Forge’s Concacaf League win a lesson in survival from the CPL champs

October 22, 2020 is not an evening that’ll soon be forgotten in Hamilton.

It was one of those deeply endearing continental ties under the lights (in 2020, at least), and Forge FC — the only CPL club with any such nights in their memory bank — delivered in style. Their 2-1 win over Club Deportivo Municipal Limeño has sent them into the round of 16 of the Concacaf League.

Really, it would be hard to script a better picture of resilience and fortitude. It was a sweltering night in Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador, with humidity well over 90 per cent all evening, and a labouring Forge side clearly felt the sting of the past month of match-free training on the Tim Hortons Field turf.

When the Canadian side went down to 10 men in the 65th minute, with the game knotted at 1-1, you’d be lying if you didn’t start thinking a penalty shootout didn’t seem so bad. The shorthanded visitors, starting to drown in thick air and their own sweat, might’ve struggled to keep that thought from their minds as well.

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Forge held firm, though. They weathered some very dangerous chances from Limeño, even before Jonathan Grant’s red card — one particular corner kick in the 55th minute called Triston Henry into action a couple of times. Indeed, Henry’s brave goalkeeping kept Forge in it at times; he made four saves, and he was almost always first to the ball in the air. His brave choice to run to the top of his box for a stop in the 20th minute led indirectly to David Choinière’s goal seconds later.

What it all boils down to is that Forge’s victory in San Salvador was a lesson in survival. Once the second half came, the challenge for Bobby Smyrniotis’ men was to bend, and not break. For a stretch after going down to 10 men, the CPL champs sat back ever so slightly. They ceded some possession in order to remain organized. Whenever the ball popped out from a Limeño attack, Forge may not have had the energy for a fast counter, but Mo Babouli would typically command play well, steering toward the sideline while four defenders chased him. It’d almost always result in a Forge throw-in (allowing them to get more numbers upfield) or, once the fresher Anthony Novak came on, an opening in behind.

Really, Forge couldn’t afford to let the game become too fast for them. Bobby Smyrniotis pointed out that Forge was most threatened in the second half when the game became too open, since the transitions were where Limeño’s physicality was most evident.

Forge managed the pace of the match in the second half, even with 10 men; their passing became sharper, and they opted to move the ball a little more conservatively after a few uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half. By the end of it all, Forge had made about 100 more passes than their Salvadoran foes, although they hit their mark 81 per cent of the time (compared to 89 for the fast-pressing Limeño). Smyrniotis’ side took note of Limeño’s press in the first half, and stopped playing into it, providing fewer opportunities for passes to be intercepted.

The Salvadorans finished with 20 steals to Forge’s nine, but the second half was definitely much more even once the Canadian side became more conservative in possession.

Once they’d survived an hour in the humidity, the (ahem) cavalry began to arrive for Forge. Subs like Novak and Elimane Cissé injected much-needed energy into the squad, giving them a little more bite once they won the ball. They were able to convert those solo Babouli runs toward the touchline into genuine attacks from the ensuing throw-in, with the likes of Kyle Bekker and David Choinière getting up to hit crosses from the right flank.

All they needed then was one moment. And they got it.

Once Novak scored that beauty of a winning goal, Forge turned to survival of a different type. Limeño had about 10 minutes to push forward, and the visitors had every right to stand their ground rather than chase after balls and get stranded too far from the play for an exhausted player to track back. Babouli and Novak remained at the top, showing real confidence and intelligence in dribbling straight for the corner flags.

Forge certainly dipped their toes into the dark arts, with the fabled Concacaf stretcher making an appearance for Elimane Cissé at one point. When Limeño’s final shot found the safe hands of Henry at the turn of the 94th minute, the goalkeeper collapsed on the ball to effectively end the game.

It was, all around, a professional performance from the best team in the CPL. They settled into a challenging second half, they managed the circumstances, and they pulled out the moment of magic they needed to see it through.

Tauro FC will be a stiffer test in the next round, but for now, Forge will be boarding their flight to Panama with a spring in their step.

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