Long-Read: After year of 1sts, Cavalry’s Marco Carducci reflects on a memorable CPL campaign

Before the 2nd leg of the CPL Finals kicked off, we got a chance to speak with Marco Carducci at Media Day in Calgary. Here is what the former Whitecaps man had to say. 

After the busy year that Marco Carducci has had, you could excuse him for thinking that things have gone by fast. 

“It’s been a bit of a blur, right?” he said with a smile on his face, as he spoke to Between The Sticks the Friday before the second leg of the CPL Finals. 

A blur was certainly an accurate depiction given by Carducci to describe 2019 for the 23-year-old Calgary native. After making waves as a promising goalkeeping prospect for the Vancouver Whitecaps back in the day, things had slowed down considerably these past few years, as he was unable to turn his potential into a regular starting gig. 

Luckily for him, the Canadian Premier Leauge came around this season, earning him a chance to be the main man for a brand-new team in his hometown. He was handed the goalkeeping reins for Cavalry FC, who played out of Spruce Meadows this year, and since then it’s been a busy gallop towards the finish line for the young goalkeeper. 

“Looking back, I guess that it’s a special day, obviously, with tomorrow coming, it’s been a culmination of a lot of hard work over the year of a lot of people doing incredible things to make this happen,” Carducci reflected. “And again I think our mood and our atmosphere reflected that, we’re enjoying this process, we know that there’s a lot on the line tomorrow and we prepared all year for that, but yeah it’s a very Canadian day out here, and we’re excited to get this one going.”

With the second leg of a final about to be played in less than 24 hours, it would have been easy for someone expected to play a starring role in that game to keep a low profile. Especially after a tough 1st leg, where his Cavalry narrowly fell to Forge 1-0, in a game that was marred by several controversial decisions on the field. 

From a pair of sending offs, to a goal that was in question due to a controversial linesmen decision, it was easy to miss Carducci’s strong performance. Despite seeing his side drop to 10 men in the 35th minute, he stood tall, even saving a rocket of a penalty that flew off the boot of the eventual CPL Golden Boot winner, Tristan Borges. While Borges eventually stumped him with a strike from outside of the box 10 minutes later, that penalty save gave plenty of reason for Cavalry to believe for the rest of the game, and it helped them to avoid falling into too big of a pit early on in a big game. 

“It’s a tough one, right, obviously, there’s a lot of moments in the game that changed the momentum,” Carducci said of the first leg. “You look at the red card and penalty, and then the red card in the second half, there’s a lot of moments in the game where things change. I’ve mentioned already, and I’ll reiterate that, this team, one of our defining characteristics is that resilience we show when we’re obviously thrown in a really difficult situation.

“It definitely changed our plan in terms of the way we want to play the game, but we stayed steady and we continued to work for each other. And, for me personally, yeah I got probably tested more than I would have liked, and obviously the crossbar came into to help me a couple of times there as well, but that’s part of us again just digging in and making sure we did what we had to do to come out of there with a result that we know we can bring back now to tomorrow and go again.”

Regular Season Powerhouses:

Unfortunately for Carducci, Cavalry would be unable to erase the deficit against Forge, and they would eventually be left to watch the Hamilton-based side lift the ‘North Star Shield’ in front of the Calgary faithful. It was a gut-punch moment for a lot of his team, and it was a bitter end to what had been a great season, as Cavalry put together an emphatic debut CPL campaign.

From snatching the spring championship, before emphatically claiming the fall title with a big victory over rivals FC Edmonton at home, it was a domestic season to remember for Calgary. As the positive results piled up, supporters started to come in droves, and soon enough Cavalry was one of the hottest tickets in town. Despite playing in a stadium a bit out of the way of Calgary at Spruce Meadows, fans would still rock up and pack it in loudly each week, making for a bit of an intense home atmosphere. 

It made for a tough road trip on any team’s schedule, as both the atmosphere and Cavalry’s intense playing style never made for an easy 90 minutes for anyone, and it showed in their home record. Even despite losing the second leg of the finals to Forge at home, that was only 1 of 3 home games they lost all year, with two of them against Forge, while the lone other defeat came against the Montreal Impact of the MLS. 

So while the result didn’t go their way on Saturday, they had every reason to be confident, and given how slim the margins were over the course of the game, that sentiment is unlikely to have wavered much in these past few days after the match. 

“Early on, where we knew we needed to win all those moments, where we went away to York and won there 2-0, and that was a moment where there’s extra pressure, there’s a lot on the line, we knew that we needed to come away with a win to secure the spring (title) and then we did that against Edmonton a couple of weeks ago here,” Carducci said confidently before the game.

“We had to win. We had to win. We went away to Hamilton and we didn’t get the job done there, and then we came back home for the last game of the season, and we won to take the fall (title). So we’ve been in those situations where we knew we needed results, we knew we needed to dig out games in difficult situations, and we’ve done it all year long. So we’ll take those experiences, and bring them into tomorrow.”

After a strong 2019 campaign, Carducci and his Cavalry side were unable to beat Forge in the Finals (Keveren Guillou)

Canadian Championship:

The last image most Cavalry fans will have, besides Forge emphatically lifting the Shield at Spruce Meadows, will be Carducci with his face in the grass after conceding a 94th-minute goal. Despite a late Cavalry push, where they sent the kitchen sink forward in chase of an equalizer, it backfired for them. 

Unable to convert any of their chances, it was only a matter of time until Forge pounced, and it came on that late chance. After an unsuccessful Cavalry corner, Forge broke forward with 2 players against a lone Carducci, with Elimane Cisse and David Choiniere breaking towards the former Whitecaps man. While Carducci made a superhuman effort to nearly get fingertips on the eventual goal, a controlled Choiniere finish after a Cisse pass, it wasn’t enough, and he was left to keep his head on the ground as Forge celebrated. 

After they had long-talked of big-game experience, as their run in the Canadian Championship had given them plenty of swagger heading in, it was a gut-punch for Cavalry. While Forge had similar experiences from the CONCACAF League, a competition they now re-enter with this latest victory, it was still surprising to see Cavalry unable to step up to the occasion at home. 

When the dust settles, they’ll look back fondly on those memories. As painful as losing this latest final was, that Canadian Championship run was one to remember. 

Starting all the way in the first round, they had to first dispatch a resilient Pacific side. After that, an even-tougher Forge loomed. And then with Forge downed, they got their biggest opposition, the Vancouver Whitecaps. With the impossible somehow achieved, the Impact was the team to face in the semis. While they fell to the eventual champions at that stage, it was a heck of a run, and it gave Cavalry a big boost for the rest of the season. 

“If you look at again at the Canadian Championship run where we take on a couple of MLS sides, we got a nil-nil draw here at home against the Whitecaps in that tie, and then we go away from home at BC Place, and we go beat them, and that showed that we can deal with those tough games,” Carducci said. 

“We went into a situation where we’re going away to an MLS side and we knew we had to get a result. You look at several times throughout the year we had games that were defined, we also had the opportunity to win the fall and win the spring a couple of times during the year.”

The result against Vancouver was probably the biggest one, and for many reasons. Having risen up through their academy ranks since the age of 15, he was familiar with the organization, so playing them with his hometown team was always going to be special. On paper, it seemed like it was never going to be more than just a fun homecoming, with the Whitecaps expected to cruise, and not many were willing to challenge that narrative. 

And then when Whitecaps manager Marc Dos Santos promised a full-strength Vancovuer squad for both legs, even less seemed willing to back the Calgary-based side. How was Cavalry, who barely existed half a year prior, going to beat a team with the likes of Ali Adnan, Iraqi international and owner of what Cavalry head coach later called a ‘two-million dollar left foot’, along with several other players such as In Beom Hwang, Doneil Henry, Maxime Crepeau, Fredy Montero and more? It seemed like an eventual Whitecaps victory was going to be but a mere formality. 

As the Whitecaps lived up to their promise, fielding what was pretty much a full-strength lineup in Calgary for the 1st leg, optimism surely wavered in the Calgary camp. While at that point they had the spring title in their back pocket, it was hard to imagine besting that lineup. 

But they did just that, as the game finished 0-0, which felt like a victory as Cavalry denied the Whitecaps of a crucial away goal. It gave them a fighting chance heading to Vancouver, and that’s all they needed. 

With the Whitecaps in a summer slump in MLS, the possibility of Cavalry winning seemed more and more realistic as each day leading up the game passed. And then on the day of the game, it happened. 

Starting with an early Jordan Brown volley, and then finished when former Whitecap prospect Dominick Zator headed home to emphatically cancel out a second-half Hwang In Beom goal, it meant that Cavalry had done the impossible. They had become the first CPL team to beat an MLS one, and it wasn’t just the history of the result that was incredible. They had done so deservingly, serving notice that this league wasn’t here to mess around. 

For Carducci, it was a huge result, as he got one up on his former side. As he made his first start at BC Place since 2014, where he made his debut as a 17-year-old against Toronto FC, also in the Canadian Championship, it was a sense of things coming full circle. 

“It was hard to put into words,” he said with a laugh.” It was special, obviously, going back there, have a lot of great connections with people within the club, that was where I grew up. I made my debut there, like you said, just to have that come full circle, to knock them out and go, it was a good feeling. Obviously, the whole team we wanted to slay Goliath, in that sense,  and there was a little bit extra on the line for me there. And then, like I mentioned, just going back there is a special moment and it was really cool to be able to do what we did.”

It was hard to put into words

Marco Carducci on beating the Whitecaps in the Canadian Championships
Cavalry’s players mob Carducci after they beat the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place (Keveren Guillou)

Canada’s Goalkeeping Renaissance:

It was all part of a strong year for Canadian goalkeepers. Milan Borjan continues to shine in Europe, while Max Crepeau was arguably a top 5 goalkeeper in MLS this season, as his move to the Whitecaps turned out excellently. 

Add in the domestic front, with Carducci, Forge’s Triston Henry, Edmonton’s Conor James, York’s Nathan Ingham and Halifax’s Christian Oxner all putting up top performances with their respective clubs, it was an exciting time for those who enjoy monitoring Canadians Between The Sticks. While the CPL has done wonders for outfield Canadians who had fallen under the radar, as best evidenced by the growth of players like Tristan Borges, Terran Campbell and more throughout the league, the emergence of the goalkeeping has been staggering. 

Given the fractured system for goalkeepers in Canada, it was great to see these players prosper. Carducci is an excellent example, as he first had to go from Calgary to Vancouver just to have a shot, and then he never even got a professional opportunity besides his 1 game cup of coffee in the Voyageurs Cup. 

While he was at one point on the cusp of getting there thanks to his regular minutes in the former Whitecaps II squad, things dried up, and he was forced to endure a trying 2017 season in the USL with Rio Grande. After that, it was to the PDL, where he played a year with the Calgary Foothills before moving up to the CPL in 2019. 

With the CPL, it now gives options for goalkeepers to come up and get minutes with clubs closer to home, giving them an opportunity to get professional minutes earlier on than before. Instead of getting stuck at an MLS club, where they never play due to being the 3rd or 4th option, or remaining at an amateur level, unable to break through as was the case with Forge’s Henry, they can now play against high-level competition from a younger age. 

While that crop of solid goalkeepers mentioned are all players between 23 and 26, it’ll be huge to see when the younger keepers start to make a mark in the coming years. With this opening of 7-14 goalkeeping jobs with this league, with more teams expected to come soon, it will give more chances to young goalkeepers, which will benefit Canada. Even for players like 25-year-old Whitecaps man Sean Melvin, who is expected to make a move to hometown team Pacific after being released from Whitecaps after never featuring in a game, it’ll be huge for him just to have an opportunity to play. 

Having played with many of these guys, Carducci understands how huge it is to have this opportunity, and he is excited to see how it continues to create opportunities, especially for fellow goalkeeping brethren. 

“It’s massive, it’s very difficult as a goalkeeper in that position where you have several guys all trying to get minutes,” Carducci said honestly of his time in Vancouver. “Yeah, I went through that, I think a lot of guys go through that and, as you mentioned, there are several guys who are in the same boat that need to be playing, and when you have limited opportunities, it becomes difficult. And I went through that when I was there, and having the Canadian Premier League to come in, creating this platform and creating these opportunities at a high level (is huge).”

“I think we’ve already seen what it’s done, but I think in a couple of years you’re going to see how important that this year I played close to 30 games now at a competitive level, which is something that if that opportunity is available for everybody, it’s a game-changer for players in this league and in this country, so personally I’m grateful for this and grateful to have this because it’s been a huge opportunity for me.”

It’s a game-changer for players in this league and in this country,

Carducci on the CPL
Carducci in action vs Forge in the 2nd leg of the CPL Finals (Keveren Guillou)

Creating a path from the CPL to the National Team:

It’s huge from a Canadian National Team standpoint, as well, to have more goalkeepers playing games. Having players play games can only increase the level of play across the board, and it will boost them at the position. 

While having Borjan playing at a top level over the years helps, the times of calling up players like Simon Thomas and Jayson Leutwiler as the 2nd and 3rd options made it a precarious situation, as an injury to Borjan would have left them in a pickle. While they’re both good goalkeepers, the fact that they often came in to represent Canada having not played games in months was concerning, and it was indicative of the state of goalkeepers in Canadian football. 

But now, with all these goalkeepers playing minutes, it gives National Team coach John Herdman a lot to ponder, as he can chose from players who actually play. And if Thomas and Leutwiler continue to struggle for minutes, they now have the option of returning home to play, which would only boost the profile that the CPL has slowly built up with their goalkeepers. 

And as seen with Carducci, who was the first-ever call-up to the National Team from the CPL, it has worked. While he didn’t get any minutes against Cuba in the pair of games he was up for, being part of the fold is huge for the league. It shows the importance of having players playing constantly, and it benefits the National Team, the league and the player to have had that opportunity. While Carducci is unlikely to ever be the National Team starter while he remains in Cavalry, with Borjan’s form and Crepeau’s emergence, having him get that taste is important. 

If he continues this trajectory, he will move on, either to MLS or over to Europe, and that is where that experience will come in handy. It’ll be huge for the league, who can say that they gave a good young Canadian player minutes, as well as for the national team, who will be seeing some of their players progress easier than would have been possible before. And add in the player, who will benefit from having that path available to them, and it shows what the CPL is hoping to be about. 

As seen by Carducci, having these opportunities in a professional environment will only help Canadians, and he can attest to that, having lived through it. 

“Yeah, it was special,” Carducci said with a big smile, speaking of his time with the National Team. Obviously, for me, I want to be there frequently, and my goal is to be a long term steady name with the national team and ideally, again, the starter for the National Team. It was a really special moment to be the first guy from the CPL, and really again just to show what this league is all about. For me to kind of be the flag bearer in that sense and go and represent the league, and you had Amer Didic follow up with the camp after, it just showed what this league’s all about, and it showed the purpose of it.”

My goal is to be a long term steady name with the National Team

Marco Carducci
Marco Carducci and Milan Borjan at Canada’s National Team Camp in September (Canada Soccer)

CPL Providing Opportunities: 

It was an insightful comment from Carducci, who realized how important his call-up was for the league. While there are still lots of milestones to come in terms of CPL impact on the National Team, that first start is huge. With plenty of other players earning call-ups to various CONCACAF National Teams, it’ll give plenty of reason for Canadians and other internationals to come to the league. 

After a year of firsts, the next step will now be to build off of them, as the CPL looks to maintain their product over a longer period of time. The league was created with a clear goal, and that was to create a pathway for Canadians, and so far their work looks to be bearing some fruits of labour.

While the league’s long-term legacy is hoped to be one of growing hometown Canadian talent within their however many teams, instead of kids from places like Edmonton and Winnipeg forced to only have the Whitecaps as a pathway to pro, having the many older Canadians resurrect their careers this year as they did is also huge. Players like Nik Legerwood and Kyle Bekker, a pair of 30+ year old Canadians with a lot of talent, won’t necessarily be expected to parlay their time into National Team call-ups, but having their experience around has been huge. 

And as seen with players like Carducci, who at 23 still has so much to give to a goalkeeping position where players typically bloom later, it’ll be those younger group of players that expect to be the CPL’s bread and butter, thanks to the work of the Bekker’s and the Ledgerwood’s. If they can find the right model, one that combines those older players with plenty of opportunities for emerging or out of form young Canadians, like Carducci and Tristan Borges, then the league would be ecstatic.

As they build towards 2026 and beyond, they want to start fixing some of the fractured parts that the Canadian development model has long had. And given the budding interest generated by Canada’s Golden Generation that has appeared to have emerged at the Men’s National Team level, they can use that to capitalize on interest to help them along as they fill those holes. 

After years of seeing many Canadians fall through the cracks, just seeing like someone like Carducci resurrect their careers has been important for Canadian Soccer. While there is still lots to be done at the National Team level, such as ensuring that U17/U20 and U23 teams start to qualify for tournaments more regularly, having a CPL environment for these kids to come up in will provide tons of benefit. 

And the year Carducci had plays a role in that whole spectre, starting with the National Team call-up. It created interest in the league, and it gave them a platform to show some of the work that they have done. 

While all of that will be talked about at length heading into the beginning of the 2nd CPL season, Carducci will be happy to look back and reflect on what his team accomplished in that first year. They didn’t get the goal they ultimately wanted, which was to be the CPL champions, but they did a lot, and that is plenty to be proud of. 

Even though he had a game to look forward to, Carducci recognized that, and he realized that when recapping some of the memorable moments of 2019. 

“Obviously, we want to finish off with being the CPL champions tomorrow, so that’s the first focus,” he said. “But, looking back again, it’s been an incredible year. A lot of firsts for everybody and, again, to be able to do some of the things I’ve been able to do here, with my home club, in front of my family and friends, has been special. Again, beating the Whitecaps was another great one, the call to the national team was also an honour, as I think it’ll never get old getting called up to the National Team. And then of course, hopefully tomorrow, capping off the year as treble winners is what we want to do, and that’s what we made clear all year long.”

Now, with all of that behind him, it’ll be interesting to see what’s next for the former Whitecaps man. MLS could be a possibility, along with a smaller European time, provided he doesn’t just stay at home in Calgary. While those moves will be seen as a big jump, given his pedigree, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to imagine him doing so. 

And after a year of firsts within the CPL, don’t be surprised if he leads the way once more. 

It isn’t too far-fetched to imagine Carducci returning to MLS stadiums more often in the future (Keveren Guillou)