JENKINS: 3 thoughts as Forge prepares for CCL debut vs. Cruz Azul
Forge FC, meet unfamiliar territory.
Oh, you've already met?
Next week, the Canadian Premier League takes another step (or, leap?), as Forge FC of Hamilton becomes the first CPL outfit to participate in the Concacaf Champions League.
It's a competition utterly dominated by teams like their first opponent, Cruz Azul of Mexico's Liga MX. In fact, even Major League Soccer sides have yet to lift this particular trophy.
So, with that in mind, what can Forge fans expect during this two-leg clash with La Máquina?
Here are my three thoughts:
1) Concacaf League success + experience key?
The Hammers qualified slightly ahead of schedule for the confederation's most prestigious competition. They undertook three Concacaf League campaigns—the tournament that feeds into the SCCL—advancing further each year. By reaching the semifinals in 2021, they were assured of their spot in Champions League for 2022, and despite accomplishing their primary objective, they nearly took it one step further by going the distance with Honduran powerhouse Motagua, only falling 2-2 on aggregate despite holding the Ciclón Azul to a goalless draw in Tegucigalpa.
GOLAZO 🔨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) November 3, 2021
Omar Browne STOP THIS. 😱🚀@ForgeFCHamilton up 1-0 (down 3-2 agg.) vs. Santos de Guapiles as the Panamanian striker scores a WORLDIE 🤯#SCL21 🏆 | #CanPL 🇨🇦 | 🔴 https://t.co/hishXepRT3 pic.twitter.com/e788jwVo60
Bobby Smyrniotis' side is hardened and battle-tested. They've battled on cold Hamilton nights and endured the heat and humidity of ties in Central America, each time gaining valuable experience on how to succeed in Concacaf. As of publishing, Forge have retained at least 11 players with Concacaf experience, with a few more exciting signings to be announced in the coming days. Additionally, since 2019, the Hamiltonians have a record of 7W–5D–3L with a +5 goal difference in Concacaf contests.
Until you play a Mexican side, you can't be fully prepared for a Mexican side, but Forge has the intangibles in their tool belt.
2) Forge may be accomplished; Cruz Azul, moreso
After an unfavourable draw, the two-time CPL champs will have to run the gauntlet to make as notable a run as they did in last year's Concacaf League. That's not to say they can't, and that's certainly not saying this Cruz Azul side is infallible. But more on that in my final thought.
Cruz Azul has won this competition six times, trailing only Club América (7) for the most in tournament history. Their most recent triumph in the event came in 2013-14 when they defeated Toluca 1-1 on aggregate for their first title in the Champions League-era. It almost goes without saying, but the Liga MX side has an estimated roster value of nearly $67-million compared to Forge's $4-million. Lastly, Cruz Azul has the benefit of form. By Feb. 16, Forge will have waited 73 days since they fell 1-0 to Pacific in the CPL Final, while La Máquina will have five matches under their belt since Jan. 8.
3) Play to win ... or just avoid losing?
There's a Cinderella story in every massive sporting event. They don't necessarily go all the way, but they often make a splash and first-round upsets aren't out of the question. Forge has the advantage of their cold, turf-covered home that has been a fortress for them over the past three seasons. They've never lost a cup match at Tim Horton's Field. A two-legged tie levels the playing field somewhat, and it certainly gives the Canadian outfit a fighting chance should they use Hamilton and their raucous support the way they've shown they can numerous times in the past.
Their opponent, for all of their many successes, are not immune to upsets, nor are they on their best form. After winning the Torneo Guard1anes 2021 to qualify for this Champions League edition, the Mexicans stumbled through the Apertura and were ousted by Monterrey in the reclassification for the Liguilla (playoff rounds). They're off to a better start in the current Liga MX Clausura, on a 3W-1D-1L start, but they dropped a late-match stunner, 2-1 to Club Necaxa in their final match before travelling to Canada. Something else to consider in this tie: Cruz Azul's last trip north was to Columbus for the 2021 Campeones Cup, and the Mexicans were kept off the scoresheet in a 2-0 defeat. Food for thought.
A final carrot for the Canadians: this could be their last chance at the big dance before the competition undergoes a serious overhaul in 2023-24. They will have to win the 2022 Canadian Championship to qualify for the 2023 Champions League; Pacific is the only CPL-direct candidate via this season's Concacaf League.
If any CPL side were to win the Canadian Championship or be the first to topple a Liga MX giant, why couldn't it be Forge?
Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League begins on Tuesday, February 15 (10PM ET / 7PM PT), with CF Montréal away to Santos Laguna in Torreón, Mexico followed by Forge FC hosting Cruz Azul on Wednesday (8PM ET / 5PM PT) as their tie gets underway in Hamilton.
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