(Photo Credit: Scott Strasser/AFTN)
Four games into the 2023 season, Cavalry FC’s performances to date have been a double-edged sword.
On one side of the blade, an obvious positive is that the Calgarians are still unbeaten over 90 minutes. Even on the road against two of the CPL’s perennially strong clubs, Cavalry showed they will be tough to beat this season.
On the other side, Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s side is still seeking their first win of the Canadian Premier League campaign. Then there’s the fact Cavalry’s Canadian Championship run is already over at the first hurdle, courtesy of their elimination via penalty kicks to Pacific FC.
In the league, Cavalry’s three points from three fixtures puts the team in sixth spot at the moment, tied for points with York United but below the Ontarians on goal difference. Cavalry is one of just three CPL clubs still seeking their first win of the league campaign, alongside HFX Wanderers and Atlético Ottawa.
Sixth place is a position that, 25 games from now, would land Cavalry outside of the CPL playoffs. That’s an unenviable situation the club has never been in throughout the league’s four-year run, and I’m sure they’ll be desperate to climb the table and resume their status as a CPL heavyweight as soon as possible.
Here’s a list of four takeaways I’ve noticed from Cavalry’s four matches to date:
1. The chemistry is not there – yet
Much like the 2021 roster, Cavalry is going through a significant rebuild at the moment. Eleven players from last year’s squad are no longer with the club, whether it’s due to their contract expiring, their loan period ending (Karifa Yao and Jean-Aniel Assi), or retirement (Mason Trafford).
These 11 players have been replaced by 10 newcomers, many of whom will be playing their first CPL season this year. While new faces like Shamit Shome, Jesse Daley, Bradley Kamdem, and Callum Montgomery bring impressive pedigree and resumes, it’s obviously going to take time for them to get used to the CPL and be properly blooded into their new team.
The same goes for Cavalry’s younger signings and U SPORTS picks like Eryk Kobza and Nikolas Myroniuk, who it seems will be called upon at least semi-regularly this season.
Cavalry’s lack of chemistry this season was most apparent in the second half of the game against Valour, when they struggled to string more than a handful of passes together and spent much of the game’s final minutes pinned in their own half. This lack of ability to keep possession was in stark contrast to Cavalry home games of previous seasons, when the team tended to dominate possession whenever they played at Spruce Meadows.
In the press conference after the game, I asked Tommy what the main focus would be in training this week, and his answer was pretty blunt: “Pass the ball around.”
(He did elaborate a little bit, at least).
“We should have been better,” he said. “We had chances. We were very average in possession today, which was disappointing because I thought last week, we had to grind and this week, we wanted to enjoy it.
“It was one of those that we didn’t do what we planned and worked on, and that’s what’s disappointing for me as a coach. I know this group is a very talented group, but they’ve got to show it.”
I agree with Tommy that player-for-player, this year’s Cavalry roster is clearly talented – perhaps more so than any other season. But it’s going to take time before they’re all on the same page with each other the way the players in 2019 or even 2022 were.
The chemistry is coming, though. Look no further than Cavalry’s goal against Valour last Sunday, which came down to some quick three-way understanding between Fraser Aird, Ali Musse, and Myer Bevan. Aird had the wherewithal to take his throw-in quickly, and after some skilled dribbling to get to the byline, Musse was able to pick out Bevan perfectly for a close-range tap-in – and the New Zealand striker knew exactly where to be.
Once Cavalry’s players have all properly meshed, fans should expect to see more fluid play like that – hopefully sooner rather than later.
2. The team lacks some “old heads”
I didn’t realize until after the Valour game how young Cavalry’s roster is this season. According to Transfermarkt, the average age of the team’s squad this year is 24.7. It might be the club’s youngest ever average roster.
There are only two Cavalry players in their 30s this season – Ben Fisk and Charlie Trafford, who are both 30. And Fisk hasn’t played yet this season, as he’s currently been unavailable due to injury.
In previous campaigns, Cavalry’s main veterans were Mason Trafford and Nik Ledgerwood. Both brought extensive resumes and provided that grizzled experience that teams at all levels can benefit from.
That’s not to say having a ‘2’ in front of your age automatically means you’re not experienced and that having a ‘3’ does. Some of Cavalry’s 20-somethings have been in the CPL and with the club since day one, such as the leadership team of Sergio Camargo, Marco Carducci, and José Escalante. Cavalry’s youngsters will have to lean on the wise words of this trio.
Where I think the lack of veteran experience has been apparent thus far is the team’s inability to see out games where they’ve taken the lead. In all three of their CPL matches, Cavalry held the lead, only for the game to ultimately end in a draw. I couldn’t help but feel that having someone like Trafford or Ledgerwood on the pitch to remind the younger players of what to do in those situations might have rendered a different result. That game management to date has been lacking.
Putting faith in youth is not necessarily a bad thing. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has done so before to great success – recall his 2016 Foothills squad that made it all the way to the PDL final. I don’t want to come across as an Alan Hansen, I just think having a player or two who brings that “been there, done that” mentality can be beneficial.
3. Myer Bevan and Ali Musse have come to play
These two have been, in my opinion, by far Cavalry’s most impressive players to date. Myer Bevan has notably already equaled half of the goals total he achieved in all of the 2022 campaign, when he scored six in 14 outings.
In addition to his goals, Bevan is providing tireless effort up front. All game last Sunday, he was hungrily pressing Valour’s goalkeeper Rayane Yesli whenever the ‘keeper had the ball at his feet. More times than not, Bevan’s tenacity to hunt the ball down caused Yesli to hoof it out of bounds.
Wheeldon Jr. praised Bevan after both the Valour game and in last Friday’s press conference, adding the striker is repaying the faith the club showed in him by offering a two-year contract extension and the coveted “number 9” on his jersey. Like many strikers, Bevan seems to be the type that thrives when he has the full confidence of his coach.
Another Cavalry player I’ve been mightily impressed by this year is Ali Musse. He’s always been capable of producing moments of magic, whether it’s a direct free kick, a goal from outside the box, or by going on a mazy dribble past three or four defenders. But where fans have been frustrated with Musse in the past was his consistency and, at times, his defensive work rate.
Musse’s attacking performances thus far have been consistently strong. Particularly against Forge and Valour, he looked confident on the ball, and always capable of making something happen from nothing.
4. The fan support seems promising
Cavalry’s home-opener saw approximately 4,500 fans pack the stands at ATCO Field last weekend, setting a club record for the team’s best home attendance for a CPL match.
The impressive attendance on Sunday was understandable, considering Calgary was experiencing its warmest day of the year, with temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius. But nonetheless, I think the club and Spruce Meadows have done a good job of public outreach, and are starting to see these efforts pay off.
Concerns were raised in the off-season when Spruce Meadows announced they would no longer be offering matchday shuttle service to the venue from the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station and back. Despite the loss of that service, I’m predicting Cavalry will still see an improvement from their 2022 attendance, when the team averaged around 3,400 spectators per home game.
My evidence of this is mostly anecdotal, admittedly. But it seems that after four years, the word about Cavalry has finally reached the public masses. I’ve heard multiple FM radio stations (even Airdrie’s!) mention or talk about the team, or offer free tickets as a contest prize. I’ve seen members of community Facebook groups in the town of Cochrane chat excitedly about the team and how fun their games are to attend.
Cavalry’s pre-season outreach this year included hosting clinics at Genesis Centre in northeast Calgary and even as far as Red Deer.
The club also has developed partnerships with several of Calgary’s youth soccer clubs. Hell, half the roster seems to be coaching youth soccer this season, whether for Foothills, Villains, Chinook, McKenzie United, or other local clubs.
It’s clear Cavalry and Spruce Meadows have done a good job promoting the team, and I’m expecting (and hoping) those efforts continue to pay dividends at the turnstiles this spring and summer.