Concacaf Champions Cup debut 'biggest game in club history' for Cavalry

Wednesday’s home game in Victoria kicks off ‘completely different’ kind of competition for CPL side

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It’s being billed as the biggest game in the club’s six-year history.

Given its the debut for Cavalry FC in the Concacaf Champions Cup?

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Yeah … that’s got massive importance built up behind it.

“It’s the best of the best within our continent,” said Cavalry GM/head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

“It’s our version of the Champions League in Europe,” continued the gaffer. “It’s got quite a history (dating back to 1962). And it’s quite exciting, really.”

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Even bigger and more exciting than earning a Canadian Premier League title, despite all the fanfare that’s come with that.

Of course, that’s how Cavalry has got to the this point. Its take of the 2023 CPL regular-season crown earned the club entry in to this 27-team tournament, which is already well underway across North America.

The Cavs open Wednesday with the home leg of their first-round adventure in Vancouver Island’s Langford, B.C. (8 p.m., OneSoccer, OneSoccer.ca) — a location rightly deemed more suitable than Calgary for play during February’s cold and icy conditions.

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“Definitely up there,” said Cavalry midfielder Charlie Trafford, of comparing this match to other major footie fests he’s played in during his 10-year international career. “I’ve played in cup finals and cup semifinals and promotion stuff.

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“This is not quite the European Champions League, but it’s something you put on the CV as a pretty special thing,” continued Trafford. “You dream as a kid this Champions League. You’re playing against historical clubs from the States, Mexico or wherever it might be, so it’s a pretty unique experience — a pretty cool thing.

“Definitely, the biggest game in the club’s history.”

Despite all the decorated careers sported by Cavalry’s stars, few can truly claim they’ve competed in a bigger deal.

A couple, however, have had a chance to involve themselves in this continental event, when it was known as the Concacaf Champions League.

Fraser Aird started four matches in 2016-17 while on loan from Scotland’s Rangers F.C. to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

And Shamit Shome was in it with the Major League Soccer’s Montréal Impact in 2020.

“It definitely stands on its own just because it’s a different competition,” said Shome, recalling a losing match-up with Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa. “What I would compare it to, in a sense, it’s like a playoff game or a final because it is a two-leg game, and if you lose that two legs, you’re out.

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“But it still ultimately doesn’t compare because it’s completely different competition, right? You’re not playing against CPL teams — you’re playing different opposition. For us, it’s MLS in the first round. For other teams, it’s Mexican teams or Central American teams. So definitely a very different competition, because it’s a different style of play and different type of players that you’re playing against.”

In Cavalry’s case, it’s Orlando City SC — based on their second overall finish in the MLS standings.

So they know the enemy has pretty strong soccer cred.

“It’s tough to really prepare for aside from being mentally ready to know that it’ll be a hard game and it’ll be an intense game,” continued Shome. “Our approach kind of has to be the same as any other game where if you’re going to win, you’re going to have to execute the way that you want to play.”

Certainly, Cavalry teammates can lean on the Concacaf experiences shared by Aird and Shome.

“Nothing crazy, but I think just in the bits and pieces that I have talked to guys, it’s been just how dangerous the opposition is,” Shome said. “Against an MLS team or a team of higher level, when you make a mistake, they’ll punish you. You don’t track a run, they’ll punish you.

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“Whereas maybe in the CPL, you can get lazy for a second and can get away with making one or two mistakes and you might not get punished for it.

“The opposition we’re playing against is fast-paced, intelligent, athletic … and they can hurt you if you’re switched off,” continued Shome. “So, definitely, we’ve just got to be focused and we’ve got to be prepared for what’s to come — and that’ll be fast and furious.”

And it’ll draw plenty of eyeballs to it, to boot.

“I’ve played in big games in front of big crowds — 30,000, 40,000 people — but this is different,” said Cavs defender Bradley Kamdem Fewo, who played outside of Canada for seven years. “This is a new competition — Champions League is big. In any club and any league you’re playing, you want to go and play against the best, and that’s what we get a chance to do.

“It’s tough for me to compare it to anything else, because I find that’s very unique, and I’m excited,” added Kamdem Fewo. “But it ranks very very high, because my family lives here and I grew up in Calgary. We’re able to make history, because this is the first time that this club has been in an international competition.

“To be able to compete and represent my club and make history — and hopefully go far in this competition — for me that’s very very special and it adds a little bit extra motivation when you’re preparing for these games.”

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