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Tommy Wheeldon Jr. urges all to run it back around the world.
Show the Canadian Premier League’s championship match to anyone and everyone.
And show it with pride for being our game — the pinnacle game of Canada’s domestic soccer league.
Because even though his Cavalry FC side lost, the weekend’s 2-1 final that crowned Forge FC a four-time and repeat CPL playoff champion was truly epic.
“If this hasn’t done much for the Canadian soccer as a whole, I don’t know what else we need to do,” commanded Wheeldon, GM/head coach of the Calgary’s professional footie side, just moments after Saturday’s CPL finale at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.
“Because it was fantastic game. Two sides that were very competitive, very tactically adept … and I thought the goals speak for themselves. So this should be going viral around the world, really.”
He’s not wrong. The climax match of the campaign proved to be just that.
First, pressure mounted game-long by regular-season champion Cavalry that finally created the evening’s initial goal in the 101st minute — in extra time, that is — by the Players’ Player of the Year, Ali Musse, to cap a brilliant bit of team play.
Then, not long after, two even more incredible strikes by the reigning kings Forge — from Béni Badibanga and Tristan Borges, termed rightly as “worldlies” by Wheeldon — to decide the contest and the playoff crown.
The final was a build-up of intense competition as the minutes moved along, with bonus time bringing on the explosion of goals to finally beat the league’s two best goalkeepers — Musse firing one to the far side past Forge’s Triston Henry and Badibanga and Borges blowing unreal balls to the far top corner beyond the stretches of Cavalry’s Marco Carducci.
The winner by Borges in the 111th minute was an Olympico — a goal scored directly off a corner kick.
“You’ve got to give credit to Badibanga and Borges,” Wheeldon said. “If you look at xG (expected goals in soccer measure) … what is the xG of that corner Olympico? Point-zero-one? And Badibanga’s (shot from the extreme corner of the penalty area)? Point-zero-two? Nothing broke down on our end. That’s two terrific goals.
“The (loss) feels a lot different than the ones I’ve been here before, where I’m bemoaning the officials’ calls,” Wheeldon said. “I thought (referee Marie-Soleil Beaudoin) had a great game. And it was a feisty, competitive one.
“But like I said, when it comes down to percentages to have one of those low xG goals go in and then have two in extra time within 10-15 minutes of each other, I’ve never known it.”
He knows it now. And his club, unfortunately, will feel it forever.
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After running away with the league by 13 points over second-best Forge in the regular season to collect that championship, the CPL Shield and a spot in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup, Cavalry desperately wanted “the bonus” of claiming the playoff triumph, to boot. That title also comes with hardware — now the newly minted North Star Cup — something the Cavs have yet to hoist despite a very successful five-year history.
“I told them I was proud of them,” Wheeldon said of addressing his devastated charges post-game. “I said, ‘Listen, sometimes this is sport, right? This is football.’ So, yeah, I’m proud of the way our guys played. Gutted for the way we lost, but it’s still a successful season.”
“Yeah, it hurts, but what a season,” agreed Charlie Trafford, a Cavalry midfielder star and native Calgarian. “We qualified for the Champions league — and that was the club’s goal. We won our first trophy. We go and solidify ourselves with one of the best-ever seasons.
“So this would have been an unbelievable way to cap it off.”
For the league, it was a winner even before the dramatics capped off the finale.
The playoff championship came before a raucous crowd of 13,925 fans — one of the most all-time to see a CPL contest and the highest-paid attendance to take in a Forge game in Hamilton.
“What an atmosphere — the fans were unbelievable,” Trafford said. “I think it was a great showcase for Canadian soccer and how the game is growing here.”
“The energy that the fans brought is fantastic for our league,” Forge manager Bobby Smyrniotis agreed. “It’s fantastic for our club, and — most importantly — it’s fantastic for Canadian soccer. Sometimes there’s some negative news out there about Canadian Soccer. As somebody who was born in this country, played through every single level there is as a youth player, been through as a development coach and been in the pros, Canadian soccer is in the best place it’s ever been in its history — men’s, women’s … everything. Everything can be a little bit better — that’s for sure.
“But the only way is up and we’re moving in the right direction.”
So, too, is Cavalry after such a stellar season.
No matter the result of the finale, Wheeldon, Trafford & Co. can cheer themselves on for a job well done in creating excitement for the game in Calgary — including an improved attendance of 17% more fans to ATCO Field at Spruce Meadows in 2023 than it had in 2022 — and meeting the most arduous goal of winning the league in the regular season.
“Six draws to start the season,” Trafford added. “And then like we leaned back into it — you know, we put we put a plan together at the beginning of the year, and through those tough times, we stuck to it. And then we started to get things going. And then we have another defining moment — we lose 3-2 to Valour after being up 2-0 — and then we go on and don’t lose again for the rest of the season. So I think we’ve shown how well we can do with adversity and bounce back.
“Credit to Tommy. We’ve built such a good team. And bigger than that is the winning culture and the team atmosphere we have that’s unbelievable. It’s a family.
“We watched the individual awards (Thursday night), and we get a bunch of those, and big credit to our individual players. But you know, we all watch it and we all celebrate it like we’ve all won something. It’s just a brotherhood, which is such a rare thing in professional sport. I think people underestimate how hard it is to get that kind of team chemistry.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a season in my professional career.”
The CONCACAF Champions Cup is next up for both Forge and Cavalry, with the draw to determine the bracket slated for Dec. 13 … The 27-club, five-round Cup then kicks off in the first week of February — well ahead of the 2024 CPL season … And the championship final is slated for June 2.