How to beat HFX Wanderers FC is the big question facing Forge FC at the moment.
A victory over HFX is the only thing standing between Forge and back-to-back league titles, as the sides meet in the 2020 CPL Final on Saturday (2 p.m. ET/3 p.m. AT, OneSoccer and CBC).
Cavalry FC was the lone outfit to beat the Wanderers in round one at The Island Games. Pacific FC, meanwhile, earned a second-stage win over the Wanderers earlier this week, albeit under unusual circumstances.
HFX have been tough to break down this season, as they boasted one of the league’s best defensive records before that loss to Pacific. The CPL’s inaugural “wooden spoon” winners with a 6-10-12 record in 2019, Stephen Hart’s team looks a completely different side in PEI. With only six returning players, the club successfully turned a page on the pitch in Charlottetown.
The roster turnover made it hard for pundits and CPL coaches aliketo predict their future at the start of The Island Games. But, after ten matches, we have a much clearer picture of who HFX is.
The Wanderers enter the biggest game in club history after one of their biggest losses. Hart’s side limp into their first CPL Final following a 5-0 loss to Pacific FC on Tuesday.
Hart fielded a weakened side, but can you blame him? The Wanderers had already clinched a spot in the CPL Final and were playing a dead-rubber match. Of course, you’d want to rest your top players.
This raises questions how the Wanderers will react to such a significant defeat. Will heads drop? Did they lose momentum and confidence? Forge should poke and prod the Wanderers early on, and prey on any uneasiness from HFX by not letting their opponents find their groove again.
Play quickly to get out of the press
Interestingly, the best team in the CPL to play out of the press is taking on the most successful pressing team.
The Wanderers have slowly improved their pressing game at The Island Games. Akeem Garcia and João Morelli have routinely won the ball high up the pitch and combined for an incredible 10 goals, including the opener against Forge in the second round. They’ve done this while being backed up by arguably the CPL’s best all-around midfield, led by Andre Rampersad and Abou Sissoko.
For Forge, being clean in possession won’t be enough – they’ll need to bypass HFX’s first two lines of defence altogether with a quick transition game and get the ball to their attackers without slowing down.
Forge’s snappy passing play is quite effective this way – their second-round win over Cavalry is a recent example, with a moment of magic from Kyle Bekker leading to Mo Babouli’s match-winner.
The Wanderers’ press could likely come with a high line, with fullbacks Chrisnovic N’sa and Mateo Restrepo pushing forward. It’s something Cavalry took full advantage of in their first-round win over the Wanderers. Take a look at how Jordan Brown’s second-half goal came about – a speedy José Hernández gets the ball deep in the final third with a long ball over the top.
The good news for Forge is they have a player who can exploit this space: fullback Johnny Grant.
In one of the best tactical moves of The Island Games, Smyrniotis has installed Grant as a winger, which means he’s played further up where his bombing pace, direct runs, and physicality can do serious damage.
Grant’s first appearance up top vs. Pacific FC was a smashing success. Smyrniotis instructed the 26-year-old to get in-behind an advanced Kadin Chung, exploiting space required to support winger Marco Bustos. Grant earned a penalty that way, forcing Chung on the back foot..
Watch for Grant to wreak havoc as a starter or off the bench.