DEBATE: Who's the best team in Canadian Premier League history (so far)?
The Canadian Premier League recently celebrated the end of its fifth season, as Forge FC of Hamilton, ON defeated Cavalry FC of Calgary, AB in the 2023 Finals to claim their fourth playoff title.
As a result, Forge FC also cemented their status as the league's first "dynasty" as the most dominant team in its five-year history, something that a Cavalry win could have very well challenge. Yet, while Forge have undoubtedly been the league’s top team – having claimed five trophies over that span to second-placed Cavalry's two – there have been some other solid contenders for best overall team along the way, too.
There's a difference between the team that wins the trophy and the strongest team overall. While silverware secures the glory, sometimes vastly better teams can falter when it counts most. Those uncemented legacies are then left to crumble over the course of time, but with the CPL coming into its fifth season, those memories are still fresh enough to reflect upon
With all that in mind, which individual team's single-season form and performances could be called *the best* in CPL history?
Cavalry FC, 2019
There’s no better place to start than back in the league’s first season, all the way back in 2019.
Back then, two teams stood out: Cavalry and Forge. It was fitting that both teams met in the inaugural 2019 CPL FINALS that year, with Forge defeating Cavalry 2-0 on aggregate across two legs to claim the very (forever) first North Star Shield – now known as the North Star Cup.
But while that fruitless end put a damper on things for Cavalry, it doesn't take away from their overall season dominance, which remains one of the best in CPL history. Coming into 2019 with a standout team of key figures like José Escalante, Nico Pasquotti, Marco Carducci, Julian Büscher, Joel Waterman, Nik Ledgerwood, Mason Trafford and Dominique Malonga, among others, and guided by their architect and 2019 Coach of the Year Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Cavalry dominated the regular season, which was then contested between Spring and Fall halves.
To date, the 62 points Cavalry accumulated across those 28 games remains a league record, as is their 19 wins, 51 goals scored and 19 goals conceded (as well as their whopping +32 goal difference). Simply put, Cavalry FC cruised their way relatively unchallenged to what would now be retroactively considered the first CPL Shield regular season title.
But that wasn't even their most memorable moment of 2019: No, in the VERY FIRST SEASON of the CPL's existence, Cavalry FC also orchestrated the first-ever victory over a Major League Soccer opponent, defeating the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2019 Canadian Championship 2-1 at BC Place (and, therefore, on aggregate) to earn a spot in the semi-finals of the Battle of the North.
Putting up the most dominant regular season to date PLUS giant-slaying in the Canadian Championship as good a set of reasons as any to consider the 2019 Cavalry FC team among the league's vintage best... but was it all too early to really count? We'll let others debate that point!
Halifax Wanderers, 2020
Of all the teams on this list, the 2020 Halifax Wanderers offer the smallest sample sizes as a team, but boy did they ever make the most of their short time together.
Thanks to the unique nature of the 2020 season, altered heavily due to the ongoing pandemic, Halifax emerged as a title contender during "The Island Games" – a shortened bubble tournament held on Prince Edward Island. There, each team played the other at least once for a total of seven games, before the top four split off into a second group stage, with the top two teams remaining contesting the final.
And while Forge won the North Star Shield in the final, there was a lot to remember at the tournament, from Forge and Cavalry’s memorable game in the group stages, to bangers from the likes of Malcolm Shaw, Manny Aparicio and Mo Babouli, Marco Bustos’s heater and the “streets will never forget” run from Fransisco Acuña.
The other big story, however? The way the Wanderers came together for this tournament, advancing through the first stage in second place with a record of 3W-3D-1L, before etching through the second round with a big draw against Forge and a win over Cavalry.
Unfortunately, they came up short in the final, but they still had lots to proud of, such as Akeem Garcia winning the Golden Boot with six goals, João Morelli impressing and scoring four goals (setting the foundation for an MVP campaign in 2021), along with breakout performances from the likes of Aboubacar Sissoko, Cory Bent, Chrisnovic N’Sa and more, as they were quite the deep outfit.
This was also the season that saw Halifax head coach Stephen Hart truly flex his experience and tournament know-how, earning a Coach of the Year nod for his tactical acumen in this constant do-or-die environment. Given that the rest of Hart's tenure with Halifax was otherwise filled with more lows than highs, this 2020 Halifax team stood out as a glimpse of what Halifax could have looked like at their very best, something they clung onto until Patrice Gheisar brought about fresh hope in 2023.
Still, one must ask: Was this too small a sample size to truly contend for the label of CPL's best team, ever?
Pacific FC, 2021
In terms of star power, it’s hard to think of many teams that can top Pacific’s 2021 side.
From those who were eventually able to make a jump up to higher levels, such as Lukas MacNaughton, Kadin Chung, Marco Bustos and Alejandro Díaz, to those who have stuck around in the CPL such as Terran Campbell, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Ollie Bassett, Gianni Dos Santos, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Callum Irving, Manny Aparicio, Sean Young, Josh Heard, Matthew Baldisimo, Kunle Dada-Luke and Abdou Samaké, this may have been the deepest and most talented CPL outfit to exist, by a good margin.
Along with head coach Pa Modou Kah, and then-assistant James Merriman (who remains head coach of the team now), even the staff had some impressive star power, just giving an idea of how deep this team was.
Because of that, it’s perhaps less surprising that they were able to usurp Forge at the end of the 2021 campaign, as it was a fitting end to a campaign to remember for Pacific.
From a strong regular season performance, that saw them finish third with 45 points, just five points off first (with their +13 goal difference only second to Forge’s +15), to a Canadian Championship run that saw them make it to the semi-finals before narrowly falling to Toronto FC, having beat the Whitecaps in a memorable first-ever “Ferryside Derby” along the way, there was a lot for Pacific to be proud of in this season.
In particular, their offence was their biggest calling card - their 47 regular season goals remain the second-best ever output for a team, and they proved their ability to score all year long, such as in their 4-3 thriller against the Whitecaps in that Ferryside clash.
Really, the lone blemish on this team is that they didn’t win the regular season title, as it feels like if they did that, this would’ve been a no-brainer choice for best single-season for a CPL team, instead of remaining a debatable one (although this is still a favourite in that discussion).
Forge FC, 2021
But while Pacific finished the year by stealing the headlines in the CPL Final, don’t take anything away from Forge, who may have put up their best-ever season that year, as well.
Ironic, given that it’s the only season in which they haven’t won a playoff title, they did everything but win that, to their credit. And that’s no exaggeration.
In the regular season, they claimed their only regular-season crown to date, beating out Cavalry on goal difference to win the title with 50 points, scoring an impressive 39 goals and only conceding 24, finishing with an impressive +15 goal difference.
Then, in the playoffs, they first defeated York 3-1, and only fell 1-0 to Pacific, so it’s not as if they underperformed massively there, either.
And that’s without considering the biggest factor that probably cost them a title that year - the fact that they went on two deep cup runs.
First, there was the Canadian Championship, where they made it to the semi-finals, narrowly missing out on the final on penalties to CF Montréal (and it came down to the 11th shooter, as well!).
Then, more importantly, was Concacaf League, where Forge made the semi-finals of that competition, where they were eliminated on away goals after tying Motagua 2-2, which while bittersweet given how close they were to winning the tournament, was enough to get them to the 2022 Concacaf Champions Cup, becoming the first CPL team to do that.
Unfortunately, that Concacaf run took a lot out of Forge, which along with an already congested CPL schedule and their Canadian Championship heroics, saw them run out of gas by the CPL Final, which was their 40th game in a span of approximately five months.
Because of that, one can only wonder what this deep Forge team could’ve done with a less congested schedule, as they could’ve very well won the CPL regular season, CPL playoffs, Concacaf League and Canadian Championship if all went well for them.
Certainly, Bobby Smyrniotis may be wondering about that what-if, that’s for sure, yet he and his side can be very proud that they were even in that discussion, let alone close to making it a reality.
From a pair of MVP winners in Tristan Borges and Kyle Bekker, to Triston Henry in goal, Kwame Awuah, Daniel Krutzen, Maxim Tissot and more at the back, and players like Elimane Cissé, Woobens Pacius, David Choinière, Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson and more across the roster, this was a team to remember for a reason.
Atlético Ottawa, 2022
As far as single-season turnarounds go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better than Atlético Ottawa’s 2022 campaign, as after finishing in last place with just 26 points in 2021, they won the regular season with 49 points in 2022, a remarkable 23 points increase.
Thanks to the arrival of new head coach Carlos González and several new recruits, however, they were able to turn their ship around, becoming a title contender.
To do that, however, González focused on one key area in particular - the team’s defence, which had conceded a league-high 47 goals in 2021.
Given that they were able to shave that down to 29, that was the big difference for them, as they actually only scored six more goals than they did, as their defence was a big reason for their turnaround, led by the likes of new goalkeeper Nathan Ingham and defenders such as Diego Espejo, Miguel Acosta, Maxim Tissot and more.
Along with some key difference makers up front, mainly Ballou Tabla, as well as Player Of The Year and Player’s Player of the Year double-winner Ollie Bassett, who may be the best duo of new signings in a team’s history, that allowed them to be dangerous in the attack, too, as they could keep games tight before Tabla or Bassett broke things open.
Unfortunately, Ottawa ran out of magic in the playoffs, as after defeating defending playoff champions Pacific 3-1 on aggregate, they fell 2-0 at home to Forge in the CPL Final, but that still can’t take away from what was a season to remember in the nation’s capital.
Forge FC, 2022
Of their four playoff-winning outfits, the 2022 Forge team might be the best of them all.
They might not have the novelty of the 2019 team (Forever First, as they’re known), the resume of the 2021 team, or the depth of the 2023 outfit, but this 2022 team was quietly dominant.
For example, despite finishing second to Ottawa in the regular season with 47 points, just two points off first, they had an impressive +22 goal differential, the second-best number in league history.
Yet, having scored 47 goals and only conceded 25, they were a true force at both ends, putting up one of the most dominant seasons in terms of actual goals for and against, as well as expected goals for and against.
The only reason they struggled, however, is that they had to start the year earlier than everyone else, as their season began in February instead of April as they had to play in the Concacaf Champions Cup, the first CPL team to do so.
They showed well there, too - they fell 4-1 on aggregate to Mexican giants Cruz Azul, but were competitive, even scoring at the famed Estadio Azteca in the away leg.
Then, despite having to deal with the strange nature of having nearly two months before their next game, they were able to stay in form, using their Champions Cup experience to good effect as the season went long.
Plus, they were able to do all of this while overcoming a whole host of injuries, too - midfield standout Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson even had to slot back in at centre back to help out with their defensive injuries, for example (and he did so well that he won the Defender of the Year for his troubles).
So all things considered, it’s hardly surprising that Forge dispatched Ottawa as easily as they did in the final, as it felt like if they were healthy all year long, they could’ve very well pushed for the double, given how deep of an outfit that Smyrniotis put together.
Cavalry FC, 2023
While Cavalry’s 2019 outfit beats any other team in terms of the raw numbers such as wins, goals for, goals against, etc., it can be argued that their 2023 team may have been even better.
Given that this year’s team finished with 16 wins (tied for third-best in CPL history), 55 points (also third-best), and a +19 goal differential (tied for second-best), that’s pretty impressive.
Seeing that this was arguably the most competitive season in CPL history, it makes all of that all the more impressive, too, especially when you factor in that Cavalry was still able to win the regular season title by 13 points, which remains the biggest margin in league history.
Yet, it’s a credit to head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr, who claimed his second Manager of the Year award (the first CPL manager to do so), having done well to retool his team on the fly.
Despite entering this year with just three remaining year-one OGs (which quickly dwindled to two as José Escalante left the club partway through), making some wonder if Cavalry would fall off, they were instead able to become a “new Cavalry, with old principles”.
Led by Players’s Player of the Year, Ali Musse, and Player of the Year and Defender of the Year double-winner, Daan Klomp, as well as Golden Boot winner Myer Bevan and perennial Goalkeeper of the Year candidate, Marco Carducci, this team had a good mix of star power and depth, too.
Unfortunately, they’ll be frustrated that they weren’t able to complete the double and add their first playoff title, as they came closer than ever to being able to do so, taking a 1-0 lead in extra time of the final, but they can still be proud of this season.
Even despite how it ended, this team ended up being one of the best in history, and were 20 minutes away from being rewarded with a historic double for their troubles, which is no small feat given all of the competition they faced along the way.