When I think of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I traditionally think of three things – ice hockey, rodeo & professional wrestling. But now a new aspect has entered the public consciousness and perhaps it has overtaken the likes of the Calgary Flames, the Stampede and the Hart Foundation: Football.
In 2019, the Canadian Premier League launched its inaugural season of soccer and arguably the most successful team across the seven participating clubs were right here in Calgary. They were not eventually crowned champions – that honour going to Forge FC of Hamilton, Ontario, having won the final curtain call of the season – but Cavalry FC were the league leaders in both the spring and fall tables. Forge were deserving winners in the end following their two-leg 2-0 aggregate victory, but there is certainly a case to be made for Cavalry to be considered the uncrowned champions. ‘The Cavs’ were impressive throughout thanks to the firepower of Congolese forward Dominique Malonga, the last line heroics of hometown goalkeeper Marco Carducci, and the expert guidance from head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
Despite giving way to Edmonton in terms of being the provincial capital, Calgary sits as the largest city in Alberta in terms of population and third only behind Toronto and Montreal in the vast entirety of Canada. The people are what make Calgary what it is. From my own experience, on the two occasions I have visited, I can honestly say it is one of the most friendly, inclusive and welcoming places on Earth.
Its impressive city skyline is in some ways the focal point – with the iconic Saddledome and Calgary Tower among the obvious attractions – but that central hub is encircled by a proud and celebrated history of culture and traditional values. As the club website states, “These elements may form the city’s body…but its soul lies within its people.”
As with all CPL clubs, it is these characteristics and principles that are the building blocks of what Cavalry FC represents and the philosophy that they live by. The club claims to take inspiration from King’s Own Calgary Regiment branch of the Canadian Army, whose motto is ‘Onward!’ and Lord Strathcona’s Horse – the official regiment of Spruce Meadows, the home of Cavalry FC – whose motto is ‘Perseverance’.
In the spirit of these two forces, Cavalry aim to display a relentless and attacking assault on each of their opponents on the field, and it has served them well since their conception for the new Canadian Premier League. They wear their flame red shirts with pride mirroring the mounted military representation, complete with a white diagonal stripe in their 2019 debut season. The club badge also displays a similar fashion with a red background and white lettering, a football and outline of an upward pointing rank insignia.
Football, or soccer, is not a new thing to Calgary of course. Arguably their greatest export to the world of football is Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich and Manchester United fame. Although he represented England at international level, a true-born Calgarian he most certainly still is. A number of clubs have represented the city over the years.
From the short-lived Calgary Boomers and Calgary Kickers in the 1980s to the longer lasting Calgary United FC from 2007-2014 – with a whole host of amateur and semi-professional clubs in between, including Hargreaves’ youth team Calgary Foothills – soccer has been a slow burning sport in this part of Alberta, but has perhaps been more prevalent than most people are aware of. The shadows of ice hockey and even Canadian Football are huge and it’s easy to overlook soccer here. Coupled with a lack of vision, investment and suitable venues, the sport has never truly gotten off the ground on previous attempts.
All that is changing now though, and at Spruce Meadows – which is celebrating its 45th year in 2020 – Cavalry have found their home and a great location to show off their passion and drive as well as their skill. The club’s away shirts are a green and white variation to match the colours displayed around the stands. Both the club and ATCO Field at the sports facility are owned by the Southern family and Spruce Meadows Sports & Entertainment.
Together they proudly present their football team and give them the stage on which to perform. Doubling up as an equestrian centre, its capacity for fans and spectators is currently just over five thousand, which is the average attendance figure for a CPL match. As the league grows, so will the support and undoubtedly the stadium in turn.
I spoke to Calgary-based comedian and satirical actor Trent McClellan about the atmosphere at the stadium and the growing passion in the city for professional football. “It’s been really cool to have pro soccer in the city and for all the thousands of soccer fans in the city to have their own club to cheer for. When you walk around Calgary, you see Cavalry FC shirts and hats still even during this crazy time so it shows the impact the team had on folks in just one season.
“Their overwhelming success last year helped put the league on the map here. People really got behind them. I remember even going to a crowded pub to watch an away game and when we scored the place exploded! It was very cool to be a part of this next chapter of Canadian soccer and feel how much passion there was for the club in such a short time.”
The most important aspect to any football team is the live game experience and Trent recounted the special atmosphere at Cavalry home matches. As he recalled, “Game day at Spruce Meadows is awesome! The crew there have done an incredible job of making the fans feel welcome and giving them lots to do. The stadium is in the centre of the Spruce Meadows complex so you can get there hours before a game and grab a beverage or two, some hot food, watch a live band, kids can play in a bunch of soccer exhibits.
“It’s quite a lively place with almost everyone wearing a Cavalry FC jersey. The team shop is always full. Once you’re in the stadium it’s loud! Fans stomp their feet on the metal stands’ flooring and it is deafening at times. There are flags waving and chants going around as well.”
But what about the opposition? Any home club needs an away club to shout at, sing at and share general back and forth banter with. A Joker to your Batman; a yin to your yang; an Oiler to your Flame. Calgary and Edmonton are no strangers to this routine, so I asked Trent if soccer can now be added to the long list of rivalries between the two cities.
“Yes, I feel that is coming into its own. The match between the two has been branded the “Al Classico” and supporters for each club will travel to the opposing city. When I moved to Calgary almost 17 years ago, one of the first things you are made aware of is the rivalry with Edmonton.
“It’s not just present in sports but in many aspects of life. Both cities keep an eye open to what the other is up to at all times. Neither wants the other to get the upper hand in any way whether it be in sports, facilities or other measures. Calgary always enjoys beating Edmonton in anything and the feeling is mutual for them. The games I’ve seen them battle in have been very competitive. An exhibition game last spring saw a bunch of cards and some heated exchanges. I knew them the rivalry was on!” Far from friendly, indeed.
The remaining piece of the puzzle ahead of their maiden voyage into professional football was Tommy Wheeldon Jr. The Evertonian head coach came over to Canada in 2002 when he left his career at English clubs Swindon Town, Torquay United and Yeovil Town to venture into the relative unknown of Canada with Calgary Storm (later known as the Mustangs) and he simply never left. His experience coaching with Canada’s under-17 squad and Calgary Foothills has led him to expertly guide Cavalry to the top of the league in both the spring and fall seasons of the inaugural Premier League.
Under Wheeldon’s tutelage, Cavalry also progressed well in the 2019 Canadian Championship, knocking out fellow CPL teams Forge and Pacific not to mention Major League Soccer side Vancouver Whitecaps before finally falling to another MLS team and eventual winners Montreal Impact in the semi finals. To be hanging with and defeating established professional clubs like the Impact and Whitecaps is a feat in itself, and one that Wheeldon and his men can be rightly proud of. This was the first time that a MLS club had been defeated by a non-MLS club in the history of the championship. Quite understandably, he was named as CPL Coach of the Year for 2019.
Trent remembers the feeling at that cup game all too well. “During the Canadian Championship game against the Whitecaps, I remember standing with 6,000 other people in this sold out stadium and thinking ‘They did it!’. This team brought something here that a year earlier didn’t exist. Everyone is invested in each play and pushing the team forward. It was an incredible moment and one that Tommy and I refer to as ‘remarkable’ – in the sense that you make remarks about it over and over again long after the moment has passed.”
I asked Trent if there was a sense of achievement in the team from their first season or more of disappointment given Forge’s ultimate lifting of the North Star Shield. He said, “I think in talking to the players, they obviously feel the job was not completed. They had great success throughout the year including a deep run in the Canadian Championship where they knocked off an MLS club. All those things made for a memorable ride but not winning the CPL Championship, especially at home to a big rival, stung quite a bit. Every team wants to lift as many trophies as they can and Cavalry FC are no different.”
Trent also gave me an insight into his experience of the management team. “I know head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr so I know first hand that he, his staff, the ownership group at Spruce Meadows and the players themselves were all in from the get-go. Tommy always wanted to see soccer grow in the city and he built a solid foundation for it with the Foothills program and the under-23 team in the PDL.
“That club was very successful and won the championship in his final year at the helm. The core of that team went on to make the core of Cavalry FC, so there’s a strong bond there and an established culture of success with a group looking to win trophies. This attitude coupled with the complete buy-in from the Spruce Meadows group has meant now the infrastructure is there to do bigger things. The players themselves know the city is behind them as crowds just got bigger and bigger as the year went on.”
As Trent alluded to, Wheeldon brought with him a number of players from the Foothills team including his captain Nik Ledgerwood and his goalkeeper Marco Carducci. It was evidently a recipe for success as Carducci finished the season joint leader in terms of clean sheets despite falling at the last hurdle at the hands of Forge FC.
Cavalry remain clear heavyweights of the CPL and will be strong favourites to stampede their way through the competition in the 2020 season; a unique and exciting tournament held in the province of Prince Edward Island – The Island Games.
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