Forge FC and Canadian soccer made their return on Wednesday but things didn’t go to plan after a long off-season for the Canadian Premier League champions.

The Hammers were bested 3-1 by Mexican giants Chivas Guadalajara at Tim Hortons Field in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup matchup, with American international Cade Cowell starring in front of goal for the visitors.

Strong crowd support pushed the Mexicans on from the first whistle as red and white banners covered up a typically orange stadium. An encouraging start from Forge saw them keep the away side at bay through the opening 25 minutes, but Cowell eventually dented the hopes of the Canadian underdogs, cooly slotting the ball into the goal after a turnover from Béni Badibanga.

“They’re a good team so if you make mistakes they’re going to punish you,” Forge goalkeeper Christopher Kalongo stated after the match.

Entering the match as an early substitute after Kwasi Poku got injured, Tristan Borges stepped up to bring the hosts back into the contest, pinpointing a cross to the charging Terran Campbell, who made no mistake in front of goal.

Chivas upped the pressure after conceding, troubling the inexperienced Kalongo on a couple of occasions. Usually a backup to Triston Henry — who was unavailable for Forge due to personal reasons — Kalongo did well to stop an effort by José Castillo before being helped by the crossbar when Gilberto Sepúlveda headed onto iron from a corner kick.

Just when it was beginning to look like Forge could go into halftime with the score tied up, another defensive collapse allowed Chivas to find their second, with Cowell again the danger man in the attack. Forge made things too easy for the American international in the dying minutes of the half as the new Chivas winger was able to guide his assist to striker Ricardo Marín, who got the nod from head coach Fernando Gago with the likes of Juan José Macias, Chicharito and Roberto Alvarado unavailable.

After the match, Forge boss Bobby Smyrniotis talked about how much that goal changed things for his side before the halftime break.

“It’s unfortunate because when you give up a goal there in injury time in the first half it’s a lot different. One minute later if that doesn’t go in you come into the changing room and it’s a different mood in the team. But that’s football, eh.”

Courtesy: Shaun McLeod/Waking The Red

Forge returned to the field after half-time eager to restore parity and Campbell came close to nabbing his second tally of the evening but he couldn’t guide his shot far enough away from Óscar Whalley, who was making his competitive debut for Chivas in place of Raul Rangel.

Cowell put the result out of question for the Mexican outfit just past the hour mark when he slipped behind the Forge backline and latched onto a perfectly weighted through ball delivered by Jesús Sánchez. The 20-year-old clinched the crucial third away goal after being played onside by Forge’s Alexander Achinoti-Jönsson, who was handed the start by Smyrniotis even though he had been training with the squad for only the past two weeks, just having recently re-signed with the club.

“Around the 60th minute I was starting to feel it,” the 2022 CPL Defender of the Year admitted after the match.

Coming up against a side already in midseason form, Smyrniotis knew from the jump that this would be a tough battle for his side, alluding to the difference in match-readiness between the two squads during his pregame press conference on Tuesday.

“If you think you’re going to walk onto the pitch and you’re going to match them on the fitness level, you’re wrong,” Smyrniotis stated at the time.

Chivas kept Forge at distance for the remainder of the match, not ceding many looks to the Hammers, who searched for options off the bench in the form of Jordan Hamilton and Noah Jensen. The second-half goal never came for the home side and it was to be a Mexican fiesta for the rest of the night, with an eruption of joy coming with the final blow of the whistle, and a swarm of fans waiting outside of the stadium for over an hour so that they can congratulate the players before they boarded the team bus.

Asked about what it was like to play in front of a crowd of 11,513 — a new record for a CONCACAF match at Tim Hortons Field — Forge midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour shared that it’s amazing to see so many people in Hamilton out to watch a soccer game. “I think five or six years ago it wouldn’t be possible to have this, so nights like tonight are why we play, and it’s nice to have this atmosphere in Canada.”

Courtesy: Shaun McLeod/Waking The Red

With the 2024 CPL season still months away, the focus for Smyrniotis is well and truly on finding a way to reverse the result and continue to fight on in the Champions Cup. After the match, Smyrniotis noted that reviewing the footage in the coming days will help him understand where things are ahead of next week’s second-leg in Guadalajara. Overall though, the Forge boss was proud of his team’s effort against a classy opponent, citing his team’s ability to stick with the attacking philosophy.

“I think it’s important that when you play at home — it doesn’t matter who you play — that you stick to an identity, that you do something that’s good for the long process of a team,” Smyrniotis said in his postgame press conference.

“I thought our buildup play was excellent, players were brave in how they were making decisions. I’ll be honest it was a little bit better than I thought at this part of the season. They did a good job at getting forward and pressing.”

Courtesy: Shaun McLeod/Waking The Red

Forge and Chivas will play out the decisive second leg at the Estadio Akron in Guadalajara on February 13. Before then, Los Rojiblancos play host to Juárez in Liga MX action on February 10, while Forge has no domestic duties.