TORONTO – With their tickets to the first-ever Canadian Premier League Finals already punched, it is clear that Cavalry FC and Forge FC are the class of the league in the inaugural season.
The two teams will meet over the two legs of the final on October 26 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton and November 2 at Spruce Meadows’ ATCO Field in Calgary with both matches kicking off at (1:30 p.m. MT/3:30 p.m. ET, available on OneSoccer).
Intriguingly, they met in the Canadian Championship earlier this season, a fractious contest to say the least where Cavalry emerged victorious to go on a historic cup run, and having played three times in the league will square off twice more – on Wednesday in Alberta and on October 16 in Ontario – before the regular season comes to an end.
It has been easy to point to Cavalry and Forge as having a head start on the rest of the CPL by dint of their emergence from preexisting clubs; Calgary Foothills in the then-PDL and Sigma FC in League1 Ontario, respectively, but as Tommy Wheeldon Jr. pointed out after a late September draw at York9 FC, it’s an incomplete premise.
“Absolutely, we had a good base, but I remember when we first put it together, the rumours that came out was, ‘Pfft, putting a lot of faith in those guys coming through,’” recalled the Cavalry boss of the dismissive attitude to his approach. “Like him [Nico Pasquotti], [Dominic] Zator, and Elijah Adekugbe, guys that had played there. But when you believe in the characters and the ability of these players, that’s what I wanted to go to war with.”
“I think it does undersell the work that we’ve done this season,” he continued. “Really, to be able to come to these places, it’s a different beast than when we played in the PDL. We’re more sophisticated now. It’s a long, long season, there is a lot of travelling. We’ve had to up our game in sports science, recovery, nutrition, scouting analysis. A lot more work should be credited to the staff behind the scenes as well, and our ownership group for the investment in what we do in our training.
“It can’t just be deemed, it’s because they had that.”
One can guess that Bobby Smryniotis at Forge would agree.
Why the rest of the league has not been able to match the furious pace set by those two is a big question, one that will require further investigation come the off-season digestion of what has been a wild year.
But how those two have distinguished themselves has played out on the field for all to see.
Results speak for themselves
At the end of the day, soccer is a game of results; matches are played, points awarded and tallied.
Come the end of the Spring sprint, Cavalry were top and Forge second. No team was within five points of the top two; somewhat symmetrically, Cavalry bested Forge by five themselves, earning their spot in the final before the Canada Day conclusion.
Most of the way through the Fall competition, those same two have put even more distance between themselves and the pack with 13 points separating them from their closest competition, Valour FC.
In both sessions, they did so by putting out the most consistent performances both at home and away.
To date they have been near-flawless at home – Forge dropping four results and Cavalry just three at their fields, no other team has dropped fewer than eight – and equally peerless on the road – they top both competitions and are the only teams with positive goal-differentials on their travels.
With the ferocity of the schedule, it was always going to be crucial to find some rhythm to string results together. Given the circumstances bad runs would compound and see a side stagnate on the table, good ones, on the other hand, would see a side rocket ever up, creating the separation seen.
Cavalry started the Spring season with a seven-game winning streak – the longest such run from any team. Forge would go on a five-match one of their own after a slow start. Only one other team, FC Edmonton, would have a winning streak of any note, picking up four straight as the Spring season closed and the Fall began.
Pacific FC and York9 were the only other teams to win back-to-back at any point – neither HFX Wanderers FC, nor Valour have yet been able to string together consecutive wins in league play.
Both of the front runners also put together long unbeaten runs: Forge are currently on a 14-match stretch, dating back to the second game of the fall season, while Cavalry have had two separate runs of seven unbeaten. HFX was able to go six unbeaten – all draws – while Edmonton twice went five unbeaten.
And where the rest of the league saw multiple losing skids, Forge lost consecutive games just once, while Cavalry have yet to, though they did draw three-straight mid-season.
All while managing the additional fixtures that came from a Voyageurs Cup run in Calgary and a strong CONCACAF League debut in Hamilton. A further measure of their focus was that neither side let the disappointment of their eventual exits from those competitions affect their league form.
Goals from everywhere and everyone
At the most basic level there are two elements to getting results: score goals and prevent the opposition from doing so.
Cavalry and Forge lead the league with both the most goals-scored (45 and 43) and the fewest allowed (16 and 20) – Pacific are closest in the offensive category with 33 scored and Edmonton the nearest defensively with 29 allowed. Cavalry and Forge are the only teams with positive goal-differentials.
Both have key contributors – Forge’s Tristan Borges leads the league with 12 goals and Cavalry’s Dominique Malonga is third with nine, as well as plenty of secondary scoring: Anthony Novak (5), Chris Nanco (4), and Kyle Bekker (4) for Forge; Oliver Minatel (7), Sergio Camargo, Julian Buscher, and Pasquotti (5), as well as Jordan Brown, Jose Escalante, and Nik Ledgerwood (3) for Cavalry.
Cavalry have eight multi-goal scorers, Forge six.
And they have scored goals by committee: Forge leading the league with 13 active scorers (plus, Emery Welshman whose loan ended) and Cavalry with 11. Pacific has also had 11 players chip in, but have just four multi-goal scorers – both Edmonton and HFX have had just seven players contribute to the scoring, each with just three multi-goal scorers.
Forge also has three of the top four assist-makers in Bekker, Kwame Awuah, and Borges, while Cavalry have two of the next four in Adekugbe and Buscher. Again, only Pacific has two in the top eight.
When these offensively high-powered teams score first, the opposition is in trouble.
In the 36 times Cavalry and Forge have taken the lead, they have never lost. Cavalry has won 17 of the 19 times they opened the scoring and Forge 15 of 17 – each having twice been clawed back to draws.
HFX are the only other team to never lose when they score first, though they have only managed that feat six times – they too have seen two of those end in draws – and though Pacific have scored first on 11 occasions, the most by another team, four of those contests ended in draws and another in a loss.
Though the honour of most goals in the opening 15 minutes of a match goes to York9 who have a fitting nine in that time frame, Cavalry and Forge lead the way in those crucial closing thirds of each half: the Albertans lead in both with nine goals from minute 31-45+ and 14 from minute 76-90+. Forge have eight and 12.
That is a measure of ruthlessness, an ability to close out a half or a match. As is the fact that with a combined 17 multi-goal wins between them, Forge (9) and Cavalry (8) have more than the 15 the rest of the league combined has managed.
When those two get a lead, which they often do, they make it count and regularly compound the damage.
First goal: Forge & Cavalry’s potential flaw?
Therein lies a wrinkle in their domination, one that speaks to just how crucial that first strike can be: neither side has anywhere near a winning record when conceding the opening goal.
Forge has done so eight times, resulting in four losses, three draws, and a win. And the near-flawless Cavalry seem positively average when falling behind, albeit with a minuscule sample size: they have lost three and drawn one in such circumstances. Neatly, two of those losses were against Forge.
Valour have taken seven points after conceding the first goal, Forge’s six is level with York’s haul. Cavalry, actually, have the fewest points from such circumstances with just one – but, again, sample size.
If indeed the game is reduced to scoring and not conceding then the concepts of clean-sheets on the defensive end and not being shutout on the attacking one take on outsized importance.
On those counts too, the duo are unmatched: Cavalry leads the league with 12 clean-sheets, while Forge are tied with Edmonton for second at eight – York and Pacific have the fewest with just four each.
Forge, on the other hand, have only been shutout once and Cavalry four times – again, two of those at the hands of Forge. HFX have not scored 13 times, Edmonton 12.
It is the interplay between the two that is crucial: scoring is less advantageous if one is just as likely to concede at the other end and keeping the opponent to zero is less valuable if one is unlikely to score.
Pacific have only been shutout five times, third-best in the league, but have managed just four clean-sheets. Forge are eight times more likely to keep a clean-sheet than be shutout; Cavalry three times. Every other team is more likely to be shutout than prevent the opposition from scoring.
And yet all that says nothing about some of the other factors, the depth of their respective rosters and their tactical flexibility, that have Cavalry and Forge at the top of the league.
With four encounters between the two over the next month to look forward to, just who will best the other in the end is yet to be determined. It is fitting that the top two teams by far over the course of a long season will duel for the right to be the last one standing.
The table, and who lifts the trophy in the end, never lies.