It’s Hammer Time: Is Forge stronger on paper or pitch?

MC Hammer.
I'm so sorry.

I have to make fun of Forge somehow, though. They’re the consensus best team in the Canadian Premier League and, despite breaking from consensus just about everywhere else, I can’t here. They’re the best team.

On paper.

This whole exercise is on paper, so that’s hardly much of a qualifier. They have, in my mind, the best centre-forward in the league. Two of the best central midfielders. A promising if slightly unproven goalkeeper who scored against Jordan Pickford. A coach who has produced names like Cyle Larin, Richie Laryea, and Manjrekar James.

Well, not quite. The centre-forward is on loan. The central mids are both deep playmakers and there’s no #10. The backline is more utility than you might like. There is no run away best team in CanPL, not even Forge, and that’s a good thing.

A lot of the difference between best-case and worst-case will come down to execution. Tactical adjustments, injuries, and sheer dumb luck will play a role, particularly in a short season.

From the start, though, Forge FC have built the side well. It’s been necessary. They’re the league’s flagship team, owned by Bob Young, who more or less created the league. They’re also based in Hamilton, with not only an inter-city CanPL rivalry but a potential rivalry with Toronto FC. There will be competition both on and off the field.

There is a distinct Sigma FC flavour to Forge, which isn’t surprising given manager Bobby Smyrniotis ran the well-regarded private academy. He also coached the Sigma FC League 1 Ontario team to a second-place finish last summer, and several alumni have either made the jump to Forge or returned to Smyrniotis after some time outside the nest.

Key Players

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

As players have filled out rosters since last November’s first announcement, Bekker’s signing continues to set the tone for what this league should and will be: a quality Canadian player with a legitimate career outside the country who will now lead a team at home.

Toronto FC fans may remember Bekker less fondly, but freed from those early expectations, he’s developed into a tidy player capable of controlling play at any level below MLS. If CanPL is roughly on par with USL this year, Bekker should shine. He was a key player for both Marc Dos Santos’ SF Deltas and Colin Clarke’s North Carolina FC, and he’s reinvented his game from the naive attacking midfielder who debuted for TFC into a surprisingly gritty playmaker. He’s still got the distribution and vision but has coupled those with a much better understanding of what’s going on around him that allows him to control games.

He still has the hair, too.

Alexander Achinioti-Jonnson, central midfield

Achinioti-Jonsson has flown under the radar so far, but he could be one of the better defensive midfielders in this league. Two years ago, he was playing in the Swedish top flight with Helsingborgs as a 20-year-old, which is not insignificant.

Smyrniotis wants to play a 4-3-3, which makes Jonsson absolutely key–he could easily be the best defensive midfielder in CanPL. I could easily see him and Awuah forming a very good double pivot with Bekker given a freer role ahead.
His team were relegated from the Swedish second division last year, which explains why he’s here. He’s actually been relegated twice in his young career–he went down with Helsingborgs, too–but that makes him available for Forge’s gain. He put up very good numbers with IF Varnamo in the Superettan last year, and I’d expect that to be a higher-level league than CanPL, at least in year one.
Elimane Cissé, defensive midfielder/centre-back

This guy has a strange résumé. Actually, he’s a strange signing all around–Forge didn’t miss often but I think they may have here. Cissé’s expected to be a starter in defensive midfield behind Bekker and Achiniotti-Jonsson. Certainly, he fits the profile of a destroyer who can play behind guys like that–he’s fast and physical.

I question the level in the Senegalese second flight, though, which is where he’s played his whole career. He has one solitary call-up for Senegal, a 2-0 friendly loss against Mexico during one of their managerial merry-go-rounds. He also played for Senegalese youth teams, including at the U20 World Cup in 2015, where he was mostly a centre-back.

Exactly what’s happened between then and now is unclear. Kurt Larson suggested on one of the CanPL podcasts1Cissé comes up at about 3:35. that he was somewhat overlooked in Senegal, and hey, he’s seen more of him playing than I have. That doesn’t change the fact that Senegal is heavily scouted, particularly by French teams, and it’s odd for Cissé not to have had even so much as a look in a system there, at least as far as I can find.

Cissé’s playing as a centre-back, here, too, and you could see why the odd team might have passed on him given his size. The level of play in these clips is not reassuring, though. It’s hard to know exactly what CanPL will be, but in midfield you have players like Bekker and Achioniotti-Jonsson who can possess and Smyrniotis has been calling Cissé a midfielder. At the very least, Cissé adds something different. I’m not sure if I see a starter, though.

He could be an undiscovered gem. He could also have the same agent as more than half of Forge’s roster.

Tactics and Positional Depth

Quillan Roberts is finally–finally!–getting a chance to start in goal, and it’s for his hometown team. The perception has always been that he didn’t get much of a shot with Toronto FC or with LAFC, where he spent last year. In truth, he wasn’t that great for TFC II when he did play, but Q, as he’s affectionately known, has shown remarkable potential at times in his career, and he’s professional and determined enough to have earned this chance.

Jordan Pickford, he ain’t. At 24, and with years spent in professional set-ups, he’s actually one of the more experienced goalkeepers in the league. That may be as valuable as the highlight reel saves he’s always had a penchant for making, because the back-line ahead of him is perhaps the biggest question for Forge.

I actually quite like the mix of talent Smyrniotis has in defense. Most of it has a Sigma tie-in somewhere: Bertrand Owundi is a Sigma grad who had a miserable time with Minnesota in MLS while Monti Mohsen is an up-and-coming Canadian youth team prospect coming straight out of the academy. It’s a good sign for Forge and for CanPL if Sigma talent chooses to start here.

Dominic Samuel is probably the main man in the centre of defense, though he could switch out to the right as well. He played with Sigma in League 1 Ontario last year, but only because the Rochester Rhinos had gone extinct. He was one of the better players for a Rochester side that was always better on the field than off.

Johnny Grant alongside him is also a Sigma grad. He’s had a tougher time of it in his professional career, and missed all of last season with a knee injury. He’s been good for Guyana internationally, though.

Daniel Krutzen can play either left-back or the left side of a centre-back pairing, and the Genk academy product is a good distributor, which should fit into Smyrniotis’ possession plan. Most of his experience has come in NCAA after a rocky spell in USL.

Nobody seems to quite know what Kwame Awuah’s best position is, which has maybe held him back at times. He was highly-regarded as a draft pick for NYCFC, but never got much playing time under Patrick Vieira. He’ll probably play left-back with Forge but if Cissé doesn’t pan out, I like him as an athletic defensive midfielder alongside Achinioti-Jonsson.

There is no out-and-out #10 on the roster, although Tristan Borges is an intriguing prospect. Bekker could play up there if there’s need, but it’s not really his best role. There’s Guiliano Frano, a L1O player via Whitecaps 2, and David Choiniere, but Choiniere’s more of a winger or second striker.

Instead, I expect Forge to sit deeper and look to hit any of three speedy players up front. Emery Welshman is the main threat–he’s an okay hold-up guy but he’s absolutely lethal turning into either channel, using his elite strength to shield off defenders even though he’s not that tall. Chris Nanco and David Choiniere are both ambitious signings for Forge, and both should be a threat from the wider channels, although it’s worth noting neither scored much at the USL level.

Marcel Zajac left the NCAA–and a potential MLS draft ticket–to sign with Forge. He’s coming out of the well-known Akron set-up. It’s not the powerhouse it was under Caleb Porter, but it still regularly produces MLS talent. Plus, Zajac’s another Sigma grad, so Smyrniotis knows him. He’ll play somewhere up front to use his pace, albeit probably more off the bench, at least at first.

The main concern for Forge, tactically, is that I don’t see much of a plan B should the three main attackers not click. With only seven teams, CanPL sides will face either other up to six times, including the Voyageur’s Cup. Forge have a lot of attacking weapons, but only recently signed a striker over six feet tall, and Anthony Novak is a 25-year-old CCAA guy who put up good but not great numbers in League 1 Ontario last year.

If teams pressure Bekker and Achinioti-Jonsson, Forge could be forced to sit deeper and play long, lest they get caught turning the ball over. According to Achinioti-Jonsson, he’s “never been on a team wants to play out of the back as much as this team. If we’re under a tonne of pressure, we still want to play out of the back.”

That should trouble Forge fans. Smyrniotis is an excellent developmental coach, and his record in League 1 Ontario is good, but the inaugural Canadian season is likely to feature teams still settling in. His midfielders, in particular, are all coming from different backgrounds. Even if they all pan out, that lack of familiarity leads to turnovers, especially for teams that try to play out of the back too much. Combine with a high line, and you get goals against.

The high line is odd, too, with so many quick strikers on the roster. While Choiniere and Welshman are both decent poachers, neither is at his best going up against packed defenses. And runners like Nanco and Zajac need space to attack. If Forge push too high, not only do they invite turnovers, they compress the space their strikers have to run into.

That’s what I’ll be watching for in that first match. York 9 are set up solely to punish teams that play a high line. If Smyrniotis adapts, he’ll show that his Forge FC can make this league their own. If he’s dogmatic, the league’s heavy favourites could be in for a heavy loss.

Projection 1st (Spring); 3rd (Fall)

Before you celebrate:

I can’t quite explain the nagging worry I have with this team. I’ve tried, I guess, above. There’s something, though, not quite right. I mean, rationally, they look favourites to play in the grand final come October, even favourites to win it.

Oh, right. This is Canadian soccer. “Rational” doesn’t happen. Forge have built a roster almost entirely on Sigma grads and Canadian players. It’s a commendable model, and they’ve done a good job, even if the recruitment pool will need to widen a bit going forward. There’s a part of me, I guess, still doesn’t quite trust the Canadian player pool. Maybe I’ve seen one World Cup qualification campaign too many. Maybe I’ve seen too many academy prospects not cut it at TFC or Vancouver. “Big fish, small pond,” I think.

If Forge need motivation at some point this season–hey, it happens for winning teams–they might think of that.

In terms of line-up, this is what I’d guess for next weekend:

I would swap Awuah for Cissé at the first sign of trouble, but this is what I think we’ll see unless Krutzen has won a spot in preseason. I’m a bit unsure who Smyrniotis will play at right-back, too–it’s a bit of a tricky position for Forge–but a variety of players can do the job there, including Frano.

I worry they might try something like this, though, especially if they’re struggling to score.

That team could certainly keep a high line–Cissé is super aggressive–but teams can run through that too easily and you end up with five or six players all trying to operate in about 20 square yards of space. It’s too easy to shut down, especially once you’ve seen it two or three times, and Forge have no real plan B that I can see.

Come July, they’ll likely have to find a replacement for Emery Welshman. At the very least, he’ll miss time for the Gold Cup, having scored the goal that sent Guyana to its first ever. He’s also on loan from FC Cincinatti. He was very good for Alan Koch in USL last year, and was one of the only USL team players the MLS team signed. Currently, he’s third on the striker depth chart behind Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks. Adi is injured as frequently as he’s angling to leave and Mattocks is many things, but never a hold up guy who scores consistently. There is every chance Welshman is recalled at some point this season, which would be very bad news for Forge.

Forge are unlucky in that they open against the two teams essentially built to prey on the exact identity Smyrniotis has built. I could see them losing the inaugural match to York, and I could see them losing on the road to Wanderers. That puts Forge 0 – 2, which might do them for the spring season. Then CONCACAF commitments kick in with travel and all the rest….

Really? No. This team is too good, on paper, to get caught losing for too long.

The game isn’t played on paper, though.

About Dylan Matthias 244 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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