'Heads will turn': There's more than finals on the line as CPL takes on MLS in Canadian Championship
It has the potential to be among the best days in the history of the still-young Canadian Premier League.
The 2023 Canadian Championship semi-finals kick off today on OneSoccer (beginning at 6:30PM ET / 3:30PM with our pre-game show), as Forge FC visits CF Montréal and Pacific FC hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps to duke it out for a spot in the final.
Both Forge and Pacific will look to become the first CPL team to reach the Canadian Championship finals – at least, without receiving a bye as Forge did for the unusual conclusion of the 2020 edition. There's history on the line, as such.
This isn’t the first time CPL teams have reached the semi-finals stage of the tournament, though – Pacific and Forge have both made it this far before, alongside Cavalry FC and York United ... but it feels like this is the best opportunity yet for a CPL side to reach the final. With Forge and Pacific boasting the sort of depth that hasn't been seen in the league's young history, the two have been able to balance success in league play while navigating the arduous journey that a cup run can bring.
They're prepared. They're ready. And knowing what lifting the Voyageurs Cup could mean for either club, they're ready to go full-tilt, too.
“Everyone at the club is very excited for this opportunity to hoist a trophy,” Forge defender Ashtone Morgan told OneSoccer. "That's our main motivation – to be the first CPL team to attempt to win this Canadian Championship and bring it back to Hamilton."
"In my opinion, these are the games you want to be a part of,” Pacific star Manny Aparicio told OneSoccer. "These are the games that you're a professional for, especially when you're going up against an MLS side, as they're the bigger opposition and you can create an upset ... just like TSS Rovers did with Valour! When you’re the underdog, it’s a good feeling to get that upset going."
It’s worth noting that Pacific and Forge enter this game with a wealth of big-game experience to tap into, as well.
Of course, there were those previous Canadian Championship semi-finals in 2021, where Pacific narrowly lost 2-1 to Toronto FC, while Forge lost to Montréal on penalties. But, as the only teams to ever lift the North Star Shield as CPL champions as well as play in some tough away locales in Concacaf competition, Forge and Pacific have also got those experiences to draw on, too.
GOAL 🔱🔱🔱🔱— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 3, 2022
SPOKE TOO SOON - it's FOUR for @Pacificfccpl
Josh Heard gets in on the scoring action to extend a 4-0 lead over Waterhouse FC in this #SCL22 clash#CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/UBKXUi8omu
These are the sort of matchups that these players live for, and now, they want to make the most of them now that they’re here.
Just take the word of Manny Aparicio, someone who has been part of a few of Pacific’s biggest moments, such as when Pacific beat the Whitecaps in the preliminary round of the 2019 tournament for one of the largest upsets in Canadian Championship history.
On the exact same stage where they’ll play the Whitecaps on Wednesday, they can look back at that game and draw on that experience, for both those who were there and even those who weren’t.
“We’ll have a chat in the changing room with the guys, I’m sure a lot of them saw what we did last time around, and I think everyone understands that at home we’re dangerous, we love to play on our home pitch, it’s a bit smaller than what the Whitecaps are used to, and we’ll look to use that to our advantage to always put that pressure on them, just as we like it, so I think the guys will be up for it. These are the games where you don’t really have to get guys going for.”
You add in that Pacific has the double whammy of being able to host the final if they win, just the second team after Forge to do so (and first to do so without a bye), and that’s an added bonus for them heading into this game.
When they beat the Whitecaps the first time, it was big, but ultimately, was a small win in the context of the tournament, as they only advanced to play Cavalry on the road in the quarter-finals.
If they win this match, however, they’ll host a cup final in front of their fans at Starlight Stadium, for a chance to lift silverware and earn a spot in the Concacaf Champions League. Safe to say, it would make their victory from the first match seem small in comparison, showing the scale of these games for them and Forge.
“It’s huge,” Aparicio said of that possibility. “We’ve been lucky with the draw, for travel and since we’re good at home, so if there’s a chance for us to win it over the last few years, it’s right now, we get to be at home the whole way through, so one game at a time, we’ve still got to beat the Whitecaps, we’ll take this game-by-game, but we know that in the back of our minds (we can host the final).”
As for Forge, they’re no slouch in the experience department, either. They’re yet to beat an MLS team like Pacific has (although they did take Forge and Montréal to penalties in previous matchups), but between them winning three North Star Shields, and their plethora of experience from playing in Concacaf, they’ve been in some big games themselves.
From playing (and scoring) in the Azteca in the Champions League, and beating teams from El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras in Concacaf League, they’ve been on plenty of similar stages and have done pretty well for themselves.
Plus, Forge have a knack for breaking barriers in the CPL. In their young history, they’re the first CPL team to win a North Star Shield, lead the all-time race for North Star Shields, are the only team to reach a Canadian Championship final, were the first team to play in Concacaf League and are the first and only team to play in the Champions League.
So for them to then become the first CPL team to reach the final without a bye? It’d be just another feather for Forge to add to their cap as a side.
“Of course, I think over the course of the history of this young league, Forge has been at the front of a lot of things, especially in continental tournaments in Concacaf League and in the Concacaf Champions League,” Morgan explained. “So yeah, we have a chip on our shoulder to represent our league and fellow opponents in the CPL to the highest level of standards that we can, so we’ll look to control what we can control, and focus on ourselves and win this game."
Either way, however, it doesn’t matter who wins - just reaching this sort of stage is huge for the CPL.
Pacific’s loss to Toronto FC in the 2021 semi-finals led to Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung getting picked up by TFC for the 2022 season, while Forge’s 2021 Canadian Championship semi-final run eventually helped them to qualify for the Champions League through Concacaf League later that season.
At the same time, these CPL teams aren’t just here to make up the numbers - they want to beat these MLS outfits.
So far only able to look back at two instances where CPL sides beat MLS ones in this competition, both coming at the hands of the Whitecaps via Cavalry in 2019 and Pacific in 2021, fans can look at those games and suggest they were flukes given the putrid level of those Whitecaps sides.
For either of these two sides to win against a strong Whitecaps team and a surging Montréal outfit this week, however? The fluke level would slowly start to lose credence.
Therefore, look for Pacific and Forge to come out strongly in these games. Not only are they representing their clubs, their supporters and their cities, but they represent the hopes of a young league, one that is looking to push among the best in the region.
Also, having seen 4 years of this now... #CanPL teams can compete in CONCACAF— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) August 24, 2022
First it was Forge in their CONCACAF League runs and Champions League visit, and Pacific has certainly further proved that now
Excited to see what the CPL can do with 2+ berths in the CCL 2024 onwards
In just its fifth year of existence, they’ve played a lot of catch-up just to be able to play in games like this, and now, they’re wanting to make the most of them.
And if they can reach the final from there, and maybe even win it all? That’d only go a long way towards the growth of the circuit, something that isn’t lost on them.
Using MLS as a parallel, given the growth that league has undertaken despite being less than three decades old, the CPL knows that they can take big strides in short periods of time, with moments like these ones serving as a potential accelerator for that growth.
“You’re right, once could be a fluke. It wasn’t (a fluke), in our opinion, but if you do it twice, heads will turn,” Aparicio explained. “Obviously, Cavalry also upset (the Whitecaps in 2019). The CPL keeps improving, just as MLS did in the previous decade, and they’re still improving now, but I think they took a big leap forward in the last 10 years or so, and that’s what we're striving to do.”
“We want to keep on getting better as a league, and if we can keep having matches like this against MLS sides, and keep on turning heads and showing that we’re at that level in those games, I think it’s going to go a long way towards the CPL’s growth.”