Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis, right, hugs captain Kyle Bekker following their victory in the Canadian Premier League soccer final against Cavalry FC in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. A month after winning the Island Games in Charlottetown, Hamilton-based Forge FC is back on the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

A month after winning the Island Games in Charlottetown, Forge FC is back on the move.

The Canadian Premier League champions from Hamilton leave early Tuesday for El Salvador and a CONCACAF League preliminary-round date with CD Municipal Limeno.

Coach Bobby Smyrniotis’ team heads to San Salvador via Mexico City. Thursday’s game is taking place at the Estadio Cuscatlan in the El Salvador capital rather than at Limeno’s more modest home stadium in Santa Rosa de Lima, some 170 kilometres away.

Should Forge win Thursday, it will go directly to Panama for a Nov. 3 round-of-16 date with Tauro FC. A loss in San Salvador and the Canadians head home Friday.

As one might imagine, travelling to Central America during a pandemic is a challenge. Add in the need for timely COVID-19 tests for the entire travelling party in advance of the trip and the degree of difficulty skyrockets.

Forge will be without defender Klaidi Cela, who tore knee ligaments in the CPL final, and forward Chris Nanco, who suffered a hamstring injury at the Island Games. Nanco could join the team in Panama if it advances, according to Smyrniotis.

Unlike Forge, which has not played since the Sept. 19 Island Games final, Limeno has two games under its belt and played a league match Saturday.

“We’ve been able to see a couple of friendly matches (on video) which haven’t been played on the best of pitches,” Smyrniotis said. “And now we’ve got what we’ve seen in these first two games. That’s what we’re going off of in looking at their squad.

“For them, they’re obviously able to see 11 matches of ours from this year. But we’ve seen what we’ve needed to see. We’re confident in our group and the football we can play and that’s what we’ll take down there.”

He gave his players a week off after the CPL final.

“I can tell you after three days they were all ready to get back on the pitch,” said Smyrniotis, who continues to sport the flowing beard he grew during the pandemic lockdown.

While Forge has not seen action recently, it has CONCACAF League experience, unlike Limeno.

Last year, Forge dispatched Guatemala’s Antigua GFC 2-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round before losing 4-2 on aggregate to Honduras’ Olimpia in the round of 16. The Honduran side made it the semifinal before losing 4-3 to eventual winner Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica.

The 22-team competition is a feeder tournament, sending the winner and next five best-ranked clubs to the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

Originally slated to run from July to November, the CONCACAF League was postponed due to the global pandemic. It now kicks off Tuesday and is scheduled to run through Jan. 28.

Preliminary-round and round-of-16 matches are being played as single-game ties at the highest-ranked club’s stadium. All other rounds will be played as home and away ties.

Forge, which defeated HFX Wanderers FC 2-0 in the Island Games final on Sept. 19, has a chance to qualify directly to the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League by defeating Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final, whose timing has yet to be announced.

“It’s a game that everyone can get up for, and especially on our end,” Smyrniotis said of the TFC matchup. “We’ll be as best prepared whenever that comes, whether it’s 2020 or ‘21.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press