Despite being surrounded by Pacific FC players, Cavalry defender Karifa Yao got his head to José Escalante’s cross. The ball looped through the air, first over the head of Jordan Haynes at the front post, then over the outstretched hands of Callum Irving and into the net.
Yao peeled away in celebration before being mobbed by his teammates in front of the grandstand at Spruce Meadows. He had just scored his first professional goal, and picked an incredible time to do so. It was the 2021 Canadian Premier League semifinals, and Yao had just scored the equalizer in front of his home fans.
“Amazing,” Yao said, reflecting on the goal with CanPL.ca this week. “First professional goal in a big game like that… it was a really big moment.”
An hour later, however, came a moment that Yao recalls with far less fondness. In extra time of that match, Pacific’s Kunle Dada-Luke knocked the ball past Yao, off of the leg of Marco Carducci and into the Cavalry net. Yao and his teammates protested that the ball had gone over the end line, but the goal was given.
When asked what he learned from that moment, the Cavalry defender repeated what has become the mantra of his team this season.
“Always, play until the whistle,” he said. “Never stop. We are eleven players, and it is eleven players who can control the game. We don’t want the referee to influence our game, if we lose they were the better team, not [because of] the referee or the fans or like they didn’t call a foul. We just need to play until the whistle, and trust ourselves.”
It is a lesson that Cavalry will look to demonstrate that they have learned when they open up the 2022 semifinals on Saturday, Oct. 15 at Spruce Meadows against Forge FC.
Learning has been a central goal of both club and player this year — in fact, it is part of the reason Yao finds himself in Calgary in the first place. The centre-back is on loan from MLS side CF Montréal to further develop his game, something that he has had plenty of opportunity for in 2022.
“What has been great for Karifa is it has actually not been as easy this year,” said Cavalry FC head coach Wheeldon Jr. “Last year, he was almost flawless, this year there have been a few things that have challenged his resolve, and he has come through shining. He’s a player with a big future.”
Centre-back is a tricky position to play for a young player. Should a midfielder miss a pass or a striker miss a chance, it is usually quickly forgotten. A mistake from a centre-back usually ends up in the back of his own net. Yao has had a few of those this season, be they misplaced passes or losing his man in defensive situations, but from those moments he knows he has an opportunity to become a better player.
“It’s all mental,” says Yao. “You know your ability, you know how you play you know what you can do. For example, after some mistakes, you just need to focus, look at yourself in the mirror and try to not reproduce those mistakes. I think that is how you grow up and how you can go to a high level.”
At just 22, Yao has all the tools to reach that level. He is composed beyond his years (87.6 per cent pass completion rate), has good anticipation (fourth in the league in blocks with 15), is excellent at winning the ball back in key areas for his side (65 per cent of duels won), and is dominant aerially (winning 72 per cent of aerial duels contested).
Cavalry have also afforded Yao a very good mentorship opportunity as well. He has spent most of his time with the club playing alongside 36-year-old defender Mason Trafford, who he says has taught him plenty, including the importance of being a vocal leader as a centre-back. He has also learned much from Wheeldon Jr., who himself was a central defender during his playing career.
“I think it was a really good decision for me to come to Cavalry,” said Yao. “To have game time, to play against men, to learn from mistakes. To play with veterans on our team so I can learn from them. I think it has been really beneficial for me to come into the CPL and play some games and to grow as a man and as a player too.”
Ask Yao what areas of his game he still wants to develop and he is quick to point out growth areas. He says he has a tendency to be overconfident at times going into one-on-one duels, for example, given his proficiency in winning them. While he is dominant in aerial situations defensively, he still wants to improve that ability in attack.
“Defensive header is more, win it, but like win it in the direction of your teammate,” said Yao. “The offensive header is more technique, you need to beat your opponent, then when you beat your opponent you need to have good timing with the ball and then maybe look where the keeper is and place it in the corner. So yeah it is more difficult, offensive headers.”
He mentions Chelsea FC’s Kalidou Koulibaly as a player he models himself after, calling him a “complete defender.” He has also found inspiration in watching players like Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston and Joel Waterman of his parent club, CF Montréal, thrive.
“They are doing really, really well,” said Yao. “It’s really really exciting. For example, guys like Joel Waterman, who was in the CPL too, then have a lot of game time this year, and going to camp with the national team. It is really inspiring, I hopefully want to be behind them and follow their steps to hopefully get into the national team.”
Before he gets there, however, he has some unfinished business with Cavalry. He wants to prove that he has taken this year to learn and improve, and is ready to demonstrate that growth in the most important matches of the year.