The Canadian Premier League’s Island Games wrap up in Charlottetown on Saturday with Forge FC bidding to defend its title against a HFX Wanderers side looking to go from worst to first.
Eight teams started the competition, an abridged 35-game, 38-day season due to the global pandemic. Only Hamilton and Halifax remain in a tournament bubble that has seemingly escaped COVID-19.
“The games have been fantastic here in P.E.I.,” said league commissioner David Clanachan.
“To have seven teams still in the running on the final weekend of the first stage was unbelievable … The players have been excellent. They’ve played well, played hard. They’ve done everything they should have done as professionals,” he added.
Forge went 5-1-4 through the tournament, with its lone loss coming 3-2 to Toronto’s York 9 FC on Aug. 26.
HFX was 4-2-4, with losses of 2-1 to Calgary’s Cavalry FC on Aug. 23 and 5-0 to Pacific FC of Langford, B.C., on Tuesday in a meaningless game after the Halifax team had already qualified for the championship game.
The two finalists tied 1-1 twice during the tournament — Aug. 19 in the first stage and Sept. 9 in the group stage.
“Usually a final is a cagey affair,” said HFX coach Stephen Hart. “It’s going to be one of those situations where small margins are going to make the difference. And hopefully we can play a near flawless game, keep our errors to a minimum.”
Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis holds Halifax in high regard.
“They’re a well-organized team,” he said. “They know what they want on the field. They’re a very patient team.”
Saturday’s winner will hoist the North Star Trophy and meet Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final, with the victor there earning a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
Time and location of the Canadian Championship final has yet to be announced.
HFX came into the season with just seven returning players after finishing bottom of the table in 2019 with a 6-12-10 overall record over the spring and fall seasons.
Hart, a former national team coach with both Canada and Trinidad & Tobago, recruited well.
“We had only, of course, a short time together before the (pandemic) lockdown but already you could see the competition among them,” said Hart, a nominee for coach of the year along with Smyrniotis and Atletico Ottawa’s Mista.
“One, for the group that remained to prove their worth. And then the ones coming in all wanted to show why they were selected. Immediately there was competition for places. I think that was the healthiest situation I could have asked for.”
Hart also chose his returnees carefully.
Forward Akeem Garcia is a finalist for player of the year, alongside midfielders Marco Bustos of Pacific FC and Kyle Bekker of Forge FC.
Halifax’s Christian Oxner and defender Chrisnovic N’sa are up for goalkeeper of the year and top Canadian under-21 player, respectively.
In contrast Forge had 16 returning players. The defending champions survived the loss of 2019 league MVP Tristan Borges, who moved to Belgium’s OH Leuven in January. Bekker, a finalist for MVP for the second year in a row, pulls the strings in midfield.
Forge’s depth has allowed Smyrniotis to rotate players throughout the tournament, especially up front.
“We just need to be aggressive in what we do,” he said. “When we’re aggressive, we score goals. Where those goals come from, it doesn’t really matter for us. We had 26 players for this club in two years and of those 26 players, 21 have been on the scoresheet, so we know we’re going to get goals.”
Smyrniotis, meanwhile, says the club has tighten up on defence.
Haifax will be looking to Garcia, a Trinidad and Tobago international, and Brazilian Joao Morelli for goals. Garcia leads the Golden Boot standings with six goals — two of which came against Forge — while Morelli is third with four strikes. Five other Halifax players have one goal apiece.
Forge has scored by committee with nine different players accounting for goals, including three by Bekker.
The Hamilton side defeated Cavalry FC 2-0 on aggregate in the two-legged final last year.
FORGE FC vs. HFX WANDERERS FC
CPL Island Games final
Saturday, 2 p.m. ET at the UPEI Artificial Turf Field.
FORM: Forge is unbeaten in five games (3-0-2). HFX had been undefeated in six games (4-0-2) prior to the loss to Pacific FC in a meaningless game.
HISTORY: The teams have played each other six times with each one recording one win. There have been four draws.
OFFICIALS: Juan Marquez will serve as referee, assisted by Stefan Tanaka-Freundt and Gabrielle Lemieux. Myriam Marcotte is the fourth official.
PLAYOFF BEARD: Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis is sporting a luxuriant lockdown beard. He says the future of the facial hair depends on his two boys when he finally gets home.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press