AGR's High Press: Cavalry becomes first team to book CPL playoff spot, but should they be worried ahead of postseason?
Then there were four.
Those, of course, are the four remaining playoff spots in the Canadian Premier League, as Cavalry FC claimed the first of five this week thanks to a crucial road win this past Wednesday.
Thanks to that, they’ve become the first team to claim one of those five coveted spots, providing a bit of clarity at the top of the race, where they’ve now fashioned a bit of breathing room for themselves.
After them, however, things remain chaotic, especially after a week where no other team in the top six won. You add in that a midweek slate of games also cleaned up some pesky games in hand, that completely changed the complexion of the table, with just five points separating second and sixth at the moment, who now all sit on the same amount of games played.
Along with a resurgent win for the bottom two teams, Valour and Vancouver, who both stayed alive with big victories, it ended up being a rather disruptive weekend on the table for everyone not named Cavalry.
Yet, Cavalry won’t complain, as that’s why they were able to book a playoff spot as early as they’ve done.
Now, however, the race behind them has heated up, which should lead to another entertaining slate of games. With less than a month until the start of the playoffs, it’s crunch time, and the games will only continue to reflect that.
Speaking of, however, here’s a look back at the week that was in CPL action, as well as a lookahead to what’s next on the docket this weekend, in week 22 of High Press.
Cavalry becomes first team in playoffs - how could it affect them?
Cavalry’s late-season surge continued in style this week, as after doing well to snatch a point in a cagey 0-0 draw away to Forge, they managed to follow that up with a crucial 2-1 win over Halifax on the road.
Through that, they were able to become the first CPL team to clinch a playoff spot, as the combination of their win and some key draws and losses across teams were enough for them to push across the line with four games to go.
The first team to book their spot in the 2023 CPL Playoffs: @CPLCavalryFC ✅— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) September 13, 2023
Should the Cavs be considered the frontrunners to win both the regular season title and the North Star Shield? 👀#CanPL pic.twitter.com/vKHjbncRjW
Of course, they’re not done there quite yet - with a six-point lead over the rest of the competition in first place, their eyes are now fixed on the regular season title, and the Concacaf Champions Cup spot that will come with it.
And if they’re to pull that off, a big reason for that will be due to their recent surge, as they’ve now claimed 13 points in their last five games. For context, no one else has claimed more than seven points across their last five games, showing how Cavalry were able to create that sort of separation at this stage of the season.
Especially given that all five of those games came against fellow top-six opposition, that’s even more important, as they were able to gain points while creating separation from those below them.
As a result, they went from in the thick of a title race to the clear favourites, and can reduce their magic number for the title to as low as one point if all goes right this weekend, showing how quickly things have changed.
Now, though, there are a few things that Cavalry’s going to want to keep an eye on ahead of the playoffs.
First, it’s worth noting that with three of their next four games at home, with two of those coming against the bottom two teams in Valour and Vancouver, that’ll help their quest to book the title given that they’re currently the only team to be averaging more than two points per game at home right now.
That’s relevant for one reason - that means they could conceivably see them play five of their next games at home if they end up winning that title and then win their first playoff game against the second-place team, allowing them to host the final. Given their home form, that could be a big boost for their hopes of achieving the double.
On the other side, however, it’s also worth noting that Cavalry has some work to do ahead of the playoffs. Despite their recent success, their underlying numbers do paint that things aren’t all perfect - they’re fourth in the CPL in Expected Points, and are fifth in both expected goals for and against.
Given that they’ve got the best actual goal difference, and lead the league in goals for and against, they won’t mind that, but that just means that they could be due for a statistical regression of some sort, perhaps in the playoffs.
The good news? That shouldn’t come defensively - they’ve done a good job of defending, despite what the advanced numbers suggest. The biggest metric that defends that is Marco Carducci’s workload, as he’s actually only faced 25.26 xG despite Cavalry as a team conceding 29.41 xG, meaning that they do a good job defensively of ensuring that the shots that actually reach Carducci aren’t that dangerous.
You add in that Carducci is also performing above expected, preventing 0.26 goals (second in the league among goalkeepers with over 500 minutes), and that further adds to the idea that Cavalry should be fine defensively, as Carducci has also been good when called upon
That leads us to the big worry, however, which is offensively, where Cavalry have scored 38 goals despite generating 31.41 xG. Naturally, that could be due to regress, especially given that every Cavalry goalscorer this season not named Maël Henry and Ben Fisk are outperforming their xG right now.
Fittingly, that last point is relevant as it leads to the final thing they’ll want to watch out for - Myer Bevan’s form.
On the subject of Cavalry attackers potentially regressing to the mean, he’s seen that first-hand, as he’s only scored two goals in his last 10 appearances, both penalties.
Despite that run of form, however, he’s still outperforming his xG by almost two goals, as he’s got nine goals on 7.02 xG on the season, showing how much of a heater he went on earlier in the season.
Because of that, be wary of someone like Cavalry’s William Akio, who has been in great form but has five goals on 2.22 xG, as he could easily fall into a similar slump.
Yet, the one thing Cavalry can bank on in that regard is that they’ve done a good job of spreading around their scoring, sitting with 10 different goalscorers including eight multi-goal scorers, so they’re not banking their offence on one name like an Akio or a Bevan to carry them.
That’s why they’ve only been shut out three times since the start of June, as that will be something they’ll need to bank on if they’re to overcome the threat of regression.
Overall, though, there’s a lot to like with Cavalry’s play, which is why they’ve won 10 of their last 14 games. You don’t do that if you’re not performing at a high-level, and have difference-makers across your lineup such as Carducci, Daan Klomp and Ali Musse, for example.
But given that this wouldn’t be the first time they’ve had regular season success and come up short in the playoffs, those details will be important to manage as they get set for the postseason, as that could be the difference between more playoff heartbreak and being able to finally lift the North Star Shield.
No doubt, this team is better equipped to handle that, but these next few weeks will be crucial towards them proving that, especially when it comes to crunch time.
Too little, too late for Valour?
It was a bit of a déja vù - much like on opening day, Valour headed into York, and emerged with a two-goal victory.
And, more importantly, it was a good overall performance from Valour, too, who did well to disrupt York with their style of play. Backed by some good individual showings, it allowed them to pick up a relatively commanding win, although some York red cards certainly helped.
Yet, while it was certainly a positive performance, it’s also frustrating, because they’ve been far too few between on the road this season. Given that it was just their second road win period, and that they’ve both come against a York team that has the worst home record in the CPL, it shows the sort of struggles they’ve had away from home.
GOAL 🎖️@ValourFootball strike first!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 8, 2023
Dante Campbell flicks and controls to set up his eventual low cross, which he taps home to open the scoring vs. @YorkUtdFC
🔴 Watch #CanPL on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/q6P5KXbUyK
Of course, that’s nothing new - they only claimed 12 points from 14 road games last year, and had 11 points from 14 games in 2021, putting their projected road haul of 11.6 points right in the wheelhouse in terms of their typical road performances.
And then combined with their regression at home, as they’ve gone from picking up 25 points in 14 games last year to only being projected to pick up 16.5, and that further shows their misery this year.
Of course, this is nothing new - as seen throughout the year, they’ve got some key issues to address, namely their lack of offence.
Speaking of that, however, is the one big thing that stood out from their win over York - they scored three goals, which might not seem like a big deal at first, but is when you realize that’s only happened one other time this season.
One will have to imagine that’s a big confidence booster, especially for a team that has underperformed their xG by over six goals on the season.
That’s worth noting, as they’ve now got a pretty unique opportunity ahead of them over the next few games.
Given that they play Forge at home, a matchup they’ve dominated, and then play Vancouver at home (in which they’ll make up a game in hand on everyone in the top six), they’ve got a prime chance to build off this York victory and string together a couple of results.
If they do that, and win both games, they could be within four points of a playoff spot next week if York and one of Ottawa and Halifax lose this weekend.
GOAL 🎖️🎖️@ValourFootball go up 2-0 over @YorkUtdFC as Diego Gutierrez finishes off a flurry of pressure from both parties with a deft shot past the 'keeper 💪— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 9, 2023
🔴 Watch #CanPL on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/CYOFNI2t03
Given that they play Ottawa (A) and Halifax (H) in two of their last three games, they could very well mount a late playoff push if all goes right for them.
It’s a huge ask for a team that hasn’t won back-to-back games all season long, but they’ll now look to conjure up some late-season magic, throwing a potential late wrench into the playoff race.
If they drop any points across their next two games, however, their playoff hopes will be done and buried, showing how crucial this stretch is.
Safe to say, this is the time for the ‘resilient’ Valour that Forge’s Bobby Smyrniotis praised this week ahead of their matchup to show up, before it’s too late.
Cagey battles yield moments of defensive brilliance:
Lastly, it’s worth noting that while this weekend wasn’t great for those who needed wins in the top six, it yielded some pretty impressive defensive actions.
Sometimes, given that a lot of the focus at this time of year is on what happens on the offensive side of the pitch, especially when factoring in things such as the Golden Boot and MVP race, it’s always important to also remember those putting in work on the defensive side of the game.
Therefore, seeing that the six games this week yielded seven instances where the top six teams allowed one goal or less in games (out of a possible 10 occasions), there were some impressive defensive actions worth highlighting.
First, there was this game-saving block from Doneil Henry, who literally saved a draw from Halifax with this flexible effort, capping off a dominant performance from the veteran.
Then, there was this possible game-saving tackle from Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson against Cavalry, who may have very well both kept Forge’s title hopes alive with this challenge, while giving a big boost to their playoff aspirations.
Lastly, there was this block from Daan Klomp, who continues to be a big reason why Cavalry’s outperformed their defensive xG numbers quite significantly, while also helping Cavalry claim a 2-1 win with his heroics (which also included him scoring the winning goal).
Yet, all of this shows the important shift that players are putting in off the ball, of which there are many more (such as Pacific’s Emil Gazdov and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère’s showing against Ottawa in midweek, as an example), which are helping their teams massively at this time of the year.
They might not steal the headlines like a good goal, but they’re just as important and could have a big role in the title and playoff race, which is why they’re more than worth talking about.
Player of the Week: Dante Campbell
Despite some good showings from those who played in midweek, Campbell’s strong performance for Valour against York was enough to claim these honours, as he was excellent in Valour’s win.
For a team needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, he stepped up in a big moment, and he was rewarded with his first CPL goal, all while helping his team win on the day, marking a good showing from him.
Goal of the Week: Maxim Tissot
Don’t give up any free kicks to Maxim Tissot, because he will punish you.
Pacific were his latest victims in midweek, as he curled this peach of a set-piece to help claim a draw, before celebrating in style.
Between having him and Ollie Bassett, teams will want to stop giving up free kicks to Ottawa, because they’re content with making you pay if given the opportunity to do so.
You Gotta See This: James Cameron’s late winner
It was a fun weekend for Vancouver FC fans, who got to witness the joy of a late winner, courtesy of local 18-year-old James Cameron, who picked a pretty good time to score his first professional goal.
GOAL 🦅🦅— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 10, 2023
It's a LATE go-ahead for @VanFootballClub as @AtletiOttawa is stunned on another surging counter, with James Cameron tucking home the effort in the 91st minute 💪
CAN. THEY. HOLD. ON? 🔥
🔴 Watch #CanPL on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/pnZMPD9NZ6
From the emotion Cameron showed to the jubilant celebration from his teammates, and a pretty good Jose Mourinho impression from Afshin Ghotbi, this was a moment to remember for this young Vancouver FC side and their fans.
(Bonus, how about this side-eye from Carlos González from the Pacific and Ottawa game in midweek…)
What I’m watching this week: Halifax Wanderers vs. Atlético Ottawa
It’s been postponed to Monday due to the inclement weather in Halifax (sending our best wishes to those on the East Coast!), but a crucial clash awaits between Halifax and Ottawa when they do take the field early next week.
A battle of the teams tied for fourth and fifth in the CPL, this is a must-win for both teams, who have both lost two and drawn one of their last three games. As a result, they sit just one point ahead of sixth place York United, who no longer have an extra game played over them.
Because of that, the loser could conceivably fall out of a playoff spot, showing the importance of this game for both teams.
Therefore, this should be an intriguing tactical battle. On one side, expect Halifax to want to control the ball and really wear down Ottawa in possession, while on the other, Ottawa’s going to want to put in a good defensive performance and frustrate Halifax, especially after slipping a bit in that area of their game over their last two matches.