Forge FC emerged victorious on Saturday, becoming the first-ever CPL champions, as they put an end to a fun first season of Canadian Premier League action.
It was a day of firsts, and also a day of learning.
Forge FC was crowned inaugural CPL Champions on Saturday, as they dropped Cavalry by a score of 2-0, earning the privilege to be the first team to lift the North Star Shield.
Over the course of two legs, it proved to be a merited result, as they overcame a strong Cavalry side to become champions. Against the Canadian Premier League Spring and Fall winners, it was never going to be easy to win, but they found the right formula to get it done in this game.
After having played each other 7 times leading up into the match, it gave both sides more than enough intel to prepare for the other, with Forge proving to be the more organized of the two sides on Saturday. With not much separating the teams in terms of talent on the field, a lot of decision-making off the field was going to come into play, and that showed over the course of 90 minutes Saturday.
With that in mind, here are some takeaways from an entertaining end to the Canadian Premier League season.
Before this game, we took a look at some key tactical battles to watch, saying that whoever wins at least 2 of these 3 battles would end up winning the game. We outlined the midfield battle, the Forge left side vs Cavalry right-side duel and the Dominique Malonga vs Forge centre back clash, as those 3 proved to be key deciders in the 1st leg.
Forge ended up winning the Malonga battle on Saturday, limiting Cavalry’s leading scorer to only 2 shots and 27 touches, both double from the 1st leg, but not enough to make a difference in the scoreline. Along with their suffocating midfield defensive block, as Kyle Bekker and Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson made sure that Cavalry midfielders Nik Ledgerwood and Julian Buscher had little time to breathe, it gave them key the edge in 2 of the 3 battles necessary.
“Those guys in the middle, Julian (Buscher) and Nik (Ledgerwood) are very hard working guys, and they never make it easy on anyone,” Bekker said after the game when asked on that midfield battle. “And it’s always going to be a battle anytime you step up against them. I think our biggest thing was, it was kind of just putting them back on the outside, kind of limiting those opportunities.”
While Buscher was hands down the Cavalry man of the match, creating a game-high 3 chances, along with 2 shots, and adding a team-high 3 tackles defensively, he was starved of the chance to get involved with his teammates. As is tough with a player of his quality, he was still able to influence the game, but Forge’s ability to make sure that he and his teammates were unable to linkup was probably the difference between a 1-0 Forge victory and a 3-0 Cavalry triumph.
“And we knew when we transitioned, if our block was moving out together and kind of getting close to those second balls, it kind of takes an advantage away from them,” Bekker said. “And kind of kills that intensity that they have that they kind of thrive off, and I think we’ve we matched that in both games, and that kind of stopped their attack there.”
Forge lined up in a 4-5-1, a bit different from their usual 4-3-3, as wingers Chris Nanco and Jonathan Grant sat a lot deeper than Forge’s wingers have come to be expected to sit. Along with that stifling presence from Bekker and Jonsson, and the pressing of Anthony Novak and Tristan Borges, it made it tough for Cavalry.
But along with that astute tactical set-up, that stifled the middle and tried to close down space in wide areas, grit was huge for them on Saturday. While the idea of intangibles such as grit and mentality can sometimes be overstated in big games, it was on full display in this one, and it went a long way in a tough environment.
It was best described in the performances of Novak and defender Dominic Samuel, who were absolutely everywhere over the course of the game. Novak had to be physically dragged off of the field, as he was unable to continue after the work he put in, while Samuel was arguably the man of the match. With 5 tackles, 3 fouls won, 1 interception and 8/14 duels won, he was everywhere for Forge, and it gave them a defensive edge that went a long way in a tightly contested final.
After doing well enough tactically last week, as sitting back caught Forge off guard, Tommy Wheeldon Jr was unable to get his team to impose their identity on the game. With the field conditions, it was never going to be easy, but it was surprising to see his team unable to score. The biggest limiting factor was probably Sergio Camargo wandering forward in possession, as he was listed as a midfielder in the game sheet, as it created the gulf in Cavalry’s midfield, and he was unable to get much going when playing off the shoulder of the Forge defenders.
With the season now over, those battles will now just be a question of what if, but they ultimately paved the way for Forge to become inaugural champions.
Great atmosphere over two legs:
This final was a great show of what Canadian Soccer can provide, and that showed over two legs, as the crowd support was noticeable in both cities. With over 10000 people showing up in Hamilton, before Spruce Meadows just about sold out their venue with nearly 6000 people in attendance, it was a fun atmosphere to encompass the end of the CPL season.
Building on fan support has been a big goal of the league in this 1st season, and looking back, they can use what they saw in these finals as evidence of their being a good platform to build off of. As said after the game, each city has something unique that has made them fall in love with the game, and now it’s building that in each of the current cities, and the ones set to join in coming years.
“Our city is passionate,” Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis said. “Our city is passionate about everything that has to do with Hamilton, and passionate about their sports teams. We know how much this means to everyone back home, not only just our supporters that come out to Tim Hortons field every game and the ones who have come out just for a few games.”
“But even for the city and the community just right around their stadium, they’re avid football fans, they love the Hamilton Tiger Cats, but they bought into what we are, and who Forge FC is, and I think that is fantastic.”
“Yeah, it’s been massive,” Cavalry defender Mason Trafford said. “I think I just caught the tail end of Tommy’s press conference, and what’s been built here in such a short amount of time in terms of what Spruce (Meadows) has done in our ownership group, and creating a venue and a culture and for soccer here in Calgary has been unbelievable. And for me to be a part of that, it feels really special.”
It has given an added feel to games, and it seems to give the players added motivation. A league is often nothing without any fans, and that was on full display Saturday. With each tackle garnering a huge roar, while each missed shot provoked massive groans, it gave the game a professional feel.
And it’s now just about building off this support, as good support has manifested itself across the league, not just in the cities of the two finalists. Despite their teams riding up and down seasons, Halifax, Pacific, Edmonton, York and Valour all built up a core of strong support to build around next year, and while each team is at a different level in terms of that core, it’ll be exciting to see how that culture develops.
As said by Kyle Bekker, it’s those crowds that make playing fun, and in this case, it motivated Forge to win a title.
“I think the support here throughout the season has obviously been fantastic for Calgary,” Bekker said. “And we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to come here. But our whole mentality we’re here to spoil the party. It kind of spurred us on, we wanted it, we knew that they were going to be yelling at us, we knew they’re going to be in everyone’s ear making noise.”
Building off of 2019 lessons:
Another part of building off of this year will be making sure that this fan support translates over to the many kids around the country. As the main goal of the league remains to provide a pathway for young Canadians to play professionally, garnering that interest amongst kids is a fundamental goal, and it’s something the league has tried hard to do.
It was on full display on Saturday, as there were plenty of kids scattered around the ground, soaking up the good level of play. While kids in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto have long had a pro team to support, as many people can attest to, the CPL will make it’s biggest impact in cities like Calgary, where they never had a professional football team to look up to as a goal to one day play for.
“Yeah, I think that’s why we’re all here, in a sense, it’s because of the fans and because the CPL started because we want to create a pathway for those kids,” Trafford said. “And we were both there when we were four or five up until we started playing soccer. It’s everybody’s dream to play pro when you’re a young kid, and now that the CPL exists, clubs like us and Forge exist as something that everybody in this Calgary community can look towards.”
He added: “Seeing how happy it’s made people this year and having people come up on the streets and recognize you, I’ve been so surprised with how many people just know about who the Cavalry are, and that’s special. It’s just again a credit to what’s been built here and what the league is doing to make an impression on Canadians.”
So while a lot in the league still has to grow, with tactics, overall calibre of play and much more still left to clean up, building off that fan support will bring them to great places. While fixing the other issues will only aid in that process, the support so far in year one has been positive, and it’s clear that there is interest in this product.
As Canada looks to improve it’s youth development programs, ensuring that this wave of support translates into success is now the biggest goal, and looking back it’ll be the defining credence of the CPL. These two weekends of the first CPL Final was a huge first step, now it’s building off that to see where it goes.
And, after a season of firsts, they’ll surely be prepared to make that happen.