How does a manager deal with the challenges of coaching a pro soccer club at a compact tournament in isolation during a global pandemic?
“It’s about managing your mind,” admits Cavalry head coach Wheeldon Jr., speaking via Facetime from his hotel room in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island Monday.
“It’s almost like you’re Albert Einstein, thinking about this and that,” jokes Wheeldon Jr as he pans his camera phone around his room revealing a desk and tables covered with deep stacks of used note paper, wall mirrors with matchups written in black marker and whiteboards with football formations identified by magnets. “You’re getting an idea of how my mind works.”
But all that thinking has paid off for Cavalry FC and its manager as the Calgary club has now advance to round two of the Island Games.
“Objective number one is complete,” says Wheeldon Jr. “How we got there? Doesn’t matter. We’ve done it.”
Good start gives way to slip ups
But qualification for the second round wasn’t always guaranteed.
After a bright start with three wins and a draw from four matches, Cavalry suffered a couple setbacks losing to Atlético Ottawa and Pacific FC in successive matches. But Wheeldon Jr. says he understands why.
“We planned right from the get go: let’s get four wins,” he says. “And by the time we got to Ottawa, we almost got impatient. We got caught out with two back to back errors which is very unlike us.
“And then a short turn round against Pacific who was fresh. And they put us on the ropes again.”
The two straight losses left Cavalry FC needing a win against York9 FC in its final first round match to advance. But Wheeldon Jr. was still confident he’d get the necessary result after having prepared tactics and formation rotations weeks in advance and knowing his club had nearly a week’s rest.
“We knew by the time we got to York, we were going to play as close to our best (available) lineup, because we knew we had a week to prepare. We were going to play our strong team prior to round two.
“We had our slip up, but we were still confident, that come Saturday, we’d have a number on York. We got our tactics spot on.”
Leaders on the pitch stepping up
Wheeldon Jr. is proud of all his players to date, but he had special praise for his on-field leaders.
“You look at our captains in Nik Ledgerwood, Mason Trafford and Elijah Adekugbe – they’re terrific in terms of setting the standard.
“And then you’ve go the young leaders like Dominic Zator, Marco Carducci and Nico Pasquotti who’ve been with us and me for a little while. So they know we’ve been there before in terms of condensed seasons in the PDL (when they played with Calgary Foothills FC).”
And Wheeldon gave special credit to 20-year-old fullback Mohamed Farsi who has caught many eyes with his performances at the Island Games.
“Mo Farsi has been a terrific surprise package, because he’s just added energy, quality and he’s got this hunger,” said Wheeldon Jr. “He lights it up. He’s really taken the opportunity.”
Wheeldon Jr. remembers arranging a two-week trial with Farsi and being immediately impressed.
“After a week, we’re like,’this kid’s got it. He’s got the fire and finesse.’”
First round challenges
Wheeldon Jr. admits there have been to challenges along the way to round two.
“It was about managing specific absentees,” says Wheeldon Jr.
Sergio Camargo was big loss for Calgary’s club. The number 10 suffered a quad injury against Valour FC early on at the competition. Cavalry FC will also need to cope without Brazilian Oliver Minatel who suffered a broken leg against York9 FC Saturday.
New signings Jose Hernandez and Jair Cordova were both looking good before both went down to injury before the tournament.
Life in isolation
But Wheeldon Jr. says there are also challenges unique to the short format and isolation of the Island Games due to the COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s about managing the minutes between the games,” says Wheeldon Jr. “We have a really good sports science group that will have the boys, whether in a pool recovery session or in the gymnasium a couple hours a day on the training pitch.”
Each club generally has their own floor at the Delta Prince Edward hotel and also has their own outdoor and indoor areas.
“It’s just managing the time so the guys have enough freedom and you’re not just over doing it.”
And being away from home for so long has had an effect too.
“I miss my family. I have three conversations a day back to my wife and the kids. It’s hard of course.
“Ian Allison (Cavalry FC president) and I speak every other day to check in. He’s probably does it more so for me to vent,” jokes Wheeldon Jr.
And he wishes his club was playing in front of its fans at Spruce Meadows this season.
“Spruce Meadows gives us our twelfth man,” says Wheeldon Jr. “When everyone’s banging their feet and the noise, when we’re walking out into that, in our mind we’re already one-nil up and in the minds of out opponents.
“To not have that and create it in other ways on a level playing field is like both teams playing on the road. We have to earn our own psychological advantage. And generally it’s the team that scores first.”
Cavalry FC begins the Island Games second round against Pacific FC Wednesday, Sept. 9. The match will be broadcast at onesoccer.ca