path for a prospect in world football, even one with U17 experience for a good national team. If Brown can resuscitate his career, he gives Cavalry another strong centre forward who can score goals playing off the shoulder. He’s been starting in preseason, and he’s still young enough that he could yet realize some of that potential. It’s fair to ask if he’s good use of an international slot, though.
Dominique Malonga, striker
Malonga is who should be getting the headlines Brown has had. He’s the only player in CanPL with Serie A experience! He grew up in Torino’s academy and also spent time in Monaco’s system in the mid-aughts. Despite scoring, he never quite caught on with Torino but made a home for himself with Cesena, getting them promoted to Serie A.
He’s been more prolific in second divisions than firsts–another of those veterans who excel at getting teams promoted–and his best spell came in the Scottish championship with Hibernian. They lost the promotion play-off, though, and since then he’s struggled a bit for playing time, and comes to CanPL via the second flights in Switzerland and Greece.
At 30, he may be slowing down a bit. Malonga is a physical, opportunistic target man. He’ll bang in weird goals, poacher’s goals, and finish off the odd throughball. Plus, he has quick feet and is apparently good at taking free kicks. He’s been taking Cavalry’s penalties so far in preseason.
It’s probably slightly unfair to compare him to Marcus Haber, because his numbers are way better, but he’s that kind of player. There’s always a bit of a question about when the downturn will come with ageing target men, but it’s likely Malonga can be quite productive for Cavalry, especially given the physicality of both his new team and his new league. He hasn’t played a whole lot in the past two and half years, though, so it may take some time for him to get up to speed, and he’s looked a tad slow in what I’ve seen of him in preseason.
Tactics and positional depth
Cavalry have a really good spine. Probably the best in CanPL. I didn’t mention him above, but Mason Trafford will be key for them–an experienced NASL player–although they need to keep him healthy, too, because the depth at centre-back behind him is entirely PDL guys, and even then there’s not a lot of them.
I quite rate Dom Zator, who’s a former Whitecaps player with experience in USPORTs for a typically good Calgary program, and he has several years with Foothills to boot. He actually captained their 2018 team, so I expect him to start alongside Trafford.
Fullback is even weaker. Nathan Mavila has been starting in preseason, and represents another English prospect with a really dubious résumé–he’s played mostly for Dulwich Hamlet FC in that same National League South after a similar stint in West Ham’s reserve set-up. On the right, another ex-Whitecaps Residency/Foothills alumnus in Chris Serban is really the only right-back on the roster, though once again I’d expect Ledgerwood to spend some time there.
The difficulty if Ledgerwood does play right-back is it makes him less able to organize across the field and, frankly, he’s never been the best going forward. It would also ask him to do a lot more running. Instead, I’d expect Cavalry to keep the back four fairly compact and let the creative players further up the field create space.
In midfield, Wheeldon Jr. will have a lot more choice. Mauro Eustaquio isn’t his brother (though he, too, has had a serious knee injury) but he does have decent experience in NASL and USL, which puts him on par with a lot of starters in this league. Julian Büscher is another guy I could have put in the key players list–a former first-round pick in MLS who played 27 times for (an admittedly very bad) D.C. United team. Plus, he has German U-18 experience. He’s an industrious playmaker who should fit the workmanlike squad Wheeldon has built.
Sergio Camargo, Carlos Patino, and Dean Northover are all solid Foothills players who shouldn’t be expected to do too much but who could very much push the starters. Camargo, in particular–he has ample USL experience with TFC II and while that team was very bad, he was often quietly effective linking defence to attack.
Eli Adekugbe was once, like his brother Sam, one of Canada’s better prospects. A bad knee injury set him back a year or two and he left the Whitecaps system, ending up at Foothills where he was a key player last year. Assuming he can regain his bravery, he could actually be one of the better defensive mids in the league, with lots of room still to develop.
I’m a little unsure what Cavalry will do out wide. From what I can judge from limited preseason highlights, they’ve played a lot through the middle, which makes sense given their talent. They did just sign Honduran winger José Escalante, though his time in USL was less-than-stellar. Ex-TFC II and West Ham (see a pattern here?) prospect Malyk Hamilton could figure on the left, but though much was expected of him for TFC II last year, he didn’t deliver and only played four times, often looking lost playing against men. He’s still young, though.
Oliver Minatel could play off the left side, too, or as a second striker with Malonga. He was a solid player for Marc Dos Santos’ Ottawa Fury side, and provides a bit of creativity and flair. His time in USL is a tad checkered, and he spent 2018 in Australia.
You can see the skill and experience Cavalry have through the team. There are a lot of ways Wheeldon could go with this group, which is a really good thing–the CanPL season is short and intense, teams will play each other a lot, and having a Plan B, C, or D is a very good idea.
What I think will tie any of those plans together is a workmanlike, dare I say Calgarian approach to the game. It starts with Ledgerwood, but every player on this team is capable of tracking back, hounding opponents for the ball, and outmuscling defenders to fashion a chance. Whatever its level overall, CanPL is likely to retain some of the physical flavour of North American soccer, and Cavalry are built like a North American team.
Projections: 3rd (Spring); 1st (Fall)
Cavalry are one of a handful of teams I can see hanging around. They’re slightly below Forge’s level but have enough talent to make a run if things go right, and they could be one of the more consistent teams assuming everyone stays healthy. In the spring, I think the adjustment from PDL sees them lose a couple winnable games, costing them points in a tight race for second. In the fall, assuming the side coalesces (and I think it will), they could easily win it.
A lot relies on Malonga up front and the backline is worryingly thin, but there’s enough flexibility in midfield to give Wheeldon Jr. options if he needs them.
I’m a bit unsure how they’ll line up. Foothills were mostly a 4-3-3 team; Cavalry have been mostly 4-4-2 in preseason, so that’s what I’m going with.
You see what I mean about that backline? There’s nobody else. Carducci is going to get a chance to prove he’s as good as a lot of people think.
They haven’t conceded much in preseason, though.
I’d tinker a bit to try and get Adekugbe on the field so Ledgerwood doesn’t have to cover too much field. I think there’s every chance we see this come opening day:
Eustaquio could start, too. The hole in attacking midfield is less of an issue given Büscher’s ability to link play and provide throughballs, as well as Minatel cutting inside. Malonga can hold the ball up a bit, too.
I’d remain very worried about that defense, but at least having two defensive midfielders in front of them gives the fullbacks some cover.
There’s ample experience and (mostly) ample depth. If some of that experience gets hurt–particularly Mason Trafford–Cavalry could end up relying on prospects to take the next step quickly. I think they’ll manage, and it helps that they have the easiest travel schedule in the league. But if anyone should have half an eye on what happened to Marcel de Jong and Pacific, it’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr.