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All eyes will be on Tim Hortons Field on Saturday night for the second half of a Canadian Premier League doubleheader. The three-time CPL champions Forge FC will host the only team to ever beat them in a Final, Pacific FC, in an enticing match between the league's best two teams thus far in 2023. The Hammers sit first in the CPL table entering this weekend's matches, with 16 points from nine matches, while Pacific FC are one spot back with 15 points from eight matches. These are also the two highest-scoring teams in the league, with Pacific's remarkable 18 goals the only tally higher than Forge's 11. Both sides also possess strong defensive units -- with Forge's Manjrekar James and Pacific's Amer Đidić surely among the early contenders for the league's Defender of the Year award. All of that sets up what should be a fascinating tactical battle between Bobby Smyrniotis and James Merriman. Last weekend, Pacific scored early and often as they beat B.C. neighbours Vancouver FC 6-3 in a wild match at Willoughby Community Park. There were nine different goalscorers in a match that would end with a CPL record nine goals. Amer Đidić, Josh Heard, Ayman Sellouf, Easton Ongaro, Manny Aparicio and Kekuta Manneh all found the back of the net for the Tridents in a memorable match in Langley. Forge, meanwhile, left it late to find a goal on the road against bitter rivals Cavalry FC, as Jordan Hamilton's got a touch on a delivery into the box to tie it up at 1-1 four minutes into second half stoppage time. It was a deserved point for the Hammers, who had been pushing for a goal all night, but one that they just as easily could not have had. These sides have met once already this season, on April 30th at Starlight Stadium. The visitors won that game 1-0 on goal from Woobens Pacius -- a 17th-minute header that slipped through the hands of Emil Gazdov -- one that the young goalkeeper will have wanted back. In Pacific's past two matches the net has belonged to Kieran Baskett, who has played well, but not with a large enough sample size to truly win the starting job after being penciled in as the backup before the season, as he did in both 2021 and 2022 in Halifax. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see which direction Merriman goes on Saturday against a Forge FC side that is likely to test whichever goalkeeper gets the nod. Both teams will need to be on their best behaviour, as there are three players in danger of picking up a fourth yellow card of the season, which would come with an automatic one-game suspension. Rezart Rama and Triston Henry are the players sitting on three for Forge, while Pacific's Sean Young -- the May Player of the Month in the CPL -- is also just one away. Missing from this match will be Forge defender Garven Metusala, who is away with the Haiti national team as they prepare to take part in the 2023 Gold Cup. Metusala was named to the country's preliminary squad for that tournament along with fellow CPL defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste of Valour FC, but whether or not they make the final roster remains to be seen.
All CPL matches are available to stream on OneSoccer, or on TELUS Optik TV Channel 980.
3 THINGS TO WATCH
- After huge win and monthly awards, Pacific look to stay hot: Pacific FC are in scorching form at the moment, and will be keen to continue that at the home of the reigning champions on Saturday. The Tridents have scored a remarkable 18 goals in just eight league matches in 2023, with three matches already with four or more goals. That includes a 6-3 win over fellow B.C. club Vancouver FC last Friday. Head coach James Merriman wasn't happy that his team conceded three, but was equally happy that six different players found the back of the net for his team -- including the first of the season for big offseason addition Kekuta Manneh. Merriman might also take some added confidence into this match as the CPL Manager of the Month for May, with midfielder Sean Young picking up the Player of the Month award.
- Smyrniotis looking for strikers to be more clinical: The three-time CPL champions Forge FC continue to be the pacesetter in the Canadian Premier League, and are off to their best-ever start to a season, but the scary for other teams should be that they still don't believe they've really hit their stride yet. Sitting in first place after nine matches, one more match played than every other team besides York United, The Hammers have four wins, four draws and one loss this season. Bobby Smyrniotis has been saying regularly throughout the season, however, that he wants his strikers to be more clinical. Although second to Pacific in goals scored with eleven, Forge have failed to capitalise on plenty of good chances, something they'll need to change if they're going to turn some of these draws into wins and start to widen the gap between them and some of the other teams fighting for playoff spots, as they are more than capable of doing.
- Both teams will look to make a major statement against each other: While there is still a lot of football to be played this season, it is fair to say that Forge FC and Pacific FC have been the best two teams thus far in 2023, and rightfully sit at the top of the table together. A rematch of the 2021 CPL Final, in which current Forge star Alessandro Hojabrpour scored the winning goal for The Tridents on a cold December night at Tim Hortons Field, this match is always an exciting one, and will be the biggest of the season thus far for both teams. "I think it's a good challenge, a good test, for both teams," said Pacific head coach James Merriman. "We felt we played well at home against Forge but we didn't get the job done, so now we need to come on the road. We know their quality, we know they're a strong team at home as well, but I think our group is in the right space and right mentality to come and challenge ourselves in this match, it's the perfect time for it for us."
PROJECTED STARTING XIs
Forge FC: Henry; Rama, Achinioti-Jönsson, James, Morgan; Hojabrpour, Sissoko, Bekker; Choinière, Pacius, Borges
Pacific FC: Gazdov; Dada-Luke, Đidić, Meilleur-Giguère, Vliet; Toussaint, Aparicio; Heard, Young, Sellouf; Ongaro
Forge FC wins: 10 || Pacific FC wins: 3 || Draws: 2
April 30, 2023 — Pacific FC 0-1 Forge FC
April 30, 2023 — Pacific FC 0-1 Forge FC
KEY QUOTES"We need to be the best version of ourselves. They've had a good run with some of these games, scoring quite a few goals in counter-attacking situations, it's something they've shown they do very well and something you've got to be aware of. We're coming off a stretch of a lot of games in a short period, we've had a good week right now behind us in preparation for this match, and I think that puts us in a good place not only for this match but also going forward." -- Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis "They've formed a really dynamic and well-balanced midfield, they're all playing really good football. It's always fun to challenge yourself, I think we also have a lot of good midfielders here, and we always look forward to the games where we can show that we can dictate the game. It's definitely going to be a nice battle tomorrow." -- Forge FC midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour "I'm happy for them. We challenged them at the very beginning of the season, [asking] when are the goals going to come, or where the goals are going to come from, and now you're seeing them come from committee. That's what we want, we know the quality that each of those players have, and we see them every day in training, the way that they're competing. Now they're starting to perform in the matches and get rewarded for the work that they're putting in day in and day out." -- Pacific FC head coach James Merriman