Calgary’s Cavalry FC may be a Cinderella story but the fairy tale isn’t over yet.
The Canadian Premier League squad pulled off an upset Wednesday night, beating Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 to advance to the Canadian Championship semifinals.
Cavalry are the only CPL team to take out an MLS opponent in the tournament.
“We literally came in here with nothing to lose,” Calgary coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said after the victory. “We’re not expected to win as a first-year professional club in (a league) that’s an unknown entity to most. But we’ve shown that we can compete.”
The loss extends the Whitecaps’ dismal winless stretch to 10 games across all competition, including five straight losses in MLS.
Earlier this month, they battled Calgary to a scoreless draw in the first leg of the Canadian Championships’ qualifying round.
That contest boosted Cavalry’s confidence, said captain Nikolas Ledgerwood.
“I think before it kicked off in Calgary, we felt like the underdogs. And I think that game put everything a little more into perspective for the guys,” he said.
“I think our kind of motivational speech before (Wednesday’s) game was ‘We’re no longer underdogs. We have something to prove. We’re hungry.’ Everyone in the locker room believed in ourselves, that we could actually pull it off today.”
Cavalry struck early on Wednesday, with Jordan Brown burying a long ball from Ledgerwood in the top left corner of Vancouver’s net seven minutes in.
Dominick Zator added some insurance with a goal off a free kick in the 72nd minute.
Goalie Marco Carducci stopped two of three on-target shots for the Cavalry. Vancouver ‘keeper Maxime Crepeau had one save.
“I honestly believe that the biggest difference between both teams tonight was that every player on our team believed we could win the game. And I don’t think that was the case on the Whitecaps,” Ledgerwood said.
Cavalry knew going into Wednesday’s game that they were catching the ‘Caps in the midst of a difficult stretch, Wheeldon said.
“I’m a big believer in psychology and I think what you can see now is that (the Whitecaps) are going through a tough time. We’re going through a good time. And for us, we’re just about ‘Let’s go and enjoy ourselves,’ ” he said.
The Whitecaps have struggled when playing from behind recently and the match up with Calgary was no different. The squad looked frazzled after the first goal of the night, with defenders losing their checks and passes falling incomplete.
The squad eventually settled into a groove, pushing play into Cavalry’s end and controlling possession for 67.8 per cent of the game. Vancouver out-shot Calgary 18 to 6.
“We were the better team on the field, more possession, more in their half, pushed, created,” said Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos. “But we missed some empty goals that are almost more difficult to miss than to score. And when those balls don’t go your way, it’s like everything piling on.”
Forward Theo Bair held off two Cavalry defenders with some fancy footwork to set up Vancouver’s lone strike of the night. He got the ball to Hwang at the top of the box and the South Korean midfielder put a left-footed shot past Carducci to tie the game in the 67th minute.
The ‘Caps had a flurry of other chances, including an open-net opportunity for Yordy Reyna, but the team simply couldn’t score.
Dos Santos said it was good to see his group have better possession numbers and create chances in the opponent’s final third, but continuing that form through the final part of the MLS season will be challenging.
“It’s a different level,” the coach said. “We can’t be delusional here. MLS is a different level, different type of opponent and it’s more difficult to do what we did tonight in an MLS game. So we have to take the good things from this game and we have to carry on.”
Wheeldon and his group don’t see themselves as being in a lower division, however.
“We’re just Canada’s tier one. MLS is America’s tier one. We’re just new,” he said. “So as we’re wet behind the ears, we’ve still got a lot to learn, but what we showed tonight is — irrespective of our salary cap compared to the MLS — you can compete if you’re organized, if you create the culture early, you have great players in the locker room that lead from within and you have a game plan.”
Calgary will now face the Montreal Impact of the MLS in the semifinals starting on Aug. 7.
Montreal punched its ticket to the next round with a 3-2 aggregate win over York9 FC of the CPL. The Impact took a 1-0 victory on Wednesday after battling York to a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the qualifiers earlier this month.
The United Soccer League’s Ottawa Fury also advanced in the tournament, beating the CPL’s Halifax Wanderers 5-4 on aggregate. The two teams settled for a 2-2 tie in Ottawa on Wednesday, but the Fury had already beaten the Wanderers 3-2 in the qualifying round’s first leg.
Ottawa will face defending Voyageurs Cup champions Toronto FC in the semifinals.