Nearly a month after they kicked off their 2020 season, the Canadian Premier League is wrapping things up this weekend, as Forge FC takes on the Halifax Wanderers in the final of the ‘Island Games’ on Saturday. Here is what both sides had to say ahead of that game, as they held a media day on Friday.
It’s been a sprint all the way through, and now we’re at the last turn.
Just over a month since the Canadian Premier League’s 2020 ‘Island Games’ kicked off, giving each of its 8 teams a chance to play in a tournament setting to complete their 2020 season, it’s just about finished, with only the final left to play this weekend.
8 teams entered, 4 then left after 6 games, and a further 2 left after another 3 games, leaving two teams, Forge FC and the Halifax Wanderers, to contest the ‘North Star Shield’ in a one-game final on Saturday, in which the winners will also qualify to the Canadian Championship finals as representivatives of the CPL.
And in terms of what we’ve seen so far at this tournament, this may be the best matchup, with both Forge and the Wanderers so far combining for 2 entertaining draws in their first 2 games at the Island Games.
For Halifax, this is huge, as they won the Wooden Spoon in 2019, the unofficial award for the team that finished last over the course of the season, yet bounced back massively this season, looking every bit like a team that could challenge the Forge and Cavalry dominance that reigned over the CPL last season.
After a trying first season, they’ve done well to reach the pinnacle of league competition in their second year, and now, they just want to complete the full turnaround with a victory on Saturday.
“I mean, I think when you adapt a competitive spirit, this is the situation you would dream of being in,” Halifax coach, Stephen Hart, said during the league’s media day on Friday. “I doubt this there’s any single player that satisfied with just getting to the final. It took a lot of effort, a lot of in-squad competition to get this far. And I am sure those who get selected on the day are going to put their best foot forward, because at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask of them next year.”
On the other side, Forge will feel very confident in continuing their dominance in this league, as they were the first-ever champions in year 1.
Ever since the beginning of the CPL, Forge has constantly been among the best sides, and while they were unable to best Cavalry in league play last year, as the Calgary-based side won both the spring and the fall seasons, they got the last laugh in the final, as the Hamilton-based side won over two legs to be crowned first-ever champions.
You throw in their experience as the first-ever CPL team in CONCACAF League, as they made a surprise run in the region’s second-tier continental competition last season, and this is a team that knows how to win big games, something they expect to do again on Saturday.
“Those games help you, because it’s not your first time in that environment to play for something that’s so important,” Forge head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis, said on Friday. “And there’s two ways of looking at that, sometimes you go into a game and you have nothing to lose as a team, and sometimes it’s understanding the different pressure points that any games brings the night before, or the day of. It’s something we’ve dealt with with with the championship last year, but also playing in CONCACAF League, playing some very good teams at home and then going into places like Guatemala and Honduras and having to compete and just understanding how to manage your squad at that point.”
“As coaches, I think one of our biggest roles is the environment we create around the game, the environment of making sure that the players are relaxed and what we always want our players to know is that on their best day, they’re the best team, but if you’re not on your best day, there’s a very good team that’s going to be on the other side of the field that’s ready to go, and they’ve got nothing to lose tomorrow.”
But while Forge has the upper hand in the experience department, there’s no doubt that these two teams match up well, as they’ve shown throughout the two years the league has existed.
Despite finishing last in 2019, Halifax did have 1 win, 1 loss and 2 draws against Forge, and this year they’ve drawn them twice, so for whatever reason, they’ve found a way to keep Forge mostly at bay in the 6 times they’ve matched up.
For Halifax, that’s important heading into this one, as this one will have to have a winner, which means that if necessary, penalty kicks will be called into action after 90 minutes if drawn, so the Wanderers will know that if they’re to draw Forge a 5th time, they’ll have a 50/50 chance in the shootout to lift the trophy.
They match up well on the field position-by-position, so for Hart, it’s all about managing those little matchups on the field, and keeping the margins tight as they’ve mostly done against Forge thus far, finding a way to get a win via their collective strength.
“Yeah, 11 versus 11,” Hart said when asked about the biggest matchup between his team and Forge. “Let’s be honest, it’s a final, and everyone basically on the field is going to match up in some form, and usually a final as a result is a cagey affair, and it’s going to be one of those situations where small margins are going to make the difference. And hopefully, we can play a near-flawless game, keep our errors to a minimum, and if things go your way, be the victors in the end.”
Forge knows that Halifax is well-organized, and they’ve seen it, so on their end, they’ll be wary of the threat that the Wanderers offer.
“Yeah, they’re a well-organized team,” Smyriotis said. “They know what they want on the field, they’re very patient, they’re a team that’s not very big on possession and having the ball, but more patient in waiting for their opportunities, we see that in their chance count and their shots in the game, but what they do, they do it very effectively.”
But even though the Wanderers have posed a threat to Forge this year, Smyrniotis is also confident that his team can build off of what they showed in those two draws, as he felt his team was the better side in both of those games.
He knows that Halifax will clog up the park, making it hard for them to settle into the sort of rhythm that they typically like to play in, so he’ll drill his guys to make sure that they can do more damage than they’d been able to do so far, aside from those little pockets that he mentioned.
“If you look at the 2 games that we’ve played here at the tournament, we’ve actually done a pretty good job getting on the outside against Halifax,” Smyrniotis said. “We’ve had a lot of success there, we just haven’t done it enough. Sometimes we get away, from what works very well.”
“And again, that’s one thing we’ve been able to see and then if they get stretched further we’ll have space in the middle of the park, obviously we’re playing a team that has a distinct way of playing, they’ll look at the counter-attack, look to clog up the field, and when you’re playing on a smaller pitch, like we’re playing over here in PEI, it’s a very effective way for a team to play.”
On the other side, Hart will know how to best disrupt that Forge rhythm, as he’s mostly done in those games so far, so he’ll focus on trying to limit Smyrniotis’s best weapon, his versatile midfield, and see what can happen from there.
In a final, anything can happen, so for Halifax, they’ll look to take that belief they have in themselves, try and execute their game plan, and try to surprise the rest of the league with an upset on Saturday.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt, Bekker and the Forge midfield is a special midfield,” Hart said. “And you saw Bekker’s quality with that pass in the Cavalry game with both feet. He has vast experience, internationally, in MLS, and they have vast experience as a team, premiership, MLS, internationally.”
“Those things will serve them well, but it is one game, and it’s one of those situations where, as I said, if we as a team could settle our nerves, not be afraid to accept the responsibility when we receive the ball, and just carry out our individual roles, and then collectively things should work out.”
So all-in-all, expect a good game.
These two sides match up well, they’re firing on all cylinders, and most importantly, they’ve got nothing to lose, setting the table for a really good match.
You’d expect Forge to have the upper hand, especially considering their vast experience, but don’t count out Halifax, either, as they’ve taken a massive step forward this season.
With all on the line, we’ll likely see the best versions of both teams, as they look to lift the North Star Shield as CPL Champions on Saturday.
Up next: Halifax Wanderers vs Forge FC, Saturday, September 19th, 2020, 11:00 PST, 14:00 EST (Charlottetown, P.E.I.)
Cover Photo via: David Chant/Chant Photography (CPL)