MATCH ANALYSIS: Forge break penalty kick curse, overcome Ottawa to reach CanChamp semis

Final Score: Forge FC 1-1 (3-2 on pens.) Atlético Ottawa
Goalscorers: Bekker 76′ ; Bassett 87′ (Pen.)
2023 Canadian Championship

Match in a minute or less

In their fourth time of asking, Forge FC won the first penalty shootout in the club’s history, defeating Atlético Ottawa in a wild sequence of spot kicks.

After dominating possession and chances for most of the match, Forge looked to have won the game in regulation when they finally found a breakthrough in the 76th minute through a stunning curling strike from captain Kyle Bekker. Ottawa, however, just wouldn’t go away as they won a penalty in the 85th minute, which Ollie Bassett calmly dispatched.

Forge now get a chance to break a different Canadian Championship curse as they advance to face CF Montréal, the team who has eliminated them in the past two Canadian Championships — famously on eleven rounds of spot-kicks during the 2021 semifinal.

Three Observations

Forge break penalty kick curse during dramatic shootout

It felt like a massive sigh of relief came from the Forge technical area, not to mention the players in orange on the pitch, after Aboubacar Sissoko slid home the decisive penalty to finally give the Hamilton side a victory on spot kicks.

They had lost twice previously in penalties in this competition alone, in the 2020 final against Toronto FC — played last year, and in a marathon 11 rounds against CF Montréal. Both of those matches were played at Tim Hortons Field, adding to the anxiety of Forge faithful once the full 90 had expired.

Coming up biggest was the man who has been a part of them all, goalkeeper Triston Henry. It was his missed penalty that famously cost the team in 2021, but despite his side missing three of their own on Tuesday night, Henry consistently guessed the right way on Ottawa’s shooters, denying both Malcolm Shaw and Sam Salter.

“It is tough, we have had some massive games here that have come down to PKs, any time you go to PKs and lose it is a little harsh,” said Forge captain Bekker. “So for us to kind of get over the hump, get that result tonight, [Henry] was fantastic, I think he kind of just put us on his shoulders, which was fantastic to see because he has been working really hard this year. He has had some massive saves for us in the past few games, to see him get that was great, we are all happy for him. As a collective, it is nice to kind of get that off our back a little bit and you can breathe a little easier.”

The shootout was a breathtaking back-and-forth affair, with the tempo set when both teams missed their opening attempts. Woodwork was struck, including a Bassett penalty that somehow stayed out despite hitting the inside of the post, and a few kicks that sailed into the Hamilton night. But Forge won’t care how it happened, only that it finally did.

Atlético Ottawa, meanwhile, has been eliminated from the Canadian Championship for the second consecutive year on penalties. Perhaps they now have a curse of their own that they will soon hope to vanquish.

‘Maximal width’ eventually pays dividends for patient Forge

Given how many goals Atlético Ottawa shipped at the weekend, Forge was anticipating the visitors would drop deep on Tuesday, and got what they had prepared for.

Having come up against several teams playing low blocks the past few seasons, especially at Tim Hortons Field, Forge has spent a lot of time breaking them down, and that experience came in handy against Ottawa. It took them 76 minutes, but they eventually found their moment of joy by persistently trying to stretch the Atleti backline through their width.

Throughout the match, Forge consistently had a player on either touchline every time they were in sustained possession, be that a winger like Tristan Borges on the right, or a fullback like Ashtone Morgan on the left. The chart below shows just how wide their actions on the ball were throughout the match. It was ultimately a midfielder, however, Kyle Bekker, that exploited that space for his clever goal.

Passes played by Borges (19) and Morgan (3) throughout the match. (Courtesy: Opta)

From those wide areas, Forge was able to generate multiple chances, firing in 14 crosses, as they consistently bombarded the Ottawa box. They especially looked to operate down the right side, with 56 per cent of their attacks coming down that flank after shifting Tristan Borges over to try to get into one-v-one situations with centreback turned fullback MacDonald Niba.

“When a team sits in a low block you have to have maximal width on both sides,” said Bobby Smyrniotis. “That allows us to move the ball with ease, but also hopefully stretch the opponent and find the gaps. There you just have to be more patient than the opponent, that is what you are playing sometimes a game like that. And waiting for your opportunities, and that is where the goal came from Bekker. Stretching, finding lanes in the half spaces to make runs into the box, he’s made an excellent run there and it is quite a finish.”

Bekker joked that it was being the fastest player on the team that allowed him to find space down the wing on his goal, but agreed with his coach’s assessment of what ultimately made the difference from open play.

“It’s that sustained pressure, eventually you know you will get that opportunity and you just have to take it,” said Bekker.

Atlético Ottawa feel they are far closer to identity after gutsy performance in Hamilton

In a competition like the Canadian Championship, advancement is all that matters. But on another day, Atlético Ottawa would have earned a plucky point at one of the most difficult places to play in the Canadian Premier League.

After a disastrous weekend loss to Pacific FC at home, Carlos González’s side needed a response, and they gave it with a resilient defensive performance in which they fought until the very end, even finding a late equalizer. They looked significantly more organized at the back than they have in recent matches, and found solidity in midfield by shifting fullbacks Miguel Acosta and Aboubakary Sacko into the middle of the park.

“I think that this is the image that we want to show,” said González, “a very good team that faces any team and has chances to win. I think that from today we can grow a lot.”

Another positive was the play of MacDonald Niba. Faced with some of Forge’s most tricky attackers as they looked to overload the right flank, he held his own, winning a stunning 8 tackles, making two interceptions and seven clearances.

“He had not an easy preseason and now he is coming back and he did a great game today, it is true that we knew that Forge has strong players over there so we wanted to strengthen that side,” said González of Niba’s performance. “To add a little bit of balance, to also at the same time add new energy, because there were some players that played too much in the last games. So very happy for him, very happy for his defensive performance.”

Things don’t get any easier for Ottawa from here, however, as they travel to Vancouver next for a match against in-form Vancouver FC on Saturday, May 13. But there were significant signs of life, and for a team looking to turn their reason around that is incredibly important. Player of the Match

Triston Henry, Forge FC

Henry made some big stops in regulation but looked the calmest Forge player on the pitch during penalties as he ultimately gave them every chance to win from the spot.

What’s next?

Forge FC advanced to the Canadian Championship semifinals where they will take on CF Montréal at Stade Saputo, with the date and time still to be set. In league action, they stay at Tim Hortons Field this weekend where they host Valour FC on Saturday, May 13 (4:00 p.m. ET). Ottawa, meanwhile, is headed out west for a first-ever meeting with Vancouver FC also on Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET).

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