Before the world was shaken by the global outbreak of COVID-19 over the last week, teams in the Canadian Premier League were getting set to embark on their 2nd-ever season. We spoke to the head coach of one of those teams, Bobby Smyrniotis of Forge FC, who shared several interesting insights about his team and the league heading into year 2.
For someone who’s only 41 years of age, the gray in his beard tells the story of a well-travelled man.
In this case, that man is Bobby Smyrnitois, head coach of Forge FC in the CPL, the current holders of the ‘North Star Shield’ as Canadian Premier League champions.
Even despite his young age for a manager, he’s been hard at work developing players for over a decade and a half, having founded his academy, Sigma FC, alongside his older brother, Constantine, turning it from a small club to a player-producing juggernaut.
Current Canadian National Team players, Manjrekar James, Richie Laryea and Cyle Larin all count among its alumnus, on top of a good chunk of this Forge squad, as the Smyrniotis brothers have had no shortage of success stories to tell over the years.
So in a sense, it was no surprise to see Bobby at the helm of Forge’s winning season last year, as he continued his success on the developmental side of things over into the professional game. Having helped many of his own players develop into professionals, he knew what they could bring to the table, and he took advantage of that, helping oil Forge into a well-worked football playing machine.
Having had a chance to feel the pulse of the sport in this country for so long, he’s also not afraid to share his thoughts, be it on his team, the league they play in, or the development of Canadians abroad.
And before the CPL preseason was suspended, BTS got the chance to do just that, as the Forge coach took the time to chat about some of those very subjects. Here is some of what he had to say.
Chasing that competitive balance
One big talking point heading into this new season has been some of the changes around the league structure itself, with new boys Atletico Ottawa forcing a change to the league format, while also jumpstarting a balancing of the schedule itself.
After the CPL had tried a spring/fall season split in year 1, they’ve decided to shift to a more traditional single-table format in year 2, much to the delight of several teams. While the spring/fall season was a good concept, and most wouldn’t have minded its continuation, the problem last year was the dominance of Forge and Cavalry, which knocked most teams out of contention a month before the season finished.
Now, it’ll be a single table all the way through, with a playoff of 2nd vs 3rd leading into a final. Instead of just having the final, as they did last year, it’ll give more teams life heading into the late stages of the campaign, something that evaded everyone beyond Forge and Cavalry last season.
For Smyrniotis, it’s a change he doesn’t mind having, even though if it was indirectly created to challenge the year 1 performances of his club and Cavalry’s. As long as he knows what he needs to do to win beforehand, he’ll accept all changes, and then do his best to help his team get through them.
“I think from a competitive aspect, whether it was last year’s format or this year’s format, I’m personally okay with every format as long as you know (what) it is in the beginning, then you know what you’re playing for and how you can become champion,” Smyrniotis told BTS. “And I think that’s the most important thing, with the 8th team this year I think they’ve come up with a little bit of a different format and I think it’s good. It’s a new league, it’s trying out some new different things as a league to generate excitement around things, and as teams and as coaches we go along with it.”
“So I’m okay with the way things have been set up this year, I think gives a good opportunity for three teams to compete for a championship, and I think at the same time it keeps everyone alive later on in the season and, and maybe that’s important too.”
That’s not to say all is perfect in his eyes.
When was Forge’s last game in 2019? Early November, as part of the final with Cavalry.
Their next game? That is (supposed to, unlikely now with COVID-19) come in early April, over 150 days since that last clash. For the teams who missed the final, you can add another 14 or so to that total.
While this outbreak of COVID-19 is very likely to threaten that start date, pushing it back even further, one thing he did say is that he’d like is a shorter offseason, something that the league is surely working on in future years.
“Yeah, I think we’d all want the offseason to be a little bit shorter,” Smyrniotis said. “It’s a long period off for the players, everyone wants to time off, everyone wants time off to recoup and rest, but you come to a certain point where you want to get on the pitch and kick a ball. And that’s up to the league to see how far the schedule can stretch.”
“This year, we’re seeing that we’re starting two weeks earlier than last year, which I think is a positive step. But yeah, it’s something I think it’d be great to have the guys out a little bit earlier, and they would want that as well.”
The Borges Effect
But for all the talk about cohesion and chemistry on this Forge squad, there’s no doubt that one player did make a big difference for them, and that person was Tristan Borges.
Less than a year removed from playing semi-professionally with Sigma FC, he took the CPL by storm, snatching the league’s Golden Boot, MVP and U21 player of the year award in one swoop, marking the best-ever CPL campaign (bold statement, I know).
On a team that relied on the strength of the collective, having that difference-maker helped massively, with the contributions of their young Canadian not going unnoticed on their march towards the championship.
And that’s why Borges now plays in Belgium, having secured a winter transfer to potential promotion outfit OH Leuven, and why many young Canadians are hoping that they can step up and make a similar move.
Just call it the ‘Borges effect’.
“Yeah, I mean, Borges shows the pathway for a lot of players in this league,” Smyrniotis said. “(That) you come in here and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before or who you were, if anybody knew who you were, this is the platform of this league, it gives you an ability to skyrocket yourself and keep on moving. And I think that’s what he did last year.”
“As a young player in this league, he took the league by storm, but not only by his goals and assists, but his general level of play. And I think if you do that, you’ll be noticed, football is played on a global stage in a global market and we’ve been able to make sure that our players are seen that way.”
But while Smynriotis and Forge are never going to be ones to hold their players back, there’s no doubt that Borges’s departure hurts. Losing 13 goals is never easy to replace, especially for a Forge team yet to really make any outfield signings (something they did hint was on the way before the recent postponements), so they’re surely searching long and hard for some players who can step up and fill that void.
Or at least you’d think. According to Smyrniotis, that’s not the case, however, as he believes that there is a couple of diamonds in the rough yet to uncover themselves for his team.
He’s not predicting a Borges breakout from any of them, as it’s hard to do that just yet, but he says don’t be surprised if a couple of names start to stand out as the campaign goes along.
“Then looking back into our squad, we’ve got a number of guys who I think were excellent last year, who maybe didn’t put up the numbers that they hoped they would and we thought that they would be able to put up,” Smyrniotis said. “Marcel Zajac is one of them, David Choiniere, we look at a guy like Elimane Cisse, who I think when we look past the 36 games we played in Canadian Premier League and CONCACAF league last year, he’s probably played another 20 games in Africa before he got here. So he had a very long year.”
“So this offseason was probably the best for him. So we’ve got guys who I think were excellent last year who maybe didn’t have the numbers that they’re used to, that can come into the squad this year and be able to put up numbers and I think it’s their opportunity to do it. And they know that.”
When will we see Forge FC on a global stage?
Aside from pursuing a repeat, another competition to watch out for with Forge?
The CONCACAF League.
While there’s also the Canadian Championship, something they’d surely also like to make some noise in (that early defeat to eventual semi-finalists, Cavalry, surely looms large), they’ve already had a bigger taste of the second-tier of North American continental competition, and they’re itching to get more of it this year.
For those unfamiliar with the CONCACAF League, it’s a summer tournament filled with Central American sides (and now one CPL team) giving a chance for a half-dozen of those teams to eventually reach the CONCACAF Champions League.
As a virtue of being one of the highest-ranked ‘founding members’ early on last year, finishing ahead of FC Edmonton and Valour by the end of spring season cut-off, Forge got a chance to participate in the 22 team tournament last summer, where they made a great run to the Round of 16.
Had they made it just one round further, they would have had a strong chance to be among the 6 teams that pushed up to the Champions League this year, which would have been huge to see a CPL team do in year 1.
One team that made it that far, however? CD Olimpia, the Honduran side that knocked out Forge by a score of 4-2 over two legs in the last 16, having done well to claw back a 1-0 1st leg lead from the Canadians.
And since then, all Olimpia has done is shine, having knocked out the defending MLS champions, the Seattle Sounders, on penalties in the Round of 16. They then followed that up with a big 2-1 win away to the Montreal Impact in leg 1 of the quarter-finals, with that currently being the result of that series due to the postponement of leg 2.
For Smyrniotis, watching the success of Olimpia has been great motivational fuel for his team, who get set to take on CONCACAF League again this summer, this time as CPL Champions.
Having seen what Olimpia has done, and knowing how well they matched up, Smyrnotis says: ‘why not us?’.
“Yeah, I think it speaks volumes to the quality in our squad, and the quality that is in this league,” Smyrniotis said of Olimpias success. “You brought up a great point there with Olimpia, and the team right now that takes out the Seattle Sounders and are now playing Montreal Impact is a team we beat one-nil at home and probably could have had an even higher result. So it shows the quality in the squad and it also shows the hunger that we have going into this year.
“We have a better understanding of the competition with a better understanding of what we want out of it. But we also know that now the opponents have a better understanding of us. So that makes it interesting this year, but our goal is to keep on going, we knew if we could go one more round in that competition you’re possibly playing with the big boys in Champions League, and you’d be playing football right now.”
“So, that’s a goal we’ve set as our group, we know we went two rounds this year, so going three rounds is a goal that we have and we’ll see how we can accomplish it.”
So even though the start of the CPL is now likely postponed, after having shut down preseason camp this past week, once things get back underway, there’s going to be a lot of interesting storylines to watch.
Can Forge repeat as champions? Will they replace the missing impact of Borges? How deep can they go in the CONCACAF League?
Those are the sorts of questions they’ll set out towards answering, starting with first kick, whenever that ends up being.
And even more fun? Forge (and Cavalry) don’t look likely to be alone at the top this year, with each of their rivals all taking big strides in order to keep up with the current standard-setters.
That means more intense games, a tighter title race and more breakout players, a la Borges. Will we see more players join the likes of Borges, Joel Waterman (Montreal Impact), Tyler Attardo (unknown European trial), Aboubacar Sissoko and Amer Didic (Vancouver Whitecaps triallists)?
It’s entirely possible, which will help the CPL continue to push the envelope as a selling league, something they’ve not been shy about embracing since day 1.
Having done so already, Smyrnotis is excited to see what kind of sales year 2 brings, as he and Forge look to continue their developmental model, one that has already proven fruitful thus far.
“Yeah, first and foremost, it’s easy to brand something as a selling league. I just say it’s the nature of the beast in football. If you’re doing good work, and you’ve got a good network, that’s what’s going to happen,” Smyrniotis said. “And that’s the one thing that we established here at Forge. When we started the season (last year), before the season I had three main goals for the club. One was, obviously, to win a championship, everyone wants to win the championship. And that’s an easy thing to say. Second is to make a dent in CONCACAF League, to not only get into it, but represent (CPL) very well. And the third one, which a lot of people thought I was crazy, was to sell a player. And not do it an easy way, but find a very good path for a player.
“And I think that’s what we did with Tristian Borges going to Belgium, something that was fantastic for us, for our club and for the player. Moving on, I think that shows the desire of our organization, but I think it shows the overall desire of the Canadian Premier League that knows you’ve got to be comfortable with sometimes losing your best players. But here’s the one thing I know, there’s another interesting Borges coming up. There’s always going to be another one, we’ve got a lot of good Canadian players that a lot of us didn’t know about, in the last year or so, that now we’re talking about.”
He added: “And there’s more of them to come, and I think that’s the most important thing and we see it on a world market right now, to have North America’s most valuable players be two Canadians, Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David. So you take that as an example. And you say: ‘hey, where are those next guys?’ They’re here.”
“So the investment in Canadians is crucial, I think for me and our organization, and making sure there’s a pathway in the global market for them, and it increases our exposure as Forge FC in the Canadian Premier League and in World Soccer,” he finished.