This Sunday will see the 2022 CPL season come to a close as first place Atlético Ottawa host second place Forge. It’s been a welcomed return to normality this season, and this final will be a fitting end to a rather entertaining season. Ottawa and Forge are both in the final on merit, but as this preview will details, these two teams have very contrasting identities.
Forge were a founding member of the Canadian Premier League, they were founded in 2017 – two years before a game had even been played in the CPL. They are owned by Hamilton Sports Group, headed by local businessman Bob Young and is the same ownership group that owns the local CFL team the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The team identity was established the following year, with the name ‘Forge’ echoing the cities blue colour ethos.
Billed as a flagship team for the league, Forge hosted the inaugural CPL game on April 27, 2019 in front of 17,611 at Tim Hortons Field and soon established themselves as arguably the CPL’s most recognisable name. Forge qualified for the first ever CPL final against Cavalry, and despite finishing second to the Calgary side in the regular season, recorded a 2-0 win on aggregate to be crowned 2019 CPL champions!
Forge followed up their 2019 win with another strong showing in the 2020 CPL season, a truncated seven game regular season due to the COVID-19 Pandemic which seen the Hamilton side once again qualify for the final. This time round the opponent was HFX Wanderers, and just like 2019 Forge came out ahead as they won 2-0 to become back-to-back CPL champions. 2021 was yet another year of Forge cementing themselves as the CPL’s (arguably) flagship team. They reached the semi final of both the Canadian Championship and the CONCACAF League – both they were desperately unlucky to lose. In the league, they finished first in the regular season for the time ever, and went onto reach their third consecutive CPL final, becoming only the third Canadian sports team to reach three consecutive finals in the last thirty-six years. They lost the final to Pacific, but going into 2022, forge had fully establish themselves as the CPL’s model team!
Whilst Forge was all in on the CPL from the beginning, the story couldn’t be any different in Ottawa. Ottawa had had a professional team since 2011 in the form of the Ottawa Fury, they played in the second tier of the American soccer pyramid and even made it to the final of the NASL in 2015, coming up just short against the New York Cosmos. Ottawa were playing in the USL in 2018, but were under pressure to move to the CPL, a move their fellow Canadian USL counterparts – FC Edmonton had done. Ottawa refused and continued to compete in the USL for 2019, but eventually pressure from CONCACAF lead to Ottawa being unable to play in the USL, leading to the Fury folding as a team.
The CPL wanted a team in Ottawa, and Ottawa wanted a soccer team, step forward Atlético Madrid! Atlético Madrid are an elite soccer club, they have won eleven Spanish La Liga titles, ten Copa del Rey trophies, three UEFA Europa League titles and are firmly one of the biggest names in world soccer! In January 2020, Ottawa was announced as the CPL’s eighth club and would be owned by Atlético Madrid. The identity of this club was completely based around their parent club, with their team colours, badge and even name also carrying a heavy influence from the Madrilenian’s, and as such came the name Atlético Ottawa!
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Ottawa’s debut campaign came in the shortened 2020 season, and as was expected for an expansion side, there was teething problems. Ottawa won two of their seven games and finished second bottom in the 2020 season, but given the shortened nature of that season, it was hard to judge a team in that environment. For the 2021 season however, Ottawa were a disappointment. The team won just six games all season, finishing bottom of the table with a total of just twenty-six points. The one highlight was the teams inaugural home game in front of fans, as 12,064 fans were in attendance at TD Place Stadium to watch Ottawa beat HFX 2-1.
So that brings us to 2022, were both teams have been fighting it out at the top of the table, but despite now both being challengers, they have gone about it in much different ways. Forge has been a model of familiarity and consistency. Manager Bobby Smyrniotis has been the only manager Forge has ever known, being in charge for all 126 matches in Forge history. Joining him is a contingent who know each other very well; Kyle Bekker, Triston Henry, Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson, David Choinière and Dominic Samuel have all made over a hundred appearance for Forge, with Tristan Borges also not far behind on ninety-six appearances.
This is a team known for being merciless upfront, Forge scored a league-leading forty-seven goals in the regular season and often scored in bunches, winning games by scores of 4-0 and 5-1. They are filled with talent. While their captain Kyle Bekker will be suspended for the final, forge can call on the aforementioned players and other talented players such as Terran Campbell, Woobens Pacius, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Rezart Rama, and Aboubacar Sissoko. In the semi-final against Cavalry, the difference maker was that Forge was able to dominate the play with their forward line, pushing their opponents back for most of the second leg and giving them too little time to respond at the end.
But they didn’t win the regular season. That honour went to Ottawa, who have had a Cinderella season under new manager Carlos González, who has overseen this team going from worst to first. While Forge have a large nucleus of players from their inaugural season at the club, Ottawa have been busy finding themselves the last few years, their 2022 squad is completely unrecognisable. This off season they signed Ollie Bassett, Diego Espejo Balou Tabla, Zakaria Bahous, Abdoul Sissoko, Maxim Tissot and Nathan Nathan Ingham, all these players have played their part in the Carlos González revolution. Ottawa finished the 2021 season with just 26 points, in 2022, they had 49!
The key to Atlético’s success was a strong defensive structure. Their defence that includes Drew Beckie, Diego Espejo, Miguel Acosta, Maxim Tissot and Zachary Roy has been arguably the toughest in the league to break down. They have conceded just twenty-nine goals this season, in contrast to the league worst forty-seven in 2021. Had Ottawa not been on the end of a freak 6-1 defeat at home or valour, their defensive record would’ve been even better!
To compliment this has been the attacking play of Ollie Bassett and Balou Tabla in midfield. Bassett has been a front runner for player of the year, often being the architect of Ottawa’s attacks and goal scoring opportunities, whilst also popping up with a team leading eight goals. Alongside him is former Barcelona B winger Ballou Tabla. Tabla has often been the best attacking outlet for Ottawa, against Cavalry on September 24th – Tabla scored an incredible bicycle kick from just outside the box, and the goal has been gaining traction as a possible Puskás winner. Against Pacific in the semi final, a combination of a stout defence and slick counterattacking, including a goal from Tabla lead to a 3-1 win on aggregate against the defending champs.
So that’s the scene set. A founding team vs the league’s (at the time of play) youngest team. A team with hometown ownership vs a team owned by one of the sport’s elite. The established club that has been here before vs the Cinderella story, who is in the final for the first time. What these clubs do have in common though is that they are the best of the best in the CPL, they are both solid defensively and both have attacking players that can hurt you. They also both have amongst the best fan bases in the league, with Sunday’s matchup expected to be a bumper CPL crowd possibly in excess of over 10,000 fans! The regular season head-to-head has been close. Two draws and a win each, Forge won 4-0 in Ottawa, whilst Ottawa won 2-1 in Hamilton earlier in the year. I’m not gonna predict a winner, rather I predict it’ll be a marquee occasion, and will be the most memorable CPL final to date!
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