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“Could a Canadian Premier League club do it again?”
That was the question whispered before Forge FC took on Guatemala’s Antigua GFC Thursday, the second leg of their CONCACAF League preliminary round tie. Forge won the first leg 2-1 at Tim Hortons Field in a win similar to fellow CanPL side Cavalry FC’s historic, first-of-its-kind two-legged upset in the Canadian Championship.
By the second leg, it begged asking: Could another CanPL team emerge victorious in a high-profile intra-league test?
Playing in a continental match, at altitude, with a group of players largely foreign to CONCACAF club play … Surely not again, right?
While it wasn’t pretty, it was exactly what Forge FC and head coach Bobby Smyrniotis wanted from their first away match in CONCACAF: A nil-nil stalemate at Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores in Guatemala City, a result good enough to advance the Hamilton side to the Round of 16.
“It’s a special day for us,” Smyrniotis began, speaking to gathered media in Guatemala City. “We wanted to create history, for our league and our organization.”
David Choiniere’s late first-leg goal gave Forge a bounce in their step leaving Tim Hortons Field last week. A 2-1 aggregate score gave Smryniotis some wiggle room; a nil-nil or 1-1 draw away to Antigua would send them through on aggregate.
Forge achieved that scoreless draw, their first in club history, with some exceptionally tidy defensive work. A backline of Johnny Grant, Bertrand Owundi, Daniel Krutzen, Dominic Samuel and, later, new arrival David Edgar stayed compact, swatting away opportunities from a Guatemalan side needing to score.
“From the beginning of the match, we knew Antigua were going to come out aggressive,” Smryniotis said.
“We had to stick to our plan of being tight defensively … Watching crosses, I think we did a very good job at that, making sure they were low-percentage crosses.”
Crosses and set pieces caused trouble for Forge, especially in the first half. Awkwardly-placed balls drew out goalkeeper Triston Henry on several occasions as Antigua laid the pressure on, keeping the bulk of possession and committing numbers forward.
But Forge’s defensive unit proved solvent to Antigua’s aerial attempts, nodding away the sort of opportunities that brought the Guatalamen side their lone goal in the first leg.
“We were able to deal with them in the air. I think we were fantastic in the air and that helped us hold on in the end.”
While many questions found out in the first leg, Forge still had to contest with the idea of an away leg in Central America; a first for the club and the league.
Once more, could it really happen again for a CanPL side, this time at altitude in Central America?
Forge did it, grabbing a clean sheet and setting up a date with Honduran giant C.D. Olympia in the competition’s Round of 16 stage in the process.
“Today was a very difficult match,” Smyrniots said. “We knew coming here it would be hard – the conditions, we’re playing at altitude.
“But we knew we had to fight in order to make history. It wasn’t our best match, but the guys showed a lot of heart and a lot of character.”