'We have our game-plan': Cavalry FC ready to dish out revenge in 2022 CPL playoffs
Through four seasons of Canadian Premier League action, there is no doubt that Cavalry FC of Calgary, Alberta have been a standard-bearer for the competition.
They are, after all, the team that has accumulated the most cumulative points in regular season action over those four years. And, they've been a remarkably-consistent unit, one that has been tough to crack when at its best.
Despite that regular season success, however, the Cavs have fallen short where it matters most – the CPL playoffs.
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They, of course, finished second to Forge FC in the inaugural CPL Finals, as the Hamiltonians eclipsed them in the two-legged finale after Cavalry led the regular season. Cavalry then failed to make the finals in 2020 and in 2021, falling in the final four each time.
Does Cavalry have what it takes to get over that hump? Team veteran Mason Trafford believes it at his very core.
What's in a playoff run, anyway?
The playoffs can always be a bit of a crapshoot. At the same time, it's a battle that the great teams find a way to overcome and win, no matter the circumstances.
Especially considering the fashion with which Cavalry has lost each year – fine margin defeats, late goals and refereeing controversy often being a key theme across those three playoff eliminations – it does feel like Cavalry is not too far away from getting over that hurdle and being crowned champions.
As they head into their fourth playoff run, they believe that this version of the team can be the one to change that.
Arguably their deepest team yet, manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has put together a team that can overcome, despite finishing third and struggling with some tough absences to key players, as well as selling on emerging youngsters like Aribim Pepple and Victor Loturi, too.
Those kinds of losses would have destroyed the fortunes of most teams, but it didn't affect Cavalry, who still finished just two points off first place, showing how well they were able to adapt and overcome – a key mantra.
"We are really deep where it counts," Cavalry defender Mason Trafford told OneSoccer this week. "You can see it in training, we often have enough guys to make two elevens, so the team that is going to start on the weekend is playing against arguably a CPL-level team in that setting, and a good CPL team, too. So it's made things really competitive in training.
"A lot of the squad has been stretched this year with injuries, especially those to some key guys we were hoping to have around, and then we had that long-term effect of having three or four guys that were really out for a long time, as well as throughout the year we've had some big players, such as Myer Bevan and Sergio Camargo, for example, just bouncing in and out, so it was tough on the continuity side.
"Aribim Pepple and Victor Loturi were also big parts of the team, too, and having sold them, it's bittersweet, because it was unbelievable for them, the club and the league to be selling guys on to leagues such as that, but for our team, it hurts, as those guys were starters, but that’s the interesting and unique thing about our league."
Sticking with another of the club's key mantras - 'next man up, always' - has allowed Cavalry to roll through the punches, leading them to the stage that they've been eager to return to ever since they were eliminated in heartbreaking fashion back in 2021.
"We had other guys come and fill their boots, and here we are in the playoffs again, which was our goal," Trafford continued. "We didn't win the league this time around, but with how tight it was, it was close and it was probably just one result that has us in third, but we're still in the playoffs, so here we go, it’s the big show."
But while Cavalry is happy to be back at the big show, they’ve got one final determining factor driving them this year – revenge.
A dish best served cold in Calgary
You could forgive Cavalry FC for having a bit of a chip on their shoulders from 2019.
They exited the year having finished top of the cumulative table – a much more trying task than winning a short playoff run – but had little to show for it.
This year, the CPL announced it would award a trophy to its regular season winners ... no such prize existed back then, though.
So, you can also understand the desire for a bit of revenge for past playoff heartbreaks; revenge, also, for those who don’t think they have what it takes, and revenge for not finishing first - any sort of motivation will do for Cavalry in these playoffs.
While they might not openly admit that they’re out for a piece of everyone, it’s only fitting that their playoff semi-final against Forge offers the perfect chance to avenge something that likely will forever stick with Cavalry - the 2019 Final.
After picking up a whopping 64 points in 28 games in that inaugural 2019 season, winning both the spring and fall seasons, Cavalry then had to watch Forge down them in their own stadium to become first-ever ‘North Star Shield’ champions.
Because of that, this first proper playoff meeting between these two teams since that final will be a chance for Cavalry to right some wrongs from that year, in which Cavalry’s exploits were taken over by Forge being the first champions. Especially given that it now means that any route to a first final win for Cavalry goes through Forge, that’s something that they’re quite happy with, giving them a chance to directly make up for that loss.
"I think it's great," Trafford said. "All the teams in the playoffs this year, I think are really strong and all offer something really unique. And so there are some interesting matchups, too. Forge and Cavalry have probably the biggest rivalry in the league to date, so we have a lot of respect for them, because they have done it, they’re there every year, just like us, but they've managed to lift that trophy twice.
"They have good players and a good structure, they play good soccer, too. So we knew that we’d have to go through them likely at some point to win, so for us to get them over two legs, it’s going to be a fun one. There are always battles, and emotions, so what a good way to cap the year off."
The best rivalry in CPL, bar none?
This year's playoff semi-final is also a chance to revisit a rivalry that has since grown to become one of the best in the league since that first year. Typically a matchup of high-intensity and drama, these games are usually of a quality that is quite remarkable to witness, while also producing entertainment that can be hard to match.
Not only that, but they’ve been incredibly tough to split, too, as through 17 meetings, just one of those games was decided by more than one goal, with each of those other matchups being draws or one-goal affairs.
Because of that, being treated to such a rivalry over another two-legged playoff series is a tantalizing prospect, one that many hope can only deliver more memorable moments to add to this storied rivalry.
"It feels to me like our two clubs are the ones that have been there every year," Trafford said. "It’s been like, 'Hey, it's Forge vs. Cavalry,' there's this sort of aura about the matchup, and every time we play, every game has been so tight, it's been a one-goal game almost every time, and there's always some kind of drama and action. I think it just shows that you have two big clubs in the CPL going at it and trying to come out on top.
"Yes, there are a few times that things have spilled over, and there have been some reds and there have been some heated exchanges, but I think that's what people love. People like to see that emotion, and people fighting for each city, each club and each badge, with neither team wanting to back down from that, so that’s kind of the recipe for these matches, and it's hopefully a fun one to watch for the neutral as well as fans of each club."
At the end of this battle, Cavalry is hoping that they can finally make that leap they’ve long hoped to make, and that is to push to the final and become champions. Of course, every team is hungry to win, but it just feels like Cavalry has an extra edge to them right now, fuelled by that past heartbreak.
It’s felt like since day one of this 2022 season, they've been driven by a singular purpose to be crowned champions, and now, they’re closer than ever to making it a reality.
Now, everything is laid out perfectly in front of them, so it’s all about executing, something that will start when that first whistle blows at Spruce Meadows on Saturday afternoon to kick off leg one of this tie.
"Every team, if you ask them before the season 'What's your main goal?,' it's like 'Oh, yeah, we want to win the championship,'" Trafford explained. "Of course, everyone's going to say that, and our team has that for sure. But it's one of those things that you have to really want that drives you, but at the same time, you still have to go to work every day, and something else has to motivate you on a daily basis.
"You can't just think in April and say 'Hey, we want to win the title in 10 months.' There are little things that you have to do to actually get you there. So that's very much the culture here at the club, it’s one of hard work, commitment and buy-in, just trying to get a bit better every day so that when moments like the playoffs and hopefully a final come around, you’re ready to be put in that situation, even if it's something that’s going to be pressurized, it's something that you can just reach out and grab.
"But again, you have to kind of let the process take over and still play the game and play the 90 minutes and that's the plan, right? We know that we have our game plan, we know what pretty well but these other teams can do, we've played them so many times, so now it’s about going out there and executing a game plan to hopefully put our hands on the trophy in three weeks time."