In a massive moment for Canadian soccer, Forge FC took on Cruz Azul in CONCACAF Champions League action at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Wednesday. Here is our recap from that one.
No matter what happened, you just knew that it was going to be a massive moment for Canadian soccer.
As Forge FC kicked off their maiden voyage in the CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday, it was a massive moment for the Canadian Premier League club, who in just their 4th year of existence, was taking the field for North America’s marquee club competition for the first time.
They were always going to be in tough, as Mexican giants, Cruz Azul, awaited them, and it was Forge’s first game of the season, while Cruz Azul was in mid-season form, yet, despite that, you still had to harbour some optimism as they began the tie.
And to everyone’s surprise, Forge not only lived up to expectations, but surpassed them, as well. Through 10 minutes, they held their own, but at the same time, you could only wonder when that moment where the gap in quality would manifest themselves and Forge would face the wrath of their guests.
Yet, that never came.
Over the course of the game, Cruz Azul just never fully got going, and while they picked up the away goal that they needed to escape with a 1-0 win off of a long free kick in the first half, that was all they really got to celebrate in what was a tough away game for the hosts.
But that’s full credit to Forge, who in their first appearance on the big stage in CONCACAF, just did what they’ve done in all of their big games in their history up to this point – worked hard, stuck to their game plan, and tried to snatch a win.
“It was great, we showed a lot of fight today,” Forge left back, Ashtone Morgan, said after the game. “A lot of us were upset with the result, we all feel that there was something in this game for us”
They weren’t able to fully execute that plan, of course, as they now head down to Mexico City’s famed Estadio Azteca in the second leg down 1-0 and needing to make up an away goal, but despite that, they left their fans with plenty to be proud of on the night.
On a day where it would’ve been easy to get overwhelmed by the occasion, they ensured that they’d at least leave the game with a minimum of regrets, which they did, marking a good night for the local club.
“Massively proud of the team,” Forge head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis said after the game. “(Our) heads (are) up high, we walked out of this game and our disappointment is that we’ve matched our opponent, on short preparation time, and held our own against a massive club in Cruz Azul”
And returning to the game, you could sense that right from first kick, as Forge came out in front of their 4688 fans with an intense look, one that showed that they wanted to make the most of this game.
Tristan Borges nearly gave the home fans something to cheer about in the 23rd minute, as he found a nice pocket of space at the edge of the Cruz Azul box after a nice turn, and he made great contact with his shot, only narrowly sending the ball over the goal.
On another day, he might’ve found the net, as Borges does so well from those sorts of positions, but this time, he was left with his head in his hands, but it was a positive sign from Forge.
But then, they suffered their big blow in the 31st minute.
It happened so quickly, as Cruz Azul’s Romulo Otero stepped up to take a 40-yard free-kick, one that was so far out that you expected him to pass it short or try to cross the ball into the box.
Instead, however, he decided to have a shot, but he didn’t catch all of it, sending what seemed like an easy shot that was going to fall right into Triston Henry’s hands in Forge’s goal.
Or so it seemed.
Then, it actually evaded the hands of the Forge keeper, bouncing beside him right as he lost his footing, leaving him to desperately claw at the air as the ball bounced right into the side of the goal.
And that would be a massive blow for Forge. Not only were they actually holding their own against a giant of CONCACAF through the first part of the game, but they seemed on the precipice of a breakthrough, as the Borges chance a few minutes earlier showed.
But now, they were then left to try and get back into the game and the tie, especially considering that they were now down by an away goal, leaving a big mountain to climb as they neared the end of their first half of Champions League action.
To give them credit, though, they didn’t let themselves get beat down by that moment. They didn’t find an equalizer right away, but they started to push back physically, and nearly grabbed a goal in the 42nd minute, as Kyle Bekker narrowly sent a half volley over the net from just inside the box after a nice ball in from Tristan Borges.
So with that being the last main chance of the half, it gave them some much-needed confidence as they prepared for the second stanza.
They were always going to be in tough to find their way back into the game, but they had belief in their minds, and that’s all you could ask for as they got set for the last 45 minutes.
There, however, it’d be all Cruz Azul to begin the half, unfortunately, as Otero forced a nice save off Henry directly from a corner in the 52nd minute, before Luis Mendoza just missed a good chance at the back post a minute later.
Not long after, Santiago Gimenez had a good look from distance, but his left-footed shot went just over the goal, showing their intent to add to their lead.
Continuing the pressure, Cruz Azul nearly doubled their lead in the 69th minute, as Luis Mendoza got in behind the Forge defence, finding himself alone with Henry, but this time the Forge keeper would atone for his earlier mistake, denying a nice chip from Mendoza with a strong punch. Continuing that push, Uriel Antuna had a nice look a few minutes later from inside the box, but he sliced at the ball with his right foot, sending it just wide.
And as what seemed like an endless wave of Cruz Azul pressure continued to rain down on Forge, the guests then had their best chance of the half in the 88th minute, as a ball fell right to Juan Escobar inside the box, and he got a strong shot off, only just narrowly missing the outside of the box with his low strike.
But from there, that’d be all this game had to offer, leaving Cruz Azul to cruise to a victory, as Forge just didn’t find a way to get enough pressure on their guests late on, leaving them to rue their earlier missed chances.
Overall, though, other than that, there was a lot to like if you’re Forge. In their first game of the season, with several new signings on the roster, they did well to stay in the game against a good team.
“It shows what the valiant effort we’ve put in,” Morgan noted. “There’s a lot still left on the table”
Even if Cruz Azul started with several rotational players, this is still a giant of Mexico, one currently sitting 4th in the table, and they did bring several of their starters on as the game went on, so that Forge was able to put up a fight despite that is promising.
For a team that probably never envisioned being in a situation like this when they first kicked a ball back in 2019, this was always going to be about the occasion, yet the fact that they made sure to go out and play their game is a bonus.
“We’re not just happy to be here,” Smyrniotis said. “And I think we showed that on the pitch tonight, our work rate was there”
But that shows the project that Forge is building. Through their short history, they haven’t been one to shy away from the big moment, as there is a reason they became the first CPL Champions, the first team to play in CONCACAF League, and are now the first team to make it to this competition.
“It’s absolutely excellent for our club,” Smyrniotis added. “I think we keep on setting the standard, and it shows the trend of where Canadian soccer is going”
So while it didn’t go as planned this time around, they still have 1 game left to play in this tie, an away game in the famed Estadio Azteca, and beyond that, you have to imagine this won’t be their last home Champions League tie they’ll ever play.
Because of that, they’re heading into that game with a strong mentality, and from there, as the old saying goes, they’ll hope that anything can happen.
“We get to play on one of the most beautiful pitches in the world,” Morgan said. “And there is no better opportunity for myself, my teammates and the club to go out there and express ourselves”
Cover Photo via: CONCACAF