SANDOR: Wheeldon Jr. doing no wrong ahead of Al Classico

EDMONTON — If Tommy Wheeldon Jr. sits down at your poker table, walk away. Don’t even bother wasting the ante.

Right now, every move Wheeldon makes is turning to gold. On the opening night of the 2019 Canadian Championship, Wheeldon’s Cavalry FC side was the big story of the night — with a whalloping in Westhills, a 2-0 first leg triumph over Pacific FC. Make no mistake; that score flattered the home side. A friendly crossbar and a few inspired stops from Nolan Wirth kept the scoreline respectable.

You can look at the CPL standings, with Cavalry at the top with a 100% record after three matches, and think, really, is it that much of a surprise that the Calgary team went to Vancouver Island and smashed Pacific in the first leg of their series?

Consider the circumstances. Wheeldon had to rotate his squad for the midweek fixture. In fact, compared to the other three CPL teams in action on Cup opening night, his lineup was the one that least resembled a regular-season starting lineup.

Cavalry was coming off a last-second victory against Forge in Hamilton and, maybe more importantly, host the first Al Classico of the season this coming Saturday. So, Wheeldon’s first duty was to ensure that Cavalry starts the strongest possible lineup for FC Edmonton’s visit. He knows that if Cavalry beats their provincial rival, they’ll move to 12 points through four games and will have left the rest of the CPL in the dust in the 10-game spring-season sprint.

But, lose to FC Edmonton, and the Eddies go just two points behind with a game in hand — and the race is on. And, right now, no one at Spruce Meadows wants a race.

Wheeldon had no choice but to make wholesale changes — and, just as his moves have paid off through the regular season — they paid off in the Cup, as well.

And, maybe there is no brighter talisman on the Cavalry roster than Nico Pasquotti. On Wednesday, he moved from the super-sub role to the starting XI and ransacked Pacific’s backline. His long throw set up Dominick Zator’s headed opener, and his whipped-in cross led to Oliver Minatel’s insurance goal. This comes off the heels off his last-gasp winner in Hamilton, after he came off the bench. And, go back a bit further — it was his ability to generate chaos on long throws which led to Jose Escalante’s game-winning free kick over Valour FC.

It feels like that whenever Wheeldon calls Pasquotti’s name, he rolls a seven. If there would be an Unsung Hero award in the CPL, Pasquotti has already made a solid claim for it.

But it wasn’t just Pasquotti. Minatel, who had become a bit of a forgotten man — at least in the eyes of CPL followers — got his chance to play in the Cup and rewarded his coach with a goal before being forced to leave with injury. Niko Giantsopoulos got the clean sheet.

So, talk about a win-win. Wheeldon’s depth players stood up and were counted, and he got to rest many of his starters. As well, he knows that his bench can really help him as the season progresses; he won’t be simply throwing players out there for the sake of getting minutes. He got a first-leg win and will get to start a fresh lineup in what might be a slog in the Spruce Meadows mud against FC Edmonton, as the weather forecast for Saturday is anything but sunny.

He just can’t lose. And it doesn’t matter if he’s filling out a starting XI or making a second-half substitution — he hasn’t made a wrong step in three regular-season matches plus one Cup game.