AGR's High Press: Forge crafts defensive masterclass to grab first league win of 2023
Can you draw it out?
That appears to be the question that’s been asked to Canadian Premier League sides recently, as week three of action was once again highlighted by a flurry of draws.
As a result, with seven of the 12 league games this season now having ended in a draw, that has made the league table extremely tight, with just three points separating first and eighth after three games.
For reference, that number was eight points in 2022, and seven points in 2021, showing how unusual this string of results is to begin a CPL season.
Yet, as mentioned last week, it continues to show how much more tactical CPL teams have become. Typically, early season games are sloppy and wide-open, as teams get up to full fitness and gain chemistry.
As a result, it’s led to a lot more chess matches than track meets, which the coaches of the league certainly won’t complain about, although the fans might bemoan a lack of goals.
At the same time, it’s certainly been entertaining, as anyone can seems to be able to beat anyone on any given week, keeping me on my toes each matchday.
Speaking of, here’s a look back at what caught my eye tactically in this week’s edition of “High Press”.
Forge flexes experience in clinical road victory:
Champions just seem to find a way. Just ask Forge.
In a 2021 CPL Finals rematch, Forge headed to Pacific’s Starlight Stadium for what promised to be a fascinating matchup, pitting two of the deepest and most tactically versatile teams against each other.
There, Forge put together what can be best described as a masterclass of a road performance, as they picked up a clutch 1-0 win, helping them erase the pain of two home draws to kick off their season.
Plus, what was fascinating about their performance was that it wasn’t your typical Forge performance, either, as they did well to adjust to how their opponents like to play.
Knowing that Pacific loves to hold onto the ball, but has had some struggles in the final third so far this season, Forge sat off in more of a defensive posture, one that shifted between a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1.
There, they dared Pacific to try and break them down, while looking to play in transition whenever possible, trying to capitalize on the space Pacific’s aggressive full backs can leave behind them. If not, they then tried to play in more of their typical 3-3-4 on the ball, eager to create space in the middle and get going down the flanks.
Which to Forge’s credit, worked to perfection.
On the ball, they found some joy in wide areas, with Ashtone Morgan, in particular, excelling in that regard. Freed up down that left side like always, thanks to his opposite right back, Rezart Rama, tucking back into that back three in possession, Morgan had all sorts of joy down that left-hand side.
He’d make the most of that, too, as he teed up Aboubacar Sissoko for a fantastic volley inside five minutes that was only kept out by the crossbar, before setting up Woobens Pacius for their first goal before the 20-minute mark, doing a great job with his delivery.
Then, with that lead in their pockets, Forge then sat back and got into more of a defensive posture off the ball, while doing a good job of slowing the game’s tempo on it.
As a result, Pacific weren’t able to get much of a rhythm, with most of their joy coming from set pieces and a late flurry of energy.
In particular, Forge’s defensive work was what really stood out from this game, as they did an excellent job of staying disciplined in their shape, doing well to move side to side and not give up too much space, keeping a very organized block.
For a team that isn’t asked to do that all that often, it was impressive to see, yet is a credit to their tactical flexibility.
“We bend but we don’t break,” Morgan explained afterwards. “Champions find a way to win games, and we showed up. We’re comfortable sometimes not having the ball, even if we usually have it, so it was a great defensive performance from the starting 11 and the guys that came in to keep this clean sheet. Those win games, and we got our three points today.”
Then, from there, it was the Manjrekar James show at the back. Already a standout in Forge’s early games due to his ability to be calm and hit long balls in possession, he hadn’t had much of a chance to show his defensive ability in either of those matches.
In this game, however, he was called upon often, and he showed why he has over a dozen Canadian caps.
Strong in his duels, confident in his slide tackles, assured in the air - he hardly set a foot wrong in his own box, and made some huge interventions for his team. Even on a few occasions where he was uncharacteristically sloppy on the ball, he put out his own fires with ease, not letting Pacific get much of a sniff when he had the chance to get stuck in.
Plus, most importantly, he never seemed to panic. It’d be one thing for him to be making huge last-ditch tackles, or wild blocks, but most of his strong defensive actions came at the perfect time - right before danger became present, instead of after it was on the scene.
Safe to say, it was a statement performance from the 29-year-old, who showed why he could be one of the top defenders in the league, and why Forge was so pleased to bring him in this offseason.
“He's a rock back there,” Morgan said of his teammate. “He’s composed on the ball, defensively he does his job, and it’s a job for the team, too, as he's a real leader back there for us.”
“He’s been excellent and he’ll only continue to get better,” head coach Bobby Smyrniotis added on his end.
(All of Manjrekar James' defensive actions from this game, via OPTA)
Therefore, all-in-all, it was a great showing from Forge, who showed why they’re favourites to win the league, as their depth, tactical flexibility and desire to win can just take over matches.
Oh, and did I mention they welcomed back captain Kyle Bekker from suspension and a minor injury in this game, after he was yet to feature this season? That just sums up how things are going over in Hamilton right now for the defending champions.
As for Pacific, they’ll have a lot to reflect on, as they capped off a three-game homestand with another performance they’ll have wanted more out of, as they end up picking just four out of a possible nine points on that run.
Once again, much like their draw against Cavalry last week though, they did a lot of good things on the ball and still got chances in dangerous areas, but just struggled to get that final action to fall for them.
At a certain point, they’re going to need someone to just want to go and score a goal, something that head coach James Merriman certainly made the point of noting in his post-game press conference, feeling that his team just needs to want it more than they do in the opposing box right now.
“We need more urgency, quicker decisions, and more decisiveness in front of goal,” Merriman said. “And more attention to detail with our final pass, and recognizing the opportunities, and eventually we need to reward ourselves and score goals, otherwise we can’t win matches.”
It’s an accurate summation, and one that could be shown to Easton Ongaro, who is getting into some great spots right now, but was once again hesitant on a few opportunities where you’d expect someone like him to want to attack a ball and put it in.
Of course, that applies to a few players on the frontline, such as second-half sub Djenairo Daniels, but given that Ongaro is the main man up front, the one they brought in to solve their 2022 second-half scoring woes, it feels like him finding that hunger in front of goal will only rub off on his teammates.
Otherwise, though, not a lot to be concerned about for Pacific. Defensively, they were very good once again, allowing just 0.54 xG on seven shots, and should’ve kept a clean sheet if not for one that Emil Gazdov will want back. Given that the 19-year-old goalkeeper has been relatively excellent so far this season, he’ll only learn and grow from that.
Along with the return of Manny Aparicio from an injury, with them looking much better when he came on in the second half, it feels like the only thing left is for them to figure out things in the final third, which feels like something that will happen sooner rather than later given the talent in their squad.
York puts tough start behind them with clinical road performance:
Heading into this game, you wouldn’t have been faulted for picking a draw as the potential result.
Given that the nine previous games played this season had seen six draws, and that these teams have drawn an outstanding eight of their 11 all-time meetings, it meant that a draw was in its destiny… right?
Not if York had anything to say about it, as despite losing their first two games at home to Valour and Vancouver, they picked up a big 1-0 road victory over Ottawa.
Not only that, but York looked very disciplined while doing so, too, after looking very sloppy in both of those defeats.
In particular, they were very good defensively, as while Ottawa had 11 shots, they had just 0.85 xG (0.07 xG/shot) to show for it.
Set up in their usual 4-2-3-1, York were a lot more organized off the ball in this match, doing well to move as a unit. As a result, they managed to really frustrate Ottawa, who spent a lot of the game just passing around the perimeter.
Then, on the ball, York were excellent, as they did well to play patiently, before breaking lines whenever possible.
In particular, Matthew Baldisimo had a strong game in midfield, as he really helped his team set the tempo in possession, doing well to break down Ottawa's usually solid midfield block on several occasions.
From there, York just looked a lot more direct and engaged in possession right from minute one, after having only shown that side of their game when down two goals in each of their previous matches.
Plus, credit has to be given to Brian Wright, who was very active on the ball in this game. He was yet to get many good looks in the box, but he did a good job of dropping into space, creating an outlet for York to enter the final third through.
By doing a good job of attracting defenders, that then allowed their wide players to find more space, something that wingers Kevin Dos Santos and Max Ferrari certainly profited from in this match.
Ultimately, the only thing York was really lacking was their final ball, as they finished with just seven shots for a total of 0.43 xG. Luckily, they’ve got Mo Babouli, who got off the mark in 2023 with a beautiful free kick to win the match, but they’ll need to do better to turn some of their strong possession sequences into chances.
GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 29, 2023
It's #CanPL BANGERS only!🔥
A perfect free-kick from Mo Babouli has @yorkutdfc up 1-0 over Atlético Ottawa just before half time, as he scores his 1st of the CPL season in STYLE
But given the growth they showed on the defensive side of their play, as well as on the ball, it’s a step in the right direction after a slow start to the season.
As for Ottawa, it was a match to forget at home, where wins continue to remain elusive (Ottawa has just five of them in 18 home games across the regular season and playoffs dating back to last year).
Defensively, they did well to keep York out of their box, but they gave up Babouli’s free-kick after a bad turnover and a subsequent defensive mistake, and weren’t as aggressive in their pressure as usual across the game.
Then, on the ball, they really struggled. In particular, they had no penetration in their play, as they weren’t playing the ball inside in possession, and lacked verticality on their long balls.
They had some good signs when the likes of Jean-Aniel Assi, Gianni Dos Santos and Zach Verhoven ran at defenders, but that didn’t happen enough. You couple that with Ollie Bassett having to play far deeper than you would like in possession, and that led to Ottawa spending a lot of this game on the edges of the action.
Plus, Sam Salter does not look fully suited to this Ottawa system yet, as he’s struggled to play as the lone #9 after playing as more of an inside forward that played off the shoulder of another striker in Halifax. So far, his season has consisted of heavy touches and missed chances, instead of the confident finishes he had in Halifax.
As a result, Ottawa looked much more dangerous in the box when Malcolm Shaw came on, much like in the other games.
Therefore, Ottawa’s main goal will be to find an offensive formula that clicks, as the defence is there. They’ve certainly got the pieces, but they’ll need to find a way to get them all in positions that suit them, which will be the big question Carlos González will need to answer going forward.
(Plus, at a certain point, Assi is going to start putting away some of his point-blank opportunities... right?)
Vancouver recovers nicely to spoil the Wanderers home opener
A battle of the two biggest risers from last week’s “High Press” power rankings, Halifax hosted Vancouver in what promised to be a fascinating tactical matchup on many levels.
Could Halifax finally turn their high-flying ways into a victory? Would Vancouver find a way to build off the tactical organization they showed in their first-ever win last weekend?
In the end, however, a draw would be all that both teams would be able to muster up, as Halifax coughed up another early lead in a 1-1 draw.
For the hosts, it’s led to an important question - what do they need to do in order to see a win over the line?
Once again, they were excellent at the beginning of this game. Playing their fluid “Gheisar-ball”, they came out flying, putting Vancouver under all sorts of pressure with their relentless play in possession, as seen below, where they showed two familiar possession patterns.
First, they attacked through a move that started from the back, doing well to break Vancouver's defensive lines.
Then, they went through Massimo Ferrin, whose ability to initiate sequences like this continues to be very impressive.
Plus, they were attacking in different ways, as while they were their usual patient selves on the ball, they also showed a direct side to their play, with their goal being a great example of that.
Just take a look at how they were able to drag Vancouver up the field, and then just catch them asleep with a creative play that saw Riley Ferrazzo receive a lateral pass and launch it forward for Théo Collomb to run onto and finish with aplomb.
As a result, the Wanderers outshot Vancouver 6-2 through the first 28 minutes, and could’ve easily had another goal or two to their name, as they looked well on their way to grabbing a comfortable win.
Yet, once again, they weren’t able to grab a second goal, and in the end, that allowed Vancouver to stay in the game, before eventually grabbing an equalizer.
Therefore, heading into next week, that has to be the next goal for Halifax - find a way to grab that second tally. If they can do that, it feels like they’d avoid these late goals, as they’ve looked their best when they’re on the front foot.
Each time they’ve grabbed a 1-0 lead, they’ve naturally sagged back after a good rush of energy immediately after the goal, inviting their opponents to run at them. With a second in their pocket, they’d be able to stay on the front foot without worry, finding a way to maybe even grab three and four.
As for Vancouver, it was another disciplined performance from them on the road, capping off a long road trip to begin the season.
They came out flat in this game, which led to Halifax’s early dominance, but did well to grow into affairs, especially after Afshin Ghotbi made the gutsy decision to sub in Nima Moazeni Zadeh for Nathaniel St.Louis just 35 minutes into the game.
Despite it being St.Louis’s first professional start, and the fact that Zadeh was dropped to the bench as he was late for a team meeting, Ghotbi decided to tweak his midfield by bringing Zadeh back in, feeling that the Wanderers were dominating his team in that area of the pitch.
Turns out, it’d be a stroke of genius, as Vancouver finished the first stanza very strongly, allowing them to grab an equalizer right before half time after generating a flurry of chances.
GOAL🚨@vanfootballclub has gotten one back before half time versus the HFX Wanderers!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 29, 2023
The club's 1st-ever goalscorer, Shaan Hundal, has slotted home a GREAT cross from Gael Sandoval to make it 1-1 right before the break
Yet, that shows why Ghotbi’s ability as a head coach was touted as a potential asset heading into this year. Not only does he have this team incredibly organized, but he’s not afraid to make a big decision, be it to change his shape or sub someone out.
Elsewhere, Vancouver will have to be very pleased with the play of their front three of Gael Sandoval, Gabriel Bitar and Shaan Hundal, as that group was excellent in their second league start together, helping Vancouver generate a solid 1.36 xG on 12 shots in this game.
In particular, that duo of Bitar and Sandoval has been lethal, as they’ve been creative forces for Vancouver, especially in transition. Even if given just an inch, they can turn that into dangerous opportunities for themselves and their teammates, allowing Vancouver to find some good areas in the final third.
From there, Hundal is proving to be a solid poacher up front. His finishing may be inconsistent, as he could easily have four to five goals instead of two already, but he finds great areas in the box, which is a good skill for a striker to have.
Heading into this year, everyone expected Vancouver to be solid at the back, but the offence was a big question mark. Now, however, this trio is offering a bit of hope in that regard, and could be a huge difference for them as they continue their first-ever season as a club.
First-year teams should not be building up like this, yet this is starting to become a regular occurrence for Vancouver now.
Tale of two halves for Cavalry and Valour in 1-1 draw
For the second week in a row, my must-watch game ended in a 1-1 draw, as Cavalry and Valour split the spoils in an entertaining back-and-forth affair at ATCO Field.
To begin the game, it was all Cavalry, as they went up 1-0 in the first half, and looked likely to make it more, as they were all over Valour. Able to play their more familiar 4-2-2-2 with Joe Mason, Ali Musse and Charlie Trafford all fully fit and able to start, it was a joy to watch, as they were very direct and vertical on the ball, causing all sorts of problems for Valour in wide areas.
Because of that, it’s not surprising that Cavalry’s goal came from out wide, as Musse did well to get the better of his defender, before cutting it back for Myer Bevan, who is quietly off to a great start to this season with three goals in four games in all competitions.
Yet, that’s why Cavalry was so frustrated to see Musse last just 45 minutes last week in their 1-1 draw against Pacific, as he was excellent even despite not being 100%, creating last week’s goal with a great action.
In this game, however, Musse was back to full fitness, and it showed, as he was a menace all game for Cavalry down the right flank.
Plus, he did so by doing what he does best - being a maverick, the term that Tommy Wheeldon Jr perfectly described him as last year.
A left-footed player, in theory it should be a bit easier to mark a player like him, as he will often want to cut inside, right?
Well, not all of the time. Sometimes, he’s okay running to the byline and playing a cross with his right foot, as he did for his assist in this game, or on Cavalry’s first goal of the year against Forge.
Other times, however, he’s comfortable and cutting back onto that left foot, where if you give him just an inch, he can punish you, be it through a shot or a cross.
As a result, it’s made him quite hard to defend, as Valour’s Matteo De Brienne certainly found out in this game.
But while it was the Musse show for Cavalry, Valour managed to hold on despite going down 1-0, and to their credit, stepped up immensely in the second half.
Therefore, when they made it 1-1, it wasn’t even undeserved, as they did a great job of finding space between lines in Cavalry’s midfield, and did well to create 1v1s in dangerous areas.
Plus, they tidied up their play in the middle, too, returning to what worked in their games against York and Ottawa, doing well to make themselves hard to play through there.
Really, the only hiccup they had in the second half is that Cavalry managed to put some late pressure on their backline, nearly grabbing a late winner. Yet given that their two centre backs at the end of the game were Klaidi Cela and Dante Campbell, with Cela freshly signed from League 1 Ontario side Vaughan SC and Campbell usually a midfielder, that’s understandable.
Because of that, the only hiccup for Valour through three games (other than their Rovers cupset) are injuries, especially to centre backs. Despite that, they’ve been very organized and dangerous in transition in all three games, allowing them to deservingly sit atop the table with five points.
Player of the Matchday: Manjrekar James
It’s not easy to pick up a clean sheet at Starlight Stadium. In fact, since 2021, it’s happened just four times before this weekend.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that James’s dominant defensive performance in Forge’s 1-0 win over Pacific is more than enough reason to nab this week’s player of the matchday honours, as he was excellent.
Goal of the week: Mo Babouli
GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 29, 2023
It's #CanPL BANGERS only!🔥
A perfect free-kick from Mo Babouli has @yorkutdfc up 1-0 over Atlético Ottawa just before half time, as he scores his 1st of the CPL season in STYLE
Babouli opened his 2023 account in style this weekend, showing why many see him as a potential MVP candidate with this inch-perfect free kick.
Plus given that this goal managed to grab a win for York United, their first-ever at TD Place, that makes it extra special, as Babouli affirmed his status as a difference-maker at a crucial time for his club.
You gotta see this: Théo Collomb’s composure in front of goal
GOAL 🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 29, 2023
The @HFXWanderersFC are on the board first in our @TonyBet match of the week vs Vancouver FC, thanks to this COMMANDING finish from Théo Collomb for his 1st in the #CanPL
It’s not often you get to see a ball bounce once before a player hits it. Let alone twice.
Halifax’s Théo Collomb, however, got to see it bounce three times before hitting his soul through the ball into the back of the net. Combined with the shoulder check before the final bounce, as well as the noise the crowd made when he scored, it was all perfection for the first goal at Wanderers Grounds this season.
Also, honourable mentions to Niko Giantospoulos's smile after York's win over Ottawa, as well as the young fan who was heard on the mic yelling at Forge’s #21 Alessandro Hojaprbour to “do something for him” in a nod to Drake.
What I’m watching this week: Vancouver FC vs Cavalry FC
It’s a tough week in this regard, as there’s a 905 derby, a 2022 semi-finals rematch and a battle between two of the most intriguing teams to start the season, but despite that, there’s a fourth match catching my eye - Vancouver FC hosting Cavalry.
Namely, the big intrigue is that it’ll be Vancouver’s first-ever home game, as they open Willoughby Community Park for the first time, in front of what should hopefully be a very good crowd in Langley.
Plus, tactically there’s a lot to watch out for, as well.
For Vancouver, it’ll be a chance for them to show what they’re all about without having to deal with travel and playing in front of away fans. As a result, look for them to be a bit more confident on the ball, while maintaining their defensive solidity.
As for Cavalry, they’ll be eager to show why they’re a strong road outfit, while looking to get their front four involved as often as possible in possession. From there, they’ll want to be solid defensively, and not get overrun in midfield, doing their best to frustrate Vancouver off the ball.
Safe to say, that’s a good matchup to open up this stadium, making for what should be a memorable afternoon, no matter what happens.