'A zero-sum game': Forge captain Kyle Bekker lays out clear goal – trophy or nothing
When you get knocked from the top, the climb back up always seems to be tougher.
Just ask Forge FC.
After winning the first two editions of the 'North Star Shield' back in 2019 and 2020, it seems the starts were perfectly aligning for a threepeat as they embarked on the 2021 playoffs.
Having done well to navigate a tricky semi-final test against provincial rivals York United, Forge's final test was hosting a plucky Pacific FC in the final – their first-ever trophy-clinching game at home.
As such, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Forge would finally get to lift silverware in front of their home fans.
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Much to Vancouver Island's delight, things didn't go quite as planned for Bobby Smyrniotis' Hamiltonian side.
Despite having never lost to the Tridents before, their guests managed to change secure a 1-0 win to become CPL champions of 2021, playing spoilers to an otherwise spectacular season for Forge.
The same Forge team that narrowly lost in the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship, and made a deep run into CONCACAF League, and became the first-ever CPL team to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, ended the year empty handed – though you wouldn't find much sympathy from any other team's supporters, of course.
"It's just the unfortunate reality of professional sports," club captain Kyle Bekker reflected to OneSoccer. "We come into it and it's a zero-sum game. There's always going to be a loser, there's always gonna be someone who comes out with the short end of the stick. But those are also the moments where you have to learn from, grow and turn it into a positive, turn it into an experience that actually benefits you in the long run.
"For those who were in this locker room that were on that field last year and saw another team celebrate in front of our home fans, those moments help you so much, and they propel you to push forward, and that's something I think we need to not run from, but instead, we need to embrace it. You need to embrace those minor setbacks, because from that, you learn so much about yourself not just as a player, but more so as an individual, seeing how you deal with that and how you come back from that to go and then try to achieve something great again."
One thing has been clear about Forge FC since day one: Their hunger for success and results is paramount in everything they do.
It borders on arrogance, at times. There's a reason CPL fans cheer a little more if their team manages a win over the Hammer.
Champions League obligations in the early part of the year meant Forge entered 2022 just a little sharper, just a little more potent than their peers. But a season is long, and filled with heavy tolls. Injuries, fatigue, and form saw Forge's usual glow of confidence flicker. But that hunger – evident every time someone representing the club speaks – remains unsatiated.
While this might not be Forge's best regular season on a stat sheet, it was arguably their most impressive due to the very many hurdles they faced, a fact not lost on Bekker or his teammates.
"Over the course of this year, it's been unique from our club's perspective," Bekker continued. "You have to look at the entire season, and the reality is is group has been going since January. We had an earlier start than everyone else in this league (because of CCL), and I think there's a lot that goes into that. It explains a few of our ups and downs as a group. When you're going as long as we have, it's very mentally taxing.
"But we still have a lot to be proud of," he continued. "I think we've played some unbelievable football at times. We've had stretches of sheer dominance. You've seen stretches where we can all put our hands up and say we weren't at our best, but we worked through it and we stayed together as a group. It's a testament to everything that we've put into it to still finish in second place."
The weight of expectation has always sat heavy on Bekker's shoulders.
"When you have success in a league like this, where it is brand new, it immediately puts a target on your back," he explained. "You become that standard that everyone else is trying to beat, and there's a lot of pressure that comes with that. We have a responsibility to keep trying to push the envelope, to keep trying to set the standards that we want to set even higher for the other teams that are chasing us.
“The reality is that we fell short last year in losing that final specifically, but at the same time, it allowed us to take a breather, reevaluate, see where we were as a group and then collect ourselves to go at it again this year."
Winning trophies is no small feat, and in what has arguably been the most competitive regular season of CPL action yet, the battle for this year's title will be tougher than ever.
Long gone are the days of Forge and Cavalry leading the pack by a country mile – the likes of Pacific, Atletico Ottawa and Valour FC have clearly arrived, as the intense race for the top four showed.
"This year more than any, you've seen the competitive nature of this league," Bekker said. "Where any team can beat anyone else, and there's been less of a divide than there has been in years prior, which is fantastic.
"It shows how each club is growing. Each individual is pushing to do more, to achieve more, which all makes for a better overall product. And we've been seeing that kind of growth year in and year out for the last four years, which is fantastic."
But while a path towards a third Forge title is guaranteed to go through one of those new risers, such as Ottawa or Pacific, to get there, a familiar foe now awaits them in the semi-finals of this year’s playoffs - Cavalry.
Having been pitted against each other in the two-legged semis, this is the first time these two teams have properly met in a postseason setting (sorry, Island Games), since they famously met in the first-ever CPL Final back in 2019.
There, after a dramatic two-legged series, Forge managed to win the first-ever North Star Shield on Cavalry’s pitch, capping off a memorable first year of a rivalry that has since risen to arguably be the standard-bearer of the league.
In the 17 matchups these two teams have had over the past four years, all but one have been decided by one goal or less. It’s expected that this semi-final will be as tightly contested a matchup as ever, too.
"We know it's gonna be a competitive tie, where the stakes are a lot higher than in any regular season games," Bekker said. "But any time we play each other, it's intense, it’s competitive, and it’s a great game of football, so we need to respect this opponent. They're a great side, they have something unique about them, and there’s just something different about them that matches up with us.
"We’re two teams doing it two different ways, but there are great players on either side of the ball that want to go out and achieve something special, so we know it's going to be difficult."