Forge FC season post-mortem: Where do the CPL champions go from here?

How do you improve on back-to-back championships?

That’s the challenge facing Forge FC this winter, coming off of winning their second CPL title in as many years.

Of course, it’s impossible to break down the season in hindsight for Forge because, well, theirs isn’t over yet. Unlike other CPL sides, the champions have (hopefully) plenty of football left to play, with a Concacaf League run beginning in October and a Canadian Championship final vs. Toronto FC to be played at some point.

Still, there’s just as much value in reviewing The Island Games for Bobby Smyrniotis as there is for every other CPL manager. His team sailed through, scoring more and conceding less than any other team in PEI.

What was it Forge was doing that made them so successful in this short CPL season? How did they manage to continuously improve as much as they did?

“We kept adding different layers to what we were doing,” Smyrniotis told this week.

“I knew one of the biggest things in this event was, one, keeping guys fresh, keeping guys healthy, and that goes hand-in-hand because if you’re playing the same guys every game in certain positions, injuries will creep up.”

RELATED READING: Smyrniotis gearing up for Forge’s Concacaf League run, sizes up 1st-round opponent

They certainly seemed to keep their team quite fresh; as we’ve brought up several times before on, Forge’s front three was constantly changing, meaning they were consistently able to attack with pace and energy.

Although Chris Nanco ultimately went down to injury, Johnny Grant missed much of the middle section, and Anthony Novak was struggling with a groin injury toward the end of the competition, they didn’t miss a beat.

“When we were leaving, the players are all saying, ‘We could be here for another week or two,’ and I think that talks a lot to the mentality of the guys,” Smyrniotis said.

“As coaches, nobody really knows what their best 11 is. It’s something that I think a few people asked me – ‘Is this your best 11?’ – and you don’t know that probably after about three or four matches what your best group is out there. You have an idea, but then you’re looking at the performance of the guys, you’re looking at where guys are physically, mentally, emotionally, so that took a while to get that all together. We kept on hitting stride, hitting gear.”

Also effective for Forge was the way in which they adapted, tactically, to various opponents. They do have a detailed, thorough plan for their usual style of play, but certain games called for major adjustments.

Forge’s Swiss Army Knife-like attack, with a myriad options and functions, helped them defeat HFX Wanderers FC in the final, and it might prove especially useful in games against Concacaf opponents or Toronto FC.

“I’ll always say there’s two, three games in a year where you have to change,” Smyrniotis said. “When you’re scouting teams and you’re able to see them so often, you start to pick up on their tendencies. If you don’t switch something, sometimes you also become very predictable.

“What we did in that second round was, in a couple of games and in the Final, we just changed things a little bit to make our opponent a lot more uncomfortable.”

He continued, mapping out how exactly a team can maintain its ethos of dominating a game despite not looking like the protagonists at every juncture.

RELATED READING: Smyrniotis: 2019 Concacaf League run helped Forge FC repeat as CPL champs

“Although we like to keep the ball for long stretches of time, create, be on the front foot, I always say there’s two ways of dominating,” Smyrniotis explained.

“One is in possession, and one is without the ball. I think we did that very well in the Final, where we gave up a little bit of the ball, not a lot, but we dominated in our block press, turning the ball over, creating spaces in behind Halifax. So sometimes in the most important games you have to see exactly what your opponent is doing, and counteract that with a little bit of what they do best.”

Really, there isn’t a lot that Smyrniotis has identified to improve on after a very strong campaign in PEI. He offered that he’d like to see his side a “a little bit more efficient in the final third,” especially in early games, which may have allowed them to turn some of their four draws into wins.

With the quality they have across the pitch, Smyrniotis asserted that he thinks they can be even more dangerous with the ball, despite having the most expected goals, and expected goals per shot, in the CPL at The Island Games.

“The hardest thing as a coach is to keep motivating them for more,” he said.

As for Forge’s roster composition, there’s little to report, especially considering that their season isn’t done yet. Smyrniotis said that it’s very unlikely there will be any changes in 2020, with the whole squad signed until the new year (and a lot of players signed beyond then). Regardless of what happens, he confirmed he doesn’t anticipate a massive turnover in the club.

That said, he does believe that Forge is the most attractive club for players outside the CPL considering a move.

“If all goes well and we’ve got a good chunk of them back next year too, I think that same hunger will be there,” Smyrniotis concluded.

“It’s part of that culture and DNA. Also for the players coming in now, we believe we’re building a destination point for players to play in the Canadian Premier League. We’ve set a high standard, not only in winning championships. We’re competing continentally and we have a clear path for players to move on to bigger levels.”

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