Three years ago, a trio of Canadian Premier League clubs learned that they had a chance to play continental football in their inaugural season. One of FC Edmonton, Valour FC, and Forge FC, as the first three sides to enter the league, would enter the 2019 Concacaf League, based on whichever side claimed the most points from contests between them in the CPL's Spring campaign. Each of the three sides approached it differently, placing different emphasis on this particular incentive. Forge, though, were focused. The Hammers won three straight games against the Eddies and Valour to clinch their spot almost immediately, and ever since, they've never quite sated that itch for the international stage. After their first taste of the Concacaf League, they won two CPL titles to get themselves back into the tournament and draw ever closer to the real prize: the Concacaf Champions League. At the time, Bobby Smyrniotis offered something of a prophecy about just how much the Concacaf tournaments would mean to his club. "It’s something that’s important for us," he said. "It’s important for the way we grow and we build this organization and the culture of our club. When we’re able to put Forge on the map in the North American and Central American zone, I think that’s fantastic, not only for us, but for the Canadian Premier League." Smyrniotis' oracular wisdom has become manifest over and over again through Forge's travels these past three years, but never more so than on Thursday night.

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Somewhere deep beneath the cavernous grandstand of Estadio Azteca, Smyrniotis sat at a microphone, just moments after his side's Champions League journey ended at the hand of Cruz Azul. The sting of defeat still fresh, Smyrniotis took a moment, when asked, to reflect on this grand adventure of the past few years. "If you go back to three years ago on opening day, they told us there's a Concacaf League, and you can qualify from there to Champions League. Once you tell me that, I'm always going to think big. I always knew that Forge, it was a matter of time before we'd be competing in this competition. Now we've gotten a taste of it, the same way we've got of Concacaf League." Yes, the game itself confirmed the gap between the two sides, and Forge were undoubtedly second best on the evening. That does matter, of course -- Forge had dreams of a result that were dashed pretty quickly -- but their very entrance in this game was the culmination of a three-year campaign to get there. At the Azteca, not far from where Smyrniotis held court with the media, is a tunnel. Its walls are spangled with photographs and plaques of every team that has played in the Coloso de Santa Úrsula. Two World Cup finals have passed through that venue, as have just about all of the greatest players to ever kick a football. Now, Forge Football Club have their own place in that mythology. This brand-new club (in the grand scale) will forever have its inextricable link to the wide world of football history. David Choinière's name now has a place on a list of goalscorers in that stadium that includes Pelé, Maradona, Gerd Müller, and so many other legends of the game. Thursday night will be a bit of a turning point for Canadian club football. There's never going to be another first CPL club to play in the Champions League, or at the Azteca. In fact, pretty soon there will be a handful of CPL outfits in the CCL, thanks to the expanded format that will grant the league two direct spots. That was an important focus for Forge as well: qualifying for the tournament the hard way, via the gauntlet of the Concacaf League, to prove that the CPL belongs in the competition before it's given those automatic tickets to the dance. After Thursday, the banner of CPL football on the continental stage will no longer be Forge's alone to bear. In 2022, it'll be Pacific FC playing in the Concacaf League as holders of the CPL title. They, like Forge did three years ago, will take their first steps on an international odyssey that will only serve to improve their fortunes back home. One day soon, it might be Cavalry FC getting their chance. Or York United. Or any other CPL side who manages to rise to the top in their home country. It'll always be Forge who first blazed the trail, though. As Smyrniotis predicted at the very beginning, his club put themselves on the map in North and Central America, and in doing so, made a name for the Canadian Premier League abroad.

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Years later, so many chapters of Forge's long path to the Azteca will stand out in memory. In 2019, their inaugural season, they won their home leg against a 107-year-old club in CD Olimpia. In 2020, weeks removed from any other competitive matches and forced into repeated quarantine stints -- not to mention playing every single game away from home -- they were a heartbreaking penalty shootout away from the Champions League. And last year? Forge's unforgettable run, past CD FAS and Independiente and Santos de Guápiles (featuring a magical second-leg comeback against the Costa Ricans), will surely always have its place as one of the greatest accomplishments in the club's history. All those magical nights at Tim Hortons Field, and all the peculiar sights and idiosyncrasies of each international stop along the way built up to Thursday night at the Azteca. As Canadian soccer continues to explode, everywhere from the grassroots to the professional level and on the global stage, surely it'll be these moments -- these first tastes -- that we remember most fondly, when such instances are commonplace. More of these will come; another CPL team will play another Liga MX team eventually, and one day (perhaps a while down the line, admittedly) they may even win. When that happens, though, it'll be important to remember what led us there.

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