Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: I am an optimistic and friendly neighbourhood writer most days, and I am as happy-go-lucky as the next human. So, I want to get most of the cynicism and snark out of the way off the top.
Imagine you were running, footloose and fancy-free, down a picturesque beach with nothing on your mind but the thought of getting in shape for the big competition at the end of the year. Then, about nine-and-a-half klicks into your practice 10k, you hear it; the theme to “Chariots of Fire” starts to blare over a crackly, unseen loudspeaker.
Suddenly, you notice the other runners on the beach that you hadn’t concerned yourself with on your run previously. Some ahead of you, most behind, one maybe even neck-and-neck. And then over an old-timey microphone that echoes like it was the one in “Pride of the Yankees,” you hear these words, “On your marks, get set, go!”
You are confused because everyone is already going. And suddenly, what was a training run meant to get you ready for the end-of-the-year competition, is now a sprint to the finish line no one knew existed with all the same weight as the agreed upon annual event, including prize money. That would suck, right?
Ok, overwrought analogy aside, this is what the CPL has done. And a couple of teams have bought into it harder than others, as expected. One is the inaugural Spring/Fall champions, because what else have they got? Like seriously? A whole lot of nothing? A jar of Tommy’s tears? And the other is this year’s regular season champs, winners of the CPL equivalent of remembering you have your science fair project due the morning of. Their “trophy” is a penny dropped in Coke. Oooh.
Most serious teams were working on getting their teams to hit their stride for the title that was agreed upon at the start of the season. By most serious teams I, of course, just mean the league’s only two NorthStar Shield winners (an award so important they actually made one, and named it too). Pacific was working out how to recover from losing the league’s real best player and rebound in time for the playoffs after continental heartbreak. Forge was the opposite, toying with new forward combos on the league’s most explosive team, because why not? They know how to win when it matters (see Cavalry and Atleti for opposite examples).
***Full Disclosure Time***
I knew the regular season “trophy” was coming because I met Mr. Noonan in Ottawa as a Barton Street Battalion Member on our regular season trip to Ottawa. He was blown away that we didn’t have a Supporters Shield like MLS. You know, because doing it over the course of the whole season is the hardest thing. Right, which is exactly why I find it so easy to remember all the teams that won the Supporters Shield as opposed to the MLS Cup (and why no North American sports fan can name the President’s Trophy winners in Hockey. I guess the Pennant matters in Baseball, but as much as the World Series? Does the NBA have a regular season trophy? Who won it the year the Raptors were Champions? Ugh). Anyway, I knew it was coming. That they would drop it at almost the end of the season with unequal games left on schedules, and make it retroactive with prize money is just peak CPL. Well, maybe the Bristol Board cut-out was the real peak.
Wait how many words have I wasted? Whoa. This was supposed to be the Forge Year in Review. I digress. Let’s get to it.
Ok, so mea culpa, my review is later than the Atletico Ottawa review for my bosses at 13th Man Sports. But in my defence, I was partying in Ottawa really hard and wrote a different article on the bus ride home with a hangover. That was an apolo-brag!
Forge in Review 2022, for realz – The First Part
Forge was the only team to start the season in the Champions League. So, they started early in the cold. An unfortunate bounce saw the Forge lose what looked like it would be a hard-fought draw in front of what seemed like an away crowd in the Hammer. Thanks for coming, Cruz Azul! Then they had a trip to the hallowed Azteca. Everything is a blur; they were overmatched but earned respect when David Choiniere scored in Mexico. Pretty cool. What a start!
In league play, Forge was coming off their first-ever NorthStar Shield loss. It would have been understandable if they stumbled out of the gate, and a rematch of that Final in BC showed that they would. A 2-1 loss by a barely recognizable team (no Krutzen, no Henry, no Rama (yet), Sissoko out of position, Alex Achinioti-Jonsson in position – shell of a team).
Their next game was the renewal of “The Rivalry” – a draw at home. It wasn’t until the end of May that they climbed up to a respectable 3-2-2, but by then they had gotten past Outremont kind of unimpressively, and then were trounced by CF Montreal to end their Canadian Championship run.
Part 2 – The Meat of the Season
The chunk of games between June 1st and July 31st are when Forge came to life. They were 9-0-2 over that span, and their only losses were to their bogey team, Valour and to Atleti. A mildly controversial one that involved an illegal man in the wall, which the coaching staff erupted over. At the press conference, they stated the incandescence was a result of the fourth official recognizing it and advising the referee, only for it to be ignored inexplicably. C’est la vie. The rest of this span was Forge Football.
They outscored opponents 22-5, including 3-0 against Pacific in Hamilton, and a 5-1 explosion against a pretty game FC Edmonton side. But it was also in this period that Bobby sealed his own fate as a perennial bridesmaid in the Coach of the Year voting. July 31st, two good-looking teams set to square off in Ottawa. Ottawa had been seen as a solid, enjoyable, if not an overly exciting team to watch. Carlos Gonzales decided to let his boys off the leash a bit at home after a draw and a close win (see above) in the Hammer; it was a disaster.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Forge handed Ottawa a 4-0 thrashing when they tried to go toe-to-toe. And this was when the Coach of the Year was born. Atletico would never try to play Forge on Smyrniotis’ terms again that year. They went back into their shell for the nil-nil draw later in the regular season, and they wouldn’t come out of it again, not even as 15,000 fans poured into their stadium to watch a Final. Gonzalez was happy with the belated Regular Season cardboard. They never posed a threat again to Smyrniotis’ crown. But they did find their style for the remainder of the regular season. And it served them well.
But what created this run for the Forge? It was a combination of a few things. Smyrniotis’ system being absorbed by the new guys, surely one of the top reasons, but I also can think of four more.
- The signing of Rezart Rama
- The emergence of Aboubacar Sissoko
- Woobens Pacius coming into his own
- Forge believing in the new and/or young guys
Rezart Rama is class. He gave Forge a force at fullback, both going forward, but especially in defence. Dominant. In speaking to him, I learned something hilarious. He told me that in three years of playing in England, he had five yellow cards. He was in double digits in his first partial season in Canada. When he learns the league, it will be lights out! Having him on one side and the veteran leadership of Morgan on the other was a perfect balance.
Sissoko started out as the Forge right-back because the midfield had no room for him. But when he got his chance, he took it with both hands. A great eye for a pass. He added goals to his game. And his stint at right-back solidified an already solid defensive game. Welcome to the squad. I get why my Halifax friends are a bit bitter about him being with us. (Shout out @DownthePub, @FromAways and the Searls).
Smyrniotis believes in Canadian offensive players like few others do. Campbell, Borges, Choiniere. He brought in Hamilton (more on that later). Novak was the guy who led the line in the early days. So, watching Woobens flourish under Smyrniotis is no surprise. But wow, this kid can play. I don’t know how much longer he will be here, but I am going to enjoy it while he is.
Finally, believing in the new guys. Forge is a powerhouse, a dynasty. We know the core is solid, but the belief in the new players is often overlooked. I know that Pacific was decimated by solid players moving on, but Forge lost a lot of quality too (Awuah, Cisse, Browne, Navarro – Nanco and Krutzen’s long-time injuries), but watching the team lose nothing with guys like Jensen, Poku, Metusala, Campbell and Hojabrpour in the lineup was confidence-boosting. Recruiting is an underrated part of coaching. Great job Bobby and Costa.
The Third Part: Falling Down a Bit
But that brings us to the summer/fall swoon. 4-3-5 to finish the season. Those five losses were so disappointing. They looked ready to cruise into the Finals. Part of it is understandable. Two were against Valour, and they just know how to beat the Forge. However, the fans of the team talked about one event at first in whispers, but then in ever-growing choruses of conversation; The Jordan Hamilton signing.
Personally, I have wanted Hamilton at Forge since day one, if only for the songs! But I was also a fan of his at TFC and in his brief appearances with CanadaMNT. They signed him on August 5th, just after the Atletico demolition. Did they need more firepower up top? Nope. That they got him anyway, sorry again HFX friends, was a sign of intent. Forge wanted to crush the competition. It was also likely a little common sense. With Pacius on his tear, they would probably need a new striker next year. So, what went wrong?
No one can know for sure, but a big name like Hamilton may have made the young guns a little nervous. Did Pacius and Campbell start looking over their shoulders a bit more? Who knows. But Hamilton was not up to speed with Forge physically or mentally, as everyone except Rama had the benefit of an early camp, CL play and over half a season in the bag. Whatever it was, the midseason tinkering seemed to have a negative impact on their streak. Teams reeled them in. It made for an exciting finish, but it likely cost Forge the title they didn’t know existed. (Still a gleam in the Commissioner’s eye).
The Final Section – Playoffs
Forge and the league got “The Rivalry” part 100, or so it seems, but it never gets old. Cagey in Calgary. Controversial in Hamilton. The result; the same as always. A one-goal game, Forge on top.
And then the Finals. Much of the competition and tension were effectively taken out by a Forge team built to win the big game. Cavalry was the real battle, but it was still a great match, and an incredible atmosphere. Smyrniotis’ presser was a thing of beauty. All the pressure was on Atleti according to him, since he could sleep at night having won two of these already. Killer.
And that was the Forge Season in review. A historic start in CL, a slow start in the league and a disappointing exit in Canadian Championship. An amazing, swashbuckling two-month run. A near late-season collapse. A fiery semi-final. A confident Final victory. (Wow, I could have made this much shorter!)
A shame there is no continental play next year, but I am sure Smyrniotis, and the boys, will be ready to go again. With at least a few changes again.
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