The HFX Wanderers FC game plan heading into Wednesday’s game against Forge FC was, essentially, exactly what Bobby Smyrniotis expected it to be. And yet, the sides left with a point apiece in a 1-1 draw from day one of this three-match group stage at The Island Games.
The Forge boss saw a Halifax side that set up in a tight low block, tried to pick off lanes centrally, and hoped to punish mistakes with a counter-attack. The problem for Forge, then, was that they played right into the Wanderers’ hands in the opening minutes of the game, gifting them two chances on the break after sloppy midfield giveaways.
The latter of the two hit the back of the net, with Golden Boot leader Akeem Garcia making it 1-0 for HFX.
“To be honest it’s what we expected them to do,” Smyrniotis agreed.
“There wasn’t much of a press, we just gave the ball up in midfield and they scored a goal. I think it was our doing to ourselves as opposed to something that the opponent did, and that fundamentally changes the way things work after there, that’s the third minute.”
Smyrniotis explained that, by virtue of scoring so early in the game, the Wanderers were able to sit even further back in their half, making life very difficult for the Forge attack. The goal happened to come, he said, from a midfield mistake, which is not something that’s characteristic of his side.
“It’s something that we do a million times every game, we play out of those situations without any problem against any type of press,” Smyrniotis said. “It’s one of those things, lightning strikes sometimes and it’s in the back of the net.”
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Pushing back a little on a question about Forge looking a little deflated after conceding, the coach pointed out that, anywhere in the world, it’ll take some of the wind out of a team’s sails to go down early and chase the game.
“Don’t let people fool you that coaches have a magic wand,” Smyrniotis said. “We try and move things around a little bit, but they have to come up with the solutions. And that point when you’re scored on in the third minute it’s only normal that for the next five, six minutes maybe you’re a little down on yourself, maybe you’re a little bit stunned.”
He added: “If you watch Barcelona I guarantee it takes the sting out of them for 10 minutes as well, After that, you have a team that sits in a very low block. Playing against a low block, doesn’t matter what level of the game, it’s tough.”
Forge came out of this contest much better off than the crisis that followed the last time Barça conceded in the first five minutes.
Forge fought their way back into this crucial group stage match. They had the upper hand in duels won in the second half after struggling there in the first, and they mustered nine shots in the latter 45 minutes (which is as many as HFX had over 90).
It was a stroke of fortune that actually tied the score, though: An, ahem, controversial penalty call for a perceived handball on HFX’s Jake Ruby sent Paolo Sabak to the spot for the equalizer.
Smyrniotis remained coy on the call itself.
“Sometimes the soccer gods smile for you,” he said. “That’s the one thing I will say, whatever happens in the negative comes back in the positive. Whatever happens in the positive, I guarantee you will come back in the negative.”
Onward to Pacific FC on Saturday, then, with the need for three points looming large for Forge.