David Choinière collected the ball at the top of the box and took a touch away from his man, he dribbled into a pocket of space away from the net.
The Cruz Azul defenders were slow to cut down the space, perhaps expecting the distance to the net to be too great for the Forge winger. Choinière had one thought on his mind, however, as he twisted his body and unleashed a shot that skipped once off the Estadio Azteca grass and into the far corner of the net.
An audible gasp echoed around the stadium, soon replaced by disapproving whistles as Choinière ran back towards the centre circle, pumping his fists in celebration. The goal was ultimately a consolation in a 2022 Concacaf Champions League round of 16 series that Cruz Azul won 4-1 on aggregate. But the backdrop, one of the most historic stadiums in world football, and the significance, facing one of the most storied clubs on the continent, made it a major moment for the Canadian Premier League.
That matchup, in February 2022, was the first time a CPL club had participated in what was then called the Concacaf Champions League — the region’s top club competition. League history will again be made this coming February as for the first time two CPL sides will enter the competition, which has since been rebranded as the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup.
Forge will be joined by 2023 regular season winners Cavalry FC, who are making their first appearance in continental competition. It is an outstanding opportunity for both the individual clubs, the league, and its participating players to raise their profiles both within the region and internationally as well.
On Wednesday night, both clubs discovered their opponents for the first round of the 2024 tournament. Forge will be headed back to Mexico to face another regional giant, Chivas Guadalajara. Cavalry, meanwhile, will become the first CPL side to face an American MLS team as they face Orlando City SC.
For Forge, their biggest goal this past season was to return to the Concacaf Champions Cup. This was the first calendar year in club history in which they did not compete in continental football, having played in the 2019, 2020 and 2021 editions of the Concacaf League, with their semifinal finish in 2021 qualifying them for the 2022 Champions League and that aforementioned matchup with Cruz Azul. In total, Forge have played 18 matches in continental tournaments, pulling off some pretty stunning upsets along the way.
After missing out on an opportunity to qualify as Canadian Championship, or CPL regular season, winners, Forge ultimately booked their ticket to the competition by finishing second place in the CPL table, and having both themselves and Cavalry advance to the final. They won that final for good measure, though.
“Travelling into Central America, for those who haven’t done it, it’s fantastic,” said Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis ahead of the 2023 CPL Final. “To play in the different environments that you have, and the different challenges that brings — when you have a group that has lived it and felt it, they want to be there. They want to be there all the time.”
Playing against other top teams within the region has been a key factor in Forge’s domestic success, extending to everything from player recruitment to the sort of organization standard raising that has brought with it four CPL final victories in the league’s five seasons.
These are the sort of experiences that Cavalry are hoping to share in their first foray into international football. For a club that since its inception has made a goal of providing global opportunities for local players and coaches, they see qualifying for Concacaf as the next step in that evolution. Qualification for the Champions Cup was a key incentive in their goal of winning the 2023 CPL Shield as regular season champions, something they accomplished by a resounding 13 points.
“It’s a fantastic tournament, isn’t it?” Cavalry head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. recently told the Calgary Sun, regarding the Champions Cup. “It’s best against the best across the continent. We’re the league winners, and we’re facing other league and playoff and cup competition winners.”
For the players, especially young players, on both sides, this competition is a dream scenario to get to potentially match up against international stars and in some of the most celebrated venues in football. Many of the teams at this stage of the competition are full of players who represent their countries internationally and have impressive resumés both domestically and internationally.
The Concacaf Champions Cup is both a scale and a platform, a chance for players to measure themselves against the region’s best while proving they are capable of translating their abilities in the CPL to a higher level. For those with ambitions to move to a higher level, there is perhaps no better showcase.
“Perform well, you never know who’s watching,” said 22-year-old Cavalry FC defender Eryk Kobza recently.
The same goes for the respective coaching staffs, as they look to scout and tactically game plan for unfamiliar opponents, scenarios and venues. It means going head-to-head with some of the most brilliant tactical minds in the region.
The benefits of playing in a competition like this extend to all aspects of the clubs. In Forge’s case. it means facing a club with 117 years of history. Getting to match up against the other champions of the region is a reward for all of the hard work that these clubs have been putting in at every level.
“It validates all the work that you’ve put in on the field, off the field,” said Mason Trafford, Commercial and Marketing Director at Cavalry FC. “I think it is one of those things being a startup, for lack of a better word, both soccer and our club, our brand, every year gaining traction in our market, every year doing things to try to gain more of the market share to try to gain more attention on this club and on soccer, this is a little bit like an accelerant to that.”
From a marketing perspective, this competition is a dream for Trafford, a chance to tell the club’s story on a global scale. That doesn’t even include the crazy scenario where either Cavalry or Forge go on a Cinderella run and get to face Inter Miami, and one of the best football players of all time: eight-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, which would be a whole different level of transformational.
“Now we get to tell the story of the Champions Cup, look at these teams that are in this tournament,” said Trafford. “These are global brands. This is not only Canada, this is not only the U.S., this is all of North America, Central America. This is Lionel Messi potentially. I think just to be able to tell that story, in what I would call still a maturing market — that’s Canada, but especially in this case Calgary where you still are really trying to tell the story and get people to perk their ears up and go ‘Oh wow, this is what’s happening.’”
There is no question that both Forge and Cavalry will be heavy underdogs in their respective matchups. But the test ahead in the Concacaf Cup, and the trips to Orlando and Guadalajara, will be incredibly beneficial for both clubs’ long and short-term aspirations.