CALGARY – Sure, there’s lots of soccer to be played, but how’s this for hyperbole: What if Friday’s Al Classico match is not only a battle for first place in the Fall-season standings, but a preview of the two-legged championship series?
Cavalry has already clinched a spot by claiming the Spring season.
“That’s up to Jeff to keep on his run,” Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon said of FCE coach Jeff Paulus and his troops. “I mean, we’re there. We just have to keep playing and worry about our business. It’s up to Jeff to volley it forward, to Jimmy (Brennan) at York, to (Stephen Hart) Harty in Halifax, Rob (Gale) at Valour. They have to keep on their run. But we’d love to have an Al Classico final. It’s less travel, and less on the budget!”
The rivalry between Cavalry and FC Edmonton is a funny thing, as many of the players on the two teams know each other. Many played together on provincial teams. Cavalry captain Nik Ledgerwood used to be FC Edmonton’s captain in the NASL days. Mauro Eustaquio is a former Eddie. Carlos Patino is from Edmonton.
On the Edmonton side, Dylon Powley, Bruno Zebie and Ajeej Sarkaria all played together at Foothills, under the tutelage of now-Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
So, as much as these two teams want to beat each other, there’s another narrative at play. You can’t shake the feeling that there’s nothing they’d like better than to face each other in the final. Because, if they do, they’re making a joint statement about Alberta soccer. Alberta often comes behind British Columbia, Quebec and, of course, Ontario, when we talk about what are the best soccer incubators in the country. A first-place battle in the CPL between Calgary and Edmonton? Well it changes that narrative, doesn’t it? A final between Cavalry and the Eddies would do even more to raise the status of Alberta soccer.
Bruno Zebie said right from the start of the season, he felt FCE and Cavalry were favoured to be the finalists.
“There’s always this misconception that the better teams and the better players are from Ontario or Quebec or B.C.,” he said. “But, especially in my age group, it’s been known that Alberta had one of the better provincial team. For me, I knew Cavalry was going to be a very well-organized side, very hard to beat and they’d be contending. And, at the same time, knowing the players we brought in, I knew we’d be up there too.
Zebie said the roots of Calgary vs. Edmonton go back to his days in youth soccer. It was always there.
“Obviously, we’re all good friends and we joke around a lot, but we have to put that aside,” said Bruno Zebie. “Even growing up, the (Edmonton) Juventus team and the Foothills team, we always hated each other. There was a big rivalry with the ‘95s, the 94s. Fortunately for me, I ended up being on the winning end for the most part. That carried onto provincials, onto Team Alberta, the south and north, the rivalry was right there. And then in it carries on to Foothills and Cavalry and FC Edmonton.”
“I think that Alberta soccer tends to get counted out a little bit,” said FCE keeper Connor James. “Maybe that’s because we don’t have quite the population that Ontario or B.C. does. I think that we tend to get overlooked a little bit. But it’s really positive to have teams from Alberta at the top of the table right now and, if you look up and down the lineups of those teams, they’re starting players from their respective cities. We started seven Edmontonians in our last game against Pacific and I know Cavalry throughout has been doing the same with a ton of local talent.”
James, growing up in Edmonton, has experience playing against — and with — a few of the Cavalry troops. He played with Cavalry keeper Marco Carducci and midfielder Elijah Adekugbe on provincial teams.
“There’s lots of connections between the two teams, and it just adds to the element of competitiveness,” he said. “Everybody wants to show the people that they used to play with that they’re doing better, right? It fuels the rivalry. It adds to it. It makes it a little more personal for all of us, too.”