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OPINION: First Al Classico an instant classic, best CPL match thus far
Canadian Premier League

TORONTO – A month into the Canadian Premier League there have been some strong early candidates for game of the season.

The inaugural match between Forge FC and York9 FC comes to mind, for the momentousness of the occasion, the early goal from Ryan Telfer setting off the league in style, the Forge assault in search of an equalizer and Kadell Thomas putting his name in lights when he found that salvation for the hosts.

So too does HFX Wanderers FC’s home opener against Forge a week later: Another hard-fought contest where Akeem Garcia and Thomas exchanged goals through the opening hour in front of a fiercely proud and packed house in Halifax, ultimately decided by a late goal from Luis Alberto Perea in the Maritime side’s favour to ensure those fans were sent home buzzing.

Cavalry FC’s 95th minute-winner from Nico Pasquotti against that same Forge the following week after Nik Ledgerwood and Tristan Borges traded goals too has to be a candidate for the sheer drama of that moment and the quality on display, but also for the decisive impact that result may end up having on the final standings of the Spring Season.

Interestingly enough, all three of those matches have involved the Hamilton-based side.

But none has put it all together in quite the manner that the first edition of the Al Classico between Cavalry FC and FC Edmonton did on Saturday.

First off, there was the matter of the circumstance of the match: the first derby between provincial rivals. These are the matches that make soccer the special sport it is, that animosity born of proximity stretching back to the very roots of the game.

Add in that Cavalry appear to be running away with the Spring title, unbeaten through three matches heading in, and that a win would see them take an all but insurmountable five-point lead on their nearest rivals, with a game in hand on the chasing pack.

Overshadowed was that Edmonton too entered unbeaten, though their having played only two matches, one a scoreless draw at home after an early red card, obscured a solid start, and that their talisman, Tomi Ameobi was ready to make his first contributions with a herculean effort leading the front-line, though they were without key defender Amer Didic and the suspended Phillip Lincourt-Joseph.

Nico Pasquotti of Cavalry FC battles several FC Edmonton players (left to right) Mele Temgula of Edmonton FC and Bruno Zebie of FC Edmonton. (Photo: Jack Cusano/CPL).
Nico Pasquotti of Cavalry FC battles several FC Edmonton players (left to right) Mele Temgula of Edmonton FC and Bruno Zebie of FC Edmonton. (Photo: Jack Cusano/CPL).

Never mind the dreary, wet weather that added an element of uncertainty in the play, turning it more into a contest of wills than a cleanly played match and provided a certain aesthetic that will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

Throw in the contrasting figures of the two head coaches – Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s dapper cap and three-piece versus Jeff Paulus’ all-business layered tracksuit – and the fullness of all the game encapsulates was evident.

The tone was set early when Ramon Soria thundered into a tackle with Ledgerwood in the 9th minute, earning himself a yellow card and drawing a crowd – it was clear that this was an emotional powder keg; that both sides understood the stakes and were up for the challenge.

Cavalry’s patient ways seemed to have them on the front foot throughout, keeping the Eddies at bay. They were denied the opener by the offside flag after a clever short corner saw Ledgerwood find the back of the net after a neat back-heel from Sergio Camargo – an element of trickery with the entire world expecting the ball to be put into the mixer for the big defenders on each side to contest.

That it took another moment of such impromptu quality to find the breakthrough before half-time, where Jordan Brown deftly redirected a low drive from Elijah Adekugbe past a frozen Connor James in stoppage-time, catching everybody off guard and uncertain as to what had transpired. A proper tip-in drawing first blood in the Battle of Alberta.

And come the second half, with Paulus going to his bench bringing on Oumar Diouck to menace the Cavalry back-line and then introducing a pair of teenagers in Marcus Velado-Tsegaye and David Doe, who breathed life into the potency of the comeback effort.

Velado-Tsegaye nearly made an immediate impact with Edmonton’s best chance of the game two minutes after coming on. He was a threat throughout the remaining 20-plus minutes.

The physicality continued with Cavalry’s Adekugbe in the middle of it, returning Soria’s favour with his crunching, yellow card-worthy tackle on Ajay Khabra, as well as his uncarded rugby tackle on James Marcelin minutes earlier. A sending off would have only ratcheted up the intensity even more, heightening the drama and the debate afterwards. A penalty shout after Nathan Mavila gave a shove to Khabra as he stole into the area added a further element of controversy.

And that it took several massive saves from goalkeeper Marco Carducci and key interventions from defenders – Joel Waterman’s massive tackle to prevent Velado-Tsegaye from breaking into the area after Diouck’s pressure forced a turnover comes to mind – to preserve the clean-sheet and the three points, embodied the type of victory that defines champions.

All told, it was an instant classic.

The next Al Classico is set for June 15 in Edmonton – circle the date.