Reflecting on the inaugural 2019 season of the Canadian Premier League, Englishman Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has much to be proud of.
Wheeldon’s Cavalry FC side finished with the most points, the most goals scored and the fewest conceded. They claimed a major scalp with victory over MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps in the cup, while two of his players received call-ups to the national team.
Come the CPL play-off final, however, Cavalry fell short, losing both legs 1-0 against rivals Forge FC.
Having won both the Spring and Fall Seasons over the year, losing the final was obviously a disappointment.
“The split season was something to mirror Mexico, the Apertura/Clausura,” Wheeldon says. “We saw it as we’d won the decathlon, but the 100-metre sprint is where everybody got the attention and we came away with a silver medal in that one.”
Before the pandemic, Wheeldon had been busy making preparations for the new CPL season. Following the launching of a new team in Ottawa recently, with backing from the might of Atletico Madrid, taking the total number of sides in the CPL to eight, there was much anticipation for the second season.
Having been without a professional league for nearly 30 years, Canada has embraced the CPL. The quality has already been higher than many expected, with several players being recruited to the country’s national team, or moving on to more established leagues.
While young stars like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are also shining for both club and country, the future is looking bright for a nation that will co-host the 2026 World Cup.
Living the dream
Wheeldon will certainly have a part to play in all that, but just how did he come to call Canada his home in the first place?
“I was born in Liverpool, my family are mad Evertonians,” he says. Indeed, Tommy Wheeldon Sr. played for the Toffees before they moved south when Wheeldon Jr. began his own career at Swindon Town. “I was there for 10 or 11 years. I ended up leaving school, becoming an apprentice at 16 with Swindon, in the Steve McMahon years.”
After being released, he played for Torquay and Yeovil, as well as making multiple appearances on a certain Sky One series.
“I was on the first two series of Dream Team as one of the footballers in there. I was one of the extras – which kind of sounds a little bit more like the Ricky Gervais show than anything! I had the odd line, but basically I was there to be a footballer.”
Having completed a degree in Sports Science & Coaching from the University of Surrey, Wheeldon decided to follow his father over to Canada, where he had been coaching Calgary Storm. He signed a pro contract there and was surprised by the city’s footballing pedigree.
“This was an era where Owen Hargreaves had just moved across to Bayern Munich. Kevin McKenna would have been captain of Hearts at the time, he was from Calgary. Lars Hirschfeld, who was playing for the Calgary Storm, went across to Tottenham Hotspur. There was still talent coming out of Calgary – the players were there.”
Following two seasons with the club, Wheeldon felt his future lay in coaching rather than on the pitch. He was struck by the ability of some of his team-mates but frustrated that the pathways to the pro game seemed limited, especially when the Storm folded in 2004.
“I was blown away by how technically good and physically fit they were,” he says. “I looked at the fragmented soccer system below us and there were no academies per se, it was all a pay-to-play programme.”
Over the next 15 years, Wheeldon laid the foundations for a successful soccer infrastructure in Calgary. After running summer camps alongside other British coaches, he joined Calgary Foothills, the local youth club that Hargreaves and McKenna had come through.
As Foothills grew into a more structured academy setup, Wheeldon decided he would enter a team into the Professional Development League that was made up of amateur, under-23 sides from across the US and Canada.
“I thought the best way to bring back professional football in this city was to build from the ground up,” he says.
The start of something big
After winning the 2018 PDL Championship with the Foothills, it made sense to open discussions with Vancouver Whitecaps about becoming their second team.
“We had shown that we were competitive. We were always winning our North-West Division, then we were sending players into the pros. They said, ‘Why not you take this over and that becomes the relationship?’”
However, there was a bigger proposition being considered behind the scenes: a tier-one, Canadian-only, professional league.
A group of senior figures in Canadian sports business had put together the concept of a return of professional football. A domestic league was a necessity if the country’s joint-bid for the 2026 World Cup with the US and Mexico was going to succeed.
“It was just perfect timing because we were ready. We had built this infrastructure and were looking actively to get into the professional [league], and we thought USL was the only route through cos there wasn’t a Canadian one.”
The Canadian Premier League was announced in 2018, with Calgary one of the founding cities. The club was named Cavalry FC and Wheeldon was named their first-ever manager.
He felt a sense of duty to keep the bulk of his Foothills squad together and let them test themselves in the new division.
“Foothills was perfect for the transition and I took about 50% of the players I had in the Foothills PDL team with me into the Cavalry side. We’d just won the PDL championship, it’s almost like we’d been promoted. So they were deserving of a chance, as I felt I and my coaching staff were.”
Meanwhile, Wheeldon ran a strict recruitment process, with a slight ‘Moneyball’ flavour that aimed to unearth players who had fallen under the radar. With all the components coming together, from the bottom up, Wheeldon saw the fresh start as a selling point.
“It took me back to all those days where you’d play Pro Evolution, where you’re building your Master League squad,” he says. “I was selling them on this dream – every time I would sell it to a player, they liked the concept.”
Two English players, who both happened to be ex-West Ham, were brought in. Nathan Mavila fit Wheeldon’s profile of an attacking left-back, with a bit of an edge.
“He’s very much like an Ashley Cole-type player, he just gives us that great balance. He’s one of the toughest defenders to get by. He’s a good Brixton boy as well and just a good lad off the pitch, good banter.”
Then came Jordan Brown, a striker who’d had spells in Germany and the Czech Republic since leaving England.
“He was the type of player that reminds me a bit of Bradley Wright-Phillips. A good English No.9, who hunts the ball down, knows where to be in the box, and he’s scored big goals for us.”
With the squad taking shape, the Cavalry also needed a stadium to play in. Tommy had just the spot in mind. Their ground is a truly unique proposition: ATCO Field sits within Spruce Meadows, a world-class horseriding complex which Wheeldon describes as “the Wimbledon of Equestrian”.
The season began at a canter. Cavalry won their first seven games, sealing the Spring title in the process. Success helped grow the club’s profile and the supporters’ group known as the Foot Soldiers, which had originally formed in 2015, was blossoming.
“The noise just echoes through the whole Stadium, so 3,500 can almost sound like 10,000. We’ve created this fortress of football now and I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
Another season highlight was the domestic Cup victory over Vancouver Whitecaps, as the Cavs became the first ever CPL club to defeat an MLS club. Drawing 0-0 at home, they travelled to Vancouver, quietly confident.
“We used a theory that if they had too much of it they would get drunk on possession. I think Sean Dyche has said that one before,” Wheeldon smiles. Cavalry took an early lead through their big game player. “Jordan Brown goes through and scores this unbelievable goal with his left foot, top corner and you could just feel it.”
🔥 Pure fire from Jordan Brown to get the ball rolling in the Quarters vs Vancouver Whitecaps
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 7, 2019
Whitecaps equalised in the second half, but it was left to Cavalry’s Dominick Zator to seal the victory. Zator is a Calgary boy, who had signed for Vancouver in 2017 but not been given a chance in MLS. For Wheeldon, it was a fitting way to secure the upset.
“For him to come back and haunt them it was just newspaper stuff. When that final whistle went, that was probably one of my all-time highs in football, just that feeling of beating a really good club in our first year.”
This success attracted suitors. Defender Joel Waterman was sold in January to Montreal Impact, becoming the first-ever CPL player to move to an MLS club. Wheeldon simply couldn’t stand in his way.
“Joel Waterman is a smooth player. He was a converted central midfielder that we put at centre-back, so he’s good on the ball. He was Thierry Henry’s first signing at Montreal Impact…I think he’s going to be one of many that will end up finding more established clubs.”
‘A golden era’
With football on hiatus, it’s a chance for Wheeldon to take stock of just how far it’s come in Canada during his time out there. The burgeoning CPL can only be beneficial for the direction of the National Team.
“We’re entering into a golden era of Canadian football, there is no doubt on that. There’s an exciting group coming through,” he says. “With the CPL working in hand with the Canadian national team, we’re going to add an infrastructure that plays Canadians, that populates the player pool. That’s our job now – to put more Canadians on the map.”
Canada’s men’s team has long struggled on the world stage. In their 2009 book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski described Canada as the world’s most underachieving country in football, given its wealth and prominence in other fields. For Wheeldon, it was “a first-world country, with a third-world domestic product”.
Having worked as a Canada youth coach between 2014 and 2016, he’s been able to see some of the best young talent develop, and none have shone brighter than Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, both part of the ‘Class of 2000’.
Wheeldon recalls coaching the pair at an under-15 tournament in Mexico City in 2015 when they played together for the first time.
“They’d never known each other before then and just immediately connected. Alphonso was coming out of the west of Canada and Jonathan David out of the east, from Ottawa. But there was just this synergy, this psychic connection that they had and they just went after the Mexicans. They were brilliant.”
With Davies now at Bayern Munich and David at Genk, albeit rumoured to be following him to the Bundesliga, they’ve since been fast-tracked to the senior side and are true Canadian trailblazers.
“These boys are terrific footballers on a very high cerebral level and a very high tactical and physical level. I think we’ve got to create more and more of these.”
It was no surprise that the pair helped mastermind Canada’s 2-0 victory over the US in Toronto last year, the first time Canada had beaten them in a competitive match in 34 years. Amazingly, none of the Canadians who played in the game were born when that happened.
Wheeldon was in Toronto that night and was delighted to see his proteges excel.
“It was a wonderful moment,” he says. “The next part is can we go on the road and start taking points there? Go down to Honduras, Costa Rica, the US, or Mexico and come back with points.”
All roads lead to 2026 and whether Canada can qualify for the tournament they are due to host, but there are still hopes of reach Qatar in 2022. Their last World Cup appearance was in 1986, when they failed to score a single goal.
Yet with figures like Wheeldon embedded in the domestic game, and Davies and David leading the way overseas, there is a huge cause for an optimistic future.