Bobby Smyrniotis, Tommy Wheeldon Jr reflect ahead of latest Forge vs. Cavalry FINAL
Fittingly, as the CPL gets set to put a bow on its fifth year of existence this weekend, the two teams that grabbed the league by storm back in 2019 are getting set to settle yet another score in a final, as Forge gets set to host Cavalry at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday.
Having met back in that 2019 final, which Forge claimed across two legs despite entering that tie as underdogs to regular season champions Cavalry, it’s also surreal that this will be the first time they meet back in a final since then, as it felt like that first final was supposed to be a precursor for what going to become one of the top rivalries in the league, marked by a lot of future final rematches.
To be fair, seeing how often they’ve met since then, combining for some of the most memorable games in league history, the former has certainly come true. And even if the latter hasn’t, there have been some great regular season and playoff meetings, too.
Plus, when both teams take the field on Saturday, it’ll not just serve as a rematch of that first final, but a reminder of how far both teams have come.
For Forge, it’s a chance to add another jewel to a crown, one that they’ve fittingly worn as the CPL’s first dynasty. With three playoff titles in four seasons, and five straight final appearances (and one regular season title for good measure), without even mentioning some of their exploits in domestic and continental cup competitions, Forge have made a habit of being around for these sorts of moments over the CPL’s existence.
Despite that, they don’t take these sorts of moments for granted, and they made sure to stress that heading into this game.
“Any player that plays this game, when you’re a young kid kicking the ball on the field, what do you do? You play to win that championship,” Forge’s head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis, said ahead of the final. “You simulate picking up a trophy, whatever you find on the side, whether it’s a tree branch or something, that’s what you want to do. We’ve been fortunate enough that this is our fifth go around with this thing, it’s not a regular thing.”
“That’s something special. As I’ve said before, if you can play in these games, you don’t have a contract with trophies. It’s not something that’s guaranteed in sports, you can put everything into it but you can’t guarantee a win.”
But while Forge have seemed to have a few deals with success in the past, Cavalry has had a mixed record in terms of their crowning achievements.
Despite being the league’s most successful regular season team in history, they only won their first trophy this season, when they won the CPL Shield as regular season winners. To be fair, that’s also due to a quirk, as the regular season winners were only finally given a trophy for that this season for the first time; Cavalry’s 2019 triumph will also be retroactively honoured.
Other than that, however, Cavalry hasn’t had much else to show for in terms of grandstand moments, as success in the playoffs has eluded them. In fact, not only had they not returned to a final since then, but this year was the first time they’d even won a single or double-game elimination playoff match, as well.
Because of that, this final, in which Cavalry can also become the first CPL team to win a regular season and playoff double, also stands as a chance for Cavalry to put some of those playoff woes to rest.
Even though their main priority was to win the regular season, they understand what’s at stake now in this final, which isn’t lost on them.
“(Winning the regular season title) was our number one objective,” Cavalry’s head coach, Tommy Wheeldon Jr., noted this week. “When the commissioner brought out the news that the regular season was going to get its own glory, trophy and a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup, and a better playoff draw, that was our objective (to get that) from day one. We’ve achieved that now, so this is a bonus.”
“It’s another trophy, that’s always special, and this is something that hasn’t been done, and we talk about this league being full of ‘Forever Firsts’, we’d love to check this one off the list first.”
And in a sense, it’s fitting that a first Cavalry playoff triumph would go through Forge, as well. Given that they’ve faced them in the playoffs three out of the four previous years, never winning (they’ve got a record of 0W-1D-5L against Forge in the postseason), they’ve been a bogey team of sorts for them in these sorts of games.
Despite playing them incredibly evenly (all but two meetings between these two teams all-time have been decided by one goal), Forge has just seemed to get the upper edge on Cavalry in big playoff matches.
Cavalry recognizes that, however. Because of that, while they’re eager to change that, they also feel that Forge’s success has pushed them to where they are today, and will look to keep that upward trajectory going in this final.
“Does Forge bring us a lot of stress?” Wheeldon Jr. pondered. “No, because they’ve made me and made us better, they’ve been a terrific side to watch, and seeing what they’ve done in Concacaf, we’ve wanted to replicate that, so sometimes you need rivalries like the one we’ve had with them to inspire us to be better, and I think this year, where we won the league by the amount that we did, a large part of that is that we had to be better than them, and we were for 28 games of the regular season.”
As for Forge, however, they’ve also got their own playoff demons to exorcise in this game, too.
For all of their success in the playoffs, it’s worth noting that they’ve never won a North Star Cup at home, with all of their past triumphs coming on the road.
The one time they had a chance to win at home? It came back in 2021, when Pacific surprised them with a big 1-0 win on the road, in their first-ever win over Forge in club history, to claim the trophy at Tim Hortons Field.
That’s since haunted Forge, who went on to win last year’s final against Atlético Ottawa in Ottawa in pretty convincing fashion, as they’ve long wanted to be able to lift one of those trophies in front of their fans.
So that they’ve now got a chance to do so again, in front of a crowd of well over 12,000 fans, is something that they want to achieve quite badly.
“The biggest thing (about this final) is that it’s for our organization, for our fans and this city,” Smyrniotis said. “We’ve done fantastic things over this period and provided some special memories here, but we know the environment is going to be something new and something special again tomorrow night, playing here at home.”
“We had the chance to win in 2021, but we didn’t, and that remains in the minds of a lot of the players that played in that game. So most importantly for me, I know the joy it would give to our fans, as it’d give them energy to not just keep coming out, because they already do an excellent job of that, but instead, increase things so that next year we’ve got 6000-70000 fans in here every game, and that extends across the league.”
When looking at all of that, one thing’s for sure about this game - it promises to be a good one, as all matchups between Forge and Cavalry typically are.
And to be fair, a big reason for that has been the presence of Smyrniotis and Wheeldon Jr., the two lone remaining managers from the CPL’s inception.
Seeing all of the turnover that has gone on around them across the league in the managerial department, that they’ve been able to not just evolve and adapt, but do so at a level where they’re still pushing for trophies? That’s why they’re two of the top managers in Canada at the moment.
Yet, when both were asked to reflect on the journey to this point, both were also quite reflective on the road that they’ve endured, understanding that what they’ve done isn’t easy.
But that’s why finals are so special, as they can serve as a culmination of two great stories, with one being able to enjoy the thrill and ecstasy of lifting a trophy, while the other suffers the heartbreak and disappointment of defeat.
OneSoccer 🤝 #CanPL @GarethWheeler and @jwilsonxviii joined @KristianJack, @charliejclarke and @mitchelltierney of @CPLsoccer Newsroom to get you all set for the 2023 #CANPL FINALS 🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 28, 2023
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Now, both managers will hope that their team is the one feeling the former, but no matter what happens, they’ll be pleased with the process that their teams went through to get here, knowing that’s what matters at the end of the day.
“We’re in a human industry, you have two choices - grow or become extinct, and we’ve chosen to grow, and what we did this year, knowing that the playoffs would be a single knockout, we had to make every regular season game like a final,” Wheeldon Jr. said.
“So when we were on that final turn, where we faced Forge, Halifax and Ottawa on that tough away run, that was what probably won us our season, as when we came home, we knew that we could get our points and win, so we earned our luck, and in the playoffs, you need luck, you do.”
“I didn’t have a beard (back in 2019), that’s for sure,” Smyrniotis added. “But yeah, words are easy. I’m a man of few words because actions are the most important thing. We can talk, and I can sit here and talk about tactics all day long, and the team could be constantly passing backwards tomorrow, so actions are the most important things you can do to be successful.”
“You have to sacrifice a lot, for our staff and all of our players, it’s not easy to be at Forge, the demand that we put on them and the demands that are put on them by the media, it’s good, because if we win, we’re supposed to win, and if we lose, something is going wrong, but that’s the identity of a big club, you have to be able to deal with that to become better, and we need that as coaches, because we don’t live in a bubble, either.”
“And all of that plays into a winning mentality and a winning culture, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of actions.”