Forge FC have been around the block.
Not only by far the Canadian Premier League’s most successful club, Bobby Smyrniotis’ men from Hamilton have played more CONCACAF soccer over the last five years than any other Canadian club at any level.
That’s why the thought of facing Chivas Guadalajara, one of the most successful and popular clubs in Mexico and a club 111 years older than the CPL founding team, in the first round of this season’s CONCACAF Champions Cup to open their 2024 season is not overawing.
“We’ve done a great job over the last couple of years of grooming players to be ready for these big moments. These guys are ready to rise to the occasion,” Smyrniotis told Kristian Jack in a CanPL.ca exclusive.
“[Experience] is a massive thing we talk about in the dressing room. These aren’t our first games in CONCACAF; these will be games number 19 and 20. Over the past five years, no other Canadian club has done that. This is something the group needs to rally around.
“That’s why it’s not very hard to motivate them; we’re used to being in these environments and we expect our leaders to show the way.”
Forge may not need any motivating, but this will certainly be a test.
Firstly, there’s the fact that the CONCACAF reshuffle means that the Hamiltonians are starting their season earlier than ever before, shrinking an already-curtailed offseason even further.
“It’s not your prototypical preseason,” Smyrniotis acknowledged. “Here, you’re preparing to play two games to give yourself a chance to play another two. The guys have done a great job in this four-week period, very early in the season for us.”
Then, there’s the calibre and the form of the opposition. Whereas Forge are coming in from the cold of a months-long offseason, Chivas have been playing competitive soccer since June. They reached the quarter-finals of the Liga MX Apertura in the second half of 2023 and are already five games into the Clausura season that started in January after a months’ break.
“The clubs from Mexico are always most prepared,” Smyrniotis said at a press conference on Tuesday. “They’ve already played five or six games. If you think you can get on the pitch and match them on the fitness level, you’re wrong.”
To make things even tougher, Forge won’t even be able to put out their strongest XI. Smyrniotis announced on Tuesday that goalkeeper Triston Henry will miss both legs of the tie due to unspecified personal issues. Given that Henry has been Forge’s No. 1 for the entirety of the club’s existence, has played every minute of every single CONCACAF game in Forge’s history, and won his second CPL Golden Glove award in 2023, that is a huge blow.
In his place, 22-year-old Oakville native Chris Kalongo will start. Kalongo has only ever played three times for Forge. Meanwhile, new signings Elimane Cissé and Opoku Ampomah, both of whom signed in the last week, will play no part on Wednesday.
However, Forge aren’t the only ones who will be missing key players. While Chivas have also made several notable winter signings, not least the return of veteran Mexico international Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández last month, they are clearly prioritizing the league season over this tie. Head coach Fernando Gago named just a 22-man roster to fly to Canada. Important players such as captain Víctor Guzmán, forward Roberto Alvarado, midfielder Érick Gutiérrez, and defender Jesús Orozco have not even travelled.
Despite Henry’s absence, it represents a big chance for Forge to lay down one hell of a statement to start their years.
As Smyrniotis put it: “Now, it’s showtime on another night under the lights at Tim Hortons Field.”
Forge’s first leg against Chivas kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, live on OneSoccer.