2021 Concacaf League -- Round of 16 (Leg 1) Forge FC vs. CA Independiente de La Chorrera September 21, 2021 at 8 pm ET Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario Watch Live: OneSoccer.ca // Tickets available HERE
At long, long last, the Concacaf League is returning to Canadian soil. After playing seven consecutive matches in this competition miles away from home, Forge FC will finally host an international opponent this Tuesday night as Panamanian outfit CA Independiente de La Chorrera (colloquially, Independiente) head to Tim Hortons Field for Leg 1 of this Round of 16 tie. Forge have already advanced one round in this year's Concacaf League, having dispatched CD FAS of El Salvador last month with a 5-3 aggregate victory (even with both legs being played in San Salvador). Those two intense (and water-logged) nights at Estadio Cuscatlán will have set Forge up well to continue this year's run in the continental tournament, which remains a major priority for them this year. Of course, last year's run in the Concacaf League was an unforgettable one for Forge, who won two single-knockout rounds (in El Salvador and Panama) before bowing out in the quarterfinal to Haitian side Arcahaie. They barely missed out on qualifying for the prestigious Concacaf Champions League, losing a play-in match last December to Marathón of Honduras. In 2019, Forge played two rounds in their first foray into the competition -- beating Antigua GFC over two legs before falling to CD Olimpia. That year, they played the first leg of both ties at home, where they defeated both international foes (although Olimpia came back in their home leg to win the tie). The CPL side enter this game in decent shape, having won their most recent game (a 2-1 Canadian Championship triumph over Valour FC). They're third in the league table with nine wins, a draw, and seven losses, although they lost their most recent league match against York United. Still, they've had some good results in the space since their previous Concacaf League outing, and they'll have some more depth to draw on as players have become healthier. Independiente, meanwhile, will begin their 2021 Concacaf League journey in this game, having received a bye through the preliminary round. They qualified by winning Panama's 2020 Clausura season championship (their third such title in a row), which qualified them for their third appearance in the Concacaf League. Last year, Independiente fell in the preliminary round, losing to Antigua GFC on penalties after a 0-0 draw, but in 2019 they went all the way to the quarterfinals, where they went out at the hands of Costa Rican giants Saprissa. This particular Panamanian opponent may be somewhat familiar to Canadian soccer fans: Independiente also participated in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, where they memorably defeated Toronto FC in the first round (including a 4-0 win at home in Panama). Omar Browne, the striker who scored twice for Independiente in that tie, went on to sign with CF Montreal and then, eventually, Forge FC themselves -- although visa and travel issues have still prevented him from being able to suit up for the CPL side. Now that this edition of the Concacaf League is in its round of 16 stage, both teams will also be keeping an eye on the process for qualification to next year's Champions League: the four semifinalists, plus the two best quarterfinalists based on their record from previous matches (starting with this round), will qualify to the top Concacaf competition, so teams are incentivized to win each match. "I think every player around the world wants to play continental football," Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis said on Monday. "So as a team from year one, we had to go out there and enjoy that experience and really take everything in, and I think last year, 2020, made us even stronger as a group having to play all the games on the road, and we saw that in our resilience in the first round against CD FAS where we had to play both games in El Salvador. It's relishing the moment, it's enjoying the moment, enjoying what this competition brings." Tuesday night promises to be a special one for the club and its fans in Hamilton.
3 THINGS TO WATCH:
- Who are Independiente? There's always a shroud of mystery when taking on an opponent for the first time, and that'll be the case when Forge welcome this side from La Chorrera, about 30 kilometres from the Panamanian capital. So far in this 2021 Clausura campaign, Independiente are first place in Group B of the country's top flight, having won four, drawn one, and lost two of their seven games so far. Their most recent contest was a 3-0 win over Sporting San Miguelito last Thursday night. Their squad is primarily made up of domestic players, a handful of which have national team experience. Among their dangerous attacking threats are 26-year-old Alexis Palacios, who has three goals so far this year (although he missed the last two games) and Uziel Maltez, who has also scored three times. Forge has a little experience with Panamanian opposition, having beaten Tauro FC last year in the round of 16, and coach Bobby Smyrniotis expects a similar intensity in this game: "They're a team that likes to apply good levels of pressure and be very direct and very energetic in your half of the field, and we expect that same DNA in that team to come out here at Tim Hortons Field."
- Forge must capitalize on home advantage: After playing so many Concacaf games away from home, it'll be a little strange to see Forge welcoming an international foe into their own building. In a two-legged tie with the away goals rule in effect, though, it's absolutely imperative that Forge make good use of their home game -- ideally, keeping a clean sheet. Home field will be an unfamiliar wrinkle for Forge in this competition, where they're more used to travelling to new locations, and having to contend with the challenges of moving around, playing in hostile stadiums, and dealing with wildly varied pitch conditions. Perhaps it'll be the other way round this time, as Independiente enter enemy territory? Either way, Forge have to go to La Chorrera next week for Leg 2, so any edge they can find on Tuesday will help. "Playing in front of our fans, playing on this field gives us a very comfortable approach on how we go into the game, and there's not many variables on quality of pitch or what we're gonna find," Bobby Smyrniotis offered in his prematch press conference. "That needs to be our advantage, our crowd, the field and the way it plays, for us it needs to be an advantage against a team who will come here and it'll be a little bit different for them."
- "Concentration" key for Forge in fine-margins tie: Knockout football is, obviously, a very different animal to the league campaign. Forge find themselves concurrently playing in three competitions, having beaten Valour FC in the Canadian Championship last week, and they've got plenty of experience with that cup tie mindset from all the Concacaf League and CPL Final matches they've played the past few years. Still, it's a different level of intensity against a team they don't know very well -- Forge need to stay focused and disciplined to avoid mistakes that could put them in a tough position. "The biggest thing is the concentration levels," Smyrniotis said. "One advantage all the Canadian Premier League teams have within our own league is we play each other so many times, so sometimes you may be on your fourth game against York United or Halifax, so there's a lot of familiarity. Here, everything is new. You both have a lot of time to learn who your opponent is, this year we've got two legs, two games, so we really have to have the concentration level up, we really need to understand tactically what we're going to do for the game and how we prepare for the game. It's about executing... The games are decided on close margins, and a lot of the time there are tactical implications that go into it."
First meeting between these teams.
First meeting between these teams.