As the second leg of the CPL Finals shifted to Calgary, it was unsure who would come out on top, with only a narrow 1-0 Forge lead separating the teams. And after a hotly contested 90 minutes, where momentum swung both ways, it proved to be Forge, who rode a strong performance to become inaugural champions of the CPL.
It wasn’t as drawn up, but it was enough to make them champions.
Under the bright November Calgary sun, Forge and Cavalry did battle for the 9th time in this CPL season. For the first time, a trophy was on the line, as the opportunity to be the first-ever winners of the ‘North Star Shield’ was the reward for the winner.
And after a hard-fought, 180 minutes of football, Forge earned the privilege to lift that trophy as Canadian Premier League champions, as they narrowly etched out a victory. After carrying a 1-0 lead into this trip out West, they grinded out the 90 minutes needed to get the draw needed to win, and they even added a cherry on top of their championship cake with a late goal.
“It’s a great feeling” Forge head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis, said emphatically to media after the game. “That’s for sure. I think the guys know me best in the changing room, I’m the guy that walks around constantly always looking to see what’s going on, always looking at the particulars, in training and in the game. And I can tell you I’m going to enjoy tonight a lot, and then tomorrow I’m going to get back to work, because I know there’s a lot of work to do.”
On the other side of the equation, it was a heartbreaking defeat for Cavalry, who were left to see Forge lift the inaugural trophy in their backyard. After winning both the spring and fall awards without much in terms of fanfare or silverware, to lose at their chance to lift the ultimate CPL chalice was a tough pill to swallow.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the players,” Cavalry head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr said. “Just didn’t quit, we never got blown out in any game, every battle we always in every game we played with everything we had , and that’s how we should be remembered. And I think they’ll appreciate it, it will sting for a while, but they’ll appreciate everything they’ve done this year.”
Dominique Malogna picked up Cavalry’s first chance of the game, but he was unable to direct his header on goal, as it sailed helplessly over after a nice Julian Buscher cross from the right side.
Cavalry continued to ramp up the pressure, feeding off their strong home support, but Nico Pasquotti couldn’t properly direct his 24-yard strike on goal. Kyle Bekker nearly returned the favour on the other end, sending his own strike from distance goalwards, but he was unable to give Forge the surprise lead away from home.
The game remained slow, as both teams were unable to find a much-needed opening, with Forge seemingly content to hold the result. Julian Buscher was doing his best to ensure that wouldn’t happen, first testing Forge’s Triston Henry with a good free-kick, before teeing up Dominick Zator for a header that just flew over the goal.
Heading into halftime, that was the story of the game, and it was what ultimately proved to be their downfall over the 90. While only allowing essentially only 1 goal over 180 minutes of play, late 2nd leg goal aside, that’s never going to be enough if a team doesn’t find a way to breach opposing lines.
“We didn’t score. Simple as that, we didn’t score,” Cavalry midfielder Nik Ledgerwood said of what plagued his side. “We had 90 minutes to put the ball in the back of the net, and it didn’t happen for whatever reason. Maybe it was a little bit of quality at the end of the day, bounces that might of not have gone our way, but at the end of the day, we needed goals and we didn’t score any.”
After his miss to end the first half, Zator played provider early on in the second stanza, as he played a lovely ball to Malonga. But despite finding himself unmarked in the box to head in, Malonga, Cavalry’s leading scorer, nodded the ball into the ground and over the goal, keeping the game tied at zeroes.
Cavalry continued to press, chasing that equalizer, but Forge stood strong. They came close in the 68th minute thanks to second-half sub, Jose Escalante, who came on to take a free-kick, but his left-footed strike sailed just past the post and wide to keep things level.
Their efforts ramped up, and they started to mount up the chances, including a wayward Jose Escalante backheel, before Zator tested Henry with a fierce low shot. As Cavalry took off defenders and loaded up with attackers, it forced Forge to sit deeper and deeper, but Henry and his crew stood tall to handle the Cavalry push.
“Yeah, I think we’re we’ve got a team that knows how to keep the ball out of our own net,” Smyrniotis said. “We’ve got a team that knows how to play on the road. We have a team that knows how to play at this field. We’ve done it successfully in the past, we’ve come here, won games, and yeah we’ve lost here in the past too, but we’ve also gotten our tactical plan right from what we’re looking for.”
That spirit continued right into the dying embers of the game, as Forge would only hold onto the ball in short spurts, before Cavalry would fly right up the field the other way. Zator came close again right in the 91st minute, as he snatched at a left-footed volley from a great position, but he sent his strike into the Foot Soldiers supporters group behind the goal.
The intense pressure from Cavalry would come back to haunt them late on in the game. On a 94th minute corner, they sent everyone except goalkeeper Carducci forward, but were unable to put in a good ball on the cross. That opened up a 2 on 0 the other way against Carducci, and he could only watch as Elimane Cisse slid the ball over to David Choiniere, who easily gave Forge the 1-0 lead, and the championship.
After a year filled with up and downs, from a strong CONCACAF League run, to a narrow Canadian Championship defeat, it was a perfect way to end for Forge. As they now look to repeat as CPL Champions, they also have another run in the CONCACAF League ahead of them, so they want to build off the momentum of a successful first season.
“I want to make sure that train keeps on going,” Smyrniotis said. “And then we’ve created the culture here, and we wanted this championship. Why? We wanted that on top of everything that we built this year, to make sure going into the second year, everyone knows what the standard is. And that’s where things are, but I’m definitely gonna have a fun time tonight.”
That goes for Cavalry as well, who have not had a season to forget by any stretch of the imagination. First-ever regular-season champions, both in spring and fall, along with the distinction to win those first MLS games, means that they still have a lot to look back on and be proud of. They’ll now look to get the upper hand next year in their battles with Forge, as the chance to be next champion always looms, and they’ll definitely want to make sure that this didn’t end up being the start of a Forge dynasty.
“Seeing them lift the trophy in our home, that hurt,” Wheeldon Jr said honestly. “But I’ll tell you what, that’ll inspire us for next year too, so this isn’t the finishing of any rivalry. This is just the beginning of a head to head battle that will go on for years I imagine.”
The final was also a great set of games to advertise the Canadian game, and that wasn’t lost on Wheeldon Jr. Broadcast on national TV, with fans across the country taking interest, it meant for a good way for the next generation to get involved with a sport they’ll start to fall in love with.
As they head into that second year, it’s moments like this that will build the culture that the CPL hopes to build up. After a season full of firsts, it’s all about building on that, and that will start in the coming days, as preparations for that next season begins.
“We’re in the entertainment industry, let’s not be lost with that,” Wheeldon Jr said. “This is a great game, for the longest time we’ve said that, and Nick (Ledgerwood) and I played together years back, and many times people say Canada’s not a soccer country, and I disagree with that. I think you’ve seen the passion of the fans out here today in both legs.”
“You’ve seen a Coast-to-Coast league now, that is producing great quality, it’s even a rivalry now that people want to come and see, our fans were up there (in Foot Soldiers) with their own red cards up to (Tristan Borges) and the (Forge fans) we’re booing (Jose) Escalante at their place, but that’s what you need to see, and at the end of the day, when the whistle blows, handshakes, we move on, and we respect the outcome.”
But while it’s easy to look forward, it’s important to live in the present, and for Forge that means enjoying this victory. After a long season, it’ll be good just to get back and celebrate with fans, friends and family, and enjoy the fact that they’ll forever be the inaugural champions.
After spending a year to bring up a community relationship from the ground up, it’s sharing and enjoying that moment which will be so special.
“What we’ve seen in this first year, to be a champion at the end of this is great,” Bekker finished. “And we just want to enjoy with the squad we have in the 22 guys we have, and we can’t wait to get back to Hamilton, with our incredible fans and our organization and celebrate together.”