Final Score: Cruz Azul 3-1 Forge FC (4-1 agg.) Goalscorers: Romero 5′, Baca 22′, Escobar 43′; Choinière 26′ 2022 Concacaf Champions League
Round of 16 — Leg 2
Match in a minute or less
Forge FC’s first Concacaf Champions League journey came to an end on Thursday night at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, as they fell 3-1 to Cruz Azul in a hard-fought second leg of the round of 16. The Liga MX side opened the floodgates very early, as Ángel Romero got on the end of a free kick over the entire Forge defence. not long after, they made it 2-0 (3-0 on aggregate) thanks to Rafael Baca’s long-range screamer from outside the box.
Forge did get on the board with a historic first CPL goal in the Champions League, as David Choinière scored with a well-placed low strike from distance. The visitors’ celebrations did not last long, though; just before halftime, Cruz Azul’s Juan Escobar managed to sneak behind the backline and head in a third goal for his side. In the second half, as the game opened up even more, the home side had a few golden opportunities to widen their lead on the counter-attack, but they were thwarted by some excellent desperation defending and goalkeeping from Forge to keep it to a respectable two-goal deficit.
Forge struggle to deal with balls over defensive line
In the first leg, Forge demonstrated an excellent ability to defend against Cruz Azul’s attempts to play forward passes and break them down with build-up play. They held their shape well and they were comfortable tracking the ball with it remaining mostly in front of their back four. This time, though, Cruz Azul manager Juan Reynoso seemed to have a different plan for attacking his Canadian opponents.
Cruz Azul were very deliberate on Thursday, especially in the first half, with their attempts to find target men with long balls and, in particular, chipped passes to bypass the Forge backline. The aggressive off-ball running from Cruz Azul’s attackers caused no end of trouble for defenders, who found themselves a little flat-footed at times and couldn’t always recover to get between the ball and goal again.
Lobbed passes like that led to both the first and third Cruz Azul goals (although the first was a set-piece), and they had a few other opportunities like it especially in the first 45, though Forge eventually were able to track those runners a little better. In the second half, Forge opened up quite a bit more in search of another goal, which allowed Cruz Azul to play more direct through balls and keep it on the ground more, especially considering more of their attacks at that stage were counter-attacking rushes where they had a numerical advantage going forward.
Of course, Forge were shaken by the early goal, and as such had to try and recover before opening the taps and try to score. They proved their mettle in the second half by keeping Cruz Azul off the scoresheet despite how dangerous the hosts looked at times.
“We stood on the ball and we did some good things out there, and that was important for us, but it’s always gonna be difficult when you get scored on in the fifth and the 43rd minute,” said Forge boss Bobby Smyrniotis.
Cruz Azul show quality with quick movement, on-ball skill
There’s a reason Cruz Azul are one of the best teams in Mexico at the moment. The way they were able to pull Forge around the pitch with their passing and movement was evidence of the gap in level between the two sides. The visitors’ defensive workrate was incredibly high, but Cruz Azul seemed able to play around the shifting defenders quite comfortably.
When Forge players left their position to press a man on the ball, they were rarely successful in turning over possession; many of the Cruz Azul players have such quality with the ball at their feet that they’re unfazed by pressure and can turn to protect before finding a comfortable passing option. That kind of individual ability allowed them to be patient when necessary, and it also allowed them to try ambitious balls knowing the players ahead of them have the quality to receive a pass with excellent first touch.
Defensively, Cruz Azul’s midfielders seemed particularly adept at spotting errant passes and winning the ball back to either settle or spring a quick transition. A number of long balls from Forge ended up in Cruz Azul counters because of how well they could put the ball in dangerous spaces with first touches for interceptions.
All that added up to a game where Forge really struggled to gain and establish possession. They had just 35% of the ball and completed only 213 passes, struggling to really play the game on their own terms as they normally do.
“It’s a team that doesn’t lose the ball often, and when they lose it they collapse really quick,” David Choinière told reporters postgame. “They get the ball really fast. They close the space down, we tried to get out of pressure. It’s a good matchup against them; at home we surprised a lot of people, and we’ll go and learn, and get back to work.”
David Choinière makes history on memorable occasion for club, country
If Forge were going to score a goal, of course it was going to David Choinière. The 25-year-old has now scored five times in continental competitions for this club, as he continues to show up on the biggest stages. Somehow, it always seems to be him scoring the big goals (in fact, this round of 16 in the Champions League has been a big one for both Choinière brothers).
Despite the lopsided aggregate scoreline, Forge made history on Thursday night. They’re the first CPL side to score in the Concacaf Champions League, and just the third Canadian club to score at Estadio Azteca. They, a four-year-old club, managed to put up a fight against a massive opponent in one of the most storied footballing venues in all the world.
“I think for that brief moment you realize that as a group, as a club, we’ve done something special,” Smyrniotis said after the game. “After three years of competing and doing things right, I think we’ve been rewarded greatly by being in this competition.”
What also can’t be understated is the value this game could have in both the short and long term. For one thing, they’ll have these two games under their belts already when the CPL season begins in just over a month.
More important than that, though, is the taste Forge now have of playing at that level, on that stage.
Youngsters like Terran Campbell, Alessandro Hojabrpour, and Garven Metusala now have this experience of playing a Liga MX team at the Azteca. So, too, do the young substitutes who came on — Kwasi Poku, Woobens Pacius, and Noah Jensen (who, notably, just made his professional debut in this game). The memories of playing in the Champions League so early in their professional careers will influence their paths from here and will help shape them into better footballers down the road.
Just as they did in Leg 1, Forge did themselves and their country proud on Thursday against Cruz Azul; this was always going to be a tough ask for them, but to continue fighting to the end, as they did — despite their out-of-season fitness levels and the Mexico City altitude — is commendable.
“If you haven’t been down to Mexico City and played a game at the Azteca, oxygen is a rarity in the sky here,” Smyrniotis said. “It’s a very difficult task, and to see some of the guys who had 90 minutes tonight, in Alex Achinioti-Jonsson, Dom Samuel, Kyle Bekker, and all the other guys was absolutely fantastic.”
The Forge coach was sure to include in his postmatch remarks some congratulations for his players and staff, not only for getting to this stage but for holding their own against a high-quality opponent. Now, knowing that there’s no Concacaf League waiting for them in the summer, Forge will be diving head-on into their CPL ambitions, desperate to return to the continental stage.
CanPL.ca Player of the Match
Ángel Romero, Cruz Azul
The Paraguayan forward was constantly in motion in this game, and Forge had a lot of difficulty marking him. Romero slipped behind the defence on a set-piece to open the scoring five minutes in, and he managed to get alone in behind several more times to nearly widen the gap.
Forge’s attention now turns back to the Canadian Premier League, which they will kick off on Sunday, April 10 when they travel to Vancouver Island for a CPL Final rematch with Pacific FC (7 pm ET/4 pm PT).
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