How Ali Musse's big-game mentality has Cavalry dreaming of historic CanPL double
Big players win big games.
Throughout a long season, it’s important to have a deep team, one that can allow you to rotate your squad, adapt tactically and be ready for injuries. No doubt.
But when it comes to the biggest games? You want your best players fit and healthy, and able to play at their best.
Unfortunately for Cavalry, given their history with big games in the CPL, they haven’t had much luck in that department. Given that entering this year, they’d won just one playoff game (which came in a bubble in 2020), they’ve typically come out short in those big moments before.
From the 2019 final against Forge across two legs, to falling to Pacific in extra time in the 2021 semi-finals, and then falling to that same Forge side across two legs in last year’s semi-finals, there’s been more heartbreak than jubilation for Cavalry in these games in the past.
As a result, it made some question this Cavalry side, leading to suggestions that they couldn’t get it done in the biggest games, with coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. wearing the brunt of that blame, which also fell on some of his players.
Because of that, Wheeldon Jr. had to be breathing a sigh of relief last weekend, as Cavalry took on Pacific in the second CPL semi-final of the playoffs. Having fallen to Forge in the first semi-final the week prior, extending their playoff record against their Hamiltonian rivals to 0W-1D-5L in their history, they needed to win this second-chance semi-final against Pacific to book their spot at the big dance against that same Forge team.
Not only did Cavalry do that, however, defeating Pacific 2-1 to win their first playoff tie ever and reach their second final in club history, but they did so off the back of some strong individual performances.
In particular, there was one player who really stood out, and that was Ali Musse.
Musse, who was just crowned the CPL’s Players Player of the Year this week, first found the Player of the Year winner, Daan Klomp, with a perfect corner to make it 1-0.
Then, he got on the end of a chance and buried home the 2-0 goal later, with his goal eventually standing as the winner as Pacific made it 2-1 late but couldn’t find an equalizer.
MY OH MY 🤯@CPLCavalryFC go up 2-0 with this cheeky set-piece routine, orchestrated to perfection to stun @PacificFCCPL in this #CanPL playoffs clash 💥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 21, 2023
Fraser Aird's smile foreshadows Ali Musse's finish, too 😅 pic.twitter.com/NKkFAEAWyD
Not only that, but Musse’s impact was felt even beyond his goal and assist, too, as he gave Pacific’s defenders fits all game, finishing with five chances created (including two big chances), four shots and two dribbles.
In one of Cavalry’s biggest games in club history, as another loss in that match would’ve opened up serious questions about their ability to show up in key moments, Musse showed that he can indeed be one to step up in the biggest of occaisons.
Having heard Wheeldon Jr. tell his players earlier that week that this was the moment where he wanted them to step up, he rose to the occasion, and had a performance to remember.
“Yeah. I think these types of games are for me, I personally love them the most, like I think there’s something in my blood for them,” Musse told OneSoccer this week, grinning at the thought of that match. “I just love the big games and the big moments. And I’ve always wanted to be that difference maker my whole life, I've always wanted to be a player that makes a difference. I wasn't always a goal scorer, but I wanted to either create or find another moment where I could impact the game in a big way, that’s something I love to do.
“Tommy told me that in these big moments, this is the time when he needs me the most, and for me, I love to be in that position. Thankfully, the players we have on our team are like that, as well, we have some big players on our team, Daan Klomp had an outstanding season, and we’ve been linking up a lot, we’ve been on a little bit of a streak right now, but yeah, I’m grateful everything is falling into place, and that I can be a part of all this.”
But those who have been paying attention to Musse this season won’t be surprised by that performance, which has become a regular occurrence for the 27-year-old.
After years of always being a dangerous attacker, but one that struggled for consistency, he stepped up and proved that he can be the guy for a team this year.
And given that Cavalry ended up running away with the regular season title, finishing 13 points ahead of Forge as they claimed their second title and first-ever club trophy, Musse’s impact on that was certainly felt.
Even though he matched his offensive output from 2022 with 11 goal contributions (he had 7G+4A in 2022; 5G+6A in 2023), he was far more consistent and dominant this season, often taking over games, doing so in ways that sometimes didn’t show up in the counting stats. Plus, he’s shone in the biggest of games, with the playoffs being an example, as he’s had two goals and one assist in two postseason games after picking up no goal contributions last year.
That helped Cavalry win games all year long, scoring the most goals in the league while doing so, as he found ways to help his team push play forward, be it with his passing, his dribbling, his shooting, and now, much to the joy of Wheeldon Jr, with his defending.
He might not be putting in five tackles a game, but he’s making sure to track back and get behind the ball, and as seen against Pacific, where he also had one tackle, one interception, seven recoveries and seven out of 11 duels won, it’s helping him be dangerous on both sides of the ball.
Given what he can already do with a ball at his feet, that’s a tantalizing combination.
“Yeah, and what’s different about Ali is that he’s got different ways to hurt you, right now he’s hurting people with his set plays, his delivery is like a whip when it comes in, and he just keeps aiming it at Daan Klomp’s head, so he’s got that in his locker,” Wheeldon Jr. told the Northern Fútbol Podcast this week. “But if you give him space in open play, he’ll run past you, if you give him space and back off, he’ll shoot, if you leave him space to get into the box, he’ll dribble at you.
“What we’ve worked on with him is that there are a lot of teams that double-team him now, so what we’re saying now is that if that happens, that means William Akio and Sergio Camargo have more space, so lend the ball to them so that defenders start to second-guess him, and his in-game intelligence is allowing him to do that.
“Then, on the other side, we’re teaching him on the defensive side, as the modern-day wingers and no. 10s are built that way, and we’ve seen it this past weekend, he’s tracking back, like after Pacific’s 2-1 goal from Kekuta Manneh, Ali hunted Manneh down two or three minutes later in a similar spot because he saw that he was going to cut in and try that shot again. That’s the difference with Ali now, he’s very quietly spoken, but he’s got this swagger about him right now that’s next level.”
Yet, that Musse has been able to find that new level to his game this year, on both sides of the ball, is a credit to the relationship he has with Wheeldon Jr.
Having first worked with the Cavalry boss back in 2017, when Musse joined the Calgary Foothills, the two have gotten to know each other quite well over the years, and that’s shown in the level of comfort and understanding the two have between each other.
“It’s been really good, I knew him for quite some time before the CPL, as I played at Calgary Foothills, so we go way back, and our relationship has been growing over the years,” Musse said of Wheeldon Jr. “He's been giving me more trust, and I’ve been growing and learning and also trying to soak up all that I can from the staff and from all of the players that I play with, especially the experienced players. I’ve spent my time trying to learn as much as I can, watching my clips just trying to learn and improve in each area as I can, and so far, it's been a good journey.”
Combine that with Musse’s internal drive to want to improve and hit that next level as a player, that’s turned out to be a pretty good match on this Cavalry side.
“(This year), I tried (to improve) my overall game, and add to every single department, as I wanted to improve all around,” Musse continued. “And I improved on most of the targets I wanted, too, I just missed out on was the goals, because last year I had seven goals and this year, I ended up with five, although it’s now six (with playoffs), and hey, I still have the chance to score some more goals, so that’s still open.
“But yeah, I wanted to be better in every other department, too, like being better on the ball, for example. I think last year, I was rawer, and this year, I’ve gotten more complete, I understand the game a little bit better, and I see the game a bit slower now, I understand it at a better level now than I did over the last two years, so I'm just growing into this into the game. Then, overall I wanted to work on where I received the ball, the areas I went tactically, and I think have improved in that sense, too.”
But most importantly, while Musse’s become a brand-new player, one that defences around the league have certainly come to fear playing, part of that is also because he hasn’t lost his key essence as an attacker - his flair.
And it’s not just his out-and-out skill, which is shown in some of the dribbles and tricks that he attempts on the field, but the confidence that he combines it with, as well as his ability to execute most of what he tries, too.
That’s why Wheeldon Jr. often calls Musse a 'Maverick', of which the official definition is “an unorthodox or independent-minded person.”, a fitting description of Musse’s ability to influence a game with his attacking play.
In a sport where modern players are usually eager to play things safe and simple, Musse’s playstyle is anything but, and that’s what makes him so dangerous.
“It’s very important to play with confidence, especially as an attacker, I feel like it’s a key component because a player can have all the attributes, skills and talent, but without that confidence, it can be very difficult,” Musse explained. “And for me, I think growing up, I always had that little flair and spark, and there were players that I always looked up to, and they inspired me to play and it gave me that extra energy, sometimes I'd watch football on TV, and after that, I’d go outside and start playing and try all of their tricks.
“So yeah, just something that I always grew up with, but I had to learn to maintain it. It helps when you have people who believe in you and want to help you, as that gives you confidence and the trust to do what you do, and you have to maintain that.”
🚨GOAL @CPLCavalryFC🐎#CanPL. BANGERS. ONLY— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 24, 2023
What a free kick from Ali Musse to grab a 2-1 lead LATE over York
And don't forget the run from Goteh Ntignee to win this free kick, too 💨
And that trust is paying off big time for Musse, with his award win this week just being the latest proof of that.
Fittingly, much as he one day dreamed as a youngster of being able to replicate the skills of top players around the world, he also had dreams of one day being one of the best attackers in Canada.
Having come to Canada at such a young age from his birthplace of Somalia, a country that has faced all sorts of conflict over the decades, an experience that understandably made for a hard upbringing for the youngster, he used that drive to push him forward every day.
Grateful to be able to grow up in the country with his family, he feels that’s been a big inspiration for him along the way, helping push him to where he is now.
He gives them a lot of credit for that, too.
For example, even though he didn’t know he’d win the Player’s Player of the Year award at the time of speaking with OneSoccer, he spoke quite highly of his family when asked what his reaction would be if he did win an award, just giving an idea of what it meant to him when it did actually happen.
“It’s huge, it would mean so much, to be honest, personally, it would mean the world,” Musse admitted. “To come from where I come from, with a rough history and rough past both in and outside of football, seeing my life with my family and the journey it took for us to come here to Canada and to be here healthy and living, to be the person that I am right now, I'm so grateful, so it would mean a lot to me and my family.
“This is something that I always dreamed of when I was a kid, I wanted to be one of the best players in Canada, and to be able to and to be nominated for one of the best players in this league, I’m humbled, I'm honoured, and I'm looking forward to the awards, and if it’s not me, hopefully another player on our team can get the award, but I'm just grateful to be among these players being nominated.”
But while Musse will be pleased that he can say that his peers in the CPL voted him as the top player of 2023, one of a few Cavalry members who earned individual trophies this week, he’d trade that award away in a heartbeat for what’s at stake for him this weekend - the North Star Cup.
A trophy that has painfully evaded Cavalry since the start of their history, who’s had to watch Forge claim three of the first four of them, with Pacific claiming the other, they’ll feel that this is the year to finally get their hands on it.
Having already tasted a trophy this year, when they lifted the CPL Shield as regular season winners, they’re hungry for more.
So knowing that they can add the North Star Cup to their cabinet with a win this weekend, becoming the first CPL team to claim the double, they’re motivated to get the job done.
Because of that, while all of the individual hardware they claimed will bring them joy, as the CPL Shield previously did, they know that a win this weekend would be the perfect way to cap off their season.
And Musse will hope to be in the middle of that, continuing his remarkable 2023 campaign, one that he’ll want to cap off with another performance to remember in the final.
“These awards are amazing, and it's nice to be nominated but winning the trophies is one of the greatest things in football, so we're looking forward to it, we want to win,” Musse finished. “I think everybody in the club, the players, the staff, everybody knows how important this is for the club.
“So we are going to put all of this talk and all the other stuff aside for the final, and hopefully we can secure (the North Star Cup). Just to make it this far into the season, with the year we’ve had so far, I think it’s remarkable, but I think the best way to end it is with another trophy, as that would be the cherry on top.”