2023 CPL Playoffs — Semifinal
Cavalry FC vs. Pacific FC
October 21, 2023 at 2 p.m. MT/4 p.m. ET
ATCO Field in Calgary, Alberta
Watch Live: OneSoccer.ca & TELUS Ch. 980 // Tickets available here
The date and location of the 2023 Canadian Premier League Final has been determined. The question this weekend is who will play in that game against Forge FC?
Saturday’s semifinal clash in Calgary will send one of Cavalry FC or Pacific FC to the following weekend’s Final in Hamilton, where the combatants will be just one win away from hoisting the brand new North Star Cup.
The hosts Cavalry will hope to fare better in this, their second opportunity to qualify for the final. After finishing first in the regular season and winning the CPL Shield, their playoff campaign stumbled out of the blocks last weekend when they lost 2-1 to Forge in the first qualifying semifinal, which sent the Hamilton outfit directly to the championship match and forced the Cavs into this other half of the bracket.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s side has been the most consistent in the league this year, ending the regular season with a nine-game unbeaten run (of which eight were wins) before last Saturday’s postseason defeat. Although they’re disappointed that the possibility of hosting a final is now off the table, their dream of claiming the Cup and winning a historic double remains very much alive.
The good news for the Cavs is their relatively clean bill of health remains that way; they have no major injury concerns to speak of heading into Saturday’s game.
RELATED: ‘Adversity is a great humbler’: Cavalry FC’s Wheeldon Jr. speaks ahead of semifinal || ‘It’s a different task now’: Pacific FC’s Merriman, Didić speak ahead of semifinal
Standing in their way, though, are an incredibly plucky Pacific team that has already won twice in these playoffs. They limped into the postseason, losing three straight to slip from second to fourth, which meant their campaign began with a midweek knockout tie against York United in the fourth-versus-fifth match a week and a half ago.
Adonijah Reid was a last-minute hero for the Tridents in that game as Pacific won 1-0 to advance. After that, they travelled from one coast to another within about 60 hours to play Halifax Wanderers FC in Nova Scotia last Saturday, where Pacific once again managed to pull out a 1-0 win — this time, thanks to a first-half own goal followed by courageous defending to hold onto the clean sheet.
The only major issue for Pacific for this match is they’ll be without Kunle Dada-Luke, their talented fullback who was a major sparkplug against the Wanderers. Dada-Luke received a red card postmatch in Halifax for offensive gestures, and Canada Soccer confirmed that he’ll be suspended for two games — in other words, the remainder of the playoffs. Apart from him, Pacific don’t seem to have any other injury issues.
Now, both sides enter the game on equal rest, with the same carrot in front of them: a trip to the final.
This will actually be the sixth time Cavalry and Pacific have met in 2023, having played a Canadian Championship tie in April (which Pacific won on penalties). In league play, the Cavs went undefeated, winning both games at home plus one at Starlight Stadium, plus a 1-1 draw there in mid-April.
RELATED: 2023 CPL Playoff Preview: Cavalry FC || 2023 CPL Playoff Preview: Pacific FC
Last time they met, Cavalry — who had already clinched the regular season title — dominated en route to a 3-0 win on the final day of the regular season, which sealed Pacific’s fate in fourth place. The Tridents may be looking for a measure of revenge from that contest in this return to ATCO Field.
This won’t be the first time these sides have gone head-to-head in Calgary for a place in the final, by the way. In the 2021 playoffs, the two outfits met in the CPL semifinal in an intense clash that featured goals from both teams within the 90, sending the game to extra time. That’s where Pacific scored their winning goal, a bizarre moment where Cavalry players thought the ball had gone out of bounds at the end line but the play remained alive for Kunle Dada-Luke to deflect the ball off Marco Carducci and in. The Tridents would go on to win the championship by beating Forge at Tim Hortons Field in the final that year, which is certainly history they would like to repeat in 2023.
All CPL matches are available to stream on OneSoccer, FuboTV, or on TELUS Optik TV Channel 980.
3 THINGS TO WATCH
- Cavalry must respond after defeat: Until last Saturday, regular season champions Cavalry hadn’t lost a match in over two months. They hadn’t lost at home in three. This weekend, they return to Spruce Meadows faced with the task of responding to a defeat, which isn’t something they’ve had to do often this year. When they have, though, they’ve been very good; Cavalry lost five matches this year, and they’re undefeated in the games immediately following those losses (four of them wins). Now, they absolutely have to keep that record alive in what will be an incredibly tense elimination game. Cavalry can’t afford to falter for a second straight time; if they do, their season will be over. “It’s a feeling we hadn’t experienced for a while,” head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said Friday. “It’s always humbling, because that’s the two parts of football and in life; we were lifting trophies and smelling of champagne the week before and then suddenly we’re smarting on a bit of a loss. But it wasn’t an elimination game, so we just had an opportunity to learn from it, put it into a good week and we get to go again.”
- Pacific must adjust out wide without Dada-Luke: There aren’t a lot of players in the CPL as difficult to replace as Kunle Dada-Luke. The pacey right-back has been a key engine for Pacific’s attack for much of this year, including last weekend in Halifax where he won 10 out of 14 duels and used his speed to create numerical overlaps out on the wing. With Dada-Luke suspended, James Merriman will have a difficult job on his hands trying to replace him. Dada-Luke only missed one game in 2023 and came off the bench in just three of his appearances, so Merriman hasn’t often needed to turn to a backup right-back. When he has, Georges Mukumbilwa has usually filled in on the right with Bradley Vliet coming in at left-back, although Vliet wasn’t in the squad for either of Pacific’s two playoff games which might be a concern. Either way, there’s no exact replacement for Dada-Luke, so Merriman may need to get creative in adjusting his tactics. “We have to believe in our players, it’s next-man-up mentality,” Merriman said. “We’re okay with that, we adapt. We know he’s played so many games for us, he’s one of the first names of the team sheet here, but we can adjust and we’ll be willing to adapt. At this point in the season, the mentality across the team, every player is ready for an opportunity.”
- Will 4-4-2 stick for Pacific? The Tridents surprised everyone last weekend by setting up in a new-look 4-4-2 formation, after playing almost the entire year in some kind of 4-3-3. Merriman deployed towering forwards Easton Ongaro and Djenairo Daniels in the same starting XI for just the second time this season, and the first time since the opening match against Vancouver FC. The gambit paid off for the Tridents, who beat Halifax and were better able to get players forward on the counter-attack, which might be a strategy that can work for them again against a possession-heavy Cavalry side. After several weeks where Pacific’s attack struggled at times, having an extra attacker on the pitch seemed to help, but more than anything perhaps a fresh tactic was what they needed. This weekend, it’ll be fascinating to see whether Merriman sticks to that new-look formation, especially against a Cavalry side he’s already played five times this year.
PROJECTED STARTING XIs
Cavalry FC (3-4-3): Carducci; Kobza, Klomp, Kamdem; Shome, Trafford, Daley, Camargo; Akio, Bevan, Musse
Pacific FC (4-4-2): Gazdov; Mukumbilwa, Didic, Meilleur-Giguère, Vliet; Reid, Young, Aparicio, Manneh; Daniels, Ongaro
Cavalry FC wins: 13 || Pacific FC wins: 8 || Draws: 4
October 7, 2023 – Cavalry FC 3-0 Pacific FC
2020 CPL Island Games – Group Stage — Cavalry FC 3-1 Pacific FC
2021 CPL Semifinals — Cavalry FC 1-2 Pacific FC (a.e.t.)
“Pacific have had a nice little run of late and I think it’ll be a cracking game, because now it is an elimination semifinal. We know they’re a good side, they’re well coached by James, they’ve got some players that can hurt you, but also they have their flaws like any team. It’s up to us now to put our strategy ahead of theirs.” — Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
“We’re right where we want to be. We wanted to be in a semifinal match to get to the final. Okay, we can’t host the final, but we know we win this game and we go to the final and give ourselves a chance to win another championship, so we’re right where we wanted to be, we’ve just taken a longer route. But we accepted that and now the rest is behind us.” — Pacific FC head coach James Merriman