I’m really sorry, Forge fans, this is going to be a short preview because the team is too good to write anything about.
Sure, we could warble through all the usual clichés about revenge for the final and the like, but Kyle Bekker is already doing that, and even his heart doesn’t seem in it.
So we’ll take a quick look through the roster and then you’ll have to indulge me on a bit of a wander. You read this blog, it’s a risk.
But first, yeah, Forge are very, very good again. This is no surprise at this point. Occasionally, usually on Reddit, you’ll see some conspiracy theory about how the league helps Forge, LA Galaxy style — I always take these as a sign CanPL has made it.
In truth, it’s not actually so complicated how Forge get all these guys under the cap: 1.) Players want to play for Bobby Smyrniotis because Bobby has a proven track record making players better, and 2.) Players want to play for a winning team, and see 1. Put the two together, and Bobby usually has a winning team. We could end the preview here.
Now, they didn’t win last year, and they often start slow so don’t be too surprised if Forge drop a couple points the next few weeks while figuring out exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing, but they ended up with a whopping 50 points last year despite a wonky Winnipeg bubble tournament. They’ll be fine.
This is despite turning over a decent number of players each year, whether for cap reasons or performance reasons.1Forge have signed just as many busts as anybody else — no one’s perfect when it comes to recruitment. Bertrand Owundi? Quillan Roberts? Emery Welshman’s first stint (and I don’t think his second has been great either)? Maybe Paolo Sabak ought to count, too. Every year, they reload. It helps that the GTA is a talent gold mine, and Forge can save a bit of money on housing, too, but this year they started luring players from out west as well.
Terran Campbell and Alessandro Hojabrpour are big gets. Both have long futures, either as centre-pieces with Forge or to be sold on elsewhere via Bobby’s extensive connections.
Hojabrpour, in particular, could be big in Hamilton. Campbell will score some goals, to be sure, but Kyle Bekker is 31 now (though he still looks like a kid in third-year Engineering), and while he’s got a few years left for sure, not even an ageless ninja lasts forever.
The odd game that Bekker doesn’t play for Forge, they look noticeably worse. He covers huge amounts of the field, mostly with sheer smarts more so than particularly elite athleticism. If you’re coaching a young player, show him tape of Kyle Bekker because he always knows exactly where to go. He keeps the ball moving. He angles his body to open up forward passes. He even has that sixth sense of where and when to be when the ball’s bouncing in the box.
Hojabrpour does a lot of the same things, and he’s 22. Like Bekker, he started his career as more of a pure attacking midfielder, a “#10” in the parlance. Like Bekker, he’s spent the first part of his professional career transitioning to playing a deeper role — he was sometimes even a #6 for Pacific, sitting deep and linking play. Defensively, he still has some growing to do, but it took Bekker until he was about 26 to make the same transition, so time is on Hojabrpour’s side.
And as cover for both, Forge brought Abou Sissoko back from Indy XI, where he was mostly a sub. I’ll admit I’m a bit salty about this one — I get it, Pacific fans — but this is what happens when players want to push themselves. Sissoko isn’t quite as savvy as Bekker, but he makes very good decisions when pressing and his passing has as much bite as his tackling.
I suspect the reason he didn’t stick in Indy is that he’s 26, and won’t get much better, so has limited upside for a higher-level club. This is the down-side of the college/university route. We know what he is in CanPL — he forced his way onto Wanderers in 2020 as a draft pick (ironically after Forge drafted and released him in 2019) and was a big part of why they made the final.
He’s going to have to fight for minutes at Forge, too. He mostly replaces Elimane Cissé, who also had to fight for minutes and eventually stopped winning them. When you’ve got both Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and Kyle Bekker written into the eleven in pen, there aren’t many to fight for.
Forge have slowly started to trust USPORTs players more, signing Gabriel Pianelli-Balison, who was very impressive at nationals way, way back in 2019, before the pandemic. Bobby obviously rates NCAA very highly — he’s placed a lot of Sigma grads in good programs over the years and has consistently signed players from same.2Not actually all that successfully, mind. He got Garven Metusala last year in the draft, though, and he turned into the kind of versatile, athletic, and skilled defender Smyrniotis likes. Pianelli is much the same. That makes up for the loss of Dejan Jakovic, who was more than a year too old.
You might notice the theme here is development. Forge signed guys like Jakovic and Ashtone Morgan as veteran leaders, but the Smyrniotis brothers are both long-time development guys, and the club reflects their ethos. Since developmental picks were introduced in 2021(ish), Forge have been very good about using them to move young guys through their system, then out again, usually to NCAA, which is why whenever you look at their roster-tracker3Big shout-out, by the way, to Marty Thompson and Charlie O’Connor-Clarke who started doing that back in the first off-season when clubs were much less timely with signing announcements, keeping it updated, and then linking it in every post they wrote during the off-season. Small things like this stick around, do a lot more than flashy press releases to grow the league, and never get the credit deserved. Without that roster-tracker, writing and researching these previews would be impossible, and I’d probably have given up covering the league. there are so many young guys who’ve barely played being released each year.
It’s not a bad thing. It’s a long-term strategy. The idea is to bring a teenager in, establish what the player needs to work on, help him set goals, then connect him to an environment where he can work on those things for a good period of time, with good coaching.
Slowly, more and more Canadian clubs are learning to do this. Some have been doing so for a long time, but don’t get much attention for it — clubs like Highlanders, TSS Rovers, Longueil, Vaughan, and a whole pile more.
It’s fun to rank CanPL teams based on the strength of the first-team squad (or our hopes for that strength, anyway), but these clubs are the “biggest” in Canada, especially when they’re fully part of the local youth scene from U-Littles on up. The ideal is to have a team like Forge be the end of that pipeline, its roster built from a combination of promising not-quite-there-yets from within its own youth ranks, first-teamers fighting for minutes, and veterans being trained as coaches to develop players themselves.
It’ll be a while before CanPL gets there. The MLS sides are still working on it, and there are intricacies to the structure where some teams won’t integrate as fully, and that’s fine. It’s a complicated thing to build.
The best place for this in Canada, right now, is Division 3. There is way, way too much gobbledy-gook in Canada Soccer Business’s League 1 Canada release to be in any way intelligible4Apparently, developing competent writers is a long-term thing, too., but it’s basically about building exactly this kind of system, and Dave Clanachan deserves some credit for it even if it’s been happening since before he had his first double-double at CanPL HQ. The D3 clubs, most of which are either existing clubs or amalgamations therof, are why Canada just qualified for the World Cup.
The new national level has to be careful here, but people like Bobby Smyrniotis and Forge — which is almost-but-not-quite an extension of the Sigma academy5The academy set-ups work slightly differently to the full youth pipeline, but that’s another post. –have been among those working on this through their entire careers, and as with everything else, the rest of the league can learn a lot from them.
Draft Grade: A
Every year, I say the same thing about Forge’s draft, that being that there’s a way to go about a draft you don’t particularly rate, and every year I hand out top spot to Bobby Smyrniotis as a result.
The rest of the league could learn a lot from this, too. There are legitimate arguments to be made about how deep the talent pool in USPORTs actually is — it’s definitely uneven, I’ll tell you that. And Forge don’t always sign their picks, which is fine. The idea is to get them into camp, release them, almost lose a final because of this decision, and then sign them back from Indianapolis. It’s all part of a strategy, trust me.
Forge did sign Pianelli-Balison this year, which is 95% why they got the “A” grade, because he’s really good, then punted on the second pick, as usual, taking a Sigma guy in Mohamed Alshakman from the very, very unheralded McMaster program.
I give them the other 5% for local community building, which is absolutely part of this draft. Forge hadn’t actually drafted anyone directly from Sigma before, and doing so is how you show prospective youth players that you’re willing to hold up your end of the development bargain.
See, academies have had this figured out for years. It’s about trust.
I just can’t pick a weakness on this team. I really, really tried.
Closest I got was Mo Babouli’s departure, but while he had his usual moments of incomprehensible brilliance, he was never all that consistent, and he’s now 33. He’ll play a year or two in Qatar, then hopefully end up coaching somewhere. We need more creative guys in coaching.
Terran Campbell isn’t very consistent, either, but I think his flexibility gives Bobby more options in transition, which Forge need whenever they pass the ball a bit too much, which is pretty much every second half they’ve ever played.
If Campbell goes cold, Emery Welshman is dependable enough. Borges is your playmaker, and Chris Nanco and Omar Browne are veterans who provide pace and inversion off the wings, just as Forge draw it up.
Thirty-nine goals scored. Only twenty-nine against. Fifty points won’t hold up forever as the CanPL points record, but it does right now — a full four wins better than Cavalry in 2019, last time we had a full season.
And I think this year’s Forge team is actually better, on paper.
That’s it. Preview done.6Sorry, Forge fans. And, if you’re particularly eagle-eyed, you’ll notice I never even wrote a Forge preview last year….