On the surface, the 2020 CPL season will ultimately be remembered as a slight disappointment for Cavalry FC, who missed the Final by one point after finishing atop the table in the first round.
However, it was a complicated year for the Cavs, who have been the best regular-season team in the league for two years running and yet don’t have a trophy to show for it. During The Island Games, it seemed every stroke of misfortune that could befall the Cavs ultimately did.
Cavalry entered the tournament without José Escalante, one of the team’s key attackers from 2019, and minus Brazilian newcomer Richard Luca. Right off the top, that’s two potential starting wingers down for a team whose core attack strategy comes from its wide play. Then, Jaír Cordóva and José Hernández were hurt a couple days before leaving for Charlottetown.
So, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. moulded his side to fit the circumstances, leaving behind the 4-2-3-1 system that brought them success in 2019 in favour of a more experimental 3-4-3.
Formations with three centre-backs have seen a resurgence in popularity in Europe the past few years, spearheaded by the Chelsea and Inter Milan teams led by Antonio Conte. Wheeldon revealed to CanPL.ca that the most recent Inter side was one they looked at for inspiration when deciding to roll out their new system — as were clubs like RB Leipzig and, in particular, Atalanta in Serie A.
Wheeldon was particularly intrigued by the way Atalanta’s style of play might benefit physical strikers, such as Marcus Haber, as well as how it could get Nathan Mavila and Mo Farsi into more advanced wingback roles — which worked to great effect in PEI.
“We said look, what we did have is we had four centre-backs who were solid, nice balance,” Wheeldon explained. “We had good centre midfielders in Elijah (Adekugbe), (Nik) Ledgerwood, (Elliot) Simmons and (Bruno) Zebie, so we said what would suit us is a 3-4-3, because (Sergio) Camargo and (Oliver) Minatel, they both scored eight goals apiece last season, so we could get them on the pitch often.
“And then we lose Sergio and we’re like, holy crap.”
Camargo went down to injury in Cavalry’s second game, Minatel would later suffer a double leg break, and fellow winger Nico Pasquotti would ultimately injure his knee in the group stage to leave the Cavs with just one remaining attacker who’d scored for them in 2019: Jordan Brown.
Plus, with Nik Ledgerwood injured and Jay Wheeldon suspended heading into the final game, the Cavs had an enormous mountain to climb against Forge.
With all that happened, Wheeldon can’t be anything but proud of what he saw from his side in PEI.
“All these pieces, if that happens to any team you’re not even getting past round one,” he said. “So for the players to keep going, and even as a staff and as a group we felt, with what we had left, because we’ve got some depth, we could still go again. But we were one goal or one win in two games from getting to the final, with a severely depleted squad.”
With all that in mind, it’s difficult to fully assess Cavalry’s 2020 campaign. They ran into a wall and couldn’t beat Forge to get into the final, but they still ranked second in the league in expected goals (18.54), expected goals per shot (0.14), and — despite their wingers going down left, right, and centre — they hit more crosses than any other side.
Wheeldon added that, to win trophies, a team has to have quality in the right moments. He pointed to Tristan Borges’ CPL Finals goal in 2019, moments after winning a penalty, and then again to Mo Babouli’s goal against Cavalry in the final group stage match in 2020.
Cavalry, he said, didn’t quite have that at the end.
“We had to take things into consideration and say, ‘Well, we’re bringing on (team manager) Tofa Fakunle, who ended up being our emergency player, and young Aribim Pepple who’s still only 17, and I look across and Forge are bringing on (David) Choinière and Maxim Tissot that have had national team and MLS experience,” Wheeldon recalled.
“Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We’ve got to keep going with the way we are, we’ve got everything we want in terms of the way we want to play and the type of people we want at this club. Now, it’s just making sure we’ve got quality when it counts with the key attacking pieces at the right time.
“It felt like near the end we were taking a knife into a gunfight.”
Ultimately, Wheeldon feels confident that Cavalry will be right back near the top in the CPL next season, considering their attack was never quite able to hit its stride in 2020.
Still, he’s got some work to do in this long off-season. Most of the Cavs are back in Calgary, with some players from out of town due to return home to see family. The club will be doing light, player-led training until around the end of October, at which point the off-season will fully pick up and Wheeldon will be forced to decide which contract options Cavalry will be taking or declining.
“We’re also using this time to not make any decisions emotionally, because I think what’s next is as important as what’s happened,” Wheeldon said. “So we’ve got to take this time to use it wisely, so we can be strategic with our planning.”
Some of the moves are already underway: Wheeldon revealed that José Escalante is expected to return to the club for 2021, Cavalry having picked up his option with the player currently on loan in his native Honduras. Richard Luca, as well, is likely to remain on the squad, with that process currently ongoing.
Beyond that, there’s sure to be at least some change. Wheeldon stipulated that it’s important to be careful when re-signing current players, because there has to be room for additions.
“If you reward too many in terms of salary, then you’re putting the same product out on the pitch,” he said. “So you’ve got to make sure that you still have your freshness coming in, like we did this year with Mo Farsi, Simmons, and even Marcus Haber.”
Still, Wheeldon’s top priority will be retaining the current core, before they patiently look to the outside.
As for outgoing transfers? Well, Wheeldon told CanPL.ca that they’ve already had a few calls inquiring about players. Plenty of CPL sides have garnered interest for players who performed on the stage of The Island Games, and Cavalry is no different.
He hinted, though, that it may not be the players you’d expect.
“It’s a bit like we had last year, we had some big hitters in the way Marco Carducci and (Dominick) Zator had played, and (Dominique) Malonga, and all these guys we mentioned, then it was Joel Waterman that came out,” Wheeldon said.
“So something similar is happening now, where there’s some key guys that played very very well for us, but it’s some of the peripheral players that made an impact this year that people are inquiring about.”