There’s little more Tommy Wheeldon Jr. could have done for Cavalry FC in 2019.
He put together a squad that dominated much of the regular season from beginning to end, and the coach of the year honour he took home was just reward for it.
Although the ultimate prize eluded Cavalry in Finals 2019, Wheeldon took his side a long way in its inaugural campaign — of which he’s fiercely proud.
“I joke, but I’ve got tongue in cheek; I’m a fantasy football manager,” he told reporters after the CPL’s Awards ceremony in Toronto. “I was given the opportunity to build a team for the city, for our ownership group, and for this league, and I think we captured a lot of hearts and minds along the way.”
Wheeldon has maintained throughout the past month that he feels Cavalry were champions of the CPL in 2019, having won the Spring and Fall titles before falling just short in Finals 2019. However, with the North Star Shield-shaped feather still missing from his cap, the coach of the year has rolled up his sleeves with his eyes on 2020.
The Cavs have already locked up some key pieces — Dominick Zator, Marco Carducci, Nik Ledgerwood, Mason Trafford, Sergio Camargo, and Aribim Pepple — for next season, and Wheeldon pledged that re-signing other members of his initial roster will be his focus until the new year.
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“A lot of our players are deserving of extensions on their contract or renewals,” he said. “I think it’s like trying to take a piece of money from this pocket and put it in the other, and it’s not moving. We want to make sure that we’re giving them the chance to come back.”
Building on the foundation in place, Wheeldon has also bolstered his ranks with Gabriel Bitar and Moe El Gandour joining (or re-joining, in Bitar’s case) the Cavs from the CPL-U SPORTS Draft.
“Gabe, we had for three months, he wasn’t quite ready for what we needed to do,” Wheeldon said of Bitar, who returned to Carleton University midway through 2019 as a U SPORTS-eligible pick. “But we didn’t want to give up on him, we wanted to trust in the pathway.
“I’m a long-term developer, a lot of my players have played for me before, so I wanted to continue to do that.”
The Cavs gaffer did add that he’ll look at what “fresh blood” could fortify his team once January rolls around, but with a roster that could well closely resemble last season’s, there aren’t many areas of weakness to be addressed.
Much of what made Cavalry so good in 2019 was how much they bought into the “90 minutes of hell” mantra that turned them into, at the very least, an exhausting opponent. Expect no deviation from that in whatever the roster looks like in 2020.
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“You want to build a team that reflects your ideals,” Wheeldon said. “I love exciting football, I grew up on it.”
“I mean, unfortunately I’m an Everton fan so I only had exciting football in the mid-90s,” he added, drawing laughs, “but it was in the era of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United that were dynamic, (had) pacy wingers, goal action, and last minute goals. I think we kind of almost adopted that. … We wanted to be exciting to watch, and difficult to beat.”
So, if there are to be new faces in the Cavalry lineup in 2020 (which, of course, there will be — that’s how professional sports work), they’ll surely be cut from similar cloth to those who suited up in 2019.
And in the meantime, Cavs fans can take solace in the confidence Wheeldon has in replicating his side’s early successes. For good reason, the league’s coach of the year has nothing but positive things to say about his first year in charge of a CPL team.
“We’ve defied a lot of skeptics, haven’t we?” Wheeldon said. “We’ve burnt the ships, there’s no going back. We’re only going forward.”