AGR's High Press: Winning cures all woes as Cavalry, York get back on track in CPL, Week 6
It’s funny how a single win can change everything for a team.
The latest round of Canadian Premier League action provides a couple great examples why.
First, there was Cavalry, who had entered this last weekend's match on the back of five consecutive draws to open their 2023 season. Many were questioning if this Cavalry side would be able to return to their usual regular season dominating form – they're the best regular season team in CPL history, after all.
While it’s too early to say they’re back, you could certainly feel the relief that a big 2-0 win gave them, especially because it vaulted them up to third in the league table. Similarly, York United – who picked up a big 3-0 away win of their own after starting the season with one win and four losses – also enjoyed a bit of a confidence boost this week.
It's safe to say, in tough times, winning can be a cure-all, something that a few teams will take to heart as they get set for matchday 7 of CPL action. Before this weekend, however, here's a look back at what stood out from Matchweek 6.
How Cavalry FC ended tying streak
It took six games off the top of the season, but Cavalry FC are finally back in the win column, as they delivered a big 2-0 victory over Atlético Ottawa in front of their home fans at ATCO Field, by doing something they’ve struggled to do all season: Winning the Cavalry way.
That means putting on a solid defensive showing, letting their opponents feel 'em on the field with a bit of physicality and tough play, and scoring some timely sucker-punch goals to take the wind out of the opposition sails when it mattered most.
Sure, they had to scrap their way over the finish line, but it was a far more convincing performance from Cavalry than they've had all season, where they’d shown good flashes but had nothing to show for it in terms of wins. More importantly, Tommy Wheeldon Jr.'s side managed to hold onto a lead for the first time all season, having previously squandered six of them in their previous five games en route to five straight draws.
Yet, the way they defended their lead in this game must be commended, as they looked like the Cavalry of old after Sergio Camargo breached Ottawa's net on a clever set-piece in the 22nd minute. Once that ball went in, they looked extremely comfortable in possession, doing well to completely take Ottawa out of the game with how they dictated the pace of the game.
Knowing how Ottawa likes to get comfortable when they play on the road, sitting deep and compact in their 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 depending on the occasion (it was more of the latter in this game), Cavalry dared them to go and chase the game.
Ottawa didn’t do that, and that led to Cavalry spending most of the last 70 minutes spraying the ball around the pitch, before attacking any gaps that would open up through their patient play.
Given that they finished the game with 64% possession, and were only dispossessed two times in their own third (for context, Cavalry regained the ball five times in Ottawa’s final third despite Ottawa holding just 36% of possession), it was mission accomplished for Tommy Wheeldon Jr’s side.
Speaking of Wheeldon Jr., the Cavalry tactician also made a few tweaks that proved to be key for this game.
Firstly, his team went to more of a back three in possession for the first time all season, as they played natural centre backs Bradley Kamdem, Daan Klomp and Udoka Chima together. A 4-2-3-1 off the ball, it shifted into more of a 3-5-2 on it, with Kamdem, Klomp and Chima forming a back three, from left to right.
(Here's Cavalry's average positions in possession via OPTA).
Through that, they were able to retain the ball much better than in previous games, as that back three also made it easier for their double-pivot of Jesse Daley and Eryk Kozba to create triangles in between lines in possession, something Cavalry’s midfielders have had struggles with when they’ve used their back four.
From there, Kozba was a standout in his first-ever start for Cavalry, after being drafted in the second round of the U Sports-CPL draft out of the Calgary Dinos. A 21-year-old with experience in the second and third flights of Polish soccer, his passing range was a huge asset, along with his size, as he proved that he can be a more than capable rotation piece in midfield along with Daley, Charlie Trafford and Shamit Shome.
(Kozba's passing map from the game via OPTA).
All of that was key, as it gave freedom to Cavalry’s attackers to keep doing what they’ve done for most of this season, and that’s to cause problems in the final third for their opponents. Sergio Camargo, in particular, was relentless in his pursuit of space between the lines, while Ali Musse was, well, Ali Musse.
Along with the benefit of being able to play the always-dangerous José Escalante as more of a wing back instead of a full back, which allowed him to get into more dangerous areas, this formation tweak seemed to give a boost to the Cavalry attack, in fact. Seeing that Camargo had a goal, Musse had an assist, and Escalante had a goal ruled out, those three got into good positions all game long, shining underneath a tireless Myer Bevan up front, who wasn’t able to add to his league-leading tally but was a menace all game long.
Really, the only thing to watch out for in attack was that this formation tweak saw the mercurial Mikaël Cantave dropped to the bench to create space for a third centre back, but on the flipside, his insertion proved to be a strong card for Wheeldon Jr to pull out for the second half.
“Our details were spot on today,” Wheeldon Jr said afterwards. “We had to dig in, scrap it out, especially in the last 10 minutes, and shut them out.
“We weren’t going to concede today, I’d put my mortgage on it.”
Look for Cavalry to now keep this up going forward. In my season preview, I pondered if a back three might be the way to go for this side, and based on early returns, it looks to be an avenue worth exploring further, especially when Callum Montgomery and Shamit Shome return from injury.
“We’re only going to get stronger,” Wheeldon Jr continued. “We want to protect our unbeaten run, but turn ties into wins, and we did that in this game.”
“It was nice to do that, as now our guys believe in us believing in them.”
So given how much they looked like Cavalry of old while doing so, you can only wonder if Wheeldon Jr turns to this tweak on a more permanent basis going forward, something he himself is pondering.
“We’ll see,” Wheeldon Jr said with a smirk when asked. “It’s about principles (for us). We talked about how we can create a +1 in possession with the ball, and how we can create a +1 and coverage defensively, and today we chose a (back 3) formation.
"It was a tactical nuance, and it worked to create half-spaces in the box and in midfield for us."
York finds goals after slow offensive start
Heading into this matchday, York were reeling. Sitting in last place with just one win and four losses from five games, and fresh off a 4-1 defeat by Pacific FC, things were not looking up for them as they headed to Halifax to take on a Wanderers team hungry for their first win of the season after five straight draws.
Plus, with just three goals in five league games, only one of them coming from open play, York had big questions to ask of their offence heading into this one. Defensively, they’d had some struggles, yes, but given some of the injuries they’d dealt with at centre back and in midfield, those were forgivable.
In the attack, however, there were questions to be had. Namely, the fact that strikers Osaze De Rosario and Brian Wright were yet to score despite combining for nine big chances, and the fact that their dangerous wide players weren’t able to make more happen goal-wise.
Yes, Mo Babouli has been a huge loss for them in that regard, but it felt like York wasn’t quite clicking at their full attacking potential even with him out.
And they proved that this weekend, as they doubled their season’s goal and point total in a surprising 3-0 drubbing of the Wanderers. With all three goals coming from open play, too, it was a much-needed explosion from the Nine-Stripes to grab a key victory.
They didn’t fully solve their woes, as De Rosario and Wright remain without a goal, but instead, they got some goal contributions from some new sources. Midfielders Matthew Baldisimo and Brem Soumaoro had their first CPL goals in strong performances in York’s midfield pivot, while Oussama Alou had a strong game with one goal and one assist at the #10 position after spending most of the season out of position, which was key.
Plus, they were ruthless in transition, doing well to capitalize on the space left behind by the Wanderers, who were eager to give a win to their home crowd, and maybe got a bit too excited by that.
Thanks to the play of Baldisimo and Soumaoro in midfield, who did well to keep York compact and organized, allowed Alou, Austin Ricci and Clément Bayiha to do damage in transition, as York finished with 1.17 xG and 33 touches in the box despite losing the possession battle.
(The xG plot from this game via Opta, with York's shots in purple)
Along with the play of Tass Mourdoukoutas at the back, as his return from injury has arguably been the biggest boost of those who have returned from injury, that gave York the ability to play an overall solid, no-nonsense road game on both sides of the ball.
Once again, they showed a glimpse of what they could be when healthy, and got another big road win to show for it.
Now, they’ll have to make that a regular habit, which has often been a challenge for them, but glimpses like this are a lot to be encouraged about.
Vancouver backline bounces back
It was a daunting task.
Fresh off a 5-0 shellacking at home to Ottawa, and missing key pieces Rocco Romeo (suspension), Kadin Chung (collarbone) and Gabriel Bitar (shoulder), a trip to Forge to take on a red-hot Forge side that had won three games in a row was a worst-case scenario for Vancouver.
Yet, it didn’t sink them. Instead, they showed why many had been quite impressed with them before that Ottawa loss - this team is very resilient for an expansion outfit.
Instead of dwelling on the pain of a frustrating result, they went back to the drawing board, and made sure to get back to the philosophies that worked for them in the first four games - a commitment to hard work and discipline off the ball.
Plus, they had a bit of a tactical tweak - a switch to more of a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 off the ball, instead of the 4-3-3 they’d preferred in their first few games.
(Vancouver's average formation from this game via OPTA).
Through that, they were able to limit spaces between lines, as well as close down wide areas, doing well to nullify what Forge are good at.
As a result, Vancouver were able to do something many would’ve never expected them to do ahead of this game - pick up a clean sheet against Forge, their first in club history.
Led by a strong performance from Callum Irving in goal, as well as Ibrahim Bakare shifting back to his natural centre back position, along with a big step forward by Tyler Crawford after a bit of a tough match against Ottawa, that all paved the way for the clean sheet.
Not only that, but Vancouver were full value for the clean sheet, too, as while Forge had two big chances and finished with 1.79 xG, Vancouver did well to mostly keep them out of the areas where they could punish them.
Therefore, while Vancouver will be left wanting with what they showed in the final third, perhaps highlighting how important Bitar (and to an extent, Chung) is to their attack, their defensive work from this game is worth highlighting.
The Ottawa game could’ve easily rattled them, but instead, they returned to their identity from their first few games - nothing’s going to come cheap or easy against this side.
Alex's Notepad: Quick thoughts around the CPL
Here are some more thoughts from the other teams that were in action this weekend.
- Halifax’s loss to York highlighted just how important Lorenzo Callegari has been to them this season, as he missed out on that match due to yellow card accumulation. Having played a big role in their offensive game, the fact that they allowed more than two goals for the first time all season shows how important he’s also been for them defensively. Unfortunately, his defensive aggression has come at a cost with the number of yellow cards he’s gotten, a battle he’ll be in all season long, but Halifax will need to find ways to keep him on the field whenever possible. And, at a certain point, Wesley Timoteo and Aidan Daniels need to get a run together to ease the creative burden that the latter has carried (and carried very well, it must be said). Also, it was surprising to see that it took until this match for Lifumpa Mwandwe to make his season debut - after his end to last season, it felt like he could’ve helped this Wanderers attack find more goals.
- Sean Young continued his immense start to the season for Pacific FC. After entering this season with two goals and no assists in 68 games, he’s already got two goals and three assists in eight games (all competitions) with his rocket of a goal against Valour. Tied for the CPL lead in goals+assists, tied for fourth in chances created and second in shots for, he’s been very influential in the final third, while maintaining what he was known for before - passing and defending. With this new side of his game, however, it’s made him quite the package to defend given his frame. Also, Pacific’s depth also remains an asset - not often you can leave players like Manny Aparicio, Amer Đidić, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Kekuta Manneh at home and still grab a point on the road, while playing most of the game on the front foot. The rest didn't end up paying off for them in the Canadian Championship, but that depth should pay off as they turn their attention back to league play.
- Pacifique Niyongabire was once again immense for Valour FC, as he continues to remain a threat in transition and in 1v1 situations. If there was a newcomer of the year award in CPL, he’d have to be up there in that discussion right now. Also, considering they had more defenders go down in this game in Abdou Samaké and Jordan Haynes, credit has to be given to Valour for once again holding their own defensively and allowing just one goal to one of the best attacks in the league. Not a bad way to bounce back after allowing three goals against Forge, although they’ll be frustrated to drop more points at home for a third time this season.
- Forge FC’s focus was perhaps a bit centered around their Canadian Championship semi-final against CF Montréal on Wednesday, and it showed in the final result against Vancouver. They certainly had chances to win this game, but ultimately just didn’t dictate the pace of this game as much as they had in their past few matches, which was unusual to see from them.
- Atlético Ottawa mostly kept the same formation from their big win against Vancouver as they travelled to Cavalry, but unfortunately, lost this match off set-pieces, of which Cavalry scored two. In particular, the early goal they allowed was back-breaking, as it allowed Cavalry to dictate the pace of the game. Ottawa didn’t respond, as Cavalry pushed them to press them high, and in the end, it made for a frustrating match as Ottawa sat quite passively despite needing a goal. For a team with some of the defenders they have, Ottawa will need to avoid giving away cheap set-piece goals, as it hurt them in a game where they could’ve gotten a valuable road point, but instead were left frustrated once again.
Player of the Matchday: Oussama Alou
In a strong road for York, Alou’s performance stood out as the brightest of the lot, as the attacking midfielder looked very comfortable playing between the lines and in transition for York.
Even beyond grabbing his first goal and assist for York in CPL action, he looked dangerous every time he got on the ball, causing all sorts of problems for the Wanderers midfielders with the spaces that he was occupying.
Goal of the week: Matthew Baldisimo
GOAL 👑@yorkutdfc STRIKE FIRST!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 20, 2023
Matthew Baldisimo gives the Nine Stripes a 1-0 lead over @HFXWanderersFC with his driven shot in the 11th minute
It's his first #CanPL goal, too!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/CucCEraClP
For someone who has been a consistent performer in the CPL since day one of the league, it was nice to see Baldisimo score his first-ever professional goal for York on the weekend.
Plus, it was a banger, as he did well to glide into space, and fire a cannon through a defender’s legs and into the lower corner. As for first professional goals, it doesn’t get much better than that from the 2021 North Star Shield winner.
You gotta see this: Maxim Tissot auditions for the Ottawa Redblacks
Given the more intimate sizes of some of the CPL stadiums, Maxim Tissot achieved a feat that isn’t often seen - he completely cleared the main stands at ATCO Field with a cannon of a clearance.
There’s no denying the fact that I am easily entertained, but this is still making me laugh…— Adam Jenkins (@adamkjenkins) May 22, 2023
Emphatic clearance from Maxim Tissot, into the parking lot. Top marks from @jwilsonxviii and I 🚀🌝#CanPL #CavsFC #ForOttawa pic.twitter.com/DOj906AREg
Considering how tall that stand is, it’s no small feat, one that had Adam Jenkins and Jordan Wilson chuckling, and for good reason, on the OneSoccer broadcast.
With a boot like that, Tissot may be fielding calls from the Ottawa Redblacks to be a punter very soon, let’s just say that.
What I’m watching this week: Atlético Ottawa vs. Forge
After picking what ended up being a rather low-event draw between Valour and Pacific last week, I’ll be looking for a bit more out of Ottawa and Forge, in what will be a big statement game for the hosts.
Having dropped eight out of nine possible home points, this is a huge chance for them to get back on track in that regard, while just overall improving on what has overall been a middling start for the 2022 regular season champions.
As for Forge, they’ll come in fatigued after a big game midweek versus CF Montréal, so it’ll be intriguing to see how they rotate their squad from that, as they’ve got just two days rest before this match (although travel is quite reasonable from Montréal to Ottawa).
If Ottawa were to grab a win, though, it’d be a big result for the CPL table, while serving as a huge boost to get their season back on track.