"I feel really comfortable here": Versatile Eryk Kobza making the most of his opportunity in rookie season for league-leading Cavalry
Cavalry FC have been the team to beat in the Canadian Premier League for the past few months. After a timid start to the 2023 campaign which saw the Calgarians draw their opening five matches, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and his squad have since taken hold of the league’s top spot and don’t look like letting go with only a handful of matches remaining.
Club veterans Ali Musse and Daan Klomp have been as reliable as ever for Cavalry, but newly integrated pieces such as Golden Boot contender Myer Bevan and the tough-tackling Jesse Daley have added quality to a starting 11 that was perhaps not quite ready to seriously contend in 2022.
Another addition to the mix has been rookie Eryk Kobza, who the Cavs selected out of the nearby University of Calgary in the second round of the 2023 CPL-U Sports Draft. Kobza has registered the second-most minutes for Cavalry this season and has been a staple in the starting lineup since May, starting the last 19 matches.
Though his presence on the field has been a constant for Cavalry over the past few months, Kobza’s home on the pitch has changed, with the 21-year-old shifting between midfield and defensive duties over the course of the campaign.
“It all started in preseason when I was still earning my U Sports contract,” Kobza told OneSoccer.
“I kind of asked the gaffer where he saw me and he said that’s one thing he likes about me, that I can play as a 6 in the midfield and in the backline. Through preseason I was kind of going back and forth between both positions.”
Ready to play in both roles as the season kicked off in mid-April, his coach’s decision was made somewhat easier after midfielder Shamit Shome suffered a nasty injury during his first few weeks with Cavalry. Now one of his best friends on the team, Kobza says that Shome’s injury opened up an opportunity for him to see more minutes early on in his Canadian Premier League career.
Kobza was hard to miss in his first few matches off the bench. At 6’2” and playing in the middle of the park, Kobza turned heads with his physicality and his ability to read the game. Entering the game at halftime to make his debut against Pacific, Kobza had a game-high six tackles and lost out on just one of his nine duels in the second half as the Cavs stole a point away to their western rivals.
After a couple more cameos off the bench, Kobza was handed his first start by Wheeldon Jr. in a home tilt against 2022 regular season champions, Atlético Ottawa.
“He [Wheeldon Jr.] pulled me in the day before Ottawa came to town and said that I’ve earned the start. It was a pretty big moment for myself and to be honest I was pretty relaxed, I feel like my history and my past was preparing me for that moment.”
A native of North Vancouver, Kobza spent his developmental years in the Whitecaps academy before eventually moving to Alberta to attend the University of Calgary. His freshman year was a special one for the Dinos program, as Kobza helped his school reach the men’s soccer National Championship for the first time in 40 years. He played a big part in that milestone, making 16 starts in the midfield and eventually being named to the Canada West All-Rookie Team.
Kobza also had a couple of stints in the second and third divisions of Polish football while still a student but couldn’t make either stay stick. He admits that he had a tough time in Europe but that the experience still taught him a lot.
Predominantly a defensive midfielder as a Dino and while in Poland, Kobza started to play a lot more as a centre-back in his final year as a Dino under Head Coach Brendan O’Connell. He cites his former coach as someone who has supported him a lot, helping him develop the tools required to find success in the pro game.
Courtesy: David Moll/University of Calgary
“He was always pushing me to get better and get to that next level because he believed in me, and that kind of gave me more confidence,” Kobza said of O’Connell.
O’Connell also pushed Kobza in another way. He pushed him further down the pitch into a centre-back role.
“I always tried to convince him to move him into the backline and he wouldn’t do it,” O’Connell told OneSoccer.
“There’s always this romance about playing in midfield and being moved back is a demotion but I don’t ever see it like that. I’m experienced enough to know that sometimes you can move a player back and life becomes a little bit easier.”
After watching Kobza show off exquisite press resistance while in a back three during a training drill, O’Connell finally convinced his player to try out his luck in defence. That decision would pay off for the 2022 Dinos, who made it all the way to the Canada West Final where they would fall in penalties to the University of British Columbia. Kobza was named to the Canada West Second Team All-Star in 2022 and eventually heard his name called during the 2023 CPL-U Sports Draft.
“Even then the CPL teams had their doubts about him. I put him forward to Pacific, Vancouver and York and I’m glad they’re all kicking their heels right now over it,” O’Connell shared.
“Tommy [Wheeldon Jr.], who I know in the football community here in the city, I badgered him. I said ‘you need to look at him, I’ve seen a lot of players and he’s got a chance,’ and he took him and the rest is history.”
GOAL 🐎@CPLCavalryFC strike first vs. @PacificFCCPL as Eryk Kobza gets just behind the line (maybe too behind?) before finishing coolly 😎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 9, 2023
WATCH #CanPL (FREE) 🔴https://t.co/qCayIbtMXL pic.twitter.com/6pG82iJP6H
No strangers to making the most out of their picks in the CPL-U Sports Draft, Cavalry have seen two selections go on to become Canadian internationals in Joel Waterman and Victor Loturi. The draft is something that Wheeldon Jr. and Cavalry as a whole take seriously and it looks like his club has struck gold once again.
“He’s a smashing player,” Wheeldon Jr. told OneSoccer during a Cavalry pre match press conference.
“We’re always a fan of the U Sports Draft because you get players that are versatile, because they have to be, and you get players that are durable because they play back-to-back games.”
Wheeldon Jr. also notes that the mental aspect is another reason why Cavalry have leaned into the draft format, perhaps a bit more than their rivals. Fluidity and in-game adjustments are things he stresses as part of the modern game, and he believes that the likes of Waterman, Loturi, and now Kobza have been able to grasp that concept.
“When you teach them something they ask questions, they note it, and they’re willing to try it because they’re educated minds,” Wheeldon Jr. said.
“I think Eryk [Kobza] has taken to playing in that central position, as a right-back and as a defensive midfielder but our principles haven’t changed. Maybe his position has, but his intelligence has allowed us to do so.”
Cavalry have been able to keep teams guessing, showing a greater emphasis on tactical flexibility than in years prior, and according to Kobza that’s one of the main reasons why Cavalry have found success thus far in the regular season.
“The biggest thing that I think makes us special and difficult to break down, which we really pride ourselves on, is our fluidity,” Kobza said.
“Teams don’t know how we’re going to press, teams don’t know how we’re going to organize our backline … one of the biggest strengths of this team is that we’re always changing.”
Kobza is also quick to shout out his team’s forward line, who have made it easier to turn draws into wins. No team in the division has converted on their chances at a better rate than Cavalry, with Bevan’s nine goals leading the way. Even though he caters more to the defensive side of the game, Kobza currently has two goals to his name in his debut CPL campaign, scoring in two season-defining wins over Pacific and Forge.
GOAL🚨@CPLCavalryFC opens the scoring over Forge, as Eryk Kobza gets on the end of a Goteh Ntignee cross to make it 1-0🐎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 5, 2023
And how about the set-piece routine from the Cavs to set it up?🔥
It’s not often that a U Sports draft pick makes this sort of impact in their first CPL campaign and even Kobza admits that he didn’t think things would go this well. Approaching the regular season with a ‘head down, work hard’ mentality, Kobza has taken his opportunities well, becoming the latest success story to come out of the U Sports Draft.
In late July Kobza was rewarded for his efforts by trading in his U Sports contract for a fully professional deal which runs until 2025, with a club option for 2026. According to Kobza negotiations were quick because he believed that locking down his short term future in Calgary is the right move for his development. After catching glimpses of professional football across the pond but never really finding his feet, Kobza now has the chance to further cement himself in the city he now calls his second home.
“To be honest I was pretty certain that this was the place I wanted to be. I feel really comfortable here … I really enjoy playing in Calgary,” Kobza shared.
“It was an unbelievable feeling for me and my family and a really proud moment.”
A first piece of silverware for Cavalry is well within reach and Kobza has continued to play an integral role for his side through the business end of the season. He put together a Man of the Match performance against title rivals Pacific during a narrow win back in late August, and has since helped his team stay organized defensively to get results on the road in a tough three-match stretch against Atlético Ottawa, Forge and Halifax.
A dream start to life in the CPL for Kobza isn’t letting him get complacent, either. He says that the sky’s the limit and that he continues to evolve his game through the help of his more experienced teammates. Now locked in for a couple more years at Spruce Meadows, Kobza is aware of Cavalry’s track record of developing domestic talents and even witnessed his teammate Goteh Ntignee earn a midseason move to France’s second tier.
But for now, it’s eyes on the prize.
“Every footballer wants to play at the next level and it’ll be my goal but right now the main focus is doing everything to win this league.”