You’d think that, after seven meetings between two clubs in one season, there’d be nothing left to learn from an eighth.
That’s not the case, though, as Saturday’s tilt between Forge FC and Cavalry FC brought their season-long battle to a head in Leg 1 of the Canadian Premier League Finals.
An unstoppable force met an immovable object, and we still have no idea who might lift the North Star Shield next Saturday in Calgary (3:30 p.m. ET, 1:30 p.m. MT, on OneSoccer). Forge has a 1-0 lead, but they’ll have to hold onto it at a very hostile ATCO Field at Spruce Meadows.
So with 90 of the 180 minutes in the books, here’s what we learned from a wild first leg.
On Media Day, players on both sides of this matchup hesitated to agree that these teams don’t like each other. The animosity we saw on Saturday, though, went well beyond what you’d normally expect in a competitive fixture between two top clubs.
Two red cards. Five yellows. Thirty-one fouls in total. Pretty much every player will be feeling sore on Sunday after a crunching tackle or two.
Cavalry’s José Escalante and Forge’s Elimane Cissé, in particular, were right in the thick of a very physical match. With a lot on the line for both teams, neither side held back at all. Really, the challenge that resulted in a red card for Tristan Borges may not even have been the most heated moment of the afternoon, as tempers boiled over on several occasions.
That said, they’re keeping all the hostility to the pitch for now. Cavalry captain Nik Ledgerwood intruded on CanPL.ca’s postmatch interview with David Edgar, and the former Canadian men’s national team companions shared a brief moment after their battle.
“How could you not like this guy here?” Edgar said, with an arm around Ledgerwood’s shoulders. “I’ve known him for 15 years.”
2. The charge can be halted
It’s not often that Cavalry find themselves completely suffocated offensively. They managed just three shots all afternoon (only one on target), compared to Forge’s 18.
The Cavs were the highest-scoring team in the CPL this year, and three shots equals their lowest-ever total, which came in a 0-0 draw away to HFX Wanderers FC in August. They’ve rarely looked so toothless in attack.
Part of it is surely down to the half-hour they played a man down, but credit to Bobby Smyrniotis, he set his Forge side up to run Cavalry’s defenders off the field, especially out wide.
It was, perhaps, a taste of their own medicine for Cavalry, who couldn’t deal with Forge’s energetic, relentless pressure. The Cavs had just 31.6 per cent possession and they made only 55 per cent of their passes, as the home side forced them into making mistakes and giving up the ball.
3. Borges can be muffled, but not silenced
Tristan Borges, CPL Golden Boot leader, has been rightly anointed as one of the best players in the league. And so, it’s only fitting that so much of Saturday’s spotlight shone on him (in both good and bad ways).
All the defining moments of Leg 1 had his fingerprints on them: the missed penalty, the goal, and of course the red card midway through the second half.
As odd as it sounds, though, if you take away the theatrics it was a relatively quiet night for Borges. He had just 40 touches, held to a 74 per cent passing accuracy. His only two shots on target were the goal and the spot kick.
All this was by design, of course; Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said after the game that he’d told his players to try and starve the Forge star of the ball, keeping him out of it as much as possible.
“He’s a bloody good player,” Wheeldon added.
Indeed he is. He needed just one moment to make the difference in this one. Try as they might, Cavalry didn’t quite emerge unscathed from the Tristan Borges show.
4. The Cavs have cards left to play
Perhaps the biggest surprise when lineups came out on Saturday was Wheeldon Jr.’s choice to start Oliver Minatel over Sergio Camargo in midfield.
You couldn’t say Minatel doesn’t deserve it, of course; he’s been electric in that role as understudy to Camargo during the latter’s battle with injuries. However, when Camargo made his return to the Cavalry squad a few weeks ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he’d start in the Finals after his stellar play in the first half of the season. He started (and scored) in the number 10 role last weekend against FC Edmonton, and it looked like he’d come back into form at the perfect time.
Camargo was but a supporting character in Saturday’s spectacle, though, limited to just four touches in about five minutes of work. He likely would’ve entered earlier if the Cavs didn’t need to bring on defender Jay Wheeldon after Joel Waterman’s red card.
So, the Colombian-born attacker may be Cavalry’s ace in the hole in Leg 2. He may or may not get the starting nod, but expect him to contribute much more next Saturday in Calgary.
5. Forge’s flexibility could carry them over the line
A lot of the talk heading into Leg 1 was Forge’s notable absences in defence, with Bertrand Owundi and Dominic Samuel sidelined by suspensions. Another blow struck Forge when it emerged that right-back Jonathan Grant wasn’t fit to play on Saturday either.
So, it was Kwame Awuah and Giuliano Frano who were reunited as fullbacks. Frano, especially, returned to the backline to a right-back position he’s played just once in a CPL match since July. It turned out just fine, though; the hosts had no defensive issues, really, and they were nothing short of dominant on Awuah’s wing.
Elimane Cissé is emerging as a Swiss Army Knife of a player, keeping to the right flank on Saturday after a season spent primarily in the middle (plus a rep as a false nine last week).
The trio of Kyle Bekker, Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, and Tristan Borges was free to roam in midfield, all three interchanging seamlessly with each other.
Finals 2019 is a battle between managers who see formations and rigid positions as waning concepts, and it showed in the way Forge’s players connected with one another.