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Cavalry FC coach evokes memories of 'Rocky IV' ahead of CONCACAF Champions Cup debut

Cavalry FC’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr. receives his coach of the year award from commissioner David Clanachan, in Toronto, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wheeldon Jr. cast his mind back to a 1985 Hollywood movie when asked about his CPL team's preparations for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions first-leg match against Major League Soccer's Orlando City SC. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson Cavalry FC’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr. receives his coach of the year award from commissioner David Clanachan, in Toronto, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wheeldon Jr. cast his mind back to a 1985 Hollywood movie when asked about his CPL team's preparations for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions first-leg match against Major League Soccer's Orlando City SC. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson
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Cavalry FC coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. cast his mind back to a 1985 Hollywood movie when asked about his CPL team's preparations for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions Cup first-leg match against Major League Soccer's Orlando City SC.

"We feel a little bit like 'Rocky IV,' to be honest. We're training in the mountains and in the cold, and trying to get together sparring partners to play us," Wheeldon, a two-time CPL coach of the year, told a virtual media availability Tuesday. "They're (training) in Cancun and playing Flamengo down in Orlando.

"So it's a lot different in our preparation. But regardless, when that whistle blows we'll be ready to compete. And I think that's what we've got to do, is make sure that we play the game in front of us. What's happened before is already past us. It's what happens next that matters."

The opening leg of the first-round game is being played on the artificial turf of Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., rather than Cavalry's home venue of ATCO Field at Spruce Meadows due to the Alberta winter.

The return leg is Feb. 27 at Orlando's Inter&Co Stadium.

"Rocky IV" saw Sylvester Stallone's character train in harsh conditions in remote Russia to face Ivan Drago.

While Cavalry came out west a little early to prepare for the game, much of its training beforehand was indoors in Calgary. Cavalry opens the CPL regular season April 13 at Forge with its home opener not until April 28.

Cavalry is the last Canadian team standing in CONCACAF's elite club competition. Forge FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps have already been eliminated by Mexican competition.

Forge, which edged Cavalry 2-1 after extra time to win the 2023 CPL title in October, was ousted 5-2 on aggregate by Chivas Guadalajara last week while the Whitecaps were beaten 3-0 at Tigres UANL after holding the Mexican side to a 1-1 tie in a first-leg game played at Starlight Stadium because B.C. Place Stadium was booked for another event.

Vancouver qualified as the Canadian Championship winner.

It's a first foray into CONCACAF club play for Cavalry which qualified for the revamped CONCACAF tournament by virtue of finishing first in the CPL regular-season standings last season at 16-5-7, some 13 points ahead of runner-up Forge.

Goalkeeper Marco Carducci said the team is excited to get going.

"This date has been circled on our calendar for a couple of months now … Our pre-season preparations have been obviously focused on this game," he said. "The guys have been pushing each other, pushing the standard."

"And now that we're here, it's just a matter of going out there and enjoying the moment," he added. "Because we've done all the hard work, we've done all the preparation … We've earned our right to be here from what we did last season. Now it's the fun part."

While Wheeldon has a good chunk of his 2023 roster returning, new faces include 21-year-old attacking midfielder Lucas Dias, acquired on loan from Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon and goalkeeper Jack Barrett, on loan from England's Everton.

Cavalry has also brought in former Valour FC captain Diego Gutierrez, ex-FC Edmonton attacker Tobias Warschewski and Australian youth international Lleyton Brooks, formerly of the Melbourne Victory.

Cavalry led the CPL with 46 goals last season while conceding the fewest at 27.

With a record of 18-7-9, Orlando qualified for the CONCACAF competition as runner-up to FC Cincinnati in the 2023 MLS Supporters' Shield standings.

Orlando exited in the first round of its debut outing in the CONCACAF tournament last year, losing on the away goals rule after its round-of-16 series with Tigres ended in a 1-1 draw. Orlando had qualified as the 2022 U.S. Open Champion

Orlando, which opens the MLS regular season on Saturday at home to Montreal, has played five pre-season games to date, with wins over USL Championship side Rhode Island (3-1), the New England Revolution (3-1) and Colorado Rapids (3-2), a tie with Brazil's Flamengo (1-1) and a loss to the Houston Dynamo (1-0).

Orlando has been bolstered this season by Colombian international forward Luis Muriel and former Seattle Sounder midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro.

Muriel arrives from Italy's Atalanta on a three-year contract through 2026 as a designated player. According to Opta, the 32-year-old scored a goal every 105 minutes on average in Serie A since joining Atalanta in the 2019-20 season.

Lodeiro hoisted the 2022 Champions trophy with Seattle after registering five goals and two assists in six games.

Wednesday's contest will mark the first official meeting of a CPL side and American MLS team. But Cavalry has already beaten MLS opposition, downing the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 on aggregate in 2019 Canadian Championship play.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2024

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