Jeff Paulus must be wondering what might have been.
In the end, only the quick thinking of Jordan Brown separated Cavalry FC and FC Edmonton in the Canadian Premier League’s first ‘Al Classico’ – and it was the Eddies that finished the match asking questions of the opposing goalkeeper.
Fortunately for the hosts, Marco Carducci answered them emphatically.
Cavalry was exactly what we have come to expect of them early in this inaugural CPL campaign: Gritty, organized, and predatory when Edmonton allowed them a glimpse of goal.
The Cavs are 4-0-0, but aren’t putting paid to the idea of parity in this league. If anything, they’re exploiting just how evenly-matched these teams are.
The condensed nature of the 10-game Spring race is creating what feel like must-win match-ups less than a month into the campaign, and when the top sides meet the action has often been cagey and tense and decided by set pieces, slices of luck, and individual errors.
Cavalry themselves went to Forge and spent long periods defending before striking at the death. Days later, Forge went to Valour and turned in by far the most safety-first, counter-attacking display we have seen from them so far this season.
On both occasions, the tight, cautious visitors won.
That style of soccer suits Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s team down to the ground because it plays to their biggest advantage: Familiarity. In each of their five CPL games thus far, at least seven of Cavalry’s starters have been drawn from Wheeldon’s 2018 Calgary Foothills squad.
They all have an appreciation of where they need to be and what their shape should look like, and they do not make errors. Knowing exactly what’s expected of each and every one of them, Cavalry – excuse the pun – bursts out of the blocks.
The Cavs have allowed just seven shots in the first half of games – the fewest in the CPL and a per-game rate less than half that of any other team.
That’s not shots on target – just shots. The whole, lump total, including efforts that never reached Carducci because they missed the target or were blocked. In fact, the goalkeeper has made just one save before half-time this season.
Cavalry’s attacking numbers in the first half are fine, but don’t stand out. They’re fourth in shots. Tied third in shots on target. Second in passes played into the opposition box.
But they’ve scored the first goal in every single game they’ve played because they tend to give themselves a long time to find it by being so solid at the other end.
Now, Cavalry is not unbeatable. We’ve seen chinks in the armour – especially after half-time.
Carducci has made more saves in the second half than any other goalkeeper (or tandem of goalkeepers) in the CPL, and the total number of shots they have faced balloons from seven in the first half to 20 in the final 45 minutes.
Cavalry also wins the ball back in the attacking third considerably more often before the break, which suggests that the intensity of their press drops off as legs begin to tire.
It certainly seemed that way when Edmonton rejuvenated its attack with the introduction of the energetic Oumar Diouck and Marcus Velado-Tsegaye. Cavalry was guilty of 10 misplaced passes in its own half in the second half compared to just three in the first.
Some will argue Diouck should have been in the lineup from the start, but Paulus will point out that his side was seconds away from getting through the half unscathed and with the Belgian’s fresh legs preserved for the latter stages.
With all of that said, it’s to be expected that the team with the lead will tend to fall back, absorb more pressure, and play on the break, and it’s worth noting that Cavalry has scored three winning goals in the 78th minute or later.
Whether by design or not, their ability to find a way late in games has them running away with this spring championship rather than just a part of the leading pack.
NUMBER OF THE WEEK: 3
Velado-Tsegaye, who does not turn 18 until July, registered three shots after entering the game in the 68th minute. The rest of his teammates combined for two.
The Edmonton native also found time to create his side’s best chance of the game with a superb cross that Ramón Soria should have done far better with.
The reason this league has featured so many knife-edge, one-goal games is not because those games have always – or even often – been dead-even, 50-50 battles in terms of territory, possession, chances and so on.
The matches are tight because true difference-makers in the final third are like gold dust.
‘Difference-maker’ does not mean ‘good player’ – there are lots of good attacking players in the CPL. That’s kind of the point. If you listed each team’s three best forwards and asked 100 people to rank them, you’d get a range of different answers because they all have quality.
Finding that singular talent who can break away in the (currently deadlocked) scoring charts or carve out multiple chances each and every game is going to be transformative for any team that can manage it.
The most likely source of such talent is the academies at home. Sure, every so often a team may hit it out of the park on an undervalued international player or provide the environment that unlocks an already established Canadian’s true potential. But most of the time, older players of that caliber are going to have more lucrative offers elsewhere.
No one should be anointing any future stars based on 22-minute appearances off the bench. Only time will tell us how good Velado-Tsegaye can be.
But it’s the clubs that keep punching their lottery ticket by investing minutes in players like him that will hit the highest highs in the long run.