Four days after Canada’s memorable World Cup qualifying win over Mexico in snowy Edmonton, there’s another soccer showdown in Alberta.
The forecast calls for less severe conditions in Calgary on Saturday when Cavalry FC hosts Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League semi-final. ATCO Field should be green, not white.
“But that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be cold and the pitch will be hard,” Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said cheerfully.
A CPL season that started in late June, with all eight clubs playing out of a Winnipeg bubble before returning to home markets, is now down to four teams and three games.
Cavalry faces a familiar foe in Pacific. The two met seven times this season.
“It’s always a good hard battle,” Pacific coach Pa-Modou Kah said. “We know each other in and out. It’s going to be a game of margins and the little details that will tip this game. So I’m looking forward to it.”
Cavalry won the season series with a 3-2-1 record, going unbeaten at home (2-0-1). But Pacific won 1-0 in Calgary when the two met in the Canadian Championship quarter-final in September.
Cavalry (14-6-8, 50 points) finished second in the regular-season standings, trailing defending champion Forge FC (16-10-2, 50- points) on goal difference. Pacific (13-9-6, 45 points) led much of the season, eventually finishing third ahead of York United FC (8-8-12, 36 points).
Forge hosts York in the other semi-final Sunday with the championship game set for Nov. 27 or 28 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. The final could be delayed to Dec. 5 if Forge wins its semi-final and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats host the CFL’s Eastern semi-final on Nov. 28.
Forge beat Cavalry in the CPL’s two previous finals. But Wheeldon turned over his roster in the off-season, with only seven or eight players left from the inaugural 2019 campaign.
Pacific finished the season winning just two of its past seven (2-5-0). Still, the Vancouver Island team won fans for its style of play and a Canadian Championship run that saw it dispatch the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps 4-3 before eventually losing 2-1 at Toronto FC in the semi-finals.
“I think Pacific have been brilliant,” Wheeldon said. “The better they’ve got, the more it challenged us to raise our game. It’s not easy beating clubs that have a bigger [salary] cap than you and they did it quite convincingly that night [against Vancouver]. I think Pa and [associate head coach] James Merriman have done a terrific job.
“They play a very attack-minded, attacking brand. I think what we’ve learned against them is how to shut them down. The last two games against them, we’ve made sure that we’ve become the protagonist.”
Cavalry defeated visiting Pacific 2-1 in Oct. 21 and 1-0 on Nov. 7 at ATCO Field before wrapping up the regular season with a 1-0 victory at defending champion Forge on Nov. 16.
“We’ve trended in the right direction,” Wheeldon said. “I’ve said this all along, even when we were on the bubble in Winnipeg, that we saw this as a bit of a Tour de France, that we had to just stay in the peloton. We knew we’d never leave the top four. We knew once the playoff format came in, that was our goal all along to be in that top four.”
The team turned it up as the season wore on, looking to finish in the top two so as to get home-field advantage when the playoffs started.
So far so good. Cavalry has lost just once in its last nine games (5-1-3).
Wheeldon is confident in the attacking prowess of his “fab four” – Joe Mason, Sergio Camargo, Ben Fisk and Mo Farsi. All four sat out the regular-season finale against Forge to be ready for the playoffs.
Mason scored seven goals in 14 league appearances this season, adding another in the Canadian Championship.
“You just give him half a chance and it’s in. His movement is just terrific. He’s a nightmare for centre backs,” Wheeldon said.
The 30-year-old English forward played for Plymouth Argyle, Cardiff City, Bolton Wanderers, Wolves, Burton Albion, Colorado Rapids, Portsmouth and Milton Keynes Dons before coming to Calgary in May.
His resume also includes a goal for Cardiff City against Liverpool in the 2012 League Cup final before 89,041 at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won on penalties after the game finished tied 2-2.
There is a question-mark over the health of Pacific star attacking midfielder Marcos Bustos.
“He’s running, he’s training. So it’s going to be a game-day decision,” Kah said.
Pacific defender Lukas McNaughton is suspended.
Cavalry is missing midfielder Elliot Simmons (high ankle sprain).
The CPL playoffs will involve extra time, if needed, in the event of a draw after regulation time, the teams will play two 15-minute periods to decide the winner. If the score is still tied, the game will be decided via penalty shootout.