Cavalry FC SEASON PREVIEW: Can a refreshed core help overcome past playoff failures?
It’s a make-or-break year over in Alberta.
Despite entering 2023 as the most successful club in CPL regular season history, Cavalry has nothing to show for it in their trophy cabinet, with their peak being a finals appearance back in 2019, the league’s first campaign.
Now entering year five, Cavalry hasn’t been able to make it back to the big dance since, despite being one of just two teams to finish in the top four every season alongside Forge.
But seeing that Forge has three North Star Shields to their name, as well as one runner-up nod, regular season success has been where the discussion between them and Cavalry has always started and ended.
Because of that, Cavalry is eager to change that in 2023. There’s no doubting their status as a very good team, as having that much regular season success isn’t easy, but the difference between a very good team and a great team is an ability to shine in the biggest moments.
For the most part, Cavalry hasn’t been able to do that, leaving them with the label of a playoff underperformer, something they’ll be desperate to change when the postseason rolls around this fall.
Projected Starting XI:
3 key questions:
1) Can they maintain some consistency at the striker position?
When they were in form offensively last year, there weren’t many that were more fun to watch than Cavalry.
Led by a deep group of attacking players, they were able to score an impressive 39 goals, good for second in the league, along with a further two in the playoffs.
An already impressive number at first glance, that looks even better when you realize that they actually underperformed their xG last year, showing how good of a job they did at creating chances for themselves.
Yet, due to instability at the striker position, that hurt them in the long run, something that they’ll look to fix for 2023.
That is reflected in the fact that despite getting a combined 17 goals from strikers Joe Mason, Aribim Pepple and Myer Bevan in the regular season, only Bevan was able to score in the playoffs, in what ended up being a consolation goal in their 3-2 semi-final defeat to Forge across two legs. That’s worth noting, as it means that across eight playoff games in their history, Cavalry has now scored just seven goals, despite being one of the most proficient offensive teams in CPL history during the regular season.
Yet, due to injuries and then the eventual departure of Pepple to English Championship side Luton, that ended up hurting the team by the end of the year, with Bevan and Pepple combining for just under 1000 minutes, although Mason did log a solid 1700 minutes after an injury-filled 2021.
The good news? That inconsistency up front shouldn’t be an issue in 2023. Mason and Bevan are both back, and look to be healthy, meaning that they should be able to build off of what they showed when they were on the field in 2023.
They’ll be in tough for minutes, left to battle each other for that starting striker spot, unless their head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr chooses to play them together, but that competition will only be a good thing, as it helped them a lot when healthy.
From there, they’ll hope that they can keep them firing throughout the season, peaking by the time the playoffs come around, where Mason, in particular, is eager to shine there. Having now scored 15 goals in 34 regular season appearances in the CPL, he’s yet to score in any of his three playoff appearances, something that he’ll look to change this fall.
Along with the six goals in 14 Cavalry games that Bevan nabbed in his debut season in 2022, that will go a long way towards helping their side take that next step in the postseason, as they finally look to get over that playoff hump.
2) Will new core be able to take the next step, or fall back?
Since day one in the CPL, Cavalry has set out to establish a clear identity as a team. And they’ve done a great job of that, as words such as tactical flexibility, hard work, defensive effort and timely goals come to mind when you think of them as a team.
Yet, that’s just a credit to head coach, Tommy Wheeldon Jr, and his ability to build a strong core in year one, before just finding a way to maintain that through the rest of their four seasons.
Now, however, it feels like this team is in for a bit of a transition period, as a consequence of building that core, which was mainly composed of veteran pieces, is that a lot of them have either retired or moved on elsewhere.
As a result, just three players now remain from the team’s 2019 squad, Marco Carducci, Sergio Camargo and José Escalante, giving an idea of how things have changed.
Because of that, it’ll be intriguing to see how this turnover impacts them this season. In reality, the difference should be marginal, as Wheeldon Jr is a very good coach, one who has been able to get the most out of a lot of his players, with the team’s clear identity playing a big part in that.
Yet, having relied on that veteran core for most of his tenure, he’ll now have to give the keys to more of a younger group, something that could have a negative effect on his team’s play, especially given the defined way that they play.
At the same time, it could also be a big positive for Cavalry. While the old core certainly was a successful group, as seen by the team’s regular season play, the lack of playoff success shows where they came up short.
With this new group, however, who won’t be dragged down by that history, there’s a chance that could help Cavalry overcome some of those demons, allowing them to take that step forward.
Therefore, while Carducci, Camargo and Escalante will be crucial in leading this team, there’s no doubt that a new guard has arrived, led by the likes of Charlie Trafford, Ali Musse, Joe Mason and Daan Klomp, as well as the new arrivals.
Now, they’ll look to do what their predecessors weren’t able to do, and that’s to make that next step in the big games.
3) Can Cavalry return to stingy defensive ways?
Returning to that theme of changing identity, however, leads to something which Cavalry will definitely want to maintain from their old identity - their stingy defensive ways.
In year one back in 2019, they were dominant in that regard, allowing just 19 goals in 28 games, and then just two across two legs in the final, where their offence was really only what let them down.
Then, in years two and three, they allowed 47 goals across 42 regular season and playoff games, which is not bad at all, even if it wasn’t quite the defensive dominance they displayed in year one.
Last year, however, they took a bit of a step back, allowing 36 goals across 30 regular season and playoff games, and that hurt them in the playoffs, as they allowed an uncharacteristic three goals across two games.
Not only that, but their advanced numbers also dipped, as they allowed 34.67 xG in those 30 games (1.15/game), compared to 31.07 in 29 games in 2021 (1.07/game).
Of course, these are all fine margins, as they remained one of the top defensive teams in the league, but the big issue was that Forge really pulled away from them in 2022 after the teams were rather comparable defensively across the three prior seasons.
That ended up paying off for them when both teams met in the playoffs, and then further yielded success when Forge then beat them and made the final, where they were able to shut out Atlético Ottawa 2-0 to win their third North Star Shield.
Because of that, Cavalry will want to find a way to keep pace with them defensively once again.
Therefore, look for a few players to step up to help that. Marco Carducci is an obvious one, as he was strong last year, winning his second Golden Glove trophy, as are fellow returnees, Klomp, Trafford and Roberto Alarcón, who have various key roles to fill across the backline and in midfield.
Then, in terms of new arrivals, Callum Montgomery is a huge coup at centre back, as the 26-year-old Canadian has the pedigree to be one of the best centre backs in the league, while Udoka Chima is a nice addition at the position having come through the Burnley system, along with a stint in Scotland.
Elsewhere, Jesse Daley should be a crucial addition in midfield, as he brings over 100 games of experience in the A-League and USL Championship, and should help control games for Cavalry, reducing stress on their backline.
From there, they’ll look for contributions from the rest of the lineup, as is always the case for Cavalry, who loves to defend as a team, something they’ll need to really lean into as they try to keep up with Forge in 2023.
Player to Watch: Ali Musse
After a breakout 2022 season, can Musse maintain his status as one of the best attackers in the CPL?
That’s something that Cavalry will be banking on, as Musse was a revelation for them last season, scoring seven goals and adding four assists in 29 CPL games across the regular season and playoffs.
After scoring four goals and adding two assists in 22 prior games since 2019, it was a big season for Musse, who ended up finishing seventh in the CPL’s Player’s Player of the Year award voting thanks to his efforts. A mercurial dual threat with a wicked left foot, his ability to find space, in particular, was his best attribute, allowing him to drift underneath Cavalry’s dangerous strikers as a free-wheeling #10.
Now, he’ll look to take another step forward in 2023. Now 27, he’s very much in his prime, and should be in a perfect position to build off of what he did last season, helping Cavalry’s push to win their first title.
In a possible nod to the fact that this is a new-look Cavalry side, they’ve tweaked their kits slightly for 2023, altering the iconic colours that they’ve become known for.
First, there’s their home kit, which is filled with their recognizably vibrant red. The tweak, however, is that they added a bit of black, while adding a mountain and bison to give a nod to Alberta, which is a nice touch.
Then, with their away kit, they moved away from their army green to a black kit, one that has a lightning bolt in the middle of it. It’s not the most exciting kit, but black kits always do the job, so it looks sharp, giving them an overall decent pair of kits to rock this season.
Cavalry will do well if… they can maintain some consistency defensively. Between the likes of Musse, Mason and Escalante, the offence should not be an issue. But with a new-look defensive line, and a lack of natural defenders on their roster, they’ll need those defenders to gel, and then stay healthy. The good news is that their defensive group is among the best in the league on paper, so they’ll need them to play like it, allowing them to return to those defensive ways that they’ve typically had in past years.
Cavalry will struggle if… they get hit with the injury bug again. Last year, Cavalry had some pretty rotten luck with injuries, but they were able to overcome that. Now, however, with their roster being a bit thin on depth, it might not be the same story if they have to deal with that again. Of course, they’ll have no control over injuries, but you can certainly make your life easier by managing your squad, something that Cavalry has never had any issues with, but could struggle with early given the lack of sheer numbers that they have in their ranks.