It all happened so quickly.
On a cool Autumn afternoon in Hamilton last year, Forge FC and Cavalry FC were amid an epic two-legged semifinal. The first leg ended 1-1, and for much of the second Forge looked to be on the front foot. Chances aplenty, Cavalry found it tough to make its way down the pitch. On the verge of a goal that’d secure a berth in the 2022 Final, momentum drastically shifted. Captain Kyle Bekker was caught with his studs up, at the painful expense of Ali Musse. He was sent off in a moment of madness you’d only expect from a matchup like Forge versus Cavs.
Naturally, in typical Forge fashion, they went on to win the match after, crucially, the visitors also had a man sent off. However, a crucial question had to be asked: who would fill the shoes of Bekker in the biggest match of the season?
Enter Noah Jensen.
In his very first professional season, one where he only started six of the previous 22 matches, playing just 711 minutes, Hammers coach Bobby Smyrniotis gave him that difficult task. He had enough evidence that Jensen could hold down the fort while simultaneously aiding the offence: he had scored twice against Atlético Ottawa that season, becoming a frustrating opponent for a team not prone to letting many goals past them. Jensen had to be a double-pivot in the ‘22 Final while Aboubacar Sissoko acted as the ten. He’s used to suiting up in a defensive/holding midfielder role, but Jensen was putting in a shift in advanced roles of the pitch during that Final.
You already know the rest of the story. Forge went on to dominate Ottawa, and suddenly, Jensen was a CPL champion, a very deserving one at that. The Hammers shut down Ottawa’s dangerous counter-attack, with Jensen a key cog in not letting Ottleti start transitional plays. A deserved winner, he got a chance maybe not expected when his rookie season began: to lift the North Star Shield – as a role player, no less.
Once a new year rolled around, Jensen was set to embrace a new role as a starter. Even when Bekker’s red-card suspension ended two matches into the campaign, Jensen was still a constant on the field. He was now playing alongside the captain, not in spite of him. He started the year on a tear, scoring on the first day of the season against Cavalry, and twice in the Canadian Championship. He proved his versatility by scoring out of attacking midfield before transitioning back to defence. The harmony in that area of the pitch for Forge was strong.
Jensen had a very well-experienced CPLer alongside him in Alessandro Hojabrpour, which was sure to help. Hojabrpour has less offensive instincts, so Jensen did have the freedom to transition. Forge at times experimented with the number of players in midfield as Sissoko kept going from fullback to wing-back. For a good few weeks, Jensen wasn’t starting at all. That wasn’t the best idea from Smyrniotis, as, during the seven matches in which he didn’t start, Forge lost five times and collected just one win. His defensive ability is invaluable to Forge, and being able to play off Bekker and fill gaps is crucial as Cavalry has some aggressive defensive midfielders who aren’t afraid to put a foot in. If Forge chooses to work quickly and get the ball around, Jensen could be tasked again with playing in a high slot.
All the way back in early May, Smyrniotis was asked about the dynamic between Jensen and Bekker, and how he manages to pick a team when both are playing well. “It’s a fantastic problem for a coach to have. It makes my life difficult but makes my life easy. Training is fantastic, each and every day it’s what you want, each player’s prepared… it gives us the luxury of being able to move things around and not missing a beat on the field.”
Everything gelled as Forge was able to unlock a new formation and new threats with Jensen, whose rise up the ranks in Hamilton is refreshing. While Forge typically signs big-name players, Jensen worked hard at his professional dreams, plying his trade at school with Oakland University before coming North again.
And now, as Forge approaches a fifth straight final, they do so with a luxury that didn’t exist for them 365 days ago: another midfielder who can change a game.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Q: Coming off that CPL championship, and being thrown into the starting eleven more often come the following year, would you say that there’s a sort of pressure put on you?
A: “I think there was probably more pressure stepping into the 2022 Final to play in Kyle Bekker’s role, but this season I will say there’s a bit more of a responsibility for myself to step up and play. When I was starting a few games in a row at the start of the regular season, I think I can look back on those moments and say that I’ve done a good job and everything I need to do. But at the end of the day, we play a final on Saturday where anything can happen, it’s the culmination of the season. So I’m just keeping my head in the right space for whatever happens on Saturday.”
Q: What have you learned about yourself in your sophomore season in the league?
A: “Well, I think the life of a professional is just filled with a lot of ups and a lot of downs, I think the biggest thing that I’ve always known is to enjoy the moments when you’re playing well and when you’re team’s playing well because it’s not gonna last. When you’re in those low moments, you’re not training your best, you’re not feeling your best, you’re not playing your best, and when you’re team’s not winning it won’t last forever. Just put your head down and keep working, and those results are gonna come.”
Q: Last year, you had scored a couple of times against Ottawa before playing them in the Final. This year, you scored against Cavalry, and now you guys are playing them in the Final, after beating them in the semifinal. As a person and a group would you say you’re as prepared as you could ever be?
A: “Yeah, I think not only that but, you know, we’ve played them five times already this season, four in the regular season and once in the playoffs, so we’re very familiar with them as an opponent. Not only that, but well before I was here Forge and Cavalry have been long-time rivals. Every game we play against them is a little bit more heightened than other games. But these games, they bring out the best in us as a club, I know every single one of us is just really happy and excited to be here, to be playing in a Final, and we know it’s just gonna be that much sweeter to beat Cavalry.”
Q: What has it been like having a week off without a game, ahead of the Final, do you think you should have a game every week so you don’t get cold feet?
A: “It’s a little weird because since the season started in April we’ve been playing a game every single week, so to go from April until October having being accustomed to that life, playing every single Saturday or Sunday, and then to go into a period where you don’t play for 14 days, it’s different. It’s something our coaches had to take into consideration in our level of training the last ten days or so. But, I think we’ve done a good job, at the end of the day everyone’s just gotta stay mentally prepared from the time we won in the semifinals to the time we play the Final, and just stay locked in.”
Q: What are the similarities and differences between this Final and last year’s, you’ve come a long way as a player and the team has too.
A: “For sure, one similarity to last year is our season was a very bumpy ride, and to say it was different this season would be a lie. We’ve experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows. But really, we just have one game to define our season, obviously we qualified for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which is really big for us, but all of us want to be staying there on Saturday lifting a trophy, I think that’s what been driving us forward going into Saturday.”
Q: And in terms of where you guys can lift that trophy, Forge has sold over 10,000 tickets for the Final after 15,000 at last year’s Final. What does it mean to you to be playing in front of these huge crowds?
A: “Yeah, playing at home in these big games is such a big advantage. To have your fans behind you, I remember playing in the Final last year we had a lot of travelling fans, but just the environment at the game was surreal. To be playing in front of 15,000 people in Canada was just an amazing opportunity to be a part of that for soccer in Canada as a whole. And I know our fans are gonna show up this weekend, and I hope we can be the first team to win the trophy at home.”
Q: Last year in the Final you had to fill in for Bekker in more of an attacking midfield role, this year you played that same position but dropping back into defence, how does it feel to play in your own position, and have your own spot in the team?
Q: “It’s a bit more comfortable. I know that I’m a versatile enough player, given a certain role I have enough to step into a role and do a job. But it’s nice, throughout the course of the season I’ve been able to play a lot with Kyle and with Alessandro, with Aboubacar, and gotten a lot of camaraderie with these guys. We know how each other plays, and me stepping in this season it’s been a lot more fluid, and that just comes with me playing a lot more minutes with these guys. So it’s been a lot easier for me, and makes our team just easier to tick as a whole, regardless of where I’m playing on the field.”
Top photo by Audrey Magny