Forge FC SEASON PREVIEW: Will anyone slow down CPL's 1st dynasty?
With another North Star Shield in their back pocket, the CPL’s first dynasty has clear sights on adding more to the cabinet in 2023.
Having done well to grab their third North Star Shield in four years last October, beating Atlético Ottawa 2-0 on the road in the final to avenge their 1-0 loss at home to Pacific the year prior, all is well again in Forge land.
And having retained a majority of their core from last year’s team, bringing back 19 returnees, it’s intriguing to see what they can do this year. Deep at every position across their roster, especially at striker and in midfield, Forge have a team that are the envy of the league, led by arguably the best head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis.
Therefore, Forge have big goals in 2023. 2022 was all about getting a taste of the Concacaf Champions League and getting the North Star Shield back - now, in 2023, they want another playoff title, while becoming regular season champions, grabbing the spot in the 2024 Champions League that comes with either of those accomplishments.
Given how deep their squad is, too, it’s not unrealistic to imagine them doing that, either, which will be intriguing to watch as they look to cement their status as a CPL dynasty, something that nabbing those trophies will certainly do for them.
Projected Starting XI:
3 key questions:
1) Can Forge get the first-ever league double (and more)?
In a huge move last fall, the CPL announced the creation of a trophy for the winner of the regular season, after the first three seasons saw the league celebrate just the playoff winner (via the North Star Shield).
Ottawa ended up being the first team to get crowned regular season champions last year (although they weren’t literally crowned as a trophy doesn’t exist yet), but they then fell to Forge in the final, missing out on a double.
Yet, even if the trophy is new, meaning that plenty of other teams will get a chance to lift a double in the future, it’s worth noting that even if this trophy was around since year one, such an occurrence would’ve been yet to happen, anyways.
In each of the four seasons in the league’s existence, the regular season winner failed to win the North Star Shield, meaning that there hasn’t been a true undisputed champion, one that can say that they were the true leaders of the pack.
Therefore, look for Forge to try and become the first team to do that in 2023. Having finished atop the regular season standings just once (fittingly, the only year they didn’t win the North Star Shield), they haven’t always been a regular season team, doing their best work in their playoffs, but now, they’ll want to change that.
Especially with the depth of their roster, and that this is the first season where they won’t have any Concacaf obligations after spending the last four seasons either in Concacaf League or the Champions League, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be able to do that.
On paper, this is definitely a team that could win the regular season title, and then in turn, lift another North Star Shield, given the new advantages that winning the regular season gives to teams in the playoffs.
With their only other competition being the Canadian Championship, where they’ll play no more than four games, they will be able to focus solely on the CPL this year, so it’s not unrealistic to suggest, either.
Plus, speaking of the Canadian Championship, that could be another target for them, as they look to become the first CPL team to lift that crown, having already been the first CPL team to reach the final in the 2020 edition. With a path to the semi-finals that avoids MLS teams, and the fact that the three MLS teams have either looked beatable (Montréal), are injury-riddled (Toronto FC) or have bad memories of playing CPL teams (Vancouver), they’d fancy themselves if they face either of those teams, too.
Of course, that would be a bonus, as Forge certainly knows that they can be the first team to win a CPL double, and will look to go out and prove it, while trying to sneak in some Canadian Championship fun along the way.
2) How to manage all of the minutes in the squad?
It’s both something to envy and to be terrified of having - Forge’s depth.
Of course, you can never have too much depth, but it can sometimes be hard to manage, especially when you’ve got a roster as deep as Forge’s, where most of their team could argue that they’d be starters elsewhere.
Therefore, it’ll be interesting to see how they manage everyone’s minutes, especially at some positions where they’re extra loaded.
Just take a look at the striker position, for example. Woobens Pacius is the main option there, having scored 21 goals in 62 games for Forge, but then there’s also Terran Campbell, who has 32 goals for Forge and Pacific across 100+ games, and is the CPL’s all-time goalscorer with 29 goals across the regular season and playoffs.
Oh yeah, and for good measure, there’s also Jordan Hamilton, the two-time MLS Cup champion who has 11 goals in 59 MLS games, and a further 26 goals in 73 games at the USL level, also competing for minutes.
Of course, you could shift Campbell over to the wing, a role he played at Pacific, but then there he’s coming up against the likes of Tristan Borges and David Choinière, who have been huge pieces for Forge.
Yet, that just shows Forge’s depth, something that should lead to some fun discussions for head coach Bobby Smyrniotis as he tries to figure out how to manage the minutes of this squad, of which there are several battles like that to ponder at other positions.
If he can get that balance right, as he typically does a good job of doing, it will be fun to watch, but if not, it could lead to some disgruntled players, which is always the fine line one balances when managing a top team.
3) Where will Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson play?
A big reason why Forge didn’t win the regular season crown last year, however, was due to injuries, especially to their centre backs.
Eventually, it got so bad that midfielder Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson had to slot back to fill at centre back, just highlighting how thin Forge were at centre back.
Yet, while Achinioti-Jönsson’s first game there wasn’t planned, he ended up being a revelation at the position, playing the majority of the games there, sticking at centre back throughout the playoffs even as some of the injured players returned.
As a result, he was able to help lead them to the title from there, picking up the CPL’s defender of the year for his efforts, showing how big he was able to step up, thanks to his strong play both on and off the ball.
Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to him now. Undoubtedly a great midfielder, he’s also made it no secret that he prefers playing in the middle of the park when possible.
At the same time, with Forge holding Kyle Bekker, Aboubacar Sissoko and Alessandro Hojabrpour in midfield, who should all start whenever possible, moving Achinioti-Jönsson back to the middle could leave one of that trio to fall to the bench.
Plus, while Forge bolstered their centre back ranks by adding Canadian international Manjrekar James, they’re still a bit thin at the position following the departure of Daniel Krutzen, with Malik Owolabi-Belewu and Dominic Samuel the lone other options there right now.
Because of those reasons, it feels like we could see Achinioti-Jönsson start back at the position, at least to start the year, pairing with someone like James. From there, he can bounce back and forth depending on injuries and how the team is doing in midfield and at the back.
Either way, there’s no doubt that he’ll be a big asset for Forge, but what he’ll exactly be doing remains up in the air, as he’s proven his chops as both a destroy-and-progress #6 and a ball-playing centre back, meaning that he might have to do some double-dipping in 2023.
Player to Watch: Manjrekar James
Forge may have only made one offseason signing as of writing, but they made sure it was a key one, bolstering their centre back ranks by bringing in James following the departure of Krutzen.
And in the 29-year-old, they’ve landed quite the player. Capped 17 times for Canada, James brings almost 200 games of professional experience to Forge, logging matches in competitions such as the top flights of Greece, Denmark, Ukraine and Hungary, as well as in the UEFA Europa League and Champions League.
Plus, he comes to the league very much in the prime of his career, too, eager for a fresh start after a strange last few years career-wise. And by coming home to Hamilton, where he came through Sigma’s academy, he’ll certainly get that, especially on a team of Forge’s calibre.
Therefore, this move is an exciting one for many reasons, making it one of the most interesting ones to follow as this 2023 CPL season kicks off.
Yet, while Forge are a consensus favourite when it comes to the team that they’ll deploy on the field, the same hasn’t been the case for their new kits, which have received mixed reactions.
Their main kit is pretty solid, as they’ve leaned into the orange that they’ve now made famous around the league, and the chain is a nice touch given the links it gives them to Hamilton, but their gray away kit is underwhelming, especially compared to past offerings.
To be fair, gray is hard to work with, so that’s worth considering, but they could always lean into a fun colour to mix things up, such as when they made their special black gold kits back in 2019, as there can be only so much you can do with gray.
Forge will do well if… they stay the course. It’s simple, but it’s true, as Forge had the best actual and underlying numbers in 2022, holding the league’s best offence and best defence by most metrics. Injuries were the only reason they didn’t win the regular season, but they certainly showed what they can be at their best in the playoffs. Therefore, as long as they keep up those underlying metrics, and find a way to keep all of their players happy, they should be a very dangerous team.
Forge will struggle if… complacency settles in. For teams that have won as much as a team like Forge has, the key is to find a way to keep the fire lit, and not get too comfortable, as every other team will be shooting for them. That’s not been a problem in any of their four years as a team, but with teams around them getting better each year, it’s something that they’ll have to watch out for, as any slip-up could be exposed by their opponents.