Soldiers patrol outside the Olimpic Metropolitano stadium before the 2010 World Cup qualifier soccer match between Honduras and Costa Rica in San Pedro Sula August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate (HONDURAS SPORT SOCCER MILITARY)
‘Make the moment count’: Forge ready for Olimpia test in haunted ground
San Pedro Sula is not a place Canadian soccer fans or players fondly remember.
Instead, it is the origin of one of the country’s most painful wounds, and, now, the destination that Forge FC embarks itself upon for the second leg of their CONCACAF League Round of 16 series.
Having earned a 1-0 win last week in Leg 1 of their series against Honduran side C.D. Olimpia at Tim Hortons Field, Forge now faces another stiff test in the return leg on Thursday, behind closed doors in this haunted place – and not in Tegucigalpa, Olimpia’s typical home venue.
It will be their second trip in Central America this summer, and this time around, Forge can lean on their experiences from the previous round, when they dispatched Guatemalan side Antigua GFC 2-1 in the home leg and saw out a 0-0 draw away in the second to advance to this latest matchup.
For many of Forge’s players, including in-form striker Anthony Novak, playing in Guatemala was a completely new experience, in a year already filled to the brim with new milestones.
“I did a pre-season in Bermuda once,” Novak offered, with a laugh, when asked about his experience playing in these sorts of climates. “That’s the only south I’ve been to play footie.”
Bermuda may fall under the same sort of sun, but Central America, it is not. The support that clubs hailing from Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala get is on another level entirely. It’s a key element to why that sort of atmosphere can be tough for visiting teams to endure, coupled with the usual qualms surrounding humidity and altitude.
“It was like one of those ones you get here, real dense, in the middle of summer in Canada, where you walk outside and you just hit a wall of wet,” Novak recalled, of his team’s latest trip to Guatemala. “It was gross, pretty gross. And then you throw the altitude in there?
“I remember the first 15 minutes, thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ Then the ship starts to steady and it got a little smoother.”
Forge survived the opening passage and acclimated to their surroundings. Used to being the aggressor, different circumstances call on different aspects of a team to be tested. Mettle is tested in such circumstances. Experience is invaluable.
“The most important thing we were able to take away from the experience was we had to be resilient,” Novak stated. “We had a compete level that we hadn’t brought in many games before that. It was the fact that it was CONCACAF.”
Novak added: “Some of the guys on the team – Eddie (David Edgar) and Bekks (Kyle Bekker) – they’d played in games like that before, but for many of us, it was our first experience. It was a good mix of emotions from guys who had been there before and guys who hadn’t. That combined made it a very special experience.
“Everyone was up for it in a different way than they had been for any other game before.”
Forge leaned on those lessons in the first leg against Olimpia and with another trip into the wiles of CONCACAF ahead, they will do so again come Thursday.
“You get more experience with more and more games,” said Chris Nanco, who scored the game-winner in the fourth-minute. “We knew that Olimpia would kind of be similar to Antigua, just a little bit of a bigger gear, a faster gear.
“We used that experience and came out with a good result. We’re on the front foot now, we have momentum. Now we go down there and get the job done.”
Resilience the secret ingredient to success
Tournament football on the continental level is a different beast from league play.
Even the act of keeping a clean sheet in an opening leg, where the away goal hangs so perilously over the players’ heads, can bring about a huge sigh of relief.
With a 1-0 win over Olimpia at home, Forge are better positioned than when they travelled to Guatemala, where they had to be doubly cautious, having conceded an away goal against Antigua.
“In these competitions, resilience is needed,” Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis said. “It’s not only about the win or what you do, but it’s about the result itself, what the scoreline is. You need to be very aware of what the score-lines need to be. The one thing we really wanted was to keep zero in our goal. We knew that giving up an away goal is something hard to defeat in the second leg.
“We give ourselves a little better of a preparation going down into the next one. Having a clean sheet, the guys understand that if you need to go into this mode they’re able to handle it. From a mentality aspect, that’s great.”
Scoreline improved, Smyrniotis sees similarities to the previous round in this upcoming clash. Still, the presence of a veteran or two will be useful in Honduras, even if the venue offers haunted memories. Due to the rioting earlier this month surrounding the Tegucigalpa derby between Olimpia and rivals Motagua, Forge’s upcoming match has been moved from the capital to San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano and will be played behind closed doors. It’s a place Edgar remembers all too well, having last survived an infamous 8-1 loss to the national team while with Canada, back in 2012.
An empty house, discomforting in its own way, will be another new experience for even Forge’s most experienced players.
“I have not,” Edgar answered, when asked if he’s ever played in such peculiar circumstances. “But I’ve played in San Pedro Sula in front of 80-odd thousand.”
Edgar didn’t quite elaborate. You could forgive him for it, too. Instead, he carried on.
“It’s going to be an eerie place with nobody there, but we’re happy with that.”
He added: “It’s a massive advantage. Still, it’s a very good team we’re playing. Having been down to Honduras a couple of times, it’s incredible what a full stadium and their fans can do to help their team.
“It’s an advantage for us, but we still have to make the moment count.”
And with the away-goal balance tipped in their favour – should Forge score one in Honduras, Olimpia would then need to get three to advance – this one will have all the drama, if not more, than their trip to Guatemala.
“They need a different result than we need,” Smyrniotis cautioned. “At the same time, we’re not a team that’s destined to sit back and soak up pressure for 90 minutes on purpose. We’re not a team that will try and hold a result the way it is, because I think that’s dangerous when you do it against a quality team.