The streets were quiet as I approached Tim Horton’s Field. Kick Off was still two hours away. There was a quiet sense of calm around the stadium as the First Leg of the Inaugural Canadian Premier League final inched closer.
The final, being contested by Forge FC and Cavalry FC was truly a battle of the titans. It could not be argued at this stage of the season that the league was represented by the two best squads. Cavalry finished first in both seasons, and Forge close behind both times. Looking at the combined records over both the Spring and Fall seasons, Cavalry finished with a 19-5-4 record, good for 62 points while Forge were 17-5-6, totaling 56 points. To put that into perspective, the next closest points total was York 9’s 32 points.
While Cavalry narrowly came out on top in the Fall season, (finishing only one point ahead of Forge), and had the benefit of an extremely dominant run to open the Spring, the Finals were sure to be anyone’s game. It could be argued that Cavalry had the slight upper hand coming into the tilt, with a strong core of players who won the PDL Championship with the Foothills in 2018.
In terms of the head to head between the teams this season: The match up was almost too close to call. The first time the clubs met, in May, Cavalry snuck out a 2-1 goal at the death at Tim Horton’s Field. They didn’t see each other again until the Canadian Championships in June where Cavalry came out on top, again 2-1 at home after taking a 1-1 draw back to Calgary. A week after that result, Forge finally got their revenge with a 1-0 win at Spruce Meadows.
Late in August Forge took another 1-0 win. Then early in October with the October 26th Final looming in the distance, the two teams split their decisions. Again a 2-1 win for Cavalry and a 1-0 win for Forge. All three of Cavalry’s wins were 2-1, all three of Forge’s wins were 1-0. Throw in a 1-1 draw and you can see just how close the match up between the sides really was this season.
Cavalry started just about as strong a line-up as they could, sporting a 4-5-1 formation. Lead by centre forward Dominique Malonga, (who going into the match was one goal behind Forge attacker Tristan Borges for the Golden Boot at 11). Malonga was flanked on the wings by Nico Pasquotti and Jose Escalante who both proved to be two of the most dangerous wide players in the league this season.
Oliver Minatel, slotted in just behind Malonga in a CAM position, sitting just above captain Nik Ledgerwood and Julien Buscher. The interesting thing to note was that former TFC Academy grad Sergio Carmargo was left on the bench at the expense of this stacked midfield. The back four was filled out by the big four of Mavila, Zator, Waterman and Trafford. Marco Carducci, who became the first CPL player to get a National Team Call up earlier in the summer, was guarding the goal.
For the home team, Forge stuck with the formation that has made them so dominant with that 4-3-3. The attacking line saw Chris Nanco, Tristan Borges, and Antony Novak. Three of the most dangerous attackers in the league. Novak was one of the surprises this season after making the squad out of League One Onatario’s Oakville Blue Devil’s set up. He came in and put six goals away in the league and provided a steady option in the centre (especially after the loss of attacker Emery Welshman, who left for Israel part way through the year).
Captain Kyle Bekker, was joined in the middle three by Achinioti-Jönsson and Cisse, who all proved dominant throughout the year. Veteran defender David Edgar, who joined the team part way through the season, had Daniel Krutzen beside him. Kwame Awuah, who can play a plethora of positions, including centre mid, was pushed back to left wing back, which was likely to deal with Pasquotti’s pace. Giuliano Frano on the other side of the pitch was tasked with keeping an eye on the ever dangerous Escalante.
In goal was Triston Henry, who got the lion’s share of minutes between the sticks this year. Before the start of the season, many thought Quillian Roberts would be the de facto starter, but Henry took his early opportunity and ran with it, putting on a quite solid performance over the course of the season.
Questions swirled in the moments before kick off. Would Cavalry, who play a much more direct style, attempt to ply early pressure on Forge? Or would they be content to absorb early attacks from the home side before picking out their moments to strike? Forge, known for their technical ability, would likely be aiming to have the lion’s share of possession. As it turned out, they were to have that.
— Jon Peckitt (@CrazyCanuckJr) October 26, 2019
The supporters section filled in (part of an announced crowd of 10,486), and made their voices heard right from the fireworks of kick off. The game got off to a good pace, with both teams looking for the early break through. They traded a couple half chances as well as a couple hard tackles in the first 10 minutes with neither team really creating anything too scary. In the 12th minute Bekker did his best Borges impression and almost hooked a corner kick into the back post for, what would have been, a spectacular goal.
The pace continued, and after a couple more hard tackles from Cavalry, the first yellow card was shown in the 24th to Minatel who came through and gave Achinioti-Jonsson a good stomp. The physical play continued with several more close calls going both ways.
As half time approached it became clear that Cavalry was indeed happy to let Forge have the ball and begin their build up, waiting more for opportunities to hit them on the counter rather than face any turnover too high up this pitch.
The best chance of the half came at the 35th minute when after a scramble in the box the ball dropped to Bekker’s foot. His blast slammed off the crossbar and floated up helplessly out of play.
Borges was also one of the key performers in the first half. Calm and composed with the ball, he was rewarded in the 37th minute when he forced a penalty after some fancy footwork after being put in on goal. Joel Waterman came sliding in and the ball stuck his outstretched arm. After a quick discussion with the players the referee handed out a straight red to Waterman, who was given his marching orders.
Of course there would be no shortage of drama with Carducci coming up big on the penalty shot. Borges chose right but so did Carducci who stayed with it and produced a fantastic leg save to keep the scores tied. But there was definitely a feeling of a momentum shift with the home side now having a man advantage.
The next great chance came in the 43rd when Bekker was taken down just out side the 18 yard box. Krutzen, surprisingly, took it rather than Bekker, and again the crossbar was the only thing stopping Forge from taking the lead. A fantastic shot from the centre-back, who Smyrniotis called “the best left sided centre back in the league” in his post match comments.
With only one minute of stoppage time announced there was still enough time for Forge to break through. A play that started with fantastic footwork by Nanco along the sidelines, and a burst of speed to get away, he centred it for Borges at the top of the box who made no mistake, blasting his shot into the far inside netting.
— CanPL (@CPLsoccer) October 27, 2019
In all, the first half proved to be a quite an exciting affair. A red card, a penalty save, and a wonderfully cured strike from the league’s leading goal scorer. Add in a handful of physical challenges and you have a final that saw Forge with a significant advantage at the 25% mark.
With still a half to play Cavalry had to have been hoping to get back on the flight home with just the one goal deficit. Forge exuded confidence throughout the first half and it seemed only a matter of time before they broke through again.
The second half began much like the first ended with Cavalry under the gun of Forge’s pressure. Cavalry survived a barrage of attacks through the first 10 minutes, including several corners and low crosses in towards Novak who was lurking in the middle. In the 56th minute we saw Carducci make another world class save, this time on Nanco, after a corner drifted back to the top the box, the rebound then went off the cross bar (yet again) when centre back David Edgar got a piece of the rebound.
Like a shark that can smell the blood in the water, Forge were playing with a confidence we haven’t seen yet between these two.
At the hour mark Cavalry opted to removed Malonga from the match in favour of Jordan Brown. Malonga would be disappointed to have only had one shot up to then, which wasn’t even on target. Brown would be looking to add a bit more pace as the lone striker with little support.
The drama continued in the 68th minute where the ref went to his back pocket for the second time in the match.
After yet another hard tackle in the midfield, Jay Wheeldon got tangled up with, and ended up on top of, Borges, who kicked out at him as he lay underneath. After the scrum began to clear the ref showed Borges red and with that Forge lost their best striker (and goal scorer) for the second leg. Subject to the now announced appeal.
Unbelievable scenes here at Tim Hortons Field. @tristandborges is shown a red after getting tackled by Jay Wheeldon. He will miss the Second Leg.
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 26, 2019
When asked on what he had been told about the call, Smyrniotis was careful with his words. “No word. No word from anyone. From that aspect I can’t really comment on it”.
The playing field was now level again in terms of players and Cavalry suddenly got a lift.
It was surprising to see Cavalry wait until the 85th minute to bring in Carmargo, who has been an impact player this season with them. Wheeldon Jr spoke to this in the post game press conference.
“[It was] purely tactical,” Wheeldon revealed. “We knew that there’s periods in the game where Forge tire, and we wanted the electricity of Jordan and Sergio to come in. I brought them in later than I would have liked but sometimes the curveballs make you change the plan a little bit.”
With no more goals, Forge now take the narrowest of leads into the second leg next weekend and after being under the cosh for so much of the match, Wheeldon is heading into the return in confident mood.
“Sometimes football throws you curveballs,” Wheeldon mused postgame. “We have a saying around our club, ‘adapt and overcome’. It wasn’t the best scenario to be in, but we are still in the tie. We can take that back to Spruce Meadows and get that rocking. Disappointed to lose, but we know we have a chance at home.”
While disappointed the Cavs were unable to secure a helpful away goal, a one goal swing is within reason, especially with Forge missing top scorer Borges.
Forge manager Smyrniotis also exhibited positivity given the 1-0 win.
“There were a few things we wanted out of this game,” Smyrniotis said after the game. “We wanted a positive performance, and I think that’s important. You obviously want to come out of this thing with a win. The third thing is the clean sheet. I think that keeps things pretty straight forward going into a second match.
“And listen there is a match to be played next Saturday that will be just as intense as this one, but we’ve put ourselves in a good spot going forward.”
When asked if there was any disappointment on not being able to put a few more goals to add to the lead, when they had so many opportunities, Smyrniotis was nonplussed.
“We obviously had the chances,” he readily admitted. “Listen, I think our performance was excellent today. We were on the front foot. We played Forge football. It’s what we want to show when we play. Our crowd was fantastic, they pushed the guys and the environment was great. So yeah, we wanted a little bit more, but we are also happy with where we are.”
The Second Leg is sure to be a thrilling end to the season. Forge has the advantage, but Cavalry at home is sure to feel just as confident they can swing the tie. Forge, while likely missing Borges, still have the most potent attack in the league and will surely create chances.
It should be a cracker.