Match Analysis: Forge FC 3-0 Santos de Guápiles (4-3 agg.) — Concacaf League

Final Score: Forge FC 3-0 Santos de Guápiles (4-3 agg.)
Goalscorers: Browne 29′, Babouli 65′, Navarro 82′
2021 Concacaf League
Quarterfinals (Leg 2)

Match in a minute or less

Forge FC delivered another magical night in the Concacaf League on Tuesday at Tim Hortons Field, as their attack exploded for a 3-0 win over Costa Rican outfit Santos de Guápiles, handing the CPL team a 4-3 win on aggregate in the quarterfinal tie to advance to the semis and also book themselves a ticket for next year’s Concacaf Champions League.

On the front foot from the get-go, Forge scored just before the half-hour mark as Omar Browne fired a long-distance screamer off the crossbar and in to pull them within one of Santos’ lead. Midway through the second half, Babouli made it 2-0 (evening the score on aggregate) by volleying home a perfect cross by Browne. At last, in the 82nd minute, Costa Rica native Joshua Navarro sealed it for Forge by finishing a well-worked team attack to make it 3-0 on the night and put the Hamiltonians firmly — and permanently — in front.

RELATED READING: RECAP: Forge FC advance to SF, qualify for Concacaf Champions League with resounding Leg 2 win vs. Santos

Three Observations

Forge make history by securing Champions League spot

It’s genuinely incredible how this three-year-old club from Hamilton, Ontario continues to make history. In each of their forays into this Concacaf League competition, they’ve improved on the previous; their run to the round of 16 in year one was remarkable, and their campaign into the quarter-finals (playing each match away from home) last year even more so. This time, they took yet another massive step forward.

Yes, Forge FC will participate in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League. They’ll enter a competition alongside Mexican giants like Cruz Azul, Pumas, Santos Laguna, and Léon, plus the cream of the crop in MLS. For the first time, there will be two Canadian sides in the tournament — whoever wins the Canadian Championship later this month will join Forge.

Any kind of continental football is special — that much has been evident from the magical nights Forge have delivered in the Concacaf League — but the Champions League, the region’s top club competition, will be another level. Could Forge draw Cruz Azul, and pay a visit to the Azteca? Or host a Mexican opponent in Hamilton in the snow? The possibilities are endless; certainly, it’ll build even further upon the name Forge have already established for themselves in just three years in the Concacaf region.

Head coach Bobby Smyrniotis certainly deserves particular credit, as the architect of this incredible success, having built Forge into this powerhouse so quickly, and he — usually a very measured person — allowed himself to get a little emotional this time.

“I think for the first time in three years I showed a little bit more emotion after the game and celebrating with our fans,” Smyrniotis told reporters postmatch. “I’m not a guy who gets too excited, you’ve probably seen us win two North Star Shields. But yeah. I was excited in the moment, this one meant a lot. Continental football is special, and we’ve got two trophies in a case and of course we’re gonna go for a third, but there’s something different about these games. There’s something different about the challenge, the intensity, everything that goes into it…

“We’re making one step each year. Last year hurt. There were a lot of guys in this room and everyone wanted it, because we were so close. To come back in this next year and do it, it’s absolutely fantastic. Because this competition is a privilege, it comes with being champion of the Canadian Premier League; it’s not your right to compete in Concacaf League, so you’ve got to take these opportunities. I don’t know how big it is, we’ll know down the line in the future but I think for a club, and what we’ve accomplished year after year, it just keeps getting better. I’m absolutely proud of my staff, the management, everyone down to every single player. It’s been a great ride and we keep on going.”

Forge’s Emery Welshman also heaped praise on Smyrniotis and the rest of the staff behind the scenes, and he tried to collect his thoughts on the occasion.

“It’s a surreal feeling. Being a club that’s only three years old, and being here from the beginning — I was here for the first leg of our Concacaf journey, and to see them go out the way that they did was heartbreaking. But now everything’s coming kind of full circle, and what a moment. What a special moment not just for this club but for Canadian football, regardless of if rivals out there might be a little resentful to it. This is a big moment for everybody; we’ve done it, and we’ve done it the hard way, and that’s special.”

The true magnitude of what Forge accomplished on Tuesday — coming back from two goals down on aggregate, and delivering in that way to achieve something they’ve wanted so badly — might not sink in until months, or even years, later, but it is abundantly clear: Something special happened at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario on November 2, 2021.

Smyrniotis & Forge find way to slow down Santos transition

The element of the game where Santos hurt Forge most in Leg 1 was their lightning-fast transition game. Down in Costa Rica, they seemed to put Forge under pressure immediately after winning the ball by moving it forward so quickly to create a numerical advantage and get the defenders running backward. That created a lot of high-tempo counter-attacking chances for Santos that ultimately won them the game.

This time around, Forge clearly had a plan for dealing with that speed, knowing Santos much better than they did heading into Leg 1 — as Bobby Smyrniotis alluded to in his prematch comments. Elimane Cisse played at right-back for the third straight match, and his defensive workrate helped a lot with at least a few key tackles to cut out a Santos charge. Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, playing as a solo holding midfielder, made a huge difference as well, staying deeper to cut things off and remain in position when Santos started coming at them.

Even Forge’s more attacking players — especially Tristan Borges as a number 10 — did a lot of work to slow Santos down at the source. Overall, Forge seemed better able to get numbers back and behind the ball when Santos took possession, even when they attempted to go direct. That’s not to say the visitors didn’t have counter-attacking chances; they had quite a few in the second half especially, but timely last-ditch defending combined with far less clinical finishing than Santos showed in Leg 1 kept Forge safe.

It’s possible the colder weather (about three degrees Celsius) had an effect on the Costa Rican side and hurt their composure, but Forge deserve all the credit for identifying a problem from the previous encounter and addressing it so successfully.

Smyrniotis pointed out postmatch that his side had learned a lot from their trip to San Jose for Leg 1; they encountered things (like that transition speed) against Santos they hadn’t really seen before, so when they returned for the second leg they had a far better idea of how to trap them.

“When it comes to this competition, a lot of it is new,” Smyrniotis explained. “The first game, of course not the result we wanted down there, but we were sure we knew where we could go and be positive on the field, where we could find our opportunities and how we can create those opportunities. And I thought the guys were excellent at doing that. We just needed that high energy level, we play fantastic football. There may be one game out of the 12 or 13 we’ve played at home where maybe we haven’t been at our best, but we’ve played fantastic football here and that was the message.

“Santos is a very good team, probably the best one that we’ve played in all these years because they can do so many different things. But when you look at the game today the guys were fantastic. We’re pressing well, we’re trapping well, our possession was very good, our ball rotation was very good, the chances we created — just a complete performance.”

Quality, chemistry come through for Forge

Not only did Forge get the job done on Tuesday, they did so in wonderfully entertaining fashion. If last week against CF Montreal they were missing that last piece of individual quality to put them over the edge and score, they had it in spades on Tuesday.

There’s probably never been a moment of individual quality from a CPL player quite like Omar Browne’s goal in the first half — that’s a strike that belongs on every highlight reel in the world — but beyond that, Forge’s players stepped up to the plate in this game. Mo Babouli’s shot was excellent as well, even if it’ll be overshadowed by Browne’s, and the buildup play to create Josh Navarro’s late insurance marker (particularly the weighted pass from Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman’s run into the box) was phenomenal.

On top of that, though, Forge’s tactical awareness and chemistry really helped them dominate so much of the game and create so many opportunities. Case in point: the lead-up to Browne’s goal. Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and Kwame Awuah did so well to close down the Santos player on the touchline, and Awuah seemed to spot Babouli’s run immediately after they’d won the ball. Even Welshman trusted his teammate enough to allow Babouli’s pass to go through him to Browne.

Overall, Forge looked ferociously hungry for 90-plus minutes, looking like a side that knew full well what the stakes were and what they needed to do. This team has looked ruthless and energetic before, but perhaps not on a stage like this, nor against a team as good as Santos.

“What we saw today, that’s the vision I have for this team,” Smyrniotis said. “That’s what we like to do, and the trick is finding a way to keep it consistent. It’s been consistent for a while, but keep it going. With the success that comes, players have totally bought in this year. With new players coming in and how quickly they’ve rolled into playing, I think it’s exciting football. I’m obviously involved in the game as a coach, but as a neutral I think it’s quite good to watch. I think that’s important for me always, is the teams are out there and playing football that entertains, that keeps people on their seats. Of course we want to win, we want that to be a byproduct, but that’s Forge football today.”

If that’s what Forge football looks like consistently, the sky is the limit for them. Now that they’re in the semifinal against Honduran outfit Motagua, they’ll be eyeing the Concacaf League trophy.

And honestly, why not? Player of the Match

Omar Browne, Forge FC

The Panamanian attacker was exceptional, demonstrating just why Forge were so keen to get him into the squad this season. His goal was as incredible a strike as you’ll see anywhere, and he followed it up with an perfect cross to Mo Babouli for the second marker.

What’s next?

Forge’s next match will be back in CPL action, as they head across the Greater Toronto Area to take on 905 Derby rivals York United this Saturday, November 6 (1 pm ET). The Concacaf League semifinal, against either Motagua or Marathón of Honduras, will likely kick off in late November.

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