Cavalry FC earned their first ever home playoff victory on Saturday, overcoming Pacific FC 2-1 at Spruce Meadows to propel the Calgary club into next Saturday’s Canadian Premier League championship final against Forge FC.
Head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. described Saturday’s semi-final win as “burying some ghosts of the past,” perhaps referring to Cavalry’s semi-final defeat to Pacific in 2021, or the club’s overall poor record in the CPL playoffs dating back to 2019.
Or maybe Cavalry’s gaffer just had Halloween on the mind.
“We keep writing new history,” said Wheeldon Jr. after the match. “That’s what we’ve done tonight. We’ve buried a ghost of the past. [The final] is around Halloween time, so there’s another ghost to be buried, but what better way to do it then to go to Tim Horton’s Field? They’ve won three out of four playoff shields… and why not go win it in their house?
“We believe we can.”
Though a team effort, Saturday’s headline-makers were the usual suspects for Cavalry, including Daan Klomp and Ali Musse, who scored the team’s goals, and goalkeeper Marco Carducci, who made a crucial stoppage-time save to maintain the Cavs’ one-goal advantage.
Cavalry’s proclivity for scoring off set pieces also played a part, as both of their goals came from dead ball situations.
“[Ali] Musse’s delivery has been brilliant this year,” Wheeldon Jr. said.
“We knew if we kept putting them in there and we had a high volume, something was going to click.”
Klomp got things going for the hosts in the 27th minute, connecting with a well-placed free kick from Musse out on the right wing. Running toward the near post, the Dutch defender rose to get his head on Musse’s cross, knocking the ball past Emil Gazdov and rippling Pacific’s net.
The goal – Klomp’s fifth of 2023 – was well deserved for the hosts, who surpassed Pacific in virtually every key metric throughout the first half. Throughout the first 45 minutes, Cavalry outshot the visitors 12-3, held 59 per cent of possession, won 60 percent of duels, and generated 29 final-third entries, compared to 17 by Pacific.
The second half was a different story, though Cavalry started off the better side and they were able to double their lead in the 62nd minute – once again thanks to their efficiency on set pieces.
On a corner kick, Fraser Aird played the ball short along the goal line to Sergio Camargo. He laid it off first-time for Musse, who evaded Pacific’s defenders with a surprise backwards run. His one-timed shot took a deflection before settling in Gazdov’s goal.
“I was kind of surprised they left me open,” Musse said. “For the set-pieces, I have to give a shout-out to Leon [Hapgood]. Our coaching staff has been adamant about it, and we’ve been doing a lot of video on it, and there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes [on rehearsing set plays].”
After Musse’s strike, it felt like Cavalry would go for the jugular and put another goal or two past the beleaguered Pacific defenders, as they’d done two weeks before in the final match of the regular season, when Cavalry beat the Tridents 3-0.
But Kekuta Manneh had other ideas, producing a spectacular individual effort in the 66th minute to breathe life into Pacific’s offence. The former MLS stalwart collected a pass inside Cavalry’s half, dribbled his way toward the 18-yard box while evading two defenders, before smashing a shot into the top corner, clipping the post on the way in.
“We see Kekuta’s experience come towards the end of the season,” said Merriman. “He’s had some big injuries and he’s not been able to play consistent football for the last couple of years. He came into our group, brought his experience, got himself fit, and found his form at the right time of the season.
“You see his quality towards the end here in the last few matches. Assists, goals, changing games, making an impact – that’s the type of player he is. We’re lucky to have him at the organization and in our team.”
Suddenly, Pacific came alive and the Tridents were playing with a true sense of belief. For the remainder of the match – including six tense minutes of stoppage time – the visitors poured men forward and peppered Marco Carducci’s goal area with crosses and shots.
Carducci had to come to Cavalry’s rescue midway through stoppage time, blocking a close-range shot from Adonijah Reid with his legs.
“I was a lot calmer than I thought, until that last Marco Carducci save, and then I was like, ‘Oh goodness’,” Wheeldon Jr. said of the nervy finish.
“But when he made that save, I thought that was it – the football gods were on our side this time.”
Just a minute after Carducci’s crucial save, the whistle blew for full-time, sending Cavalry on to next week’s championship tilt with Forge.
The Oct. 28 match-up will provide Cavalry yet another opportunity to continue burying ghosts.
“We haven’t been to a final since 2019, but we’re enjoying this writing new history,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “No team has ever won the double – so why not us?”