Forge FC get their 2020 CONCACAF League campaign underway in El Salvador on Thursday evening, taking on CD Municipal Limeno in a Preliminary Round match at the historic Estadio Cuscatlan, the country’s national stadium.
This will be Forge’s second foray in the tournament, having acquitted themselves very well last year in beating Guatemala’s Antigua GFC 2-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round before losing 4-2 on aggregate to storied Honduras side Olimpia in the round of 16.
Last year was a whole new experience for most involved with the Hamilton side, with all the issues that playing club football in the region can manifest. Forge learned a lot from it, gaining a lot of experience along the way, and are ready for whatever this season’s competition may throw at them.
“We had a very good first experience as a league club in the CONCACAF region last year,” Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis told reporters on Wednesday’s pregame zoom call. “I think the biggest thing last year for our players in most of the matches we played, we had nine players without any experience playing in CONCACAF, whether with the national team or anything like that.
“We had quite a few guys that this was their first foray into it. Even us as a coaching staff for the first time in this region playing these games against the teams that come against us. That was the biggest thing we take away from it. It’s not something new in 2020 for us. It’s something that we’ve done and we done it in a very challenging way in 2019.
“Now we get rid of all that because for everyone now the experience is there, the ability to come down into the CONCACAF region and play and then host games back at Tim Horton’s Field. We’ve created that little bit of momentum that we were able to do in our first year, so the biggest thing is this isn’t new any more. This is something that we want to be regular in our club. We’re doing it for the second year in a row this year, and winning the championship in the CPL this year, we’ll be doing it again in 2021.”
That experience will certainly help Forge in their quest for success on the international stage, but this is a different world now with coronavirus testing, no fans in attendance, and a whole uncertainty as to whether this competition would even get underway, never mind finish.
There’s been some problems along the way. Tuesday’s Preliminary Round match between Haiti’s Arcahaie FC and Belize side Verdes FC was called off on the day after four players and four staff members from Verdes tested positive for Covid-19. There were also positive tests elsewhere, but not enough to force postponements.
But Forge look good to go tonight. The team left on Tuesday, flying into San Salvador via Mexico City, and training at the stadium for the first time on Wednesday. The team has undergone all the necessary tests and Smyrniotis feels that all the protocols in place are very good. They won’t be using any of that as an excuse and are just itching to get back into action on the pitch.
“We’re one month removed from our last game, which was the final of the Canadian Premier League and the championship we had there, which was an ultimate high for the season,” Smyrniotis noted. “I think the guys are in good spirits. “They know the importance of this event. They know the importance of it for our club and for our city.
“At the same time we’ve had the troubles maybe that a lot of people have had in preparing for any event. The tough ability to get matches in this time period, running matches is the biggest [issue]. But apart from that there’s no excuses. It’s something we were used to before the Canadian Premier League kicked off this year in our bubble scenario. It’s something that we’ve done, we’ve conquered, and we’re looking forward to doing the same thing here.”
It will be 33 days since Forge were last in action, clinching their second-straight CPL championship with a 2-0 win over HFX Wanderers in PEI. Their opponents have two matches under their belts this month in the Salvadoran Primera Division, losing their season opener 2-1 at Aguila and then drawing 0-0 at home to LA Firpo last Saturday.
We’ll soon see how much rust, if any, there is amongst the Forge team and whether fresh legs or game-played bodies have the advantage. For Kyle Bekker, it is what it is, so there’s not any point in getting hung up on it.
“Obviously it’s not ideal, but it makes it a lot easier when you come away with some success and you win the league, as we did,” Bekker told us. “It puts a little peace of mind in the back of guys’ heads and lets them know we’re doing the right thing. We just have to shut it down and wrap it up and trust our coaching staff.
“They do a fantastic job keeping us tuned in, keeping sharp in terms of what we’re doing, and managing our load, and really wrapping everything up for this game. It is what it is in a year like this and when you’re playing the professional game, you just got to get on with it. This is our job now and it’s our responsibility to be ready for these games whenever they come around.”
A win for Forge tonight will move them through into the Round of 16 to take on Panamanian side Tauro FC on November 3rd. You can watch tonight’s match live on TSN. Kick off is 5pm PT.