TIM HORTONS FIELD, HAMILTON – Bobby Smyrniotis had a simple message for Tristan Borges as he entered the field of play in extra time of Saturday’s epic Canadian Premier League Final.
“Go out there and win us a third championship.”
Of course, that’s not totally correct. Smyrniotis has been so accustomed to winning that he’s lost count of the trophies he’s won. Saturday marked his fourth CPL Playoff trophy, truly remarkable in every sense of the word. It didn’t seem as though that’d be Forge’s fate in the Final this year for long stretches of time, though. A second-half goal for Forge was ruled out due to a foul in the build-up; and Cavalry took control, eventually going up 1-0 through an excellent strike from Ali Musse. It was the one shot that Triston Henry just couldn’t stop, as he had managed four saves to that point. He bailed out Forge on multiple occasions, proving his worth as the Golden Glove winner. Then, it was time for the offence to get rolling.
There have been times this season when Smyrniotis has been adamant it’s difficult to manage all of his attackers. Forge’s depth is second to none. It certainly turned some heads when in the middle of the season the Hammers signed Béni Badibanga, an experienced winger out of Belgium. In a moment like the Final, however, it was all justified. Smyrniotis may not have had a grand plan all along, but if he had planned out this roadmap to a championship, well, it’s just the sheer genius you’d come to expect of the man.
“Yeah, [Badibanga] is a quality player and a player that can change a game very quickly. When you look at our season, we’ve missed two very important players to our 2022 team for big periods of time… when we saw some guys weren’t able to make it through a full season, we went to market to find a difference-maker, and you bring in these types of players not only for the run of games but to make sure you have them for the big games. Big players win big games. Béni Badibanga is a fantastic player, even on his bad day he can pop up.”
The chemistry between him and captain Kyle Bekker was incredible on the day. While Bekker was relegated to somewhat of a holding midfielder position, he still took some of the corners and did well orchestrating the set-plays of passing the ball short from the flag. Badibanga dropped back at times to help the midfield perform a tiki-taka style to move the ball up the pitch quickly. Forge generated a multitude of chances through this, primarily in the first half. When the halftime whistle blew and each team went to their respective dressing room, hoping that in a matter of an hour it’d be coated with champagne, Cavalry flipped a switch.
Forge’s high-press had done well trapping the Cavs in pockets centrally. Badibanga and Terran Campbell would come inside while Noah Jensen stampeded through the middle. Cavalry, playing a back-three, couldn’t escape with the ball. On plenty of occasions, they couldn’t advance it farther than their defensive midfielders. They were chasing halftime, in fact, it was a common theme throughout the match to see Cavalry chasing the next stage of the game. First, it was the second half, then extra time, and then penalties. They were keen to aggravate Forge by wasting time, trying to draw yellow cards instead of conceding them as they did five times in the Final.
If anything was a guarantee, it’s that Rezart Rama was up for any verbal or physical taunt the Cavs sent his way. He and Charlie Trafford exchanged plenty of words and some light blows. If anyone was going to really hammer home this being a rivalry game, it’d be these two. Always in the opposition’s faces, always prepared to put a foot in for their badge.
Cavalry started playing the ball out wide to get chances. Primarily to Musse, as the visitors weren’t going to poke the bear of playing the ball down Badibanga, Rama, and Garven Metusala’s side. William Akio still got some touches in but played much less of a role than he did against Pacific the week prior.
Cavalry is a very fluid team. They have more than just one, two, or three ways to attack. A familiar sight was Myer Bevan drifting out wide while Musse became the nine. Bevan, the joint-Golden Boot winner, had it tough trying to force his way past Manjrekar James and Dom Samuel in central defence during the second half. He put in a couple of decent crosses, but that was still mainly Musse’s task. He sent one across the goal that both Bevan and Akio couldn’t tap in, a head-in-your-hands play that had Cavalry’s forward corps dearly wanting it back.
Bevan headered a ball that seemed as though it’d only be a matter of time before entering the net. But Henry pawed it, throwing the ball away in the process. He later made an excellent save on Musse, who curled the ball perfectly before Henry dived to deny him.
This seemed to be Cavalry’s time as they poured more pressure on. Musse’s goal was one years in the making, destined since he scored the winning goal for the Calgary Foothills in the 2018 PDL Final. Alas, as Forge brought on more and more offensive players – Jordan Hamilton, David Choiniere – the Cavs were under extreme pressure. The clock was ticking in their favour as the first half of the added frame drew to a conclusion.
And along comes Badibanga. Bekker plays it short, and the Congan takes a step back and hits it perfectly. Carducci is far from frozen, but that doesn’t mean not in shock of the goal. Badibanga knows that he’s done something remarkable, but in his typical fashion is casual about it. Walking back toward the centre circle and shaking his hand, he and Forge knew there was still business to be done.
If the previous 90 minutes were deemed cagey, extra time was on another level. The sides were nipping at each other while going from end to end. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. had to bring off Musse due to cramping, an incredibly unfortunate loss. His trademark ‘Musse Magic’ was so dearly needed for a second time in the last 30 minutes.
Cavalry have been masters of set pieces this season. It was cited as a scenario in which the Final could be won or lost. After squandering three of those in the first half, it just somehow wasn’t Cavalry’s night. And given their prowess in those situations, losing that quality was so crucial.
Naturally, Forge kept executing very good corner kick routines if the Cavs couldn’t. The Badibanga goal was merely a trailer of what was to come in the 111th minute.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a moment in CPL history.
“I mean, if you look at xG, what is the xG of that corner, the Olimpico, 0.01?,” asked Wheeldon Jr.
“Borges scores from a corner, it goes straight in, you can’t not be shocked when it goes in,” remarked Trafford.
The audacity to try and score from a corner is something that requires incredible amounts of belief in yourself but also hours on the training ground. Borges, a storied CPLer, has obviously done both of those things. He’s undeniably a Forge player, as those qualities run deep in the club.
“It’s a fantastic thing that [Borges] has done, and he’s been an important player. That’s the beauty of football, this guy won us a championship last year… he played the assist into [Alessandro Hojabrpour]’s goal in Ottawa, and here he is, with not his best season due to various injuries, and he’s brought another championship to Forge.”
Drinks were flowing both into and then out of the North Star Cup. Borges and Badibanga even brought it up to the media room for the press conference, not letting what they’ve stolen from the clutches of Cavalry out of their sights.
“We know day-to-day how tough it is, it’s a lot of hard work, these are good moments to celebrate,” Borges said.
It would feel wrong if it was anyone else celebrating in late October in the CPL.
The champions do it again.
Top photo by David Chant