To be champions is to put a target on your back. Such is the case for Forge FC, who watched an arms race unfold between the other CPL clubs this off-season while they mostly sat contented with their title-winning squad.
In fact, the first North Star Shield winners are probably the only club to lose more than they added since the end of the 2019 season, with league MVP Tristan Borges making the jump to Belgium this past winter. However, coach Bobby Smyrniotis has been saying since their pre-season began that he’s confident his 2019 squad was much more than one player.
Seventeen players are back from the championship squad for this season, and a few key additions have ensured that Forge is still one of the best teams on paper in the CPL.
With most of their inaugural cast returning, it’s not hard to imagine which players Forge will lean on for 2020. As one of the deeper squads in the league, though, it’s tough to pin down exactly who belongs in a “first-choice” starting 11 of entirely healthy players, and even tougher to determine what position everyone will play — pretty much everyone, except Triston Henry, can play in a handful of different spots.
That’s what made Forge so good last year, though.
Here’s how the champions might line up in Prince Edward Island.
Henry’s appointment as the number one ‘keeper came as a bit of a surprise last year, with MLS veteran Quillan Roberts demoted to the bench. However, he slowly earned a reputation as one of the better goalkeepers in the CPL, and now there’s absolutely no doubt: Henry starts between the sticks for Forge this year. Youngster Baj Maan has been brought in to play backup, but this is Henry’s job.
Maxim Tissot, Daniel Krutzen, David Edgar, Jonathan Grant
Forge has a ton of options in the backline — frankly, they probably have an entire four-man setup with different players that could just as well be their defence, if a couple of these names float into the midfield.
Tissot was one of the club’s few major signings of the 2019 off-season, and with his wealth of experience in MLS and USL, he might just pip Kwame Awuah for the starting spot at left fullback. Awuah’s overlaps with Chris Nanco were key for Forge in 2019, however, so it’s possible that Bobby Smyrniotis won’t want to lose that factor during the shortened Island Games.
On the other flank, expect a more significant role for Grant this year. He struggled with injuries last season, and Giuliano Frano filled in well on the right, but Grant has the more diverse skillset suited to right back. If healthy, he should offer an excellent well-rounded game on that side.
Centrally, the Edgar-Krutzen duo is probably Forge’s best defensive pairing. The experienced Edgar changed the dynamic of the club when he arrived mid-2019, and he should be first choice to anchor the back (although, at 32 years old, he’ll surely be given regular breaks with the likes of Dominic Samuel on the bench). Krutzen drops into the backline as well; part of lineup construction is getting all your best players onto the pitch, and if Krutzen were to play in midfield, someone there would need to sit. The Belgian centre back was extremely reliable both with and without the ball in 2019.
Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson, Kyle Bekker, Elimane Cissé
This trio will be fascinating to watch this season. Jönsson, the Swedish holding midfielder whose return to the lineup late in 2019 meant a great deal to his club, should be the bridge in transition for Forge this season. He played 27 games for the Hamilton-based side, and he was one of the league’s best passers from the middle of the park.
Bekker, of course, is the captain — the heart and soul of the team — and will be the man tasked with creating opportunities for the attackers. He was a nominee for Player of the Year last season for good reason, as perhaps the best central midfielder in the CPL. Expect Bekker to continue providing assists for the dangerous front three.
The third player here is one that Smyrniotis has brought up several times since the end of 2019. Cissé had an up-and-down season with Forge, but he’s an excellent player on the ball with perhaps more attacking ability than he’s given credit for by most people. He might be used in a slightly more advanced role this season, and perhaps take some pressure off Bekker.
Chris Nanco, Anthony Novak, Paolo Sabak
There are several players who could easily fit into any of these positions — Kadell Thomas, Marcel Zajac, Mo Babouli, and so on — but this is the trio that makes the most sense.
Novak is the most natural No. 9 on the roster, and he’s the player that’s best-suited for crashing into the box and pouncing on loose balls. He scored six goals in 2019, and he could be in line for more this time given regular playing time as the first-choice striker. He only got better as last year went on, and although his momentum may have slowed due to the nine-month hiatus, bet on Novak to be a force around the front of goal.
On his wings, Nanco and Sabak will probably get the nod. The former was reliable and dynamic last season, sending good crosses into the box and beating defenders one-on-one. Sabak, meanwhile, is one of the most highly-touted newcomers to the CPL. The young Belgian out of KRC Genk’s academy has immense natural talent, and he could even surpass the standard set by Borges. That would make Forge’s already-excellent attack downright scary.
Baj Maan, Dominic Samuel, Kwame Awuah, Jordan Dunstan, Klaidi Cela, Monti Mohsen, Kadell Thomas, Marcel Zajac, David Choinière, Mo Babouli
The bench is where Forge FC’s strength truly lies. They could form a front three from this group that would likely beat at least half of the CPL. Any of Thomas, Zajac, Choinière, or Babouli could step into a game and cause serious trouble for the opposition.
Babouli, especially, will be a player that fans are excited to watch. We’re not quite ready to predict that he’s going to start every game for Forge, but he has the talent to score plenty of goals in the late stages of games.
At the back, Dominic Samuel is a heck of a defender to have on the bench. If Krutzen takes a game further up in midfield, Samuel can easily step in. The same goes for Kwame Awuah at left back — or, indeed, in midfield, since he’s fully capable of playing both.
The Forge manager has been behind the development of many of these players through the years at Sigma FC. He’s got them drilled on a system, and he’s put together a versatile group that can adapt to any circumstances.
Expect a strong tactical approach for Forge; their revolving-door system allows pretty much every player to come in and do any job well. Their approach to beating Cavalry FC in the 2019 CPL Finals was methodical and overwhelming; it’s not hard to imagine that Smyrniotis will have developed similar plans for the short season they’ll face at The Island Games.
This club won the CPL championship in 2019 for a reason, and Smyrniotis was a big part of it.