Forge and Cavalry both ready to ‘enjoy the occasion’ in first-ever CPL final

With the first leg of the Canadian Premier League Finals now just around the corner, Cavalry and Forge trained at Tim Hortons Field on Friday, as they prepare to do battle in the first-ever CPL championship round.

On the last day before the inaugural Canadian Premier League Finals kicked off, both teams, Cavalry and Forge, convened at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field for Media Day. More importantly for them, it was the last opportunity to go through their paces ahead of the first leg, as one of them looks to fly to Calgary with a significant advantage in their back pocket. 

“Yeah, I think we’re feeling good,” Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis said to reporters. “We’ve had 10 days from our last game here against Cavalry, and I think it’s been a great 10 days of trading, and to be honest, the players are just waiting for the day to come and the whistle to go to get this game started.”

“I think we’ve got two great teams here,” said his opposite number, Cavalry head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. “They’re going to play, and fight tooth and nail for the right to be the first-ever Canadian Premier League winner. I think we just want to enjoy the occasion.”

It promises to be an intriguing game, as these teams meet for the 8th time this season, with plenty of entertaining contests in both the CPL and the Voyageurs Cup to look back on. As the best teams in the league over the course of the campaign, as both teams handily finished ahead of the rest in the cumulative standings, this is a chance for the CPL to enjoy a best-on-best final. 

During some of those contests, things started to boil over, as some hard feelings started to build up after all the intense contests they participated in. While the talk of rivalry has been bandied about heavily in the lead up to this game, the teams remain complementary of the other, as they know that the tense moments are a result of two competitive teams not wanting to give an inch. 

“I think it’s two very competitive teams, we both just want to win,” Forge captain Kyle Bekker said. “Obviously we hold ourselves in high regard, which is good, and it makes for very competitive games. I think neither team wants to give up an inch, so we’re both hungry to lift this first trophy in the first inaugural season, so I think it makes for a good story. We’ve had some battles so far this season, so I think it all comes together. I don’t know if hatred is the right word, but I definitely want to win more than they do.”

“I wouldn’t call it a dislike,” added Cavalry’s Nico Pasquotti. “I think that it’s a good rivalry, and I think it’s just too good teams that want to want to play the best that they can to bring out the best team. I think it’s good for us, because we like these kinds of games, big games where your opponent’s tough and you’ve got to kind of grind it out. It’s a tactical match, you’ve got to be prepared, there’s a lot that goes into these types of games and I think that’s what as soccer players is what we live for.”

There are several other storylines that will be at play during this series, especially from a individual standpoint, as many of the top players in the league reside on either the Hamilton-based Forge or the Calgary-based Cavalry. From the league MVP to the Golden Boot, plenty of individual hardware will be dished out to these two teams when the Finals conclude, as they celebrate the end of a successful season. 

Just don’t expect either set of players to think about that. While it adds something interesting for fans and the media to focus on, the players will want to just focus on winning first, and the rest will be a case of ‘que sera, que sera’. 

“I just want to win the championship,” Cavalry’s Golden Boot competitor Dominique Malonga said. “For the Golden Boot…. I just care about it a little bit. I’m a champion, I will win the Golden Boot. So I will try to be a champion, and after that, I’ll think about it.”

For Malonga and his team to become champions, they’re going to have to conjure up some of the knockout football magic they’ve shown to already have this season, as they’ve already gotten some valuable experience through competing in the Canadian Championship. Knocking out Pacific FC, Forge FC and MLS-side Vancouver Whitecaps en route to a close loss to another MLS side in the Montreal Impact, they got a taste of what it takes to win a game over two legs. 

Especially with a match against Forge tucked in there, and not to mention the quality offered by the MLS sides, it gives them a good edge heading into this game. 

“We’re fortuitous that we’ve had practice in the Canadian Championship,” Wheeldon Jr said. “We’ve played here (in Hamilton), and we knew we had to keep the first game close and the second game opened up. It’s no different when we played the Whitecaps, and no different than when we played Pacific, and same with Montreal, where we kept that close.”

“We’d love to come in here and win three or four-nil. That’s the game plan, but you got to play what the conditions are telling you, and it’s not lost on us that we have 180 minutes to do so. So there’s an element of patience that you’ve got to come out, and once you’re done the first 10 or 15 minutes, the fireworks happen.”

Unluckily for Cavalry, they place the team with the next most knockout football experience in the CPL, as while Forge only played 1 round in the Voyageurs Cup, they do have a couple of rounds in the CONCACAF League under their belts. By beating the Guatamalen Champions, CD Antigua, before narrowly falling to Honduran giants CD Olimpia, they got a taste of international competition. 

So on their end, while they might not have gotten that same recognition within Canada that Cavalry did for their accomplishments, they’ve had a lot of landmarks to look back on as well. Which is almost poetic in a sense, as the two biggest standard-bearers both within and outside CPL now get to do battle on a big stage, with their big-game experience to draw back on. 

“It’s been fantastic,” Smyrniotis said. “We’ve seen the success that our team has had on the field, both domestically, and internationally in CONCACAF League. You always go back to those 2 series with Antigua and Olympia as they made us stronger, because we’re fielding 10 Canadian players in each one of those games, and seven of them weren’t professionals last year, and we’re competing with the likes of Olympia. I know the second game didn’t go as we planned, but those make you stronger as you want to build something for the future.”

So now it’s time for both teams just to kick things off and get the proceedings underway, as the talk finally precipitates and the action gets going. After a good buildup leading to this moment, it’s now to see who best grabs hold of the occasion, with a chance to make a memorable moment for Canadian Soccer. After a solid year of landmark moments, this is a chance to end the year on a high note, putting a statement in the 1st year CPL record books. 

As Wheeldon Jr simply alluded to, at the end of the day it’s going to be a good game, and it’s now just up for everyone to enjoy the occasion. After a long year of hard work leading up to the moment, it’s time to get the ball kicked off, putting together another landmark moment for the Canadian game. 

“It’s a game that we’re all looking forward to,” Wheeldon Jr finished. “I think that’s what the message’s been to our players our fans: let’s just enjoy the occasion.”

Commissioner’s notes:

The CPL Commissioner, David Clanachan, spoke on Friday, and he dropped some interesting nuggets on the future of the league. He delved into a couple of interesting topics, as he spoke of expansion and what the league has had to offer so far this year. As the honeymoon period starts to wear off, the league will have a lot of work to do next year, as the second year grind sets in. 

“The bottom line is we came into this knowing that people were rooting for us,” Clanachan said. “But that’s your first shift. Right. We all know the old hockey saying right: ‘you’re only as good as your last shift’. Well, our last shift was this year, so next year better be better.”

With that in mind, here are his thoughts on a few important topics concerning the top flight of Canadian Soccer. 

Expansion:

On expansion, Clanachan said that there were “three clubs that are very close”, but the biggest barrier was finding “physical stadiums to play”, since they don’t want to play in stadiums with Canadian Football lines. While Forge and Valour FC play in football fields, their stadiums have been very accommodating to the CPL, removing those lines for games, and presumably, Clanachan will want the same for any teams looking to come in with similar stadium situations. 

Another big question will be if the teams will be ready to expand for 2020, or if they’ll wait. On that, he said that a decision will come in the next “30 days on some clubs”, but that it’s going to be “very tight to get them in for 2020”. With prospective candiates rumoured to be a Quebec based team, a Kitchner-Waterloo team and a Fraser Valley team, it’ll be interesting to see which of them can get things over the line. With Saskatoon expected to join in 2021, it’ll be a good crop of expansion for the CPL, as they look to bring the sport all over the country. 

On Ottawa:

Speaking of teams that will be added, the Ottawa Fury is expected to eventually join, after only backing out last minute last year to remain in the USL. While it was seen to be as a testy relationship between Ottawa and the CPL, he immediately threw cold water on that when asked how it was going. 

“They decided that from a business perspective they weren’t ready to come,” Clanachan said.

He also added: “We’ve got good relationships with the Fury ownership and management, I don’t personally agree with what their decisions were but having said that, I have to respect them right they’re running a business as well.”

It seems that the ball is in Ottawa’s court, so hopefully they do make a decision soon, as they could add a lot to the league. After a year of complicated relationships between CPL, Ottawa and CONCACAF, it may be best for all parties involved to find a long-term solution soon, one that means Ottawa coming up to the CPL. 

Women’s League:

Clanachan confirmed that the CPL was looking at creating a women’s league, but there’s no timeline, as they slowly move towards that goal. He pointed to the recent purchase of the League1 Ontario Women’s circuit, a good semi-pro venture, as the start of what the league wants to do to improve the women’s game. 

“I think we got something to build off of there,” Clanachan said on the league. “So that’s how we start, there’s no way that I’m going to sit here and tell you all and give it a date (for a CanPL Women’s League). But I do know this: we’re in the game. And that’s important.”

Playoff Format:

When pressed on potentially changing the format of the final, Clanachan quickly threw cold water to the idea, saying that the “format is good” and that an expansion to the playoffs could only come with more teams. With a balanced schedule expected to come next year, as there is unlikely to be the spring/fall split as seen in this year, it should make for a good system for at least the short term. 

Improved quality:

Lastly, Clanachan was happy to point out the improved quality of the play across the league, as the teams improved in their inaugural seasons. It really clicked for him how much it was progressing a few weeks ago, as he watched two already eliminated sides in Halifax and Pacific combine to play nice football, making him realize how far things have come. 

“I’m watching this this this football match, and I’m watching players string together 7, 8, 9 passes,” Clanachan said. “All quality passes, playing a good game of football, and I had my brain into clicking and say: ‘This is our league’.”

As the league continues to grow, those improvements from top to bottom will only help the CPL push forward, so it’s hoped it continues down this path for all teams new and old in the circuit next year. 

Trophy Unveiled

The last big event of the day was the unveiling of the CPL trophy, as they finally revealed what the teams were competing for. After rumours of it being a cup, or a shield, or something in between, it ended up being a bit of both, as the ‘North Star Shield’ was revealed to the world for the first time. 

The ‘North Star’ shield at it’s unveiling (Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic)

As seen, it’s a unique trophy, as it combines crystal with wood to make a nice little shield. It seems nice enough at first glance, so now it’s to see how it looks with someone hoisting it, which will ultimately decide how loved it is. It hasn’t been entirely embraced on the first reaction, which is expected, so it’ll be interesting to see if people start to appreciate it more as the years go along. 

Looking Forward:

The ball gets rolling at 3:30 EST (12:30 PST), as both teams finaly get things underway. With the match being broadcast on CBC, it’ll be a good moment of exposure for the league, so now it’s time to see where the ball rolls in the first leg in this first-ever CPL Final.