2020 Preview: Forging a Caveat Edition

The North Star Shield, not recommended for eating. (Photo via CanPL)

If Forge win this thing, does it count as a back-to-back championship?

(It does, according to the league. You know it’s not quite the same, though, and it never will be.)

Hamilton’s side is still the best team in the league, just like they were at the end of last season, They’ve made very few moves in the winter and look pretty happy about it.

That was pretty much the plan in 2019, too, when Bobby Smyrniotis added one of his key pieces in the summer by signing David Edgar. That opportunity more or less passed due to Covid… but then, he added Mo Babouli hours before leaving for PEI.

Forge are automatically contenders in Charlottetown and were even before Babouli signed. It says a lot about this team that he probably won’t start, at least not in the first match against Cavalry. They were tactically and technically superior in both legs of the final last year, and they’re not resting on their laurels, either.

“When I look at it statistically — the goals, the assists — they’re probably not where they want to be, last year, and where I think they can be. So it’s getting that extra production from them this year, because last year in a lot of areas of the game they were excellent.” – Bobby Smyrniotis, to CanPL.ca back in March

This was, for me, the most interesting quote of the offseason. Forge won the title last year, and immediately post-Borges-sale quotes. he’s calling out Marcel Zajac, David Choiniere, and Elimane Cissé. The message is clear: if you want to be sold, you have to step up and earn it.

When that’s the expectation, it’s not a bad idea to bet on improvement from within.

Key Additions

They resigned almost everyone at the end of 2019, including Tristan Borges, enabling them to get a transfer fee for him. Anthony Novak, who was the focal point in attack when he wasn’t hurt, is also back.

Along with Babouli, they announced the signing of Canadian left-back Max Tissot, who addresses a sneaky problem at left-back for Forge. Tissot long deserved more of a chance in MLS and should be a top player in this league.

Key Departures

They can make these moves because they cut guys with contracts who underperformed–namely Bertrand Owundi and Quillan Roberts. That’s ruthless, but it’s a salary cap league.

I’m a bit more disappointed to see university pick Jace Kotsopolous go. I thought he showed well in limited minutes and he’s four years younger than Novak. It’s worth remembering, though, that some of these guys aren’t paid all that much, and will understandably want to move on if they don’t have a chance to move up a level. That’s more or less what happened with Guiliano Frano, who was useful in a lot of different positions last year but recently left by mutual consent to go into business. It’s a bit of a tough break for club and fans alike, but this is going to happen at this level of football.

Key Players

David Choiniere (attacker)

Of the three guys Smyrniotis called out publicly, I thought Choiniere was the hardest done by it–he played pretty well last year when he got minutes, which wasn’t often. That said, I trust Bobby and it’s totally possible Choiniere didn’t earn those minutes (he was also hurt a lot–maybe too much).

He’s still young and still a bit unproven, but while he’s not quite as physically dynamic as Borges, he offers some of the same intelligence and goal threat, and is perhaps less likely to get sent off in major finals. Borges actually exceeded his underlying numbers last year. Forge aren’t going to get 11 goals out of Choiniere but they probably don’t need to, and he has the skill package to offer a lot more than the four he put up last year (in only a hair over 1,000 minutes).

Paolo Sabak (attacking midfielder)

If Choiniere doesn’t pan out, the Borges spot (usually on the left, sometimes in the middle) is probably Paolo Sabak’s, a young Belgian who’s come up through the Genk system, and got on the pitch with Nijmegen in the Dutch second division. He actually subbed in for Alejandro Pozuelo at one point–subbing on for the captain is always a good look.

This wasn’t a 21st Club signing. It came through a connection with Forge assistant coach Peter Reynders, who coached Sabak at Genk. That speaks to the importance of developing, in this league, an actual network of people who have worked around the world. That is not something a service can provide and it is a massive missing runj in Canadian coach development. We’ve never had the clubs to help build that network, and we do now. The next step is getting more Canadian coaches hired abroad.

Bobby Smyrniotis also got Daniel Krutzen this way and that worked out well. Reynders no doubt helped with the Borges sale to OHL in Belgium, too. Nobody knows if Sabak, who’s just 19, will work out, but I feel more comfortable trusting the talent ID of the Forge braintrust than shadowy centralized tech services, especially when said talent has legit reps with the Belgian U19s.

David Edgar (centre-back)

Nobody much talked about Edgar last year. He’s never exactly been a Canadian soccer headline-maker, but he should have been, because he came into this new league after finishing the European season–a gamble for a player of his stature–and immediately took Forge from an exciting, tactically adept team that had a worrying tendency to concede horribly soft goals to an exciting, tactically adept team that could shut out Cavalry at Spruce Meadows.

Edgar is 33 now, but he still has enough left in his legs to be the organizer without being a liability, and Forge’s backline needed that organization last year. His injury history has to be a concern going forward, especially coming off the lengthy Covid training layoff and heading into a rapid-fire tournament. They need him to stay healthy at least one more year, which might mean rotating him, except Forge are a touch thin at centre-back. Except Krutzen to play much more there than at left-back.

Tactics and Positional Depth

It’ll be the same as last year–a possession 4-2-3-1 with a fair bit of fluidity but discipline in key places, mostly built around Kyle Bekker’s ability to make decisions and defensive reads. I didn’t mention him above, but don’t overlook Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson’s role in making all that work by playing the simplest, most effective game in CanPL.

Elimane Cissé was one of the other players Smyrniotis challenged. He toyed with playing him as the forward part of that midfield last year, basically as a #10. Cissé’s not that good at it–it’s worth remembering he started his career as a centre-back before not quite making it at d-mid last year. Like Kwame Awuah, both are versatile, which you need in this league, but I suspect both are best as useful ways to alter the game off the bench.

Choiniere is really more of a second striker, too. Ideally he gets onto the end of Nanco’s crosses, but Smyrniotis sometimes switched Nanco to the left last year, and could do something similar, which either leaves Choiniere out or–perhaps?–playing off Novak. Adding Babouli, whatever state he’s in, means there’ll be competition and enough depth, though there’d be more if Zajac could figure out the adjustment to professional soccer.

(Just for fun, let’s swap some spots in case of injuries. Forge are good enough I can do that without feeling it’s unfair.)

(That’s really quite scary. No team in CanPL can trot out a whole second XI. Though the defense might be scary for a different reason, and damn would I like it if Monti Mohsen wasn’t third on the LB depth chart–Awuah would more likely play there, and could even start if Tissot’s not up to full fitness.)

These are, in many ways, good questions to have. Squad rotation is going to be important if Forge want to get through 11 games in a month, which is what winning on PEI will mean. They signed Gabriel Balbinotti out of the USPORTs draft, which took a while but he showed what he could do in a tournament setting at nationals last year1I’d actually keep an eye on him, longer-term, as Bekker’s back-up and, perhaps, eventually replacement. Bekker will turn 30 at the tournament and while physicality’s never been a huge part of his game, the miles can start to tell. Balbinotti, who was an Ottawa Fury prospect at one point, might actually end up being the better player once he’s had a chance to learn from Bekker’s experience of having gone from superstar to simple, pragmatic midfielder–a similar journey Balbinotti needs to take. and he’ll get a chance to play, especially now Frano’s gone.

Strengths

I really think Bobby Smyrniotis is the best manager in this league. I might not have said that before he took on CD Olimpia–one of the best sides in Honduras–last year and, despite the loss, basically controlled the game for 180 minutes. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a CONCACAF coach, much less a Canadian one, actually manage that against a Honduran side. Yes, they lost the second leg, but even there they were in the game until late.

Compared to Tommy Wheeldon Jr., Smyrniotis is gruff and there was a moment before the CanPL final when One Soccer showed a snapshot of his dressing room speech that I wondered how, up against Wheeldon Jr.’s high-energy sermon, Bobby gets guys to play for him, because you could hear paint drying. Then he went and won both legs of the final. When the going gets tough, as it inevitably will at some point on PEI, I don’t think there’s a coach more able to change on the fly as Smyrniotis2He also did it last year, several times, early in the spring season when things were not going well for Forge. He threw Anthony Novak up front and started playing transition games. He gave Triston Henry the starting job ahead of Quillan Roberts, and stuck with him after an early-season gaffe, for which Henry rewarded him. He went out and signed Edgar and dropped ex-MLSer Bertrand Owundi. I don’t know if any team changed things as much as Forge did last year.. That was a large part of what won him the inaugural title, and over the course of a tournament, it’s often the team that can adjust that wins.

Weaknesses

There’s always something that nags at me about Forge, though, no matter what they do. I wrote about it last year.

For this tournament, anyway, it’s depth, but honestly, I’m reaching here. I was going to knock them for not signing their USPORTs draftees, especially since last year’s pick Aboubacar Sissoko went on to get a preseason invite in Vancouver and signed in Halifax. That kind of thing can hurt you.

They’ve since signed Balbinotti, so I had to scrap that. Still, pour one out for Alex Zis, who joins Sissoko, Kotsopoulos, and Marko Mandekic as university stars who didn’t really get a sniff. This is a tough team to break into.

Wildcard

Mo Babouli is pretty much a literal wildcard. He came out of nowhere at TFC (actually came out of CCAA and a short spell in the academy), played quite well but what are you gonna do behind Sebastian Giovinco?, then left and went to play in… Aleppo, Syria, at the height of the civil war. Babouli has Syrian heritage so it’s not completely out of left-field, but you still wonder where his head’s at. That can’t have been an easy stint. Since coming back, he’s been playing indoor soccer–the kind with boards–and in the now long unsanctioned Canadian Soccer League. It’s a crazy ride.

If he can deliver on the flashes of potential he showed at TFC and in League 1 Ontario before that, he could still be a top player in this league, even at 27 and having not played a whole lot recently. He is, basically, another reclamation project, not that much unlike Quillan Roberts or Bertrand Owundi, both of whom came out of difficult MLS situations. You’ll also notice, above, that both got cut. Neither made even the slightest impact for Forge last year. They got away with it in 2019, riding Borges, Bekker, and the rest of their pieces to the title, but you can’t afford to do that on the regular with a 23-man roster, and you certainly can’t afford to have that in Charlottetown. Eleven games in just over a month.

Step up or ship out.

Predictions

I had them first in April and see no reason not to make them favourites for PEI. There are reasons why this might not go to plan, but most of those apply to all the teams. Because of where Forge were already and how Smyrniotis builds his team, they’ve not been as badly hit by international absences. Depth is maaaybe an issue, but it’s one I’m pretty sure they can figure out.

About Dylan Matthias 161 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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