The arduous, 37-day maelstrom of the 2020 Canadian Premier League season has culminated, like the year before, with the club in orange lifting the North Star Shield.
Now back-to-back champions, Forge have silenced legions of doubters after their six-win campaign at The Island Games. They stifled HFX Wanderers FC in professional fashion on Saturday, kicking off yet another party in Hamilton.
It wasn’t easy, though. The experience in Prince Edward Island was, according to coach Bobby Smyrniotis, like nothing he’ll ever see again.
“This is probably, and I told the guys this, the most challenging football experience you’ll go through in your lives,” Smyrniotis told reporters, moments after lifting the Shield.
Captain Kyle Bekker agreed: “It wasn’t easy, I’m not gonna lie. It’s not easy to play a game every three days for 40 days, whatever it was we did. Honestly I can’t say it enough, it’s a credit to every single one of the guys, all 22 of us who had to put their head down and go for us to achieve this.”
“The best way to go about it is to try and come out as champions,” Smyrniotis added, “So that we’re able to tell a story that has the best ending.”
That fairytale ending has certainly been achieved. What Smyrniotis has built in this Forge team is truly something special; the tactical dominance and individual quality they displayed in Saturday’s grand finale will no doubt force Toronto FC to spend a while planning for the Canadian Championship final that the two sides will contest.
At this point, Forge have set the standard for the league — winning goalscorer Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson said as much in his post-game press conference. He’s won two championships now in just two years in Canada, and he can’t decide which one was the sweeter of the two.
“Last year we worked over a longer period of time, playing the league games, but this year we’ve been working in the dark more,” he pointed out, recalling the long period of COVID-19 lockdown.
“It’s not like we’ve been laying on the lazy side until we played this tournament. We’ve been working, going on Zoom calls, doing stretches, running our 5K on the streets every day. It’s been a long process getting all of this done.
“I haven’t talked to my family in a long-ass time. You just put your head down and went to work, and getting this trophy at the end of it is a nice achievement. You feel like you’ve done something incredible.”
Smyrniotis basked in the achievement of his players, every one of whom, he said, deserves credit for their determination throughout the process — both in PEI and back home in Hamilton. The manager, duly nominated for Coach of the Year in the CPL, has been preaching since the very day Forge won their title in 2019, that the hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat a championship.
Not impossible, though.
“When it really matters, we’re there,” Smyrniotis said. “When it really matters, the focus is 100 per cent and the desire to win is paramount… It’s part of that culture building. It’s knowing that you don’t get these opportunities very often.”
He added: “Being able to come out as champions after a unique event is a great story for every person that’s involved in our club for this year — for not only now but 10 years down the road, to be able to tell this story.”
Achinioti-Jönsson, for his part, wouldn’t let the moment pass without graciously tipping his hat to the unsung heroes of Forge’s victory.
“We’re the ones being seen out there playing the game, but all the work that’s being done behind the camera, the hotel crew, our kit manager, our physio, they’ve been working 24/7,” he pointed out. “We’ve been practicing and throwing our clothes in that bin, they’ve been working 24/7. We’ve been working one-and-a-half-hour days.
“You think about how hard it is for us, but at the end of the day we’re here to do something we love while other people are taking care of us all day.”
And now, the work is done. The CPL’s bubble has burst, and we’re left in the same place we were the evening of November 2, 2019: Forge FC are Canadian Premier League champions.
What’s next for them, then? Kyle Bekker isn’t tipping his hand. He and Achinioti-Jönsson grinned at each other when asked:
“Couple cold tubs, shower down early, get a little stretch. You know how it is.”
“Don’t forget the hot tub,”Achinioti-Jönsson cut in.