If Cavalry FC’s players hope to hoist the North Star Cup this year, they’re going to have to do it in Hamilton.
A week after lifting the Canadian Premier League Shield to cap off a memorable regular season last weekend, Calgary’s pro soccer club fell 2-1 to Forge FC at Spruce Meadows on Oct. 14.
It was yet another entertaining playoff match between two of the Canadian Premier League’s (CPL) most competitive clubs and bitter rivals.
The match-up pitted the CPL’s top two regular-season teams this year, with the playoff format meaning the winner would advance straight to the league’s championship game two weeks from now, while the loser would have to settle for a spot in the semi-final.
Forge’s win punched their ticket to the CPL’s playoff championship game on Oct. 28, which they will host at Tim Horton’s Field. On that afternoon, the “Hammers” will play the winner of the CPL’s semi-final, to be contested Oct. 21 between Cavalry and Pacific FC.
Pacific earned the semi-final’s other slot courtesy of their 1-0 win over HFX Wanderers, which also occurred on Saturday.
For Forge, this marks an impressive fifth consecutive trip to the CPL’s championship game. The Hamilton club has made it to the CPL’s title match every season since the league began in 2019, winning thrice and losing once.
“When you’re growing up, you want to play in massive games like this but the reality is that as a professional, playoff games and games for trophies don’t come around too often, so you have to cherish them,” said captain Kyle Bekker.
Head coach Bobby Smyrniotis echoed his captain’s comments, suggesting the Forge players’ continued hunger to win titles is the reason behind the club’s continued dominance of the CPL’s postseasons.
“I think there’s a massive will and desire in this club,” Smyrniotis said. “The toughest challenge as a coaching staff we’ve had, and as players at the start of the year, is to keep everyone hungry and motivated.
“It’s tough to keep going and keep players at the highest level. I think that’s what we’ve seen this year – a little bit of the ups and downs we’ve had in the season. But it’s go time. We know these ones are one-and-done.”
Despite a strong performance from Forge on Saturday, the Hamiltonians actually came into the playoffs on a mediocre run of form, winning just four of their last 10 games of the regular season – a stretch that saw them collect 13 points.
Cavalry, meanwhile, entered the match on the back of five straight wins and a nine-game unbeaten run.
The last time these two teams faced each other, Cavalry left the pitch 3-0 victors.
However, as they’ve proven year after year, Forge should never be counted out once the CPL playoffs get underway, and they managed to find another gear to overcome Cavalry on Saturday.
“We have a bunch of guys who have been on a lot of losing teams in their career,” Bekker said. “It’s difficult. When you have a chance to win and you’re a part of that, people feed off of it. You want more of it. Once you get a taste, you just want it to keep going. I’ve been on the other side many times, and this is just better.”
For Cavalry, the loss continues a frustrating and disappointing record in the CPL’s postseasons. Since 2019, the Calgary club has failed to win a single playoff game.
Though admittedly disappointed with the way Saturday turned out – particularly referencing Forge’s opening goal and his players’ response to that setback – head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. was quick to remind listeners that Cavalry are still in the running to challenge for the North Star Cup.
“We’ll lick our wounds and move onto next week,” he said. “[Today wasn’t] an elimination game. Would we want to play in the final and host it? Absolutely – that was our goal. We didn’t get it, so we have to recalibrate and adapt and overcome the scenario ahead of us.”
A game of fine margins
As is often the case when Forge and Cavalry play each other, Saturday’s game saw little separation between the two teams.
While Cavalry started on the front foot with plenty of threats up front, Forge made it 1-0 just before the half-hour mark, when a near-post corner kick from captain Kyle Bekker resulted in a Jesse Daley own goal. Cavalry goalkeeper Marco Carducci was able to get his gloves on Bekker’s cross, but the ball ricocheted off the back of the Australian midfielder’s head and into the hosts’ goal.
Forge doubled their lead shortly after the break, and it was once again Bekker who was involved. In the 50th minute, Forge’s midfield maestro scored his seventh career goal against Cavalry, finding the top-right corner of Carducci’s net with a one-timed shot from the top of the box after a pass inside from Noah Jensen.
Though they were down 2-0, Cavalry’s attacking impetus improved after Bekker’s goal, and they seemed the team more likely to find the net next. In the 58th minute, many fans around ATCO Field started to celebrate when they thought a free kick from Ali Musse nestled into Forge ‘keeper Triston Henry’s bottom-right corner. However, the ball had actually whistled just wide of the post, only hitting the side netting.
The hosts had another chance to score when Sergio Camargo smashed a shot off the underside of Triston Henry’s crossbar in the 70th minute.
Though mostly in defensive mode throughout the second half, Forge did have their own moments in Cavalry’s defensive third. Bekker scuffed a relatively easy chance to double his tally 72 minutes in, when his close-range shot was aimed directly at Carducci.
A few minutes later, Forge was denied a valid penalty kick shout when Beni Badibanga was brought down in the 18-yard box by Eryk Kobza.
Sensing a need to make some attacking changes, Wheeldon Jr. brought on substitute Joe Mason. The English striker made his impact shortly afterward, getting his head on a Musse corner kick and guiding the ball into Henry’s near post to put Cavalry on the board.
Down 2-1, Cavalry was suddenly back in the game. Smelling blood, their wingers pumped cross after cross into Forge’s penalty area in desperate search of an equalizer.
But these repeated balls into the box all came to nought, and the Hammers were able to hold on to secure the 2-1 win.
In the end, the result should not have been much of a surprise; in 25 matches between Forge and Cavalry since 2019, 23 of them have been decided by a single goal, according to the CPL.
“Everything comes down to margins,” Smyrniotis said. “Today the game was all about margins. There were two very good teams out there playing very good football. It was an exciting match. It gave a lot to everybody and keeps showing the growth of this league.”