Cavalry satisfied after withstanding ‘new and improved’ HFX in ‘toughest game so far’

It’s a cliché, but fortune really does favour the bold.

Had Nathan Mavila not lofted an ambitious cross back into the box, and had the ball not sailed just over Jason Beaulieu a few feet off his goal-line, Cavalry FC might not have taken all three points off HFX Wanderers FC on Sunday night.

The first-place Cavs worked hard to earn their third victory of The Island Games, withstanding a furious press from the Halifax side and breaking through twice (Marcus Haber’s disallowed early goal notwithstanding) to win 2-1 in PEI.

“It’s probably been the toughest game of the tournament so far in terms of, it was a very close game in possession, duels won and lost,” Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said. “Credit to Halifax, they’re a bloody good team. They’re physical, they’re technical, and they’re very well coached. Stephen Hart was the national team coach for Canada and Trinidad and Tobago for a reason.”

He added: “They’re a new and improved team this year, but the same kind of attitude and will to win and compete that Harty brought last year. They’ve just got a few more weapons in the artillery.”

The Cavs entered, for the third straight contest, with a three-man backline and two central midfielders. But the Wanderers’ tenacity in closing down space in the middle made it hard for Cavalry to break into the attacking spaces they were looking for.

They had a narrow 1-0 lead at halftime, courtesy of that fortunate Mavila goal — which, the fullback admitted, was indeed supposed to be a cross. They thought they’d scored before then, as well, when Haber was whistled for a foul seconds after putting the ball in the net, but they still didn’t feel like they’d taken control as much as they often do.

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To begin the second half, then, Cavalry brought Elliot Simmons on to add numbers to midfield, switching then to four at the back.

“They were pressing us and putting us under pressure, because it wasn’t quite coming out in the three, and it made us just sometimes defend in a five,” Wheeldon explained. “We didn’t need to be pinned in that far. … We brought on Simmons, who we wanted to keep for the next game anyway, but we brought him on a little earlier because he adds quality.

“But both him and Elijah Adekugbe together kept the ball ticking for us, Elijah Adekugbe had something like 94 per cent pass completion tonight, which was ridiculous in a chaotic game like it was today. So it allowed us to compete with the physicality of (Aboubacar) Sissoko and (Andre) Rampersad. They’re incredible athletes, and when you see them up close and personal, and the guys are having to be busy around them, we just had to suffocate them with numbers and I thought we did that.”

Adekugbe did lead all starters in the game with his 94.2 per cent accuracy, and both Simmons and Bruno Zebie helped the Cavs find outlets from midfield more and more as the second half wore on.

Ultimately, Cavalry were able to wear down their opponents, as Haber, Jordan Brown, and Nico Pasquotti in particular challenged the HFX fullbacks more and more toward the final 20 minutes of the game. Brown scored what ended up as the winning goal in the 90th minute, finishing cleanly to make up for a botched opportunity not long before.

“They put in probably a 90-minute performance of pressing, which has not really been seen,” Wheeldon said in praise of HFX. “Even we pick our moments of when to go and when not to go, and when to just go to a mid-line block and take away passing lanes. But they were just competing.”

At the end of the day, though, it’s the Cavs who come out happiest. They’ve won three of four at The Island Games, and they’ve all but sealed their top-four qualification for the second round. They’ve won in several different ways, whether dominating early against Valour or patiently breaking down FC Edmonton.

“I think what we’ve shown is we’ve got different layers to us,” Wheeldon concluded. “But we’ve kept rotating the team, which isn’t always easy because you lose a bit of rhythm. But I think we’ve found a way to create the freshness against teams that perhaps have played a game less than us.”

Cavalry will now try to guarantee their spot in the top four on Thursday, when they take a crack at Atlético Ottawa.

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