It was, perhaps, ABBA that put it best when talking about how winners take it all. Here in Hamilton on a perfect summer night, with fans back in the stands, there was a lot of talk about exactly that. Back were Forge in their own home, playing by their rules, in pursuit of a third straight championship in 2021. To get here they no longer want to talk, about all the things we've been through. As the Swedish quartet reminded us, it is indeed history. Fans are back, stadiums are open and Forge want to start winning games at home again.
FORGE 0, YORK UNITED 1 COVERAGE: Recap & Highlights, CanPL.ca Match Analysis, Sights & Sounds
Yet, the football gods have thrown more than a few dice already at them this season. Jonathan Grant, Daniel Krutzen, Dejan Jakovic, Maxim Tissot, Monti Mohsen, Chris Nanco, David Choinere and Tristan Borges have already missed substantial time through the first third of the season. Like all champions, though, Forge have come through it with a tactical versatility and a winning mentality that makes them the team everyone still wants to beat. One man leaves, the next one steps in. Another one? Change shape, move on. What though happens when a key player who is almost irreplaceable departs? At 721pm on this Wednesday evening, as a police car drove down a side street next to Tim Hortons Field, we got our answer. The car didn't move quickly and was clearly in no hurry to an emergency but yards away the Forge bench had far more urgency and concern as Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson sunk to the ground unable to continue. The stylish Swede is the first person opponents need to look at when Forge kick off games. Arguably one of the finest deep midfielders in the league, he has excelled operating in the middle of a back three during turbulent times when the squad has been thin this season. As the spirited home crowd rose to welcome home their heroes at kick off, keener eyes focused on the 25-year-old from the Helsingborg region, just over two hours south of Gothenburg and home of Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA. Immediately, Achinioti-Jonsson stepped up with authority to calmly play a ball forward in midfield. Playing behind the tremendous duo of Elimane Cisse and Kyle Bekker it isn't hard to see just why Forge are so successful and win so many games in the centre of the pitch. Despite all the injuries, Bobby Smyrniotis still had his three pillars. Or so he thought. Achinioti-Jonsson is a cerebral player that reads the game so well but on this night it probably led to his downfall. After joining the attack on the right side, a turnover led to a transition for visitors York United, but it was too slow and ponderous, allowing the Swede to track back into his own area and block a shot that hit him on the side of his head and knock off his headband. Minutes later he knew he couldn't continue, departing with vision issues. Smyrniotis summoned Paolo Sabak and instantly Forge skipper Bekker knew what that meant. Seconds after the Belgian playmaker entered the field, at a brief moment to pause during a throw-in, the 2020 player of the year stood tall, stretched out both arms, and pointed his fingers to the clear blue sky. The message was clear and delivered to Sabak and Cisse: 'I am the number six, you two play further forward as eights'. Winner's take it all and Bekker took it all on, but suddenly it wasn't the same Forge. There was no more ace to play and York had its opportunity. For all of Bekker's strengths, the absence of Achinioti-Jonsson allowed more space to develop around the central area, occupied mainly by Michael Petrasso in attack for the visitors. The Swede had barely reached his dressing room and the police car still cruised around calmly when Kwame Awuah's ball into Mo Babouli's feet was intercepted by Jordan Wilson that allowed Isaiah Johnston to quickly play Petrasso in behind Bekker, an attack that should have been more threatening than the corner they came away with. Still, the loser stood small. Ten minutes later it was Petrasso again in the right position, in transition after Dominic Samuel's ball into midfield had been intercepted, to have a powerful shot stopped by Triston Henry. Slowly, Bekker dragged his team forward, raising the tempo that led to a long diagonal ball by the impressive Garven-Michee Metusala to Jonathan Grant, who found Borges, forcing a mistimed challenge from Cedric Toussaint for a penalty. The winner takes it all and Borges, the league's best player in 2019, took it but the harsh truth is that Borges is nothing like the player he was in 2019 yet and it wasn't a surprise to see his tame attempted saved. "My sharpness needs to be better, I need to keep my confidence, keep working and getting back into it," Borges admitted postmatch about his current struggles. Forge continued to threaten with Babouli and Borges shooting narrowly wide until York truly took advantage of the loss of Achinioti-Jonsson, forward Alvaro Rivero escaping Bekker's shadow, dancing his way into the box and calmly placing home for the game's only goal. Unfortunately, for the dancing queen from York he was sent off for a second yellow soon after when he attempted to prevent the taking of a free kick that never looked like really being taken properly at all. His strike, though, was the lasting image on this night, a goal celebrated wildly by the visitors, but it was all too plain to imagine just how different it would have been with the Swede on the pitch. Smyrniotis admitted postmatch: "Alex comes out of the game and it affects our balance. Kyle played deeper and did a good job on the ball from a deep playmaking position but without Alex's positioning we missed him on the goal as he can screen the centre-backs and without him they dropped deep and allowed them the space." The script was now flipped. The winners used to taking it all, unbeaten in 12 on their own turf, without a loss here for over two years, continued to attack but ran into an inspired Dominick Zator, a natural winner that the club brought to their team for exactly nights like this. York now have 11 points of their 12 points from the six matches he has played 90 minutes in so far this season. "He is a born leader, a great defender. He did a hell of a job tonight," said his head coach Jim Brennan. Brennan didn't even think he would have his best defensive player on the pitch with Zator's red card from Friday only rescinded the night before the match and in the end it turned out to be Forge who would play the majority of this contest without their best player out of possession. "Sometimes this game as beautiful as it is can turn its smile on you," Smyrniotis said without a smile himself. So in the end without the super Swede it was York United that took it all and Forge who had to fall.