Marco Carducci, Cavalry eager to put past playoff heartbreak behind them vs. Pacific: "That's something we want to change"
As Forge’s Kyle Bekker connected with the half-volley that sailed into the top corner of Cavalry’s goal, scoring what would stand as the winner in Forge’s semi-final victory over Cavalry last weekend, many Cavalry fans probably thought “Here we go again” as the ball crossed the line.
#CANPL. BANGERS. ONLY. 💥@ForgeFCHamilton captain KYLE BEKKER stuns @CPLCavalryFC to give his team a 2-0 lead, and he lets the home support know it, too 👀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 14, 2023
Are we heading to Hamilton for the 2023 #CANPL FINAL? 🏆 pic.twitter.com/Wp80emOCpI
Despite entering that game as favourites, having won the regular season title by 13 points ahead of Forge, Cavalry had just been rocked by their guests, who despite having their worst regular season campaign to date, only finishing second on a tiebreaker, all of a sudden had qualified for a fifth straight CPL final.
Of course, credit has to be given to Forge for that - there’s a reason why they’ve made five consecutive finals, having won three of the four previous ones that they’ve played in, and that’s because they’ve had a knack of showing up in the biggest games.
As for Cavalry, though, it was more heartbreak, in what has become a familiar feeling for them after these sorts of matches. Despite being the CPL’s most successful regular season team by a good margin, sitting with the most points in league history to go along with two regular season titles (having tied for first and second in the other two years they didn’t win), the playoffs have been a far different story.
In fact, to get how much so, consider this - with this loss against Forge, Cavalry are yet to win a knockout playoff game, and even if you include the unorthodox group stage playoff the CPL did as part of the 2020 Island Games, Cavalry only has one playoff win in their history.
Compounded by the fact that they’ve got a record of 0W-1D-5L against Forge in the playoffs, for example (compared to a record of 6W-5D-6L in the regular season), that just gives an idea of how things have gone for them in the postseason over the years, with this game just being a continuation of that.
The good news, however? The journey isn’t yet over for Cavalry. They can no longer win the North Star Cup at home, as Forge’s victory allows them to host the final, but part of the reward of finishing top two now is that you get a second crack at making the final if you lose your 1v2 matchup, so they’re now getting set to host Pacific in the semi-final this weekend.
Having already won the 2023 regular season title, earning the valuable Concacaf Champions Cup spot that goes along with it, Cavalry wants to now complete the double, which still remains possible if they can overcome this playoff mountain to lift the North Star Cup.
Something yet to be done in the CPL, it’ll be a tall ask for Cavalry, who must erase their past playoff history ahead of this Pacific, but they know what’s at stake.
“It's obviously a very big game for us,” Cavalry’s goalkeeper and captain, Marco Carducci, told OneSoccer this week. “We want to be competing for the double, right, so it was obviously disappointing to lose last weekend and lose our chance to host the final and head straight there. But what's in the past is in the past now, it didn’t go our way, but we have another opportunity, and that’s key. We wanted to give ourselves that double chance by coming first or second, as that gives you that second chance, which can be so vital.”
“For us to have already won the league and book our spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup was already a huge achievement, but we want to do the double, so our focus has quickly shifted after losing on Saturday. Of course, it was disappointing, but our team switched our mentality right away to say that we're still in it, we still have the same path, which is to get two wins to get another trophy, and that’s what our mindset has been.”
They know that it’s not the ideal way they would love to be going after their first North Star Cup, as their big goal was to host the final and win at home, becoming the first CPL team to do that (all four previous winners were crowned on the road), but they know that beggars can’t be choosers.
Especially given their past playoff history, they don't care how they do it, provided that they can get the job done in the end.
Because of that, this Pacific game is huge on so many fronts. After a season where Cavalry had overcome some key losses to put together one of their most dominant seasons to date, becoming a “New Cavalry with old values”, this is a chance to prove how far they’ve really come.
For example, they’re yet to lose back-to-back games this season, and have done pretty well to bounce back from the games they’ve dropped, something that they’ll now want to lean into in this game.
“It's exactly that, I'd be lying as someone who has been here since the start, as if you look back, we've just fallen short in the playoffs, and that's something that we want to change,” Carducci promised. “But again, looking back to last weekend, our mentality this whole season and what has given us success throughout the regular season, and not just this season, but in years past, as well, is our ability to respond. We haven't lost back-to-back games this year, so every time that we've lost games, we've responded really well.”
“I think if you look at our home record this year, ATCO Field is a fortress for us. Of course, to lose there last weekend, it wasn’t an ideal time to do that, but we’ll go into this game with the same mentality that we’ve used this whole season, which is part of the reason why we’ve had so much success in the regular season, and it’s that game-by-game mentality.”
If Cavalry are to do that, however, they’ll need to be much cleaner with the small details in this Pacific game than they were against Forge.
For example, one is how they manage moments, a lesson Forge provided them in their first semi-final.
There, Cavalry came flying out of the gates, looking like far the better team to start, putting an early wave of pressure on their guests. Unfortunately, they didn’t capitalize on it, and Forge then scored an opener in the 29th minute off a set-piece, coming slightly against the run of play.
From there, the momentum of the game completely shifted, allowing Bekker to score the winner early in the second half, as Forge then survived a Cavalry onslaught, bending but not breaking as the Cavs were only able to pull back one of the two they needed to force extra time.
Perhaps in the regular season, the performance Cavalry put up would’ve been enough to get points, but instead, due to some sloppiness at key moments, they ended up on the wrong side of the result in the end.
And that’s the big thing that these Cavs will need to be wary of. There’s a reason why they won the regular season title in dominant fashion - they’re a very good team, and across a large sample size of games, they were able to rise to the top.
In the playoffs, however, it comes down to moments and details, and that’s where Cavalry will need to be better, and that’s not lost on them.
They know that they need to start like they did against Forge, capitalize on that pressure, and manage the game better the rest of the way, because if not, Pacific will have no trouble in making them pay for it.
“It's huge, at any point of the season it’s huge, but at this point in the season, it's about results, and teams find a way to lock things down and play for the result because that’s the most important thing,” Carducci said. “I think we deserve a ton of credit for the way we started against Forge, and on another day, if we score or if they don't score against the run of play, the outcome is different. But again, we can’t change the past, so I think we’ll have that same mentality to start really strong again, because we did that last weekend, and if we do that again, even if things don't go our way immediately, it’ll be about sticking to that principle, as having a good start in any game is important, right?”
“It doesn't matter whether it's a playoff semi-final or the first game of the season, you want to start every game strong, and that's something we've done very well, I think we've scored the first goal in the vast majority of the games we played this year, and that led to us winning the league by 13 points, as we have that ability to score first, and then see out games, so our focus will be on trying to do that again.”
Either way, one thing’s for sure heading into this game - this may just be Cavalry’s biggest game in club history.
It may not have the prestige of Cavalry’s Canadian Championship semi-final in 2019, or their CPL finals appearance later that year, but this game could very well be era-defining for Cavalry.
No doubt, their regular season dominance is and will remain memorable over time, but great teams show up in big games, and Cavalry’s playoff record has left a lot to be desired in that front.
Because of that, Cavalry knows what’s at stake in this game, too. Especially for someone like Carducci, who is just one of two Cavalry OGs left on this squad alongside Sergio Camargo, he’s had to experience that frustrating feeling of disappointment after a lot more playoff games than he would’ve liked to at this stage of his Cavalry career.
Therefore, as the club’s captain, he’ll look to lead by example in this game, allowing them to finally overcome that hump.
“Honestly, I won’t go in feeling like I need to say that much more, and I think that’s been a superpower for this team,” he said. “I'm not by any means a rah-rah type of leader who goes in and fires up the team, I think it's about staying consistent with the behaviours and the attitude that has gotten us to where we are now. But of course, now that we’ve had this run-through, I think our mentality has shifted to look at what happened last weekend, and now say okay, we've gotten that rep, we've had that opportunity to play in a playoff game where it wasn't an elimination game, but now it is, and now we know that we must win to advance, it's as simple as that.”
“But we've faced some of those moments throughout the season, I think if you look at games down the stretch, Halifax away, Forge away, York away where we got the 1-0 win and got the title later that night when Forge beat Pacific, there have been games that even though they weren’t one game knockouts, they sure felt that way. So it’ll be important to remind ourselves that we've been here before, so the message will be that we don't need to do anything different, we need to keep doing the same things that have gotten us success.”
“Yes, we might not have the same experience as before, as this team has changed a lot, but we've now played 30-plus games across all competitions, so we have the experience as a group to go out, and as much as it’s easy to say, it’s harder to put in practice, but we’ll treat it like any other game that we’ve played.”
“We know that the outcome will be important, and we know that there are different stakes on the line, but for me, it'll just follow the guidance that we're here for a reason, and if we stick to those principles, we stick to that belief and have faith, we’ll get the result that we want.”
And if there’s a Cavalry side to do that, this might just be the one with the best shot at it that we’ve seen.
Despite this being one of the most competitive and balanced CPL seasons yet, there’s a reason why Cavalry put up one of the most dominant CPL campaigns in history, as they had the talent and depth to overcome that challenge.
With that, they were also rewarded with the first trophy in their club’s history in the CPL Shield, as despite winning the regular season title in 2019, they weren’t recognized for it until the CPL retroactively did so as part of a push last year to put more importance on the regular season.
That may seem like a small thing, but that’s huge, as that meant that this year’s success was actually rewarded with a trophy, giving Cavalry that feeling of being able to hold up silverware, something they’d never previously done.
Because of that, they’ll look to use that as fuel to put their playoff doubts behind them. Heading into this year, most people noted that while Cavalry had been dominant in the regular season across the first four seasons, they’d never won a trophy or done well in the playoffs.
By winning the CPL Shield, however, they’ve ticked off one of the boxes, leaving just the other one to tick off, that being the North Star Cup.
Is the pressure on for @CPLCavalryFC to do the double in the #CanPL FINAL? 🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 19, 2023
Or will a successful regular season title still end the year with all that feel-good momentum of being a champion? ✨ pic.twitter.com/eExPLDZuQy
And given that they’ve only got to win two games to do that, compared to the 16 wins they had to put up across 28 games to win the Shield, it is technically easier for them to do so now, too.
Of course, as they and everyone else knows, there’s nothing easy about the playoffs, but Cavalry feels like they’re better equipped than ever to tackle the postseason, with last week’s hiccup being more of a bump in the road instead of a sign of what’s to come.
Now, they must go out and prove that, but they’ll do so with the pride of what they accomplished earlier in the year fuelling them on that quest.
“I think that mentality for us has been to carry that belief of going for a double,” Carducci finished. “And I think it’s a testament to the team and the culture that we've built that we felt that way as soon as we won the league, after we won York and were on the plane, everyone saw those videos, right? As soon as that happened, of course, we celebrated that moment, as it was a massive achievement to win a league across 28 games, win a trophy and earn a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup, as that was a big box that we wanted to tick off, but right away after that, we said why not do it again? What a feeling, right?”
“This is why we play, everyone wants to win, and you want to be a champion, so that’s an easy motivator for us. Of course, we’re proud of the achievements we had, we were able to celebrate a trophy in front of our friends and family and all of our fans at home after that last regular season game against Pacific, but how good would it feel to be able to do that again after the playoffs?”
“That’s been the message from Tommy, it took us 28 games to win our first trophy, and we did it in 26, but now we have to win two games, and that hasn't changed despite our result last week, we’ve got two games to lift a trophy, and that’s a huge motivating factor for us now.”