HAMILTON – The anticipation is building in the Hammer.
One day before kickoff in 2019 Canadian Premier League Finals, Cavalry FC’s players buzzed around Tim Hortons Field on Media Day, many of them clamouring to sneak a glance at the North Star Shield they hope to lift on November 2.
“Everyone’s just excited right now,” defender Dominick Zator told CanPL.ca, grinning. “I’m sure there’s some jitters for players, but it’s a day before the game. The key word is excitement.”
With both the Spring and Fall season titles in pocket, as well as their stunning Canadian Championship run, Cavalry FC is a side with confidence in spades. They’ve rarely faltered en route to the best record in the CPL’s inaugural season.
“I don’t think we’ve had a ton of bad days at the office,” coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. told reporters on Friday. “We’re so consistent. I’m hoping our best and most clinical games will come in these finals.”
In perhaps the best instance of nominative determinism North American soccer has to offer, Cavalry FC’s season has indeed been a relentless stampede of sorts, looking even more impressive at almost every turn.
“We’ve made history this year. Spring winners, Fall winners, combined winners, nobody can take that away from us,” boasted Cavs captain Nik Ledgerwood.
“We didn’t come here just to come here. We want to make a statement like we’ve done all year.”
Ledgerwood himself is still day-to-day for Saturday’s game, having taken a nasty knock to the head in last Saturday’s Al Classico victory. His absence could be a major blow to the Cavs, who have relished his tenacity in midfield, especially in games as heated as this one is sure to be.
With seven meetings between them, and another two to come, Cavalry versus Forge has become the most unmissable fixture in the CPL this season. Certainly, familiarity has bred animosity between them.
“I joked last time I think I’m gonna buy a timeshare here,” Wheeldon Jr. said of his side’s five visits to Hamilton this season.
On a more serious note, he continued: “Rivalries are born out of games — games fought tooth and nail. We’ve had games go to the last minute, sendings off, it’s not just the area code.”
Indeed, these contests have been more heated than a simple clash between good teams. No players would admit to outright disliking their Finals 2019 opponents, but the fire is there; it’s evident in the 21 yellow cards handed out in games between the sides this year.
“They’re just trying to chomp at our heels, they want it,” Zator said of Forge. “On the field there’s some crunching tackles, there’s some things that have happened previously.
Perhaps that’s the way things should be, though, with these two clubs locking horns all season in their quest for CPL supremacy.
“That’s where that tension comes in,” Zator agreed. “You want to be the best, you want to win, so it’s like the two top dogs battling it out. Even like Man City and Liverpool, they battle it out. Real Madrid and Barcelona. When the top two teams collide there’s always that excitement.”
The Cavs have more experience winning two-legged ties than anyone in the league, having started on the road against both Forge and Pacific FC in successful Canadian Championship ties. So, Wheeldon Jr.’s men aren’t likely to throw caution to the wind in leg one, despite the absences of Dominic Samuel and Bertrand Owundi in Forge’s defence.
“There’s an element of patience that needs to come out once the first 10 to 15 minutes of fireworks happen,” said Wheeldon Jr. “It’s not lost on us that we have 180 minutes.”
On the other hand, Cavalry’s players are well-aware of the tactical edge those particular holes in their opponent’s lineup provides.
“Absolutely it’s an advantage for us,” Zator affirmed. “Those are some key players they’ve had throughout the year defensively, this is something we want to take advantage of.”
Wheeldon remained coy on how exactly his side plans to catch Forge off guard, but he conceded that he’s hoping to throw a curveball or two at Bobby Smyrniotis and his men.
With so much tape to sift through from contests with Forge, it seems he’s been looking for that one final edge.
“It’s one or two tactical nuances, it might be a different set piece or two,” he said, keeping his cards close to the vest.
“(Forge) play an exciting breakout kind of play, we play a good buildup pressing game. I’m sure you’ll see portions of that Saturday, and I’m sure you might see something completely different.”
There was a tangible sense of occasion in the way Cavalry’s coach and players spoke on Friday, having come so far this year with this final hurdle ahead.
At the end of the day, Wheeldon Jr. is thrilled to have taken his club to this point.
“We have two great teams here that are going to fight tooth and nail to be the first ever Canadian Premier League winners,” he said.