'Focused and ready': Forge FC turns to big-game experience in hunt to avenge 2021
As a footballer, you live for these sorts of matches.
A one-game final with a chance to lift silverware? Those are the moments you dream of as a kid.
Yet, for Forge FC and Atlético Ottawa, that dream is about to become a reality, as the two sides get set to face off at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa during the 2022 CPL Final on Sunday. The two top teams in the CPL's regular season now compete over 90 minutes to decide who lifts the North Star Shield, capping off another excellent season of Canadian club soccer.
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For Ottawa, this represents a huge moment for the sport in the city, as they follow up on a memorable title-winning regular season campaign by hosting their first-ever final. Coming off a big semi-final performance across two legs against Pacific FC to reach this stage, Ottawa the club and Ottawa the city are buzzing, with more than 12,500 expected to attend Sunday's grand finale.
But for Forge FC? This is business as usual.
This is Forge's fourth consecutive finals appearance, having reached this stage in every one of the CPL's four seasons so far, winning twice and dropping last year's title to Pacific FC. As such, they enter this final hungrier than ever to reclaim victory – and, more importantly, eager to re-establish themselves as the league's top dogs.
Having worked hard all season for this chance at avenging their fate, Forge look ready to go out and see a win over the line against the league's toughest defensive line.
"It feels good to be back in this position," Forge defender Dominic Samuel told OneSoccer earlier this week. "Yeah, we came up short last year, unfortunately ... but now we have the opportunity to make up for that. To be honest, we've had a chip on our shoulder all year to go out there and win again, at any cost."
Big game experience a big factor
Sure, Forge may be right back to a familiar feeling, but Atlético Ottawa won't make this easy on them, either. A formidable defensive unit, Ottawa have gotten to this point off the back of their buy-in to a familiar identity, as well as a penchant for shining in big games.
While they’ll likely relish this game in front of their strong home support, the good news for Forge is that they're no slouch when it comes to these sorts of matches, either. In fact, they've become the league's standard-bearer in rising to the moment when faced with difficult odds.
Of course, there's the fact that Forge is the only team to now make four finals (no other team has been here more than once). Beyond that, their litany of experience in Concacaf League, the Canadian Championship and Concacaf Champions League is nothing to scoff at, either.
"We have to stay focused for the big game that we have to win.”@WoobensP reviews the Semi-Final match and the upcoming Final this Sunday.— Forge FC (@ForgeFCHamilton) October 26, 2022
🎥| https://t.co/wKP5x8cZYR#ForgeFC | #CanPL pic.twitter.com/EfQLceSgTN
So, while Ottawa might be favoured on paper given their standing as regular season champions and hosts, Forge's big-game experience gives them solid footing for an away-day upset, too.
Consider this – for Ottawa, this is just their fifth non-CPL regular season match, ever. For Forge, this is their 36th such match.
That's not a typo. Thirty-sixth.
In fact, Forge has won as many finals away from home (2) as Ottawa has played playoff games, period. Even home-field advantage doesn't mean as much as it might for another opponent.
"It definitely helps to have won in all these different places," Samuel said, reflecting on his team's positive results in El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala and Honduras. "We've played in Ottawa. We know how their fans are. For us, where we play doesn't matter. We'll do our thing, and we'll play our brand of football regardless. As long as we stick to our tactics and our game plan, we'll be fine."
That same mentality saw Forge FC walk into the Estadio Azteca in Mexico and score a goal, or go toe-to-toe with CF Montréal and Toronto FC in big Canadian Championship ties, only falling to the dice roll of penalty shootouts in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
On big stages that might shrink most other teams down to size, Forge's players tend to rise to the occasion instead.
"It's because this means everything to us," Samuel affirmed. "How many people even get to play in that many big game situations?
"Even for the people (on our team) who haven't been in those situations, but have been with us, we have guided them and have let them know how important this is. They know that in theory, but we reiterate that and give an extra push to help us claim that title again.
"We have the experience and the drive to do what it takes – we know what needs to be done."
Boasting 'the king of clutch'
Big game experience requires big game players.
Luckily for Forge FC, they might just have the biggest big-game player in the league, too.
If you speak of CPL players who rise to an occasion, there's no one more obvious than David Choinière.
The 25-year-old has made a habit of shining in big games, just as he did last week when he scored his latest game-changing goal in Forge's eventual 2-1 win over Cavalry FC in the playoff semi-finals.
GOAL 🔨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 23, 2022
Who else but the man for the biggest moments?
DAVID CHOINIERE gives @ForgeFCHamilton a vital 1-0 lead in this #CanPL semi-final clash vs. @CPLCavalryFC, proving his clutch reputation once again
20 minutes to go ⏰
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhxUCE pic.twitter.com/ngZi4HUGML
Affectionately called "Mr. Concacaf League" for his exploits in the competition, Choinière has stepped up big in Forge's previous out-of-league outings, scoring eight goals and adding four assists in those previous 35 match-ups.
Plus, Choinière's found the back of the net on the road against CD Olimpia and CD Municipal Limeño in Concacaf League, away at the famed Estadio Azteca against Cruz Azul in the Concacaf Champions League, and away against Cavalry FC in the 2019 CPL Finals, too.
For whatever reason, Choinière always seems to have a bit extra in his tank for these big games.
"Man, I don't know!" Choinière said last week, when asked why things seem to come together for him in these big games.
"I try to approach every game the same," he continued. "It doesn't matter to me if I play against the last-place team, or the first-place team, and I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, the more people there are in the crowd, the more energy I get from that.
"Those experiences mean a lot at the end of the day. Being in those three finals, playing in those Concacaf Champions League games, you cannot recreate those situations. You cannot train for those games. You've got to live it to really experience it and learn from it. We've been in situations like that before, so we're just going to embrace and enjoy the moment, because those are the best moments in your career."
Final mission? Finish the job
Choinière is far from being the only Forge player feeling bolstered by the confidence of experience. Already fuelled by the heartbreak they suffered in 2021, Forge's experiences in big games will only help them find another level when they take the field on Sunday.
A lot of eyes will be on the new kids on the block in Ottawa, as they try to navigate the grandeur of this occasion. But you'd be wise not to forget the threat that Forge carries – they would love nothing more than to spoil Ottawa's party on their own home ground.
While it won't be an easy task, Forge heads into this final mission with one simple message – bring it on.
"We know what's at stake," Samuel confidently stated. "At the beginning of the year, we discussed what our goals were, and about where we wanted to be at the end of the year, and that was obviously to be fighting and playing for a championship. It's the first thing that came up.
"That's the thing that people either hear about when you come to Forge; you come here looking forward to playing for trophies, to fight for championships, and to be in these big game situations.
"In the locker room, everybody already knows about that, and is hungry for that chance from day one. So although there might be some nerves and whatnot, there's definitely a calmness in our locker room. That championship energy is there. Everybody is focused and ready to go."