Usually, when I do these previews, I start accumulating notes in the winter, which means it’s dark and doomy outside, and I end up with a lot of stuff about the typical Canadian offseason drama.
My Forge notes always end up being very, very short, because this team is always so quiet in the off-season. They don’t publish a departures list. Sometimes they don’t even put out a press release when they sign someone.
I always appreciate this. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the league, and particularly Forge’s horseshoe rivals up in the 905, and is quite welcome.
Also, Forge are really, really good. You know that, when the season does start, they’re going to be the best team in the league. They don’t have to publish overproduced graphics telling you about it in garbled Business English. Coming off a third championship in four years, the fans can just expect it.
But I wondered, a bit, if the club needs to do something to spark interest.
I made the decision to keep most of these previews focused on-field (we’ll talk a bit about the overall picture in the league preview at the end) but there’s so little to put in Forge’s on-field side once again that I’ll bend that rule if just to give their fans something to read.
Given the inherent advantages Forge have — nothing nefarious, just a talent-rich region and a coach famous for developing top players — they should and likely will finish very high again.
So let’s look a little further to the future, because there will come a time when Bobby Smyrniotis decides to try a higher level, as well he should — despite his best attempts to look and act like an ancient Buddhist warrior-monk, he’s only 43. In coaching terms, that’s really young, and he already has a wealth of experience in academies, European coaching, League 1, and now he’s far and away the winningest coach in CanPL.
(Update April 12th: In the fine tradition of my previews being out-of-date almost as soon as they’re published, CanPL has hired Costa Smyrniotis, Bobby’s brother and Forge’s director of football, to be a vice-president. Much of the above still applies, I just got the wrong brother.)
In turn, there may come a time when Forge aren’t as good. Attendance has already dropped three years straight, from a novelty-inflated average 7,000 in 2019 to barely scraping 3,000, the league average, last year, even while the home team is winning everything they possibly can, playing against some of the best teams in the region. That edges towards being concerning.
Tim Hortons Field has never been an exactly ideal soccer venue — it’s what they’ve got, it makes sense, it’s not changing — but while the supporters still bring some of the most fun displays in the league1I have a blog post titled “Who are we, Forge FC?” waiting to be written, but it doesn’t have any actual content yet., but the air gets sucked out on the wind and drowned out by passing truck traffic. Wanderers or Westhills, it is not.
There’s no easy way to solve this problem just as there’s no easy way for the other CanPL teams to solve Forge on the field. But the league needs its flagship team to thrive, and pull everyone else up. Canadian soccer history is littered with examples of super-clubs that were as successful as they were short-lived. We have one in Halifax named after a donair shop.
I only see one. Wait, two. Or maybe just one. Can never tell with this cup. https://t.co/6fm5rrU3nF
— The Merchant Sailor (@merchant_sailor) November 3, 2022
Now we’ve got that out of the way…. If you’re supporting Forge this year, you’re supporting a group that’s pretty similar to last year’s. The spine is back. Kyle Bekker’s hair has been re-signed. Tristan Borges, Terran Campbell, and Jordan Hamilton are all back. Woobens is still around… for now — I expect he’ll get sold this summer, and Forge often make more changes in the summer anyway.
|One Man Down||Next Man Up|
|Chris Nanco||Manjrekar James|
( * Moved within the league)
You see what I have to work with? Apparently, Manjrekar James is going to play five different positions!
At least one upside of Forge being so dominant in a capped league is that they shed some talent to other teams every year, to York and Wanderers’ benefit.
I don’t think Nanco or Welshmen are particularly huge losses — both were getting on in years for a development league and both had pretty well lost their spots to younger options, and neither scored all that much. Still would have been nice if the club had published a “thanks, guys,” post for a couple inaugural players.
Dan Krutzen is a little bit of a tougher loss. It’s a good move for him, up to Phoenix Rising in USL. He’d been a top player until his unfortunate injury early last spring. That Forge did so well without him bodes well for managing his departure.
Just in case, Costa went out and reunited his brother with Manjrekar James, a long-time fringe Canadian international and Sigma grad from way back. But for some terrible luck with injuries, clubs, and Benito Floro, there’s a decent shout that James could have been in Qatar but for his career taking a nose-dive in about 2015. He bounced around Denmark, often seeming to catch the wrong end of a coach’s tenure. Then he signed for Chernomorets in Odessa, a club that’s notable, in addition to the current situation, for its fans attacking the head coach in 2018. James hasn’t played in about a year, and this’ll be a good move for him.
Plus, you know John Herdman watchis this league and is willing to call players from it. We’re not flush with centre-backs and James is still young enough that he have a shot at 2026 if he can put together 3-4 solid years with Forge.
In adding Malik Owolabi-Belewu and Rezart Rama last spring, Forge covered Krutzen’s injury almost immediate, and maybe even improved a bit, as both those guys are physical specimens who can grind out results. Garven Metusala has also developed from a lesser-known USPORTs player to starting CanPLer, which is what Bobby is all about.
Like Rama, Ashtone Morgan is a more defensive option than fullbacks elsewhere in the league, representing a bit of a shift in the way Forge attack compared to 2019 or 2020. They’ll always keep the ball, but Forge don’t really want the fullbacks pushing up for crosses. Instead, they recycle the ball, win aerial duels, and allow Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and Kyle Bekker to link play more.
Achinioti-Jonsson continues to be the best player in the league that no one ever talks about. He’s a d-mid, and he doesn’t even pick up yellow cards, that’s how good his positioning and reads are. Everything he does is inch-perfect. The rare time he has an off-day, Forge lose. He’s that critical.
Forge were able to re-sign both Bekker and David Choiniere, which is one of the advantages of being a team players want to play for. Neither is going to reach a level higher than CanPL at this point, but they want to be where they can win, and their a big part of why Forge do so often.
They also allow the younger players up front to benefit from the kind of leadership more CanPL teams should invest in, whether domestically or from abroad.
Noah Jensen is Bekker’s heir apparent, and looked like he could probably start for just about any other team in this league when he got on the pitch in 2022. Alessandro Hojabrpour scored a couple worldies and rounds out the midfield with Abou Sissoko. It’s that deep. And note how well Forge have done with players from other CanPl clubs, and players from USPORTs. They don’t overlook talent. They want it.
That, not stellar recruitment, is how you sell players on. I think Woobens Pacius, the Montreal academy product who scored for fun over most of 2022, will be sold, probably handsomely, and might have been already except he went ice-cold at the end of the year.
When he goes, it’ll fall mostly on Jordan Hamilton to pick up the pace just a bit more, and Forge might need Terran Campbell or Tristan Borges to replicate their previous form. Or else they’ll go out and get someone.
Either way, Bobby has a way of slowly getting guys to step into spots. It’s very much one guy down, next one up.
They only have 20 players under contract and even then have the most depth in the league, especially as this is very much just a first-look set-up. They can easily swap to a back three, or drop Achinioti-Jonsson back, or have Samuel tuck in. And they have top players in this league coming off the bench all across the front six.
It’s actually one of the older XIs in the league, which makes it all the more impressive that Forge is also the most successful development club in the league.
Add one or two more pieces in the summer for the playoff run? Yeah. Scroll down for the inevitable.
None to speak of. They played the Costa Rican champions, but they never publicize matches much and haven’t this year, either.
They also often start slow, though I usually figure that’s by design. No one is bothered if they fluff a few performances in the first few weeks. But there’s so much continuity in the squad this year I’d be surprised if even that is much of a problem.
They did spend a couple of weeks in Costa Rica at the stadium of Alajeulense — no CONCACAF spot this year because of the change in format, but that’s often Forge’s pre-season competition, and probably will be again next year. The 2023 Canadian Premier League champions get a spot.
Projection: 1st, obviously
There’s no other place to put them. At this time of year, it’s all necessarily on paper, but on paper, this team is way, way, way too good for the rest of this league.
It’s not that there aren’t teams that can match them on a day. That’s part of the fun of the league, and having a team that probably should win creates genuine narratives, rather than the ones manufactured from recycled tires down the road from Forge’s stadium.
Real leagues have super-teams, and the rivalries they inspire. Everyone wants to beat Forge. Ottawa, Cavalry, and Pacific can all do it. The other teams can at least try, and if they get the champions on a good day, it’s doable. That makes for a nice sense of anticipation when you go to the stadium, and that’s all a fan can ask.
But until the rest of the league figures out how to actually build, develop, and sell a team rather than just talk about it, Forge will continue to be champions.