On the eve of the 2020 CPL Final, Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis confidently stated to reporters “give me a path for how I can win a championship and I’ll figure out how to get there.”
Smyrniotis certainly lived up to those words on Saturday, with Forge successfully retaining its 2019 championship by defeating the Cinderella team of the Island Games, HFX Wanderers, 2-0 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
The victory also clinches a spot for Forge in the 2020 Canadian Championship final against Toronto FC, with a date to be determined later.
Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s CPL final.
Forge take a page out of HFX’s book
HFX, who finished bottom of the overall table last season, was one of the most improved teams at the Island Games. Half of the Wanderers’ starting 11 was made up by new signings, including former Vancouver Whitecaps trialist Aboubacar Sissoko and Joao Morelli, who was involved in five goals at the tournament. Backed with a strong pressing game with one of the best midfields in the league and a sturdy defence, they were deserving finalists.
Unfortunately for HFX, Forge showed off its own defensive solidity on Saturday. Despite the Wanderers winning the possession battle, it only translated to six shots and they struggled to play through the compact blocks of the Hamiltonians in the centre of the pitch.
This was HFX’s calling card for most of the tournament. Entering the final, only Valour (8.56) conceded a lower expected goals total at the tournament than HFX’s (8.95), who had played three more games. The Wanderers also conceded just 89 shots in 10 matches before Saturday.
This was largely done by ceding possession, staying compact defensively while also pressing the opponent high up the pitch to force mistakes that led to goals.
On Saturday, Forge replicated the former two tactics. HFX won the possession battle for the first time all tournament, including the first two meetings between these finalists. In fact, HFX actually forced a few giveaways thanks to the high press.
Forge clearly didn’t want to take that chance for a third time. It was obvious how deep they were sitting compared to the first two games against HFX.
Golden Boot winner Akeem Garcia only registered one shot. Creative spark Joao Morelli didn’t have much luck, either. As far as Forge was concerned, it was a job well done at the back.
Then, as expected before the game, Forge capitalized on a set piece to open the scoring through Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson.
It was a slightly different strategy to HFX’s during the tournament, but it paid off for Forge at the most crucial moment of the year.
Consolations for HFX Wanderers despite defeat
Obviously going from bottom of the overall table to finalist within a year is a massive turnaround for HFX Wanderers. That’s why they deserve praise for the turnaround.
There are massive caveats considering some players will surely garner interest from other leagues but Stephen Hart’s side have some quality assets.
Garcia is chief among them after his league-leading six goals. Morelli enjoyed a strong debut campaign in the CPL as well with four goals and an assist to his name.
But HFX can feel confident knowing they have a strong centre-back partnership in Peter Schaale and Jems Geffrard. Despite the loss, both were immense at the back on Saturday. Schaale and Geffrard combined for three tackles and 12 clearances, most which were committed against Forge striker Mo Babouli, who was lively throughout.
Right-back Chrisnovic N’Sa, who was nominated for the CPL’s U-21 Player of the Year award, was one of the most under-the-radar performers at the tournament. Most of Forge’s buildup was targeted on his side, yet he ended up finishing the final with four tackles and won nine of his 15 duels.
The midfield, led by captain Andre Rampersad, has been brilliant in every game. However, there is a chance one midfielder will be leaving the club.
Aboubacar Sissoko, on trial with the Vancouver Whitecaps before the 2020 campaign, impressed the coaching staff while he was training with the team. Having not played fully professional soccer before joining HFX, it might’ve been too early for the Whitecaps to commit to Sissoko. But they’ll surely be willing to do so after his performances at the Island Games.
Even if players depart, Hart has proven that he can rebuild the roster quickly. Either way, HFX will be a contender in 2021 if most of this group remains.
What’s next for the CPL?
The 2020 Island Games have to be considered a rousing success. CPL personnel didn’t test positive for COVID-19 in the Charlottetown bubble, there was a new finalist and there was drama from beginning to end.
Now the question that every league faces with the conclusions to their 2020 season has to be asked about the CPL.
CPL commissioner Dave Clanachan says the league is preparing for the 2021 season, with the hope of starting in April as usual. Clanachan is also hoping to have fans in attendance.
There is clearly no way to predict the future during a pandemic. But with more leagues around the world welcoming back fans, if Canada is in a situation where all league and club personnel along with the supporters are in safe environments, then there should be some sense of normalcy returning to the CPL for 2021.