When the Canadian Premier League drew up their plans for The Island Games they’d have hoped beyond hope that things would still be interesting and up for grabs heading into the last weekend of phase one matches.
After 2019’s two-horse race that saw the league feel like a foregone conclusion up to the championship game, with four teams advancing the probability of at least some interest remaining come this weekend was high. For seven of the eight teams to still have a shot of advancing into the next stage of the tournament probably exceeds even their wildest expectations.
Yet here we are. Four games left, three points separating second to seventh, and only FC Edmonton officially eliminated from contention. The permutations entering into these matches are many and mouthwatering.
Depending on how results go, we could be looking at a five-way tie on 11 points come Sunday afternoon then good luck figuring that out. Head to head outcomes is the first tiebreak, but multiple teams level should see that soon out the window, then we come to goal difference, goals for, and total number of wins. That should do it before U21 minutes and a coin toss have to come into it.
It’s likely not going to come to that. Table topping Forge have to be favourites to see off Valour on Saturday morning, clinching their spot. Pacific FC face last placed, and winless, FC Edmonton on Sunday afternoon knowing that a win will take them through.
But the other two matches are where it really gets interesting.
The earlier game on Sunday sees fourth placed HFX Wanderers take on fifth placed Atletico Ottawa. It really is winner takes all. Any loser in this one and they’re done. Halifax hold a one point advantage in the standings knowing that a win and they’re in. A win might not even be enough for Ottawa with their goal difference. A draw and neither will likely make it.
Delicately poised to say the least.
But it’s Saturday afternoon’s match that really captures the imagination and it’s a game that could see a shocking departure from the tournament of one of the heavier hitters.
Second placed Cavalry FC and third placed York9 will face off in another winner takes all match. Victory for either and they move into the next phase of the tournament. A draw should be enough for Cavalry, but perhaps not York. Even a loss could see their 10 point tally be enough to take them through, but it would be by a squeak.
Realistically, we could see one of the pre-tournament favourites packing their bags and heading home from Prince Edward Island with a points total that really you’d have expected to have been enough. And it’s a shock result that both head coaches are desperately keen to avoid.
“It’s in our destiny, which is good, because we’re talking about we’ve put ourselves in a position to be the author of our own narrative,” Cavalry’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr told us on a pre-match conference call on Friday morning. “We talked prior to this that four wins would see you through in a best of seven series, which is exactly what it is. How we get there will be irrelevant once we get there.
“We have that opportunity Saturday and all we’re thinking about now is that if this was a game and York9 were coming to Spruce Meadows, we’d be looking at them and saying right, this is how we beat them. We’re no different in the way we’re approaching this game. We look at them, this is their strengths, let’s nullify it, this is their weaknesses, let’s expose them. That’s the winning gameplan in our head.”
York head coach Jimmy Brennan is targeting taking all three points. Going out and trying to play for a draw doesn’t even enter the conversation for him, in what he is expecting to be a competitive and physical match.
“Look, it’s an important game,” Brennan told reporters on his pre-match conference call. “But for me, it’s just keeping the players relaxed and just letting them get out their and do their job without putting too much stress on them. They know what they’ve got to do, they know the task in hand.”
The last league meeting between the two teams produced five yellow cards and two reds. Emotions ran high and will need to be kept somewhat in check, but cool heads may not be all of what it takes to win this one.
“It’s going to be an emotional weekend,” Wheeldon added. “To a point, you’ve got to have control of emotion, but I like emotion. You’ve seen my teams play before. We’re good when we play with a bit of an edge and I actually quite like it.”
The mental side is going to be huge for both teams, especially after being cooped up in a bubble for weeks. It’s finding that balance between playing with a controlled aggression and letting things boil over. Both teams have enough experience in their ranks that their coaches hope the latter won’t happen. But you feel that the match might also boil down to which team is boldest to make the first move.
“It is a tough one,” Brennan agreed. “We both know what we need. It’s about who’s going to be brave? Who’s going to be brave enough to go out there and put their stamp on the game? And that’s the way we’re going to be looking at it. Not so much waiting to see what they’re going to do but more or less what we want to do and how we want to dictate the game.
“It’s a chess match, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re physically right, we’re tactically right, and mentally right. The game’s going to dictate what our next moves are going to be. Whether we change players, formations, tactics, the game dictates. You have an idea on now you want to enter the match and then as the game moves, you adjust to suit your needs.”
Wheeldon agrees, albeit using a different game as an analogy, but he’s fully aware what an unbeaten York9 side brings to the table this tournament.
“If they like drawing, I’m quite happy for them to give us a draw too if that’s how they want to do it,” quipped Wheeldon when asked about York’s unbeaten tournament so far. “They’re good, they want to play. They like to pass it around.. We’ve just got to be patient in our defending.
“They haven’t scored yet really well from open play, pulling you apart. They’ve scored very well from set plays, whether it be corners or free kicks. It’s just playing a smart tactical game really… It’ll be interesting to see at what stage do you take the risks and who does it first. I think it’ll be a great poker match.”
The pressure’s certainly on for both teams, and that’s a situation Wheeldon feels is ready-made for his squad to thrive on.
“We actually like it,” Wheeldon said. “We talked last year about defying the odds. About adapting and overcoming. I think this is just another chapter in the book where we can reference back and say do you remember when. Here’s where we were at and we took care of things.
“I like it. As a manager I’ve liked being involved in these high pressure situations. And the players? They’re relishing it. You can see they’re just chomping at the bit to get involved on Saturday, because we get to take care of our own business.”