Forge FC downs Costa Rica’s Santos to complete CONCACAF League comeback

Forge FC's Omar Browne (99) celebrates his goal against Costa Rica's Santos de Guapiles with teammates goalkeeper Triston Henry, left to right, Garven-Michee Metusala (23) and Kyle Bekker (10) during CONCACAF League quarterfinal action in Hamilton. (CP-Handout CONCACAF/Straffon Images/Brandon Taylor)

HAMILTON — Forge FC made history Tuesday and did so in style.

The Hamilton side dug itself out of a 3-1 first-leg deficit with a 3-0 win over Costa Rica’s Santos de Guapiles for a 4-3 aggregate victory in their Scotiabank CONCACAF League quarterfinal.

In doing so, Forge became the first Canadian Premier League side to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, the flagship club competition in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The CONCACAF League is a 22-team feeder tournament that sends six clubs to the Champions League — the four semifinalists along with the two best losing quarterfinalists.

On a chilly night before an announced crowd of 4,162 at Tim Hortons Field, Forge showed composure against a quality Costa Rican outfit. And it played some marvellous football, with wonder strikes from Omar Browne and Mo Babouli.

“Just fantastic,” said Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis, who built the two-time CPL champion side with his brother Costa, Forge’s director of football. “We talked about it before the game, it being the most important game that we’ve played as a club in our history and just how much it would mean to us.

“Not just qualifying for Champions League but moving on in this tournament. There’s a trophy in this tournament. We’re now in the semifinal and we keep on going.”

Forge will now play FC Motagua, which beat CD Marathon 2-0 Tuesday for a 4-0 aggregate victory in an all-Honduran quarterfinal.

Tuesday’s win was two years to the day that Forge won the inaugural CPL championship, defeating Cavalry FC 1-0 for a 2-0 aggregate victory and the North Star Shield trophy.

The victory also helped ease the pain of last week’s Canadian Championship semifinal loss to CF Montreal in an 11-round penalty shootout — part of a congested schedule. Tuesday’s game was Forge’s sixth in 18 days.

“The players are superheroes. They’re playing every three days, they’re going through emotional roller-coasters in different competitions,” said Smyrniotis. “And all the credit goes to them. They’ve been absolutely fantastic.

Forge came into the match in arrears after losing the opening leg 3-1 on Oct. 20. But the two spectacular strikes tied it on aggregate, with Forge holding the edge on the away-goals rule thanks to captain Kyle Bekker’s goal in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Josh Navarro’s 82nd-minute goal made the comeback complete.

Browne cut into the Santos’ aggregate lead in the 29th minute, scoring on a highlight-reel rocket from well outside the penalty box — a left-footed shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and slammed down into the goal.

Babouli played provider with a ball from the left flank which Emery Welshman let go through his legs to get to Browne. The Panamanian forward then hammered it home.

Babouli tied the game on aggregate in the 65th minute with another spectacular strike. He volleyed home a Browne cross that bypassed a half-dozen Santos defenders.

“What we saw today, that’s the vision I have for this team,” said Smyrniotis.

“They’re playing football that entertains … Of course we want to win, we want that to be a byproduct. But that’s Forge football today,” he added.

Navarro, a Costa Rican midfielder, added the insurance goal from in-close after Welshman fought off defender Pablo Arboine at the by-line to deliver a cross.

“It’s a surreal feeling,” Welshman said of the win.

“What a moment. What a special moment. Not just for this club but for Canadian football …. This is a big moment. We’ve done it and we’ve done it the hard way.”

The accomplishment drew applause from Canada coach John Herdman.

“What a great night for football in Canada and the city of Hamilton, massive result … Congrats Forge FC,” Herdman tweeted.

Forge improved its record in the competition to 7-4-3, with all but four of those games played on the road with the club sacrificing some home games during the pandemic. Forge is 3-0-1 at home in CONCACAF League play.

Forge came close to qualifying for the Champions League last year, losing 1-0 to CD Marathon in a play-in match after going down in a penalty shootout against Haiti’s Arcahaie FC in the CONCACAF League quarterfinal. A win in either match would have qualified them.

Forge (14-8-2) is currently second to Pacific FC (13-8-6) in the CPL standings. Santos (8-5-6) is third in Liga FPD, the Costa Rican top league.

While Forge and the CPL are only in their third season, Forge players have history.

Seventeen current members of the squad were part of the Sigma FC program based out of Mississauga, Ont., which the Smyrniotis brothers ran before building the CPL franchise from the ground up.

The temperature was five degrees Celsius at kickoff Tuesday with Forge looking bright from the get-go. It had 68 per cent of the possession in the first half as well as a 6-1 edge in both shots and corners.

Santos forward Brayan Lopez was taken off the field on a stretcher in the 41st minute after he was taken down by Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, who was booked for the challenge.

Once removed from the field, Lopez needed help as he limped to the locker room.

Santos showed more life to start the second half but could not stage a comeback of its own.

On Wednesday, Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa takes a 4-3 lead into the second leg of its quarterfinal at Guatemala’s Comunicaciones FC.

Guatemala’s Club Deportivo Guastatoya has already advanced to the semifinals after Suriname’s Inter Moengotapoe and Honduras’ CD Olimpia were booted from the competition midway through their round-of-16 tie for what CONCACAF called “serious breaches of integrity rules.”

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