After a hotly contested first leg of the CPL Finals in Hamilton, the series now shifts to Calgary, with the ‘North Star Shield’ on the line for both Forge and Cavalry. In this one, we take a look at some key battles to watch, as both teams look to finish the season as champions.
As both Forge and Cavalry get set to play the last 90 minutes of the Canadian Premier League season this Saturday, they’ll have a lot to ponder from their last outing, as Forge toppled Cavalry 1-0 at home.
In a game where they thoroughly dominated, Forge will feel unlucky to head out to Calgary only up 1-0, as they were denied on a handful of occasions both by the woodwork and by Cavalry’s Marco Carducci. But on a positive note, considering that Cavalry left without the safety of an away goal in their pocket, they’ll still fancy their chances at lifting the ‘North Star Shield’.
On the other hand, Cavalry will not fear the result whatsoever, as they weathered the storm despite being at 10 men for nearly 60 minutes, and now head back to a stadium where they score lots of goals. In what promises to be tough Calgarian winter conditions, hovering around freezing with snow very much a possibility, they’ll have the advantage of having trained and played in these conditions quite often.
As these teams prepare to meet for the 9th time this season, after having played each other 5 times in the league, as well as a further 2 times in the Voyageurs Cup, it’s clear that not much separates the two. Forge currently holds a 4 to 3 edge in victories over Cavalry, with the 8th result being a draw, which shows how fine the margins have been in the hunt for CPL supremacy.
It means that the individual battles will play a big role Saturday, despite both coaches putting a lot of emphasis on tactical preparation, as they seem to know each other too well to be surprised by changes. As seen in the first leg, where Forge won many of the key battles all over the pitch, it’s those battles that will be the difference between hoisting the ‘North Star Shield’, or returning home empty-handed.
With that in mind, here are some battles to watch at Spruce Meadows:
Chris Nanco and Kwame Awuah vs Cavalry’s right side defenders
This battle proved to be decisive in the first leg, as Nanco and Awuah combined before setting up Forge’s opening goal, a laserbeam strike from Tristan Borges. Awuah, in particular, was a force in that game, creating a game-high 4 chances, while adding 2 tackles and winning 6 duels. Along with Nanco, who had an assist, created 2 chances, while adding a team-high 4 shots, it made for a fruitful afternoon on that right-hand side.
Probably their most important contribution, as well, was quieting Nico Pasquotti on the right-wing, as he was forced to track back and defend more than he would have hoped. Against a Cavalry team that relies on Pasquotti to be a key creative hub, Forge limiting him to 27 touches and 0 chances created was huge, and it played a part in Cavalry’s inability to find a victory.
“They were excellent,” Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis praised after the game. “Simply excellent, combining well, putting them on the back foot, not only on the attacking end, but (also) their defensive work, because of the way they attacked, we’re able to pin them a little bit further back and neutralize guys like Pasquotti and Escalante, who changed sides.”
As Cavalry looked to create chances for Dominique Malonga, their leading scorer, it made it a lot tougher to have their most creative players defending. While the red card didn’t help, Cavalry did have a 20 minute period played at 10v10, but they were just unable to get much going against a cruising Forge side.
This wide battle will be interesting to monitor in the second leg, as Forge now heads off to a Cavalry pitch that won’t favour their possession style, with a real (and maybe even frozen) grass surface that doesn’t have the same consistency as their turf. On this Spruce Meadows grass especially, that has shown to get really uneven at times, it means that Forge may have to find a different way to find attacking success in the second leg.
Whether that means playing more through Anthony Novak up top, forcing Nanco and whoever lines up on the right wing to play more in behind, or just sticking with what works, is all yet to be determined. No matter what they do go with, however, strong performances like what we saw from Awuah and Nanco will go a long way towards their success.
The midfield battle
This is one where Cavalry could have done better in, as Forge’s Kyle Bekker, Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson and Tristan Borges made life hard for the trio of Nik Ledgerwood, Julian Buescher and Oliver Minatel. While the Cavalry trio had outstanding defensive stats, as they defended well, they were unable to influence the game offensively, only generating 1 chance between them. Compare that to Forge’s trio, who generated 3, as well as factoring in the goal and a couple of crossbar hits, and it was a gulf in the midfield that made a difference.
It wasn’t in the gameplan for Cavalry’s manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr, as he wanted to starve Borges and Bekker of moments to create chances, and while they did that for the most part, they still had their influence on the game.
“You want to keep him and Bekker away from the ball as (much) as possible and allow the centre backs to have a deeper in their half, and I thought we did that,” Wheeldon Jr said after the game.
For Forge to have success in the second leg, they’ll want to get Bekker on the ball as much as possible, while use Borges through the middle as a hub, if he plays (he awaits word on the status of his suspension) (UPDATE: Borges Red Card has been rescinded. He will play).
As seen throughout the season, those are their dangermen, and they’ll be key to snatching a result in Calgary, a result that would ensure them the title.
One way to do that will be the role played by Jonsson, who was excellent on Saturday. He won his duels defensively, and also added an interception, keeping things tidy on that front. By freeing up space for his fellow midfielders, it made their lives a lot easier, as they looked to create chances.
He was no slouch offensively, either, adding 2 created chances and a shot, while keeping a 92% pass percentage. Asked of him after the match, Smyrniotis was complimentary of his midfield rock.
“It’s easy to see Borges, it’s easy to see Bekker, and then it’s easy to forget that there’s a player like Jonsson in the field,” Smyrniotis said. “Jonsson is a is an excellent tactical player, who knows what to do all the time in possession, and keeps things very simple. So that’s why sometimes we lose him from stats but if you look at him, he’s kept possession for us all the time, he’s always making a good decision in playing the simple pass, and he’s always in the right lane to pick off a pass as well, he also does a good job in the air, so I think he’s very important for us.”
For Cavalry to overcome that solidity, they’ll need a big performance from their captain, Nik Ledgerwood, as well as a good two-way performance from Buescher. If they can control the midfield defensively and in possession through those two, and generate more through Minatel, or Sergio Camargo if he starts, and Cavalry should match up well to the Forge midfield. If they don’t, Forge should be able to control the game, and if they do, it’s not hard to imagine them clawing out the result necessary to become champions.
Dominique Malonga vs the Forge backline
It was a quiet afternoon for the Cavalry marksman in the 1st leg, as he only completed 5 passes, had a measly 14 touches and only found 1 shot. After scoring 11 goals during the season, it was an anonymous performance from the Congolese international, who was just unable to get going on Saturday.
But don’t expect that in the second leg, as the service will surely improve at home, and if it does, expect him to be lethal in front of goal. He has been a proven finisher at all levels of the game, and as shown in flashes this season, he can impact games.
“I feel good, I finished the season strong, which is good for me and the team,” Malonga told BTSVancity before the first leg. “I will do my best, to represent the team, to make chances, and if I do, I’ll score them.”
In his way will be the resilient centre back pairing of David Edgar and Daniel Krutzen, which will be no easy task for Malonga to handle. Against Cavalry in the first leg, they combined for 9 duels won out of 12, as well as 6 clearances and 2 interceptions. As Malonga and his team struggled to create chances, having the two big men in Orange clearing out everything that moved didn’t help their case, either.
This battle will be huge for Cavalry’s hopes, as they need to find a way to provide for Malonga, either through wide areas or through the middle. Winning the midfield battle would be huge for that, as they have shown to be able to make things happen in that area of the pitch, but also stronger performances from Pasquotti, Escalante and whoever else is on the wing should help massively, as well. At home, where he found a way to score lots of goals all season, Malonga will get one last chance to help his team complete a ‘CPL Treble’, and against the Forge backline, it should make for a formidable battle.
Both teams will take the field Saturday, in what will be the last CPL game of the season, with 90 minutes between being crowned champions, or ending up left weeping in defeat. As both teams prepare tactically, physically and mentally, it’ll be interesting to see how things develop on Saturday, but these battles should prove to be key no matter the set-up. If a team can dominate 2 out of 3 of those battles, as Forge did in the first leg, they will very likely be hoisting the ‘North Star Shield’ at the end of the 90 minutes (or more if needed).
After a long season of work, it’s crunch time now, so it’ll be interesting to see who stands up tallest when the lights shine brightest.
Cover photo provided by Forge FC
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Alex is a soccer journalist who covers the Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada’s National Teams and the Canadian Premier League at large. He’s also a third-year student at Ryerson University in Toronto, after having attended Simon Fraser University in Vancouver for his first year. You can find him on twitter at @AlexGangueRuzic. View all posts by Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic