This week Cavalry FC announced the signing of four more players as the club prepares for the start of the Canadian Premier League (CPL) in April 2019.
And it’s not difficult to spot a developing trend. Nine of the 11 players signed by Calgary’s new pro soccer team to date won the 2018 Premier Development League championship with Calgary Foothills FC under manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr. Recent Cavalry FC recruits Nik Ledgerwood (M), Sergio Camargo (M), Marco Carducci (GK), Chris Serban (FB), Elijah Adekugbe (M), Dominick Zator (CB), Nico Pasquotti (F), Carlos Patino (M) and Dean Northover (FB) all played for Foothills FC last summer.
Wheeldon has since taken up duties as Cavalry FC head coach and general manager. And Cavalry FC’s first gaffer has been enthusiastically grappling with the same question facing the six other clubs in Canada’s new professional soccer league: How do you build a professional soccer team from scratch?
Wheeldon’s answer, apparently, is that you don’t build it from scratch at all. You employ an existing formula of success – one you’ve been developing for over a year.
Formula for success
Wheeldon is a big believer in club culture, often citing it as a priority.
“I’m about building cultures,” said Wheeldon, in October last year during the Canadian Premier League #GotGame trials in Calgary. “For me talent catches my eye, like everyone else. But I need to know the person. If you can’t rely on the people around you, then you’re going to crumble.”
And instead of building the culture anew, he’s chosen to bring in players and staff he trusts and who he’s worked with recently and who already understand his philosophy. This was always the plan.
There will be new players coming in, of course. Cavalry FC signed Brazilian forward Oliver Minatel recently. But the culture will already exist, ready to welcome them. On the face of it, it’s a sound strategy.
Cavalry FC and the Canadian Premier League will aim to produce an on-field product a level or two above the PDL (now called USL League Two). Calgary and Canadian soccer fans demand it, and rightly so. But in fairness, Calgary Foothills FC was already a level above PDL in 2018.
The Calgary club won 15 of their 18 matches, losing only once, on their way to the 2018 PDL championship. They tallied 38 goals while only allowing 9. These are the kind of numbers Manchester City recorded on their way to the 2017-2018 Premier League title. And City were considered a level above everyone else in the league that season.
Calgary Foothills FC didn’t just win the 2018 PDL championship, they were arguably the best team in the PDL last season. And as anyone who attended a game or caught a match online can attest to, they were fun and exciting to watch too. Cavalry FC is now gathering up that club’s best parts. FC Edmonton have even tempted a few former Foothills FC players north.
You need winners to win
As a long-suffering Tottenham Hotspur supporter, I know what it is to win. Or more accurately, I know what it is to not win.
Despite all of Spurs’ progress under the excellent Mauricio Pochettino (please don’t go to Manchester United, Pochy) over the last few years, they’ve failed to win a trophy. There are a few missing ingredients for the not-quite-good-enough Spurs, but one stands out. They don’t have many actual recent winners on the roster – players that have taken that final step and know what kind of dedication it takes to get their hands on a trophy.
With the signings of the nine 2018 Foothills FC alumni so far, Cavalry FC has winners in its ranks. Yes, there are massive differences between the English Premier League, the PDL and burgeoning CPL. But this spring and summer, Wheeldon will have a dressing room full of players that he can look to and speak to as winners. That’s a good thing.
Players came to Calgary targeting Canadian Premier League
It’s no secret now that many of the players only signed with Foothills FC in 2018 because of the behind-the-scenes conversations and deals Wheeldon was making. He was selling Cavalry FC before Cavalry FC even existed.
When asked why they joined Foothills FC at the start of 2018, players often identified their new coach’s ambition and his eye towards the future as motivation.
“Tommy’s building something big here,” was a common response, often accompanied with a cheeky wink of the eye. The wink alluded to what some of us already knew – that there would be a CPL team in Calgary soon. Sometimes it wasn’t even as subtle as that. Personally, on a couple occasions it took some creative editing of video interviews to make sure no secrets were divulged too early. The players were too excited about Wheeldon’s CPL plans to avoid discussing them.
Last year, some of these players took a step down from the level they were accustomed to – Canadian international midfielder Nik Ledgerwood a notable example. The PDL/USL League Two is officially an Under-23 league, but it does allow for some over-age players. Wheeldon and Foothills FC used this allowance to bring in the likes of Ledgerwood, 34, in preparation for Cavalry FC.
Other players were perhaps temporarily halting their careers’ upward momentum by joining Calgary Foothills FC, just so they could be in place for when the Cavalry FC and CPL switch was flicked.
But, the 2018 crop of Foothills FC players who have now been harvested by Cavalry FC are unlikely to see 2018 as a lost year. They won a national championship together. And now they stand at the dawn of something very special – a new national professional soccer league.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. is big on club culture. And with a significant portion of his squad having already played together, having already lived together and having already won together, Cavalry FC’s coach has a club culture that other Canadian Premier League managers may already envy.
Like all managers, Wheeldon doesn’t just want a set of good players. He wants a team. We’ll have to wait three months, when play begins, to see how Cavalry FC stacks up against other CPL clubs. But win lose or draw, it looks like Cavalry FC and Tommy Wheeldon Jr. may already have a team on their hands by then.