PLATT: Forge showed what Canada can do when we think big
There is a profound shift happening in Canadian soccer, one that has been felt deepest by those who have spent years trying to do their part to grow the game.
After dominating the narrative for so long, the pessimists and cynics are being drowned out. Replacing them is a new class of leaders building a future full of possibilities — one in which Canada sheds its inferiority complex and starts taking care of its own.
It’s about time.
The new wave is being driven by a golden era for both the men’s and women’s national teams but it does not stop there. It is the Canadian Premier League. It is the belief that a professional women’s league is not so far away. It is the growth of the grassroots game and the true community clubs popping up across the country. And it is Forge FC at Estadio Azteca.
Three years ago, Forge had not kicked a ball. For a long while before that, there was no shortage of people who could not be convinced that a pro league could even work in Canada. With an unwavering belief in Canadian players, Bobby Smyrniotis charted a course into the Concacaf Champions League before the CPL had even been awarded its own qualification slots.
“If you go back to (2019), they told us there’s a Concacaf League and you can qualify through to Champions League,” Smyrniotis said after Thursday’s game in Mexico City.
“Once you tell me that, I’m always going to think big. I always knew that for Forge, it would be a matter of time until we were competing in this competition," he added.
Cruz Azul — whose top earner reportedly takes home double Forge's entire payroll — won 3-1 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate. While there is no doubt that the Mexican powerhouse was, as expected, superior on home turf, Forge will look back on three goals conceded from set-piece situations across the two legs and wonder what might have been.
In truth, Forge could have lost 10-0 and it would have made the achievement of reaching this stage no less impressive.
Forge qualified for last season’s Concacaf League by winning their second consecutive CPL title in 2020. With the pandemic still presenting plenty of challenges, Smyrniotis took his team to El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica and dispatched all three opponents while also finishing top of the pile in the CPL’s regular season, dealing with a schedule already plenty congested without the addition of continental games and a run to the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship.
Their commitment to securing that Champions League place may have ultimately cost them another league title. Exhausted after an agonizing Concacaf League semi-final defeat in Honduras in midweek, Forge returned to Hamilton with little time to train and prepare for the 2021 CPL final against Pacific.
The subsequent defeat hurt. But this was the reward — the chance to take to the field where Pele and Maradona had gone before.
Getting here required Forge, between their season opener on June 27 and the final on December 5, to play 40 matches in just over five months, an average of one every four days. Kyle Bekker logged more than 3,000 minutes and several others did not trail far behind.
“After the (final), we were upset, but I think there was a sigh of relief, like the whole world was off our shoulders," former Forge FC standout Kwame Awuah admitted.
This year, it will be new champions Pacific’s turn to represent the CPL in the Concacaf League. They have earned their chance and in the near future, we can look forward to multiple CPL teams competing continentally at the same time.
But what Forge did here should never be forgotten. In the spirit of this new age of Canadian soccer, they dared to dream big. And they showed us all what is possible when you do.