Cavalry FC’s inaugural Canadian Premier League campaign ended just two weeks ago, but it’s already been a newsworthy offseason at Spruce Meadows.
Less than a week after losing the CPL championship to Forge FC on Nov. 2, Cavalry defender Dominick Zator earned his first call up to the Canadian men’s national team, for the squad’s crucial Nov. 15 match against the United States. Zator jetted off to Florida last weekend, and has been with the national team setup all week.
He is the second Cavalry player – and third CPL player – to earn the nod from John Herdman, after goalkeeper Marco Carducci was selected this summer for Canada’s two games against Cuba.
Also occurring shortly after the final, the CPL unveiled its finalists for the league’s five individual awards. Three members of Cavalry are on the shortlists – Carducci for the league’s Golden Gloves award, Dominique Malonga for the league’s MVP award, and head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. for the league’s top manager recognition. The winners will be announced Nov. 26.
Yet more new came out of Spruce Meadows on Nov. 13, when the club revealed five Cavalry players who will remain on the roster for next season. Carducci, Sergio Camargo, Mason Trafford, Nik Ledgerwood, and Aribim Pepple are all inked for the 2020 season.
On top of all those headlines, there was the USPORTS draft on Nov. 11. Cavalry selected two players, choosing Carleton Ravens striker Gabriel Bitar again and Mount Royal University Cougars winger/forward Moe El Gandour.
Wheeldon Jr. said going with Bitar was an example of Cavalry continuing an “investment in the player’s development.” The 21-year-old forward was the first overall draft pick last year, but struggled to earn significant playing time. He ultimately featured in three games for Cavalry in 2019 – two in the early rounds of the Canadian Championship, and one in the final match of the CPL’s spring season.
“We just felt with [Bitar], that he’s still learning the game,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “For this program and draft to work, we can’t just be a one-and-done. Let’s see how our farm system works.
“If he delights in training camp, he’ll sign a development contract. If not, maybe we’ll follow what we did with Tofa [Fakunle] and Aribim [Pepple], where he plays for Foothills FC in the USL2, so he’s getting games and goals. As the season goes on, we can bring him up from that program knowing he’s had some games, versus being just a training player.”
Wheeldon Jr. acknowledged that it was tough for Bitar to crack Cavalry’s starting 11 last season. One factor that hurt the forward’s chances was how late he joined up with the rest of the team. Because of his university exams, Bitar didn’t come to Calgary until mid/late April.
“He did great considering, but it’s significant when you miss five weeks of training camp, and you’re coming straight from university to compete with senior pros,” Wheeldon Jr. said “They had a jump on him. He did great to adapt and he showed some nice moments in the games he played in.”
Wheeldon Jr. likened Bitar’s playing style to Camargo.
“He has a great turn of pace with a low centre of gravity, and has an ability to score some great goals,” he said. “He’s also a feisty competitor, and those are the traits we like in our team. It will be nice to be able to bring him back and see how he’s developed in the months since he left us.”
After featuring in a trio of games during the spring season, Bitar went back to Ottawa in August for his third season with the Ravens – one of the top soccer programs in Ontario University Athletics (OUA).
“We’ve watched him and kept tabs, so we’re revisiting and want to give the lad a bit more time to flourish,” Wheeldon Jr. said.
Flourish is certainly what Bitar did for Carleton throughout the 2019 university season. The third-year forward recorded six goals and two assists in 13 games, helping the Ravens to their third consecutive first-place finish in the OUA East Conference with a 13-1 record, before going on to secure the OUA championship.
After winning the conference title for the first time since 2005, Carleton capped off the year with a fourth-place finish at nationals.
Cavalry’s second draft-pick on Nov. 11 showed the club’s willingness to continue giving opportunities to local talent. El Gandour, a sophomore with Mount Royal University, scored nine goals and chipped in with four assists in 15 games for the Cougars in 2019, operating as a winger, striker or attacking midfielder.
His goals contributed to what was the Cougars’ best season in history since joining USPORTS in 2012. Mount Royal topped the Canada West Prairie Division with a 9-4-1 record, before bringing home the bronze medal from the conference playoffs.
El Gandour, a 19-year-old Calgary local, said he was shocked but excited to be selected in the draft.
“I have an opportunity to grow as a player and play professionally in my home city,” he said. “That’s rare for many people.”
El Gandour won’t be a stranger to Cavalry’s players and coaches – he took part in some of the team’s preseason training last winter, and spent half of the summer playing for the club’s U20 team in the Alberta Major Soccer League, scoring two goals in eight games before getting injured. He also trained with the Foothills FC USL2 team for a few weeks.
Wheeldon Jr. said El Gandour’s attribute that caught his eye this summer was the young forward’s “electric pace.”
“What we’ve seen in the CPL, it’s a very good league, and very competitive,” he said. “You need something game-changing, whether it’s an impact player coming off the bench when legs are getting tired, or a young player who can start and stretch opponents. We’ve seen that Moe has those tools.”
With several months to go before preseason kicks off for the 2020 preseason, El Gandour said he’s already arranged to do some training with a few of Cavalry’s players in the interim, including Elijah Adekugbe and Victor Loturi.
“I think training camp will be exciting,” he said. “Last year was a little bit difficult because I didn’t know many of the players. But after meeting them last year, I think going into it this year, most of them will know me and I’ll be a bit more comfortable and more myself.
“At the same time, obviously, it’s a higher level, so it’ll be more challenging. I’m excited, because I’ve always wanted to take that step towards the next level, and Tommy is giving me that opportunity.”
Though his preferred position is on the wing, El Gandour said he is versatile in that he can play in any attacking role.
“I feel that, especially on the wing, I can score goals, and give them that depth on the roster,” he said. “I think my strongest attribute is going forward and scoring goals.”