2021 Concacaf League — Quarterfinals (Leg 1)
Santos de Guápiles vs. Forge FC
October 20, 2021 at 6 pm ET
Estadio Nacional in San José, Costa Rica
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Forge FC are in uncharted waters once again this week, as they head to Costa Rica for the first time ever to continue this year’s Concacaf League adventure. They’ll open this quarterfinal tie in San José against Santos de Guápiles on Wednesday night, hoping to advance to the semifinals of this competition (and qualify for the Concacaf Champions League) for the first time in their history.
The Hamilton club, still juggling three competitions with this alongside the Canadian Championship and Canadian Premier League campaign, have already impressed in the Concacaf League. They got to this round by winning two double-legged ties, first against El Salvador side CD FAS and then against Panamanian outfit Independiente. That preliminary round battle in San Salvador was a memorable one, with Forge winning 5-3 on aggregate despite playing both legs away from home in stormy (and occasionally lightning-delayed) conditions.
The round of 16 was similarly eventful, with Forge needing to pull out a gutsy 2-0 win in Panama City after a scoreless draw at home the week before. That particular victory was not without cost, though, with Mo Babouli’s controversial red card just before halftime meaning he’s suspended for this first leg. Babouli has two goals in this competition this year, so that’ll be a serious blow to their attack.
Nonetheless, Forge enter Costa Rica with plenty of confidence. They sit third in the CPL, just two points off the top, and they’ve won four of their last five — including a 2-0 triumph over Atlético Ottawa on Saturday afternoon.
Santos, meanwhile — a 60-year-old club from the Limón region of Costa Rica — are also in decent form. They’re currently second in their domestic league’s Apertura season, and they won 3-1 on the road against eighth-place Guanacasteca on Sunday. They qualified for this competition as the third Costa Rican team, being the side with the best record from the 2021 Clausura campaign aside from champions Saprissa.
Like Forge, Santos entered this tournament in the preliminary round, where they trounced Belizean club Verdes 6-1 on aggregate. In the round of 16, they played Plaza Amador of Panama, and they sailed through again, keeping two clean sheets in a 3-0 aggregate victory.
This is the Costa Rican side’s third appearance in the Concacaf League. In 2018, they went out in the preliminary round, losing on penalties to Jamaican club Portmore United. The year before that, though, Santos went all the way to the final of the competition, where they lost in heartbreaking fashion to CD Olimpia of Honduras — again on penalty kicks.
With the away goals rule in place, Forge will be very keen on putting one or two in the back of the net in this first leg before they return home for the return fixture. This match will be played at Costa Rica’s national stadium, rather than Santos’ home ground Estadio Ebal Rodríguez, likely due to Concacaf regulations on facility conditions; Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis said after his side’s training session on Tuesday that the pitch quality is among the best his side has played on over the years. The current forecast in San José is calling for thunderstorms and humidity on Wednesday — not necessarily welcome news to Forge, nor to OneSoccer’s Adam Jenkins, but also nothing the Hammers haven’t dealt with successfully before.
3 THINGS TO WATCH:
- One eye on Champions League qualification: This round of the Concacaf League has two major prizes on offer. Not only will the winner of this round go to semifinals, they’ll also qualify directly for next year’s Concacaf Champions League, the premier club competition in the region. There are six places available in the CCL, meaning all four semifinalists plus the next two best-performing quarterfinalists will qualify — those last two spots being determined by each club’s record starting with the round of 16. So, both teams have incentive to win each leg of the tie outright, beyond just winning on aggregate. Forge had a win and a draw in the round of 16, and a +2 goal differential, which means they’re in fifth place so far, but it’s very tight. The good news, though, is this quarterfinal round has just seven teams, after Olimpia and Inter Moengotapoe were disqualified in the round of 16. So, even if Forge don’t beat Santos on aggregate, they only need to be better than one of the other losing quarterfinalists to get to the Champions League. Still, they’d much rather go route one: winning the tie and making a play for the Concacaf League trophy. “Our goal is to go as deep as we can in this tournament,” Bobby Smyrniotis said on Tuesday. “There’s a trophy in this tournament, that’s the ultimate goal; everything else that comes from it is a byproduct.”
- Forge spoiled for choice up front, even without Babouli: Despite the absence of the suspended Mo Babouli, Smyrniotis has no shortage of attacking options. Tristan Borges missed Leg 2 against Independiente with a suspension of his own, but he’ll be back now. David Choinière also seems a likely starter, with four goals in the Concacaf League over his career — making him Forge’s leading scorer in the competition. Omar Browne, a veteran of the Concacaf club game, will be a strong option as well, having played very well and scored against Ottawa on Saturday. Then there are Emery Welshman, Woobens Pacius, and Joshua Navarro (himself a Costa Rica native), all of whom can play across a front three. With Forge’s squad mercifully in good health, Smyrniotis has a difficult job on his hands trying to pick his starting XI. He’ll also have a lot of firepower available off the bench, which is likely to help in what’s sure to be a fast-paced, intense contest. “I think there’s probably four to five guys you could change in our lineup and we’d still say it’s a pretty strong lineup,” Smyrniotis said. “We’ll have an XI to put out there that I’m sure will be very good, and I’m sure we’ll have some very good ones sitting and waiting to get on the pitch.”
- Who are Santos de Guápiles? The Costa Rican opposition have a strong cast of attacking talent with which to match Forge. Perhaps the star attraction is Javon East, a talented centre-forward who will have been on Canadian fans’ screens quite recently: a key depth player for the Jamaican national team, East has come off the bench in five of their six games in the Octagon of World Cup Qualifying, including against Canada (he played 16 minutes in the 0-0 draw). He had two assists on Sunday in Santos’ 3-1 win, as well. Forge also need to look out for Costa Rican international Osvaldo Rodriguez, who has two goals in the Concacaf League this year and four in 13 games in league play so far. The 30-year-old attacking midfielder has 18 caps for his national team, and he’s got 39 goals and 30 assists in a staggering 274 games played for Santos. It seems they have preferred to play with a five-man backline in some recent games, including the second leg of the round of 16 against Plaza Amador; Denilson Mason has typically started as a number 10 behind a two-man strike tandem of East and Cuban international Luis Paradela (who has also played against the Canadian national team, at the 2019 Gold Cup).