Wheeldon Jr. breaks down recruitment, roster building at Cavalry FC

TORONTO – In a sprint to the starting line, a cheeky advantage is never a bad thing.

As Canadian Premier League teams approach the kickoff of the inaugural season, every coach has leaned on previous experiences and contacts in building out their inaugural rosters.

In Halifax, HFX Wanderers FC’s Stephen Hart looked to his Caribbean roots; at Forge FC, Bobby Smyrniotis turned to his League1 Ontario and academy ties at Sigma FC; but, no club has quite the foundation that Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Cavalry FC have in Calgary.

Wheeldon Jr. led Calgary Foothills FC to a PDL championship in 2018 – what he refers to as ‘Year One’ of the project – but he has brought on only 10 players from that side (so far): Canadian international Nik Ledgerwood, goalkeeper Marco Carducci, defenders Dominick Zator, Chris Serban, and Dean Northover, midfielders Sergio Camargo, Elijah Adekugbe, Carlos Patino, Joel Waterman, and forward Nico Pasquotti.

“If it was any other league in the world, we’d be getting promoted to a higher tier,” Wheeldon Jr. explained. “That’s happened now via the CPL.

“If I’ve got a core that I can rely on – we’ve battled in the trenches with these guys – I want to carry them on the journey. You can’t underline the power of chemistry. That’s going to be something we will use to our advantage to move forward.”

Cavalry FC coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (CPL)
Cavalry FC coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (CPL)

Runway extended, he then leaned on the Football Manager skills honed during his childhood, which was carried on through Sega’s Pro Evolution Soccer and EA Sport’s FIFA video game franchise, to undertake the rest of the process.

“I always liked to put together teams,” Wheeldon Jr. recalled. “That was always something I got excited with.”

“That’s been enjoyable, seeing it all come together.”

This time, however, real money is involved.

“You get a budget, you’ve got to look at scouting and players stats; players you know, players you don’t know; deal with agents you know, agents you don’t. It’s a whole process,” explained the CFC head coach and general manager. “You try and do it based on trust. As in Year One, we’ve got a rule of three: three good references on that player, his ability, and as a person. What he can do, what his flaws are, what he’ll bring to the locker room.

“In terms of recruitment strategy, we’ve looked at local first: what’s in Calgary? Who would fight for this city? From there we’ve gone national: who are the good Canadians that are playing somewhere in the country or overseas that we can bring back to be on of the founding fathers of the league? And once we got to that point, that’s where we’ve been looking at our internationals: Which pieces don’t we have that will make a difference in our team?”

Cavalry also leaned on assistant coach Martin Nash’s vast experience and contacts as a player and on the touchlines. That led to the additions of Mason Trafford, who played with Nash at the Whitecaps in the pre-MLS days, as well as in Ottawa. It’s where he also met Oliver Minatel, another Cavalry newcomer. And a scouting trip to the UK saw the recruitment of a pair of Englishmen – forward Jordan Brown and defender Nathan Mavila.

Cavalry FC's Spruce Meadows (CPL)
Cavalry FC’s Spruce Meadows (CPL)

Those acquisitions, coupled with a pair of hometown signings – goalkeeper Niko Giantsopoulos and teenage forward Malyk Hamilton, who had spells in the systems of West Ham United and Toronto FC – as well as the addition of Julian Buscher, a German midfielder with MLS and USL experience, have rounded out the Cavs’ squad to this point. Wheeldon Jr. did hint that more signings would be on their way, particularly a Central American winger.

“We have the makings of being a very good footballing team; a very clever team,” Wheeldon Jr. offered.

On the pitch, Ledgerwood expects a similar mindset to the style that served them well last season: “We want to play nice, attractive soccer with that aggressive bite and press implemented as well.”

“(Wheeldon Jr.) wants (to) tick both sides of the box: Be a real hungry, aggressive team when we don’t have the ball and when we do have it, he wants us to be confident enough that we can play through the lines (and) keep possession.”

As for a preferred formation, Wheeldon Jr. was somewhat coy: “Tactically flexible would be our formation.”

He continued: “I’m more a fan of playing principles. I’ve always been a believer in ‘Play to the strengths of your team.’ That’s what we’re going to do.

“We’re not going to be the biggest team. I’ve picked players who are good technicians, very cerebral players. We’re here for the long game. Developing a style, we want to make sure that we’re pleasing on the eye, but also effective in terms of getting points.”

And as for any criticism of Cavalry’s roster-building approach, Ledgerwood says the team’s history together is only a positive: “Tommy had a vision last year, bringing myself and Sergio in. He knew the following year was going to be the CPL year.

“A lot of these players came from different areas last year to help build what is now Cavalry,” Ledgerwood continued. “We built a winning team, a foundation. Winning is contagious. Once you get that taste, you enjoy it more and more.”

“We have that connection. We played a year under Tommy, we know what he expects as a coach, his playing style, and what we expect from each other.”