AGR's HIGH-PRESS: Are there too many chefs in the Forge FC offensive kitchen?
Who doesn't love some home cooking?
Certainly, the Canadian Premier League's home sides do, as Matchweek 10 was defined by all four home teams picking up wins, the first time this has happened in 2023. It comes just one week after we enjoyed our first Matchweek without a draw, and the table has reflected that with plenty of movement top to bottom.
But, there's been another key development – strikers around the league are starting to wake up.
Beyond Shaan Hundal and Myer Bevan, the CPL's no. 9's have struggled to get on the board consistently. Instead, decisive goals have more often come from wingers, midfielders and defenders. You could attribute it to an increase in the quality of centre backs, or to the evolution of tactics across the league, or the boring but simple answer that it's all just a bit of bad luck.
Regardless, that trend was snapped in Matchweek 10 as as Bevan (Cavalry), Tiago Coimbra (HFX), Théo Collomb (HFX), Sam Salter (OTT) and Walter Ponce (Valour) all found the back of the net. Coincidentally, those strikers happen to play for three of the teams that won over the past weekend, and in the case of the one that didn't (Myer Bevan), his Cavalry lost to a Halifax team that had both of their strikers score.
Strikers are BACK, but... it looks like Forge FC didn't get the memo.
Forge's attacking line continues to stumble
Forge FC have a forward line problem.
Coming off a 2-0 loss away to Valour – their third loss in four games and their third shutout in six – Forge are struggling to find the back of the net, despite boasting what appears, on paper, to be the deepest group of attacking talent anywhere in the league.
In those last six matches, Forge have scored just three goals total, conceding six and picking up five out of a possible 18 points. For those efforts, they've slid down to third in the table, five points back of first-place Pacific FC.
How did this lack of potency develop?
It's worth noting that their three traditional strikers Jordan Hamilton, Woobens Pacius and Terran Campbell have combined for seven goals in 11 games, which is actually pretty solid… if they were just one person. The fact that none of them are on pace for more than eight goals is a bit of a worry. Ditto the lack of team scoring elsewhere, as Forge have scored just four from the rest of their roster combined – one each from four players.
For context, in 2022, Forge had nine different multi-goal scorers across the regular season and playoffs, including seven who scored three or more, four who scored six or more, and one with 12 goals in Woobens Pacius. At their best, this is a team that scores goals from all over the field.
That hasn't been happening of late.
Forge are generating chances, but they're not finishing them. Despite generating 1.67 xG on 19 shots, several of their best chances didn't actually feel as dangerous as the stats indicated. Some were forced, some saw players hesitate and wait before shooting, while others just lashed at their shots.
Compare that to Valour, who had just 0.22 xG five shots, and it's night and day. Despite the low volume and quality of shots, they made the most of them, finishing with ruthless efficiency.
(The xG plot from this game, with Forge in purple and Valour in black via OPTA).
Now, it'll be interesting to see how Forge looks to fix this, as this issue will likely make or break their 2023 campaign. While they should be fine defensively, there's far less certainty that the offence will click once again, especially given the lack of confidence their forward contingent have shown in front of goal.
Plus, with the pressure being on their strikers to score, teams will start to hone in on their lack of depth scoring, too; if you can contain whichever combination of no. 9s Bobby Smyrniotis trots out across the field that day, there's little else to worry about besides an occasional Kyle Bekker worldie.
The good news? The goals will (probably) come. Forge has generated the second-most xG in the league with 15.18, a number that they're underperforming by four goals. Eventually, that will even out, just as it did for York United and Halifax.
Forge just need to find a way to stick to the process until it does.
At the same time, there are things they can do to help it along. They can start by creating some consistency in the attacking hierarchy. Yes, Forge have a deep crop of options to draw from, and Smyrniotis hasn't been shy about rotating his team to cope with the demands of what has already been a very busy start to the season.
And, that rotation has been methodical, as over 11 games, no one player has played every minute, and no striker has featured for more than 63% of all available minutes. Besides developmental contract players Khadim Kane and Malcolm Duncan, no one has played fewer than 33% of those minutes, either.
But maybe that rotation has been too methodical. Rest for the sake of rest is also cooling off what might otherwise become a hot foot. And while the dynamism of Forge's attacking options have seen a variety of different combinations played together, no one has held a spot for long enough to call it their own.
We're 11 games into this season, and you can't really say what Forge's preferred Starting XI is these days. That's the challenge of having a deep team – you can only field 11 players, even if you have 16 starting-quality players, and the last thing you want to do is frustrate those potential starters with a lack of minutes.
It's a fine line, but a fixable issue. Just look at how Pacific FC manages this. Boasting a similarly deep attack, Pacific established a clear hierarchy on day one, and players have been able to establish themselves within that, with rotation usually only coming when players force head coach James Merriman's hand (key rest scenarios aside).
Strong performances in training usually lead to substitute appearances, and strong substitute appearances potentially lead to starts, and that road is there for anyone on the Pacific roster.
Forge need to find that balance. If they do? Watch out. If they don't? Hamilton's champions may just end this year eating humble pie.
Of fine margins and a hunt for consistency
Cavalry's head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr had quite the blunt assessment after his team fell 3-1 to the Halifax Wanderers on Saturday.
"We can't keep saying that we've got a really good attack if our attack can't finish," he offered. "And then we can't keep saying we've got a really good defence if we're coughing up goals like that."
Understandably frustrated after his team had missed a glorious opportunity to beat the Wanderers away from home, it's unfortunately proven to be a fair reflection of his team through 10 games. Despite sitting fourth with 12 points, this Cavalry team have shown a lot better than what their results indicate... but consistency has remained a key issue.
Sitting with six draws in 10 games, and having given up six leads (and 12 points), Cavalry have struggled to get results over the line all season long. Sure, they've only suffered two losses, but for a Cavalry team that usually dominates regular season play, this isn't up to standard; a lack of cutting-edge continues to be an issue, as evident with the way they lost to Halifax despite seeming to command the match, until...
Yeah. Game over after that. It happens, but given that they've scored the second-most goals in the league despite sitting sixth in xG, Cavalry's offence has actually been very effective relative to what they produce, and can hardly be to blame for their struggles.
That’s not that surprising, though: Ali Musse has mostly been playing at an MVP level, Myer Bevan is the golden boot leader and both Mikaël Cantave and Sergio Camargo are proving to be strong support characters in Cavalry's deep offensive group. Plus, Joe Mason hasn't been healthy, and José Escalante has yet to produce a goal contribution, so there's more potency in their arsenal, too.
The bigger surprise is Cavalry's continued defensive struggles. Quietly, they've allowed the second-most goals per game, and have a league-low one clean sheet, a far cry from their usual defensive dominance. But... why?
It's genuinely puzzling: In terms of xG per game, they’re pretty much on par with 2022, where they had the second-lowest xG against per game, and the shot quality that they’ve allowed is exactly the same in terms of xG per shot; in goal, Marco Carducci is performing similarly to last season, in which he was voted CPL Goalkeeper of the Year.
Despite that, Cavalry are on pace to concede three more goals than they did last year, which might not seem like much, but currently has them on pace to gather 14 points fewer than they did in 2022, despite scoring the exact same number of goals.
All of this to say, it's not the number of goals that they’re conceding that’s the problem, but when and how they're conceding them.
"It's those fine margins that are hurting us, and that's what we need to get over," Wheeldon Jr. righly concluded.
Are Ottawa quietly finding 2022 form again?
It might not have been the most spectacular of wins, given that it came against a Vancouver FC side that's struggling right now, but Ottawa did well to pick up all three points on a day where they could've easily let it all slip away.
Despite generating a whopping 2.23 xG on 17 shots (five on target), Ottawa only etched out a 1-0 win off a scuffed Sam Salter finish, and nearly saw Vancouver claw back a point.
Now, they've got three wins in their last six games. After a frustrating loss to York away in a game they probably should've won, making up points will feel especially nice. Ditto winning at home for their second straight match. The last time they did that was back in August of 2022.
Most importantly, those wins have come as part of an overall solid run of performances, helping erase a rougher than expected start to 2023. Ottawa are starting to look like themselves again after that slow start, especially defensively. They’ve only conceded five goals in those six games, keeping three clean sheets. While they did have two games where they gave up two goals, both of those came away from home.
Plus, their underlying numbers have cleaned right up, as they now sit with the least xG conceded in the league with an elite 9.63 in 10 games (for context, that's on pace for 12 less xG than what they allowed in their defensively dominant 2022 season). They’ve actually let themselves down a bit in that regard, as they’ve underperformed by allowing 12 goals, but that doesn’t take into account the big news Ottawa got this week – Nathan Ingham is back.
Sean Melvin was more than capable in goal, and arguably won them their game against Halifax a few weeks back, but Ingham’s return is a huge boost, given that he was a legitimate goalkeeper of the year candidate last year (and had a very strong claim to win given that Ottawa's defensive xG was pretty middling last year).
Because of that, it’s a huge boost to have him back after missing six games, as he was missed. Especially if they can keep up their strong defensive numbers, he’ll thrive now, and could lead them to tighten up those defensive numbers even further.
Really, that’ll leave the big question for Ottawa to be to figure out how to score goals with more regularity, which if they figure out, could quickly vault them back up the CPL table. And seeing that they’ve generated a solid 13.22 xG despite only having 12 goals, they’re in a good position there, too.
Therefore, while the Vancouver match might not have stood out at first glance, it shows that things are trending in the right direction over in Ottawa, as the formula that saw them become regular season champions in 2022 is all starting to come back together at a good time.
Alex’s Notepad: Quick thoughts around the CPL
- Pacific FC stayed red hot with a win over York, as they nabbed their third straight win and fifth win in the last seven games. A span over which they’ve been undefeated, that’s allowed them to vault to the top of the table, where they currently hold a five-point lead over York, with a game in hand. Safe to say, the Tridents have become the team to beat right now. Scarily, too, they continue to find new ways to win. After wins over Ottawa, York and Vancouver saw them outscore those opponents 14-5, to see them nab a pair of 1-0 wins against York and Forge in back-to-back weeks is impressive, especially given those are teams #2 and #3 in the table. Oh yeah, did we mention that this York win came off the back of an 88th-minute Sean Young winner? Not a bad game for Pacific…
- Despite the Pacific loss, York United can be pleased with how they held their own in a feisty clash. Along with another strong showing from Tass Mourdoukoutas at the back and a gutsy performance from Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé in midfield, those are good building blocks as they return home midweek. Was a bit surprising to see Osaze De Rosario only get five minutes off the bench after snapping his long scoring drought the week prior, though.
- Valour got the bounceback they needed in a fantastic team performance against Forge. Walter Ponce had one of his best games in a Valour shirt, Rayane Yesli continued to play like a goalkeeper of the year candidate, and everyone stepped up immensely on both sides of the ball. Plus, Kian Williams thrived in the #10 role, a shift some had been calling for. For all of that to happen against the defending champions with no Pacifique Niyongabire and Diego Gutiérrez, that’s exactly what Phil Dos Santos will have wanted to see after calling his side out for a lack of effort in their loss to Halifax a week prior.
- If he keeps up his performances for the Halifax Wanderers, Aidan Daniels could be a sneaky candidate for Player of the Year. After a strong start to the year, he’d hit a bit of a wall, but has had two fantastic games in the Wanderers' first two wins of the season over the last two weeks, showing his importance to this team. Also, credit to Yann Fillion for a big performance in this win, too. And this Théo Collomb goal wasn't too bad from them, either...
- The kids continue to be alright for Vancouver FC, as their top four performers in their loss to Ottawa were probably 18-year-old James Cameron, 19-year-old Anthony White, 16-year-old TJ Tahid and 19-year-old Maël Henry. Not only is that good for U21 minutes, but it’s a positive sign that Vancouver’s slow start isn’t affecting everyone in the squad, especially not the youngsters. In fact, given how some of the older players have struggled, Vancouver should lean on some of these kids more. At this stage, they’ve got nothing to lose, and it could pay off both for the rest of this season and next, too.
Player of the Week: Walter Ponce
With just two goals in 28 games for Valour since arriving last year, it’s been a less-than-ideal start for striker Walter Ponce in the CPL.
But Valour will be hoping that what he showed against Forge is the sign that he's turning a corner, as he was energetic all game long, made some great runs (at left wing!?), and scored a fantastic goal to cap off a perfect performance, making him a deserved player of the week.
Goal of the Week: Also Walter Ponce
It's a rare double on the weekly awards, as Ponce’s goal was also easily the goal of the week in what was otherwise a relatively quiet one for spectacular goals (which is what usually happens when there are three clean sheets, I suppose).
Everything about this goal is great, though, from the lofted ball into the box, to the contact on the volley, and the accuracy with which it was hit. Add in the fact that it also sealed a big Valour victory against Forge? It doesn’t get much better than that for Ponce.
You gotta see this: Drew Beckie edition
Having retired this past offseason, Drew Beckie has continued to remain active in the Ottawa community, as he took on a role within Atlético Ottawa's front office as team manager.
But he’s also enjoyed some of the perks of retirement, too, including this chance to shoot a half-court shot for free Flair flights for a year at an Ottawa Blackjacks basketball game in the CEBL.
This past weekend @DrewBeckie was chosen to take the “Shot From The Dot” at the @ott_blackjacks game @TD_Place 🔴⚪️🤝🐇— Atlético Ottawa (@atletiOttawa) June 19, 2023
Is Drew the next great 🏀 talent to come from 🇨🇦👇⁉️#ForOttawa | #PourOttawa pic.twitter.com/I8UB7h1PMZ
Unfortunately, he came up short (although his shot was nothing to scoff at), perhaps suggesting that Beckie might want to look at extending his professional sports career as a specialist from deep with the Blackjacks!
Also, shout out to a pretty cool full circle moment for Valour’s Juan Pablo Sánchez in their win over Forge, too.
What I'm watching this week: Cavalry vs. York United
Given that there's a three-game midweek slate and a three-game weekend slate, there's certainly a lot to watch out for over the next week of Canadian Premier League action. But the game I'll be keeping a closer eye on is a litmus test between Cavalry FC and York United.
For York, this match-up is a chance to keep their good run of form going. It won't be easy, as they also play the surging Wanderers midweek, but Cavalry away will be a great test after how they performed away to Pacific. Plus, this is the fixture that turned around York's season last year, so they'll hope to find similar magic this time around.
As for Cavalry? They'll look to use this match as a chance to hit the reset button, as they don't play midweek, giving them the opportunity to rest up and find the ruthlessness they've lacked of late. Plus, given Cavalry's home success, another win in front of the friendly crowd will do wonders for confidence (and their table position), too.