TORONTO — Is it time to worry about Forge FC?
Everyone’s preseason favourite is winless through two games, and that — as Steven Sandor explained— has left them in a tight spot in a condensed spring season.
For stretches of those matches though, Forge has looked like the most impressive team in the league — an assessment that the statistics back up.
Total unblocked shots? Forge is first, with 25. Shots on target? Tied first, with 10. Possession? Tops again, at 60% through 180 minutes.
It’s hard to dominate games with the ball the way Bobby Smyrniotis wants to. It only takes one player missing an assignment to ruin an otherwise well-organized press, and it only takes one bad pass amid many good ones to gift your opponent a dangerous counter-attack.
Given the nature of the way this team has been built from scratch, those fundamentals have actually been surprisingly sound straight off the bat.
They’ll continue to get better and better, too. The bigger problem, at least when it comes to the short-term business of getting results, has been Forge’s finishing.
Smyrniotis shrugged it off after the York9 game and he was right — sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t, and knee-jerk reactions based on one or two games are ill-advised.
But the reality is that Forge has created four ‘big chances’ (per Opta) thus far and missed all four of them. That needs to change.
The big question, I think, concerns Emery Welshman and whether he can be this team’s go-to No. 9 and primary source of goals.
Welshman is a good player who will play a big part for Forge this season, of that there is no doubt.
But can he fill the net?
“He’s not your centre forward or winger that is going to go out and score mass goals or get mass assists,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said of Welshman late last year.
“He can do that, but he adds so much more to the team. He really goes out and makes everyone else around him better.”
We saw that against York9, when Welshman’s tireless, selfless running played a major part in breaking the visitors’ resistance.
But we’re still waiting for a goal — and, to an extent, for chances. Welshman has only tested the goalkeeper twice through two matches and Kadell Thomas, Kyle Bekker, and Tristan Borges have looked like bigger threats.
Forge plays five more games this month, so you’d expect to see minutes for fellow strikers Marcel Zajac and Anthony Novak at some point. Both arrived in Hamilton on the back of prolific seasons.
I also wonder whether Smyrniotis might go strikerless at some point — deploying Bekker as a false nine, flanked by two of Welshman, Thomas, and Chris Nanco, would allow him to get Borges back in the lineup as an attacking midfielder.
The experimentation will continue in a pair of must-win matches at Tim Hortons Field this week.
Number of the Week: 27%
A quick and easy way for Forge to turn the tide? Grab a goal or two this week from set-pieces.
They fell behind in Halifax due to a slice of bad luck in one such situation when Kodai Iida’s free-kick deflected into the path of Akeem Garcia.
Garcia’s goal was one of four scored off a set play through the first six games of the season, which means they have accounted for 27% of all goals scored. Add in Michael Petrasso’s penalty for Valour against FC Edmonton, and it’s a third.
That’s a significant chunk. In fact, only one team (Pacific against HFX Wanderers) has won a game without scoring a set-piece goal.
It makes sense. The hardest thing to do on a soccer field is score, and this league is populated by brand-new teams and a large number of young players still developing and refining their talents.
If we were seeing five or six goals a game this early on, it might say more about the defenders than the forwards.
But the defending has been good and the teams evenly matched, so set pieces have often been the difference.
Take Saturday’s second match between Cavalry and York9 as an example. At half-time, Cavalry had held 70% of the possession and taken nine shots to their visitors’ zero, but could have ended up having the kind of day Valour had later on — dominant without reward — had they not notched a pair of goals from corners.
Teams across the globe are becoming more and more creative in the choreography of set-piece routines, setting screens and scripting passes and off-the-ball runs.
A CPL coach with one or two such tricks up his sleeve could reap the rewards.