Forge channels "winning DNA" with improbable 2023 CPL Final comeback
People often speak of great teams having a “winning DNA”.
No matter the circumstances, you just expect them to win, even when their backs are up against the wall, as that DNA just finds a way to shine through at the biggest moments in games.
A prime example of that? Forge FC’s display against Cavalry in the CPL Final this past Saturday.
At the end of it all, Forge were crowned winners, taking home their fourth playoff title in five years, which along with their 2021 regular season honour, was another crowning achievement for the Canadian Premier League’s first dynasty.
But before Forge lifted the North Star Cup in front of their home fans on Saturday night, to the surprise of few, it’s worth noting that there were times when that didn’t appear to be in the cards for them this year.
That started in the regular season, where they suffered a couple of big dips in form to finish with their lowest points-per-game in a season in their history, although they then did well to put that behind them to start the playoffs, catching Cavalry by surprise in the first semi-final to reach a fifth straight CPL Final.
In this rematch, however, things were looking much rockier for Forge, who spent most of the final on the back foot. As a result, Cavalry had the better chances, with Forge only staying in the game with some big defensive interventions and some key stops from Triston Henry, who showed why he was named the CPL’s goalkeeper of the year.
Then, Forge’s woes were further compounded when Cavalry opened the scoring in the 101st minute of the game, as the 2023 CPL Player’s Player of the Year, Ali Musse, finally beat Henry with a beautiful curling strike from outside of the box in extra time.
A deserved opener for Cavalry, it felt like game over for Forge, who had just 10 shots (two on target) for a total of 0.26 xG up to that point, whereas Cavalry’s goal came on their 19th shot, and fifth on target.
There, however, is where Forge channelled their “winning DNA”. Instead of looking rattled, Forge had a steely determination about them, knowing that they had more to give.
As a result, they then went out and nabbed a 105th-minute equalizer on a curler from well outside of the box from Béni Badibanga, giving them some life right before half time of extra time.
⚒️GOAL🚨#CanPL. FINAL. BADI-BANGERS. ONLY.@ForgeFCHamilton's Béni Badibanga levels up this CPL final in extra time with a GOLAZO, just minutes after Cavalry's opener— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 29, 2023
Then, they completed the turnaround soin after, as Tristan Borges scored directly off a corner in the 111th minute to seal the game for Forge.
⚒️⚒️GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 29, 2023
Say it again, folks: #CanPL. FINAL. BANGERS. ONLY!@ForgeFCHamilton takes the lead deep into extra time, as Tristan Borges scores an Olimpico to make it 2-1
Of course, one could argue there was an element of luck involved in that turnaround, given the nature of both of Forge’s goals, but the biggest thing was they came off of Forge’s assured determination and desire to win, too.
And given that both Badibanga and Borges have scored similar goals from similar spots before, it’s not as if they didn’t have those shots in their locker, either.
As a wise person once said, when preparation meets opportunity, big things can happen, and that just happened to be both Badibanga and Borge’s goals, which were a prime example of the talent of those players, Forge’s winning DNA and some scouting all crossing over and paying off.
“Yeah, it's interesting because we talked about different zones on the field and where we were going with shooting possibilities and set pieces,” Forge’s head coach, Bobby Smyrnitois, said afterwards of the two goals. “We know that (Cavalry’s) Marco Carducci’s a great goalkeeper, but he’s struggled with some things that go into his back post area, that’s something that's been shown.”
“So maybe the guys took a little bit of that to heart, and then it was just a little magic from there.”
And that winning DNA is contagious. Badibanga’s a perfect example of that, as he was one of just two players on this Forge roster who hadn’t won a playoff title, having joined halfway through the season.
Despite his later arrival, though, he'd quickly integrated into the squad, becoming an indispensable part of their attack, and he says that Forge DNA played a big role in helping him do that.
“When a team is used to winning, it’s in their DNA,” Badibanga offered on his end. “When you look at Real Madrid, even when they are down, they know that they are going to do something.”
“That’s why I chose this team. That’s what I’ve missed in my game sometimes, and that’s why I was coming here to look for it, it was my role to try and bring that energy.”
And that’s a credit to those who have been able to craft that mentality into this Forge team, allowing players like Badibanga to pick it up as easily as he did. That starts with Smyrniotis, yes, but also extends to his key players, who have been able to take his message and put it into practice over these five seasons.
Borges is a great example of that, too, which is why it was fitting that he scored the winner.
One of six Forge originals that remain on the team, he’s had his fair share of memorable moments for the club before, having won a Golden Boot, Player of the Year and U21 Canadian award back in 2019, while also scoring in the 2019 CPL Final and assisted in the 2022 CPL Final.
This season, however, he’s mostly had a campaign to forget. After scoring six goals and adding nine assists last year, including his assist on the winning goal in the CPL Final, he’s had just one goal and four assists this year, all while playing a career-low 1281 minutes, as he’s battled injuries.
The quality has still been there in flashes, but he hasn’t always been able to get on the field and show it, and Forge has missed that.
In this final, however, he was able to show up, and did so in the biggest of ways. He had to wait until the 68th minute to make his entrance, but once he did, he was eager to make a difference, and eventually did so
Yet, funnily enough, while the goal came off an individual moment of brilliance, for Borges, it all came back to that winning DNA.
When asked about the goal and what it meant to him after the frustrating season he’s had, he instead singled out the work that everyone on his team put in to reach this point, deflecting the chance to talk himself up.
And that’s where Forge’s culture shines through.
Would they have liked to win the regular season and pushed for a double? Absolutely, but sometimes, things don’t always go to plan for teams.
When that happens, you need to be willing to show up when the lights shine brightest, and Forge did that, allowing them to win another trophy.
“It’s tough to give the right answer at this moment, but it’s a time to appreciate all of the work that you put in the whole year, as not everyone sees that, but that’s the life of a professional footballer,” Borges said when asked of the ups and downs. “You can have a good year or a bad year, but at the end of the day, you can only rely on the work that you put in every day, and that’s not about myself, but the whole team and seeing what they’ve all done throughout the year.”
“It seems like every year, everybody has something to say about us, but at the end of the day, we’ve got five finals and four trophies, and when it’s all said and done, all that matters is winning, right, and we’ve proven that we can do that every year, and that it’s what we deserve.”
“I could stand up here and say it was a great game from us, and the great moments that we had (like the goals), but what stands out is the work we put behind the scenes to get here, and that makes me happy to see what we did throughout the whole year, to battle through those ups and downs, I think that’s special.”
“I’m very proud of all of the guys, from the outside nobody sees the little things we have to go through every day, but this is a moment to express that no matter if you’ve had a tough year or not, if you can keep pushing with those around you, moments like this will happen.”