Tommy Wheeldon Jr. deserves a lot of credit, but Cavalry aren’t over the line yet

On my liveblog Saturday night, I wrote that Cavalry play horrific soccer. Wait, Cavs fans, don’t run! Promise I meant it as a compliment.

Mostly.

The other thing I wrote on the liveblog–and it was cheerier because it was prior to OneSoccer deciding to cut away for 25 minutes of the first half–was that Cavalry reminded me of a Jesse Marsch team.

If you follow North American coaching, you know about Jesse Marsch. Five years ago, he was run out of Montreal for… who knows? He goes on to implement a distinct system at New York Red Bulls and eventually becomes one of just a handful of North American coaches to get a chance in Europe. He’s now managing RB Leipzig, which is no small feat.

His system was far from smooth to watch. It was all about pressure–high, relentless, often out of a back three. It would be naive to think any North American coach with ambition–and Tommy Wheeldon Jr. is that–wouldn’t be aware of what Marsch did, especially since he prototyped part of it in Canada with the Impact.

Which isn’t to say Cavalry FC play exactly like New York Red Bulls. They don’t. The press isn’t quite as relentless, quite as high, and they cross the ball a lot more instead of finding quick through-balls and third-line passes. They’re still finding their feet.

It makes sense, though, given what Cavalry are and what the Canadian Premier League is at this point. In a new league, in a 10-game spring season, it’s critical to get things right quick. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has done just that.

It’s not complicated, and that’s is what I find most impressive about it. When I said it was horrible to watch, I also said it was effective, and it is. While it’s true Cavalry have a lot of holdover players from Foothills, they’ve also had to integrate key pieces like Jordan Brown, Dominique Malonga, and Nathan Mavila. That all three of those guys have succeeded–none were coming in as anything like sure things–is a testament to how well Wheeldon Jr. has integrated them.

Some of that is because he’s a good teacher. That was known already, from his work with Foothills. The system, though, is also part of it, in that it’s simple enough to say to a new guy, “this is what we need you to do in this situation, go do it.”

You don’t win five games–seven in all competitions–trying to force an inherently impromptu 23-man inaugural roster into something it just isn’t going to be. Contrast, say, Forge, who also have a lot of talent on paper but have been trying to play like Manchester City and it’s not working all that well. Simplify first.

Cavalry don’t have a clear-cut #10, for instance, a central-ish playmaker capable of really dictating play. Sergio Camargo’s slowly become more of a shuttling #8, and Julian Buescher’s really always been that, though he’s played a kind of roaming role for Wheeldon Jr. at times. They don’t break teams down well.

(Data from Opta via CanPL.ca)

That’s Cavalry’s passing map from their fairly-dominant 2 – 0 win against Halifax. It’s actually better in central attacking zones than it had been earlier in the year, but there’s still a hole when they get near the box.

They make up for it by being really, really good at winning second balls, letting their pressure create plays better than any of their playmakers are currently managing. They’ve still scored almost all of their goals off set-pieces, often in the second or third phase when they mop up an initial clearance. It’s patience, it’s work ethic, and it’s confidence in knowing that they have strikers who can put the ball in the net when given half an inch of space.

The result is a perfect record, even if it’s occasionally been a tad ugly. Cavalry are still relying a bit too much on luck, but it is at least engineered luck, combined with discipline and skill.

The bigger question now, the answer to which will determine who wins the spring season, is whether Cavalry can do it on the road. Somewhat lost in a lot of the Cavanalysis this week si that they’ve played four of their five league games at home, with only one more (against Forge) still to come.

CanPL is a “win your home games” kind of league, and Cavalry have thus far managed that, plus a nice win against Forge on the road. The reason most people assume it’ll take 20 or so points to win the spring season is because most teams should get most of 15 points at home. A title-contending team should probably nick a few points on the road, too.

Among those teams tailing Cavalry, FC Edmonton also have a road win–but look utterly incapable of winning at home right now. Forge now has a couple road wins, but has also been very generous with points at Tim Hortons Field. Valour managed a creditable draw on the road, but faltered at home. York 9 are in a similar situation. Too many teams haven’t met that basic tenet of short-season play.

Wanderers, on the other hand, have barely played any home games yet and look good value at home, but also haven’t managed to get a point on the road yet, which limits their points ceiling.

This all lines up well for Cavalry, of course, who are already on 15 points while the other CanPL teams take points off each other. They probably should win the spring title at this point, simply because of that efficiency. And I suspect that was part of Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s design, right down to getting players who are already familiar with each other. Win the early games, and you can coast, even into the fall season, sure of a spot in the final.

I don’t think that’ll be the mindset. Indeed, Wheeldon Jr. is already talking about how his team can be better, and good for him. I’d even agree, given the playmaking issues I mentioned above.

The longer-term risk, though, isn’t so much complacency as wearing down. If we use the Jesse Marsch comparison again, it’s worth noting that his teams had a tendency to flop in big, late-season games because that kind of press requires energy that’s tough on any roster, let alone a 23-man squad traveling back and forth across the country.

We’ve seen what travel can do to teams, but Cavalry haven’t really faced that yet outside of the one trip to Ontario.

They won’t need more than a couple draws and maybe a win in the remaining home game against Forge. Realistically, I’m not sure I see any of the other four or so teams catching them, but Wanderers do have a lot of home games and Forge could maybe nick a win at Spruce Meadows. Maybe.

Longer-term, the roster is short and the travel only adds up. That press will be harder to execute in August than it is n

I tend to think Wheeldon Jr. will find a way to innovate around that problem, because the last thing he’ll want is a tired, found-out group struggling through the fall season into a championship game.

He has the time to do that, though, because he’s not tried to force his group into anything they’re not. They’re not trying to string endless passes together in the name of possession, and they’re not even trying to play the 4-3-3 he liked so much at Foothills, because Cavalry lack the out-and-out wingers for it, especially when José Escalante is hurt.

Instead it’s pragmatic football, but it’s effective, and built around what this league is. It deserves to win, at least for now, because of that.

About Dylan Matthias 91 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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