Wheeldon Jr.’s Cavalry expect tough opening test in new CPL format

It’s off to the races for Cavalry FC.

Any notion that the Cavs would begin their 2020 Canadian Premier League campaign on a lighter note was quickly diminished when the league revealed its sophomore season schedule last week. Coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. learned that he’d be taking on rivals Forge FC of Hamilton and FC Edmonton in back-to-back away matches to kick off the 2020 season.

A third match – Cavalry’s home opener against York9 FC at ATCO Field, Spruce Meadows – means that, in the span of a few short weeks, the Cavs endure what is possibly the toughest start of any team in the CPL, and, as such, the 2019 table winners will be tested right off the bat, too.

First up? A visit to Tim Hortons Field for a 10th all-time meeting between Cavalry and Forge.

“It must be some algorithm that seems to find a way to put Cavalry and Forge together,” Wheeldon Jr. opined during an impromptu visit to the CPL’s head office in Toronto last Friday. “It’s a shorter pre-season than we’d hope, but, like with any, I think our players will be ready to play again. We didn’t like the way last season ran out, so this is an early opportunity to look for some redemption.

“These are always closely-contested games, so might as well play them now and get one out of the way,” he added. “But a rematch? That’ll whet the appetite for a lot of the players.”

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Indeed, Cavalry’s 2019 battles with Forge made up much of the narrative of the CPL’s inaugural season. Over nine different tilts in three different competitions – regular season, Finals 2019, and the Canadian Championship – these two teams showed the sort of spirit of competition that rivalries are made of, in spades.

But, things have changed for both outfits in 2020. Most notably, a major protagonist for Forge, Tristan Borges, is no longer with the team, having made a move to Belgian outfit OH Leuven during the off-season.

Still, that doesn’t lessen Wheeldon Jr.’s expectations for this season-opening tilt on April 11.

“They’ll be good,” he said of Forge. “I wouldn’t read too much about Borges not being there. Look, he’s a terrific player and take our rivalry aside, we’ve got a lot of respect for what a young Canadian player did. We knew he was a talent, and he’s gotten what he deserved – an opportunity to move his career forward. He’s going to take that chance.

“But, I think Forge will still be as good as they were last year. They’ve shown they play a certain system and they’re good with their continuity irrespective of who they play, so they’ll be as dangerous as they were last year, there’s no doubt about that.”

While Forge retains its reputation, Cavalry’s third opponent, York9 FC, has strengthened its roster … at least, on paper.

The bolstered Nine Stripes added Chris Mannella, Michael Petrasso, Matthew Arnone and a few international player signings to the mix, giving Jimmy Brennan plenty of weapons to turn to for the 2020 campaign.

As such, Wheeldon Jr. expects a heightened level of competition from York, especially with a third-place playoff spot now on the line in this re-formatted single-table competition.

“We’ve had a long-standing one stemming back from our battles in pre-season in Dominican,” Wheeldon Jr. recalled. “Our home opening win against them in the snow (last year) was also memorable, so there’s a special affinity with these games.

“What he’s done really well, Jimmy, in the off-season, is redefining a few things. As a club, too, from how they engage with their fans, to the death of Yorky, to the moving on of Ryan Telfer. He’s a big void, and Michael Petrasso has the ability to come in and do it, but can he stay healthy? But, they’ve added good pieces in Chris Mannella and Matthew Arnone, so they’ll be solid.

“We know what they’re like going forward, and with some more consistency in their defending – which is why (Paul) Stalteri’s been brought in – they can be a force to be reckoned with. We’re looking forward to playing them and seeing how those match-ups play out.”

Battles between Cavalry and York could be a major talking point in the 2020 season, as the new format makes for significantly more meaningful encounters in the middle of the pack, upward.

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Last season, Cavalry would have finished comfortably atop the pile in this new format, but did not win any silverware at year’s end, losing to Forge FC in Finals 2019 over two legs. As such, Wheeldon Jr. hopes this new style of competition will reward his team for similar accomplishments in the end.

“I’m a purist in that I like the single-table format, but there should be a celebration for winning it,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “It’s like winning the decathlon and getting no medal, but winning the 100-metre sprint gets you a gold medal. That’s how it felt, whereas everywhere else in the world, they celebrate the durability of the team that takes first place. Even MLS does it, with the Supporters’ Shield. They celebrate that, but they also celebrate playoffs, which is a North American mindset about playing for something.

“By adding a third-placed playoff for the final makes sense, but you have to celebrate both. Whoever wins the table should be rewarded for what they’ve done. But, let’s also celebrate the playoff format we love in this continent. It gives us all more drama, in the end, and not just in the final.”

He added: “We have to recognize we’re still growing the game in this country, and fans want that drama. It’s their entertainment dollars. It puts bums in seats, so let’s embrace it.”

“As long as there’s as much celebration given to the table winner, because we don’t know what the league will look like 10 years from now. Maybe in 10 years, there’s double the teams and there is a division 2, and there is promotion and relegation. So, you still need to celebrate the longevity of the season where every game matters. So, as long as we have that and we celebrate that, it doesn’t matter. There’s no reason we can’t say, right, here’s the North Star Shield for the league winners, and here’s the CPL Cup for the playoff winners. Let’s celebrate excellence over the long haul and the short sprint.”