PREVIEW: Cruz Azul vs. Forge FC (Leg 2) — Concacaf Champions League

2022 Concacaf Champions League — Round of 16 (Leg 2)
Forge FC vs. Cruz Azul (0-1 agg.)
February 24, 2022 at 8:30 pm ET
Estadio Azteca in Mexico City
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Once more unto the Azteca, Canadian soccer fans.

Few words in the footballing lexicon inspire more awe than the name of the fabled Mexico City cauldron, where Pelé and Maradona once dazzled crowds of over 100,000 in their World Cup climaxes. Not so long ago, a Canadian team stunned their hosts with a valiant performance on that famous pitch.

This week, it’ll be Kyle Bekker and Tristan Borges walking that same ground, as Forge FC take on Cruz Azul in the Concacaf Champions League.

In last Wednesday’s first leg of this round of 16 tie, Forge did well on home turf to hold the Liga MX giants to a 1-0 win at Tim Hortons Field. The Canadian Premier League outfit certainly impressed the opposition in their first-ever foray into this tournament, giving the much more established Mexican side a lot to think about in Leg 2.

This Thursday’s reverse fixture, though, will be a different beast entirely. The Azteca, with its cavernous grandstands and vast grassy pitch, sits 2,200 metres above sea level — more than twice the altitude of, say, Calgary — which will make a 90-minute dogfight all the more difficult for a Forge side that’s not at full match fitness.

“Coming here and preparing for a day to play at altitude is always a difficult thing,” Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis told media on Wednesday. “So we have to make sure we get our tactics right on the field in order to counteract those elements that we really can’t control.”

Not to mention, of course that this may be the biggest crowd Forge have ever played against in the massive venue, which will be far from packed full but should still hold a strong contingent of local support.

RELATED: Match Analysis: Forge FC 0-1 Cruz Azul || Smyrniotis, Forge holding heads high after CCL debut: ‘Disappointed but we’ve matched our opponent’

Also not helping the case is the fact that Cruz Azul have played 31 home games since 2008 in the Concacaf Champions League, and lost just two of them: in the 2008 final to Atlante, and in last year’s semi-final to eventual champions Monterrey.

Still, this Forge side has made a habit of defying the odds in their continental adventures so far. They’ve already beaten far older clubs with richer histories and much higher wage bills, doing so repeatedly en route to qualifying for this competition in the first place.

Cruz Azul, under Peruvian manager Juan Reynoso, will want to come out strong at home rather than allow Forge to play to them, so expect a stronger lineup than they started in Hamilton last week. They’ll be riding some confidence into this game, having thrashed Toluca away from home by a 4-1 scoreline on Sunday in league play.

“I expect them to go at it from the beginning whistle,” said Forge defender Dominic Samuel. “They’re at home, they have the elements, the stadium… (They’ll) try to get a second one on us so they have that 2-0 advantage to put us on the back foot but if we stick to our game plan and take it minute by minute, we can get a goal, maybe another one.”

With six games played in the Liga MX Clausura campaign so far, Cruz Azul are 4-1-1, third in the table. Despite all the new faces they brought in over the winter — Carlos Rodríguez, Uriel Antuna, and so on — they haven’t really missed a beat in this season.

It’ll be a warm evening at the Azteca — a balmy 18 degrees at kickoff — as Forge attempt to channel some of the stadium’s epic moments past and slay Goliath in his own lair.

Estadio Azteca. (Canada Soccer)
Estadio Azteca. (Canada Soccer)

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  • Forge playing with nothing to lose: Bobby Smyrniotis’ side have already done themselves proud, not just by getting to this tournament but by putting up a very good fight in Leg 1. Now, as they enter the away leg, the pressure is truly off and Forge are playing with house money. It would not be surprising for the visitors to be overwhelmed in this game by a stronger team — although Smyrniotis and co. would not be content to roll over. They will, most likely, play with a greater degree of freedom than their opponents, knowing they have nothing to lose, and therefore no real reason not to come out and press, trying to stun Cruz Azul with a quick strike or two. Forge know that any damage they do to their foes in this game will be a remarkable achievement, and they’re eager to do quite a great deal.
  • Expect stronger Cruz Azul lineup: Though Forge deserve every ounce of credit for the way they played at home in Leg 1, they did not see most of Cruz Azul’s best players until midway through the second half — and they didn’t see Carlos Rodríguez at all. In their match on Sunday, Reynoso went back to a first-choice lineup, with Bryan Angulo up top and Rodríguez and Uriel Antuna alongside. Cruz Azul probably can’t afford to gamble with a B team in this home fixture, because even an unconvincing victory might put more pressure on them. Forge defended quite well after Angulo and Antuna entered the game in Hamilton, but whether they can hold them off for 90 minutes is a different question entirely. Though Cruz Azul are rarely an aggressive side in Liga MX, they offer devastating quality in transition, so it’ll be up to Forge’s midfield to slow them down and prevent those opportunities.
  • Enjoy the moment: Part of the message from Forge’s coaching staff heading into this game will be imploring the players not to get caught up in the occasion or overwhelmed by the prospect of playing Cruz Azul at the Azteca. Still, these aren’t games that come along often — and there will never again be a first visit to the venue for these players. Forge definitely understand the gravity of the stage they’re on, and their younger players have the benefit of new teammate Ashtone Morgan and assistant coach David Edgar, both of whom have played at the Azteca a handful of times before. The team will have one training session on the pitch on Wednesday night to get accustomed to the well-kept grass field, and after that it’ll be down to the players to make this moment even more special.


“You know you’re coming to a cathedral of football here, where a lot of great moments have happened. But I think like everything that’s a very monumental thing, you take a few pictures, you move on, and you get ready to play. The same way teams come into our region and maybe see the Falls, take some pictures, and then get ready for the match.” — Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis

“I think we showed them that we can compete. They’re a big Liga MX club, but we showed them can go out there and go toe-to-toe with them.” — Forge defender Dominic Samuel