Throughout the season, if there’s been one absolute about the Cavalry, it’s been that no one, absolutely no one, can match the Calgary side’s dominance on the wings.
Nico Pasquotti charging up and down the right. Jose Escalante dancing in from the left. Those horrible, horrible overloads on the edges of the pitch, creating turnover after turnover. Cavalry turns opposition wingers and fullbacks into targets. How many times this season have we seen opposition fullbacks look to the bench or their teammates with a “can I get some help, here?” shrug as they get overwhelmed.
And, of course, with Pasquotti dealing that vicious slider of a throw-in, Cavalry are too happy to allow the ball to go into touch.
“We only know one way to play, and that’s the front foot,” said coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. on Saturday.
Yet, with Cavalry bunkering in Leg 1 – even before they went down to 10 men – Forge still dominated possession and was spending the majority of time in the opposition half. And, yes, it was Forge’s domination on the wings that began a sequence of events that culminated in the game-changing sending off.
In the first leg of the Canadian Premier League Finals, there was one moment that showed us how different this game was for Cavalry. Chris Nanco dashed up the left wing and was cut off by Pasquotti. With a spin-o-rama move that looked like something out of hockey, Nanco was somehow able to keep the ball in play and get the ball to Tristan Borges for the game’s only goal.
It was Nanco who was having his lunch on the wing, with Kwame Awuah providing fullback support. Pasquotti was the one on an island. Talk about role reversal.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Escalante was limited to drawing a few fouls, while Giuliano Frano was able to get effective crosses into the area for Forge.
Neither Escalante nor Pasquotti were having any sort of success getting behind the Forge line.
While the Nanco spin might have been the game’s defining moment, there were other examples of Cavalry losing the battle on the wings. Sure, we can debate whether or not Joel Waterman should have been sent off in the first half for handling the ball in his own penalty area. But, we need to back that sequence up about five seconds. Forge should never have got the ball into the box in the first place. Pasquotti had the ball on the right, coming out of his own half, but he abandoned his spot near the touch line and decided to cut to the middle, where he tried to negotiate a minefield of orange shirts and lost the ball. That led to the Forge break, and the Waterman red card.
To see Cavalry not try to barge up the wing with the ball, to second-guess themselves when they were on the fringes of the pitch, that was something.
When Cavalry lost the wings, the middle could not hold. It led to a ridiculous mismatch when it came to scoring chances. A penalty save from Marco Carducci. A goal from Borges. Three crossbars struck. A goal-saving shot block from Cavalry defender Mason Trafford. Forge can lament what could have been; yes, you could argue that the home side deserved to take a three or even four-goal lead to Spruce Meadows for the second leg. Of any of the Forge/Cavalry meetings this year this first leg was the most lopsided of the affairs — though the the score didn’t reflect it. And, it all began with Forge taking advantage in the tactical area that almost no pre-game pundit would have seen them being dominant: wing play.
But Nanco’s play on Forge’s left side, the fact that he was continually able to get the ball deep and into dangerous positions, that was a massive X factor.
Yet, despite Forge’s dominance, despite Cavalry losing the wings in the first leg, the gap is but one. Will Forge be able to limit Pasquotti and Escalante again? Or will Cavalry normalcy be returned at Spruce Meadows? At many post-game press conferences, we’ve heard Wheeldon say that he’s got a plan A, a plan B and even a plan C in his pocket. It’s time for him to look at B and C.