Forge FC have enjoyed being "forever first" several times over the first few Canadian Premier League seasons -- they hosted the league's inaugural game and were crowned the CPL's first champion, among other things. They will add another thing to that list on Wednesday, when they step on the pitch as the first CPL club to compete in the Concacaf Champions League. After three years of competing, and impressing, in Concacaf League, Forge will take another step in 2022, playing in North America's top club competition for the first time. Mexican giants Cruz Azul, and a trip to the famous Estadio Azteca, await them in the first round, but as Forge have shown in previous Concacaf ties, they fear no opponent. Up first is a match at Tim Hortons Field, which has itself been the site of some of some important matches recently -- the 2021 CPL final and Canada vs USA in World Cup Qualifying. Wanting to bounce back quickly after losing that final to Pacific FC, Forge have retooled the squad, signing Terran Campbell and Alessandro Hojabrpour from the team that beat them, as well as MLS veteran Ashtone Morgan. Ahead of this week's first leg, let's revisit how Forge qualified for the competition.
There were several paths to the 2022 Champions League -- including by winning the 2021 Canadian Championship, which was won by CF Montreal after they beat Forge on penalties to advance to the final. The Hammers qualified through a less direct route, earning a spot via the 2021 Concacaf League. The top six teams from that competition -- the winner, runner up, two losing semifinalists and top two losing quarterfinalists -- earned spots in the top competition. Forge qualified as one of the semifinal losers, falling on away goals to Honduran side Motagua. Late goals from Josh Navarro and Kwame Awuah earned their team a 2-2 draw at home, before a 0-0 draw at Estadio Tiburcio Carías Andino in the second leg sent the Hondurans through to the final, which they would lose to Guatemalan club Comunicaciones. Awuah's stoppage time strike in the semifinal was one of the most dramatic moments of the 2021 season, and gave Forge a fighting chance in that tie. Prior to that, Forge's travels took them to El Salvador to play C.D. FAS, Panama to take on Independiente, and Costa Rica for a tie with Santos de Guápiles. They won all three on aggregate: 5-3, 2-0 and 4-3, respectively, to earn their spot in the Champions League. The quarterfinal victory against Santos de Guápiles was especially impressive, and secured qualification. After losing 3-1 in the opening leg at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, Forge had a daunting task ahead of them in the return fixture at Tim Hortons Field. Goals from Omar Browne and Mo Babouli tied up the aggregate at 3-3, but Navarro's 82nd-minute winner secured a famous victory, and earned Forge a spot in the 2022 Champions League.
There was also a sense of relief for the club, after falling at the final hurdle -- twice -- when trying to qualify for last year's Champions League via the 2020 Concacaf League. They lost on penalties to Haitian side Arcahaie in the quarterfinals after a costly mistake from goalkeeper Triston Henry, before getting a second chance to qualify, playing another quarterfinal loser in Marathón. The Honduran club beat Forge 1-0, ending their chances at taking part. Interestingly, Archaie also took on Cruz Azul in their Concacaf Champions League round of 16 tie last year, and earned a 0-0 draw at home. They did lose 8-0 away, however, something that Forge will obviously be desperate to avoid. While they didn't three-peat as CPL champions, redemption on the continental stage was a major target for Bobby Smyrniotis' men. They will be the first CPL club to start their 2022 season, and the action gets underway on Wednesday night as the Champions League comes to Tim Hortons Field. All matches can be watched on OneSoccer.