Will Tuesday night’s Concacaf League round of 16 match be the toughest in Forge FC’s history? Possibly.
At the very least, the clash with Tauro FC in Panama will among the most important the club has seen, equalled only by last year’s tie at the same stage against C.D. Olimpia of Honduras, and the two CPL Finals appearances. If you thought last month’s clash with C.D. Municipal Limeño of El Salvador was intense, Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis suggested that this next one will be another level.
“This is a game where we’ve really got to be dialled in for 90 minutes, because it’s a very good opponent,” Smyrniotis told CanPL.ca on Monday. “It’s not that it would be more physical as in a physical match, I think they’re a more dynamic team. They’ve got players with more pace on the field, more power, so that brings a little bit of a different dynamic. But at the same time we’ve done our job in scouting them, over this year and being able to see a little bit of their past as well.”
Certainly, Forge’s win over Municipal Limeño was a battle; running through the humidity, Smyrniotis’ side had to contend with some very physical play from the Salvadorans. Tauro’s game plan will surely have similar aggressive elements, but it’s likely they’re more organized and tougher to break down as well.
Having watched as much game film as possible, Smyrniotis and his staff have put together a pretty clear picture on what Tauro might try, and how his side might counter it.
“There is a trend in where they leave spaces and how they do things,” Smyrniotis offered. “They’re a team that likes to close space in and around the ball very tightly, just trying to make space very small, which always means there’s space somewhere else. It’s up to us to be able to take advantage of that.”
He added: “One thing our guys do well, when we want a concrete game plan they’ve done a good job of executing it. That’s what we’ll need in this match tomorrow.”
Forge showed many times at The Island Games that they’re capable of entering a game with a unique, detailed plan, and pulling it off almost perfectly. They looked like a different team in each contest of the group stage, and they caught HFX Wanderers FC by surprise with a low block.
Sometimes, though, things don’t go to plan. In El Salvador, they had to field the curveball of Jonathan Grant’s red card in the second half of a tied game. They were forced to adjust on the fly.
Looking back at it, though, Smyrniotis said having seen his team play through all sorts of situations, he was comfortable allowing them to press forward with 10 men. Really, it was that decision that put Forge in this round of 16.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do is be in Central America and sit back and allow a team to attack us,” he said. “I thought if the guys were able to keep the ball in simple rotations, we’d create space for ourselves, they’d get a little bit more forward in certain areas.
“I thought we could cover the gaps where we needed, and we didn’t have to pull an extra player back into midfield. That’s why we kept Anthony Novak and Mo Babouli further up the field, and in the end it worked out very well.”
It’s by no means impossible that some unforeseen situation arises in Panama on Tuesday as well — another red card, an injury, an early goal. In knockout competitions, however, being able to roll with the punches is the mark of a good team.
Forge will have some reinforcements for the game against Tauro; winger Chris Nanco has made a surprising return to the squad from injury, and Kwame Awuah is back after serving a suspension in the first round. Unfortunately, they’ll be without Grant due to his own suspension, as well as Marcel Zajac, Klaidi Cela, and Gabriel Balbinotti due to injuries.
Still, the return of Nanco and Awuah could be a massive boost.
“I thought (Awuah) was one of our best players in the season this year,” Smyrniotis said. “His work on the left-back side was second to none, he was the top player in that position and he gives us a very different dynamic in how we can play going forward, but also his defensive responsibilities as well. … Chris is a player with a lot of quality, we all know that. He’s now coming off of a period where he hasn’t played games in a while, but he’s a player in the moments where he’s needed that I think can be very dangerous.”
So, the CPL champions won’t be daunted by the task at hand, despite the huge challenge that Tauro will pose. Ever since they left the Concacaf League in 2019, they’ve been desperate to go farther in 2020.
“Every time we’re able to do something we’re re-writing history a little bit,” Smyrniotis said. “Winning down in El Salvador in the last game, we’ve been the first Canadian Premier League team to win in Central America. Now it’s just a matter of upping what we do.”
It will by no means be easy on Tuesday, but Forge like their chances.