No More Novak: Forge 2021 Preview

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

Fair warning: a lot of this post is going to be about Anthony Novak’s brain.

We’re not as interested in his feet unless he scores goals like the one he did in last year’s season opener.

But even those ones he gets with his brain because Novak is one of the smartest forwards in this league. He’s not an advanced-stats darling–his eight goals are more than anyone expected, for a variety of reasons. With Novak, though, his goals come from hard work–not so much the gritty, third-line, Canadian depth player kind of hard work, but the smart, efficient, and slightly German kind that uses quick movement in and around the box to drag defenders around so that, when the ball comes in, the striker is there for something like this.

He creates this by posting up to Dom Zator, then spinning away. It’s elite reaction and movement, and those get you goals.

His move from Forge to Calgary was, for me, the biggest move of the off-season and not just because I’ve admittedly become something of an Anthony Novak fan since this league kicked off in 2019. And hey, he’s an ex-League 1 Ontario guy who’s scored eight goals for Forge so far, including a huge one against Limeño in CONCACAF League. I did an actual double-take when I saw the news he’d left Hamilton.

This isn’t just a Novak preview (good idea, though–we’ll put it in the queue for next year!) so we’ll save the rest of my rhapsodizing about him for the always-enjoyable Key Departures section.

Forge are still a good team, yeah yeah yeah. But no Novak. (Sorry, this is going to be really hard for me.) They still have Mo Babouli, whom I also quite like, but who very much fits into Bobby Smyrniotis’ trademark possession style.

At times, half-convince myself that a lot of what Forge does is designed in part to stick it to Toronto FC. It’s no secret there’s not a lot of love between Bobby’s Sigma academy and TFC’s academy–I can’t pretend to be knowledgeable about the backroom politics of the Toronto soccer scene, but it’s not exactly hard to see when every top Sigma prospect ends up in NCAA and then, say, Orlando.1Both Richie Laryea and Cyle Larin went this route.

Former TFC coach Greg Vanney had a fascinating quote back in April, talking about how he didn’t think Richie Laryea would want to play at TFC. Vanney always chooses his words extremely carefully–that “want” is telling, especially given Laryea was almost out of football at the time TFC signed him. I don’t know how much you can read into that alone, but it’s something. In any event, Richie’s obviously done okay with himself, as has Bobby Smyrniotis.

Then Bobby goes and signs a guy like Omar Browne who’s main accolade is he stuck it to TFC really bad one time and, yeah, there’s definitely something there. Plus you had the whole thing around the Voyageur’s Cup final that’s yet to be played, and the rivalry is definitely on.

Forge’s ambition, at this point, is definitely in that tier anyway. This is a club that’s had a huge amount of success already and very much wants to find those bigger stages in CONCACAF. They’re well on their way again this year, drawn against CD F.A.S in the League already (by no means an easy opponent). Win that and they’ll face Browne’s Independiente, that team that knocked out TFC one time.2Browne can’t play in that game, as he’s on loan. Win that, and one more, and they’re in CONCACAF Champions League and, one day, this team will get a game against TFC that means something.

Oh yeah, they play in CanPL, too. About that.

Bobby when hes on his way to scout a TFC player. (Photo: CanPL.ca, but look close, they did some really fun Photoshop….)
Key Arrivals

Forge, as is typical, made very few changes this winter, no doubt in part because they were always waiting for that cup match that never came.

The changes they do make, they tend to tell no one about. This is also typical.

But the one everyone knows about is Tristan Borges, CanPL’s dewy-eyed starlet, who was bought by OHL (the one in Belgium, not Sarnia) in 2019, is back. As is also fairly typical, he’s been loaned to Forge for the 2021 season to get minutes and continue developing in a league that’s familiar to him.

It’s tempting to read into this more than there actually is. This isn’t a set-back for Borges. It’s common for young players not to play much in Europe’s top leagues, so rather than bury him in the reserves, OHL sent Borges out on loan. Helpfully, CanPL plays a summer season, and if Borges can put up numbers this year, he’ll be coming back to Belgium in November, in form, with a much better chance to break into the first team.

Borges is not yet a complete player. Smyrniotis played him on the wing most of 2019 because Borges was a liability defensively and also needed that little bit of extra space to operate in. By the 2019 final, he was playing inside more often. With Paolo Sabak still around, I’d actually expect Borges to go back out wide, which may be his best spot anyway.

The other additions, aside from Browne, are more about depth for the CONCACAF League run. Joshua Navarro, for instance, has minutes in the  quite-good Costa Rican league, albeit mostly as a sub. Kosi Nwanfornsu is a striker who’s mostly played in NCAA and what used to be called PDL but is now USL2, and is probably both a Marcel Zajac replacement and depth for the Winnipeg tournament stage of the season.

Do keep an eye on Garven Metusala. He’s Forge’s first USPORTs signing in a long while, can play across the back-line, and was one of the most intriguing players in the draft. He’s probably mostly depth as well, but could turn into more, as those USPORTs picks often do (just not usually with Forge, eh?).

Dejan Jakovic is in as David Edgar’s replacement, but I actually think he may be depth as well. We’ll get to that situation in a minute.

Key Departures

Edgar retired last year, somewhat in the middle of the CONCACAF League run.

He’s one of those players CanPL teams are built around, steady if rarely recognized Canadians who have played the game at reasonable levels over the years and can teach it to the youngsters who make up the bulk of rosters in this league.

Edgar did all of that and then some for Forge. When he first arrived back in June 2019, Forge’s defense was leaky enough that it was seriously costing them credibility–what was supposed to have been the marquee team in CanPL, owned by Bob Young, was faltering. Edgar patched it up.

He did it by organizing, mainly. It’s one of those things in soccer that’s very hard to quantify, but basically, Forge had a promising, young, ball-playing centre-back in Daniel Krutzen and Edgar yelled at him a lot to stay in position. Krutzen improved, and now the reins are being passed over to him. It’s not super advanced or technological; more like father-son, rite-of-passage stuff.

But Edgar’s departure leaves a massive hole, just because Krutzen was starting so Forge still need another body back there. That will likely be Jakovic, as often as possible, and Dom Samuel the rest of the time.

There are other departures, aside from Novak, who I am resisting the urge to talk further about. Marcel Zajac is gone after not really doing much for Forge over two years. So is Kadell Thomas, who had some flashy moments but not a lot of consistent tactical nous. They were both Sigma guys Bobby kept loyally until it was no longer realistic to do so.

Klaidi Cela retired, which is a real pity because he showed really well when he played, but he had injury trouble that probably wasn’t worth it given what he was getting paid. Veteran depth piece Jordan Dunstan is gone, too.

Last year’s USPORTs pick, Gabriel Balbinotti, is gone, too. I’d put money on Forge regretting that one in the near future, much as they did letting Abou Sissoko walk.

Key Players
Dejan Jakovic, centre-back

Jakovic is the steady, Canadian veteran brought in to teach Krutzen the finer ways of the Force, as well as put out any fires caused by the Belgian stepping way out to make an audacious pass.

There are a couple critical differences, though: first, Jakovic has never been as vocal a leader as Edgar. I think he does bring a lot of calmness and level-headedness to a team–some of this stuff is so intangible it can be communicated without even speaking, like in a séance. I really think this is the year Krutzen has to take over the organizing duties, vocally if not spiritually.

Second is that Jakovic hasn’t been a starter since 2015, when he was still playing in Japan. He’s actually two years older than Edgar, and has been playing with LAFC as a kind of depth sorcerer there, too, although he was forced into quite a lot of action last year due to injuries and absences ahead of him. Unfortunately, LAFC’s defense was not great, either.

It’s a real question how much more Jakovic has in the tank. He’s not played more than 1,200 minutes–about half a CanPL season–since 2014. The bet here is that “depth player in the J-League and MLS” will, combined with being a wise old mentor figure, translate into a good signing.

I think it probably will. Jakovic is a smart player who can conserve energy when he has to, and he’s always been a better-than-average player with the ball, which fits Forge’s system. Forge have a #3 centre-back in Dom Samuel to spell him off.

I’m a little worried about CanPL playoffs and CONCACAF League games, though. They’re going to have to choose Jakovic’s minutes, or else rely on Kyle Bekker’s ninja powers to make up for it.

Kyle Bekker, ninja
Forge FC Kyle Bekker practicing ninja movie poses.
Kyle Bekker, first-ever signing and Forge FC ninja.

I’m not sure we’ve actually seen the best from Bekker yet in this league, and he’s probably still been one of the top players in CanPL over the past two years.

He’s had to do a lot of work in attack, more than is probably ideal for him. Bekker’s slowly become a very good deep playmaker3Deep in other ways, too. and is best when he can just cycle Forge’s attack from deep and create the long spells of possession that are pretty rare but very welcome in CanPL.

In 2019, roster construction meant he had to do a bit more. Last summer, Paolo Sabak struggled to find his feet in the league and Bekker had to spend a lot of time outside the box. He’s always had those late runs, and scored a couple on PEI, as is his wont.

But I think this year might be the year he gets to go Pure Bekker. Sabak is a year more comfortable, Borges is back and should be better at playing inside if need be, and Forge have added some extra midfield depth in Navarro. With Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson beside him and Bekker finally free as a bird, Forge may finally have the perfect ideal of a midfield.

Mo Babouli, false nine

Babouli has had one hell of a career, first in CCAA, then catching on fire with TFC, then getting unceremoniously released by same, playing in Aleppo, Syria, and finally playing Major Indoor Soccer League in Mississauga.

He wasn’t, I don’t think, super effective on PEI. He certainly wasn’t super fit. But what Babouli can do isn’t really about pace, power, or strength like the vast majority of strikers in this league. He set up a solid handful of goals last year by drifting, dropping, and flicking–all those vaguely dodgy soccer moves that do, for real, have tactical meaning. Babouli operates between lines, a free agent, and when it works he sends wingers like Chris Nanco, David Choiniere, or Tristan Borges, into positions where they can’t miss.

Babouli with Borges is going to be very fun this summer.

But it is all on Babouli now. He rotated with Novak last summer, although by the end of the tournament Bobby pretty clearly had a preference. The past several years, in his case, have provided unique challenges to staying fit. There is no longer a solid B option behind him, or anyone to throw on when a goal is needed. Babouli simply must provide that himself, for ninety minutes, every game.

I’m not sure he has ever done that in his career.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Have I mentioned Anthony Novak recently?

One of the great conundrums around Forge through two years has been that they’re fundamentally a different team when Novak’s out there. Go watch their third-ever match against Pacific, Forge’s first win, and see. Or just about any of the CONCACAF games. There’s a reason he went from a projected depth piece to drinking off the shield.

This is why I brought up Bobby’s ambitions and loyalties before. Forge are among the most well-drilled team in CanPL, with a clear system and a clear commitment to their coach’s fundamentals and ideals. So goes Bobby, so goes Forge.

I think Novak’s departure is primarily about money and/or a desire from Novak for something new, but it is also a re-commitment to those fundamental values and a move away from a player who deliberately broke them.

From the first word I wrote about Forge, they’ve been, for me, a push-pull between those values and what can actually work in a league like CanPL, where some of the players are paid less than $20,000/year.

The truth is, there are times you need a player like Novak, evenn one without Novak’s intelligent movement, just to lump the ball towards him so he can hold it up and give everyone a breath.

Without him, and with Babouli, it’s a very different look. An inventive one, a bold one, an exciting one for Canadian soccer, and if Bobby can get this working in CONCACAF–I’m fairly confident he can–it’ll be worth more words than Novak’s noggin, that’s for sure.

It looks a bit like this:

It’s a 4-3-3. This is one of the “fundamentals”. Every manager who ever utters the word will play a 4-3-3. It just is.

Babouli’s a false nine. In this set-up, you need the wingers to attack from wide positions, either beating the fullbacks inside or driving back in from the byline, crossing for a late runner. Chris Nanco and David Choiniere need to finish more than they have to make up for Novak’s eight goals.

In midfield, if Babouli drops deep, it raises questions for Paolo Sabak, who’s not necessarily that comfortable making deep runs into the penalty area. Even last year, there were times he was crowded out by his own team, especially when Babouli played.

Bekker, too, has to stay deep, maybe even beside Sabak. There are different variants Forge could play to re-arrange the midfield a tad–that may have to through fixture congestion alone. I don’t think they have the centre-backs for a back three, but I could be wrong.

I don’t think Bobby’s ever played a true back three for any length of time, though.

This is still a tremendously talented roster. Forge are two-deep at most positions. I haven’t even mentioned guys like Max Tissot or Elimane Cissé, both of whom would probably start on most CanPL clubs. Kwame Awuah might be the best left-back in the league.

There are questions at right-back if Johnny Grant’s hamstrings let him down again, though we could see Tissot or Samuel there. In goal, Baj Maan looked very fragile when forced to play last year and while Triston Henry has been a tremendous success story, he’s prone to the odd mistake in big games.

But the real adventure is going to be up front, where it is all or nothing on Babouli as a false nine.

Projection: 3rd

Forge are very much in the top group of this league, absolutely. The top three teams, with maybe Pacific as an outside fourth, are very close. Forge could very well win it all again, especially if they’re healthy and in form when the playoffs roll around. In an one-off, I rate Bobby Smyrniotis’ coaching above almost anyone else.

But I think the loss of Novak is a substantial blow. Forge can, at times, play absolutely gorgeous football, but in those big games against Cavalry or CONCACAF4It does sometimes feel like you’re playing CONCACAF itself, doesn’t it?, it was always Novak popping up in the box to score the biggest goals at the biggest moments.

Then there’s Edgar, who would still reliably bail Forge out two or three times each game. They did manage to keep him healthy and will have to work the same magic with Jakovic, but even then I’m not sure Jakovic has the pace to sweep up the through-balls that can sometimes give Forge trouble.

There’s CONCACAF, plus the travel, all in a year when Forge have been unable to have a proper pre-season, to the club’s great frustration. I also think, when it counts, Forge may actually put more importance on the CONCACAF League than CanPL this year–the CONCACAF format is changing yet again5Seriously, Vic, I know you need to get the Caribbean teams more games and I actually agree that’s important, and it benefits Canada, too, but at some point you’ve got to let a format live a little, y’know? after this year, and it will give CanPL’s winner a much, much more difficult path. This might be Forge’s best chance to win.

And finally, there’s the commitment to ideals, to fundamentals, to one way of playing above all else. I have mixed feelings on this; there’s a degree of principle and personal preference in it, Bobby’s the manager, and I’m not. In a league like CanPL, though, through 28 games in the heat and on highly variable playing surfaces, an occasional bit of pragmatism can be crucial.

That pragmatism was Anthony Novak, and he’s now in Calgary.

About Dylan Matthias 178 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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