Forge FC Battles Toronto FC in Semi-final Showdown – Bekker and Hamilton Reunite with Former Team

There are so many subjects covered in this game, it reads like a high school curriculum.

Geography, history, mathematics, economics, civics …and, of course, honours phys ed.

There’s also a little biology (one pitch has artificial turf, the other natural grass).

And for a couple of Forge FC, it’s a yearbook of their freshmen seasons as pros.

Hamilton winger Jordan Hamilton and midfielder Kyle Bekker both made their professional soccer debuts with Toronto FC, Forge’s opponents in the opening leg of the two-game Canadian Championship semifinal Wednesday night (7 p.m.) at Tim Hortons Field.

Each came into TFC’s senior team as a highly-regarded prospect for the Major League Soccer side.  Bekker was the third overall choice in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft out of Boston College and Hamilton graduated from the TFC academy to the senior team in Bekker’s second season and in 2016 scored two goals against Montreal in the Canadian Championship, while winning the tournament’s Golden Boot.

But each was also dispatched elsewhere relatively quickly: Bekker to MLS opponents Dallas, then Montreal; Hamilton to TFC2, then the USL, the Portuguese second league, and eventually via an MLS trade to Columbus.

While Bekker has played several games against TFC since then, including that heart-breaking penalty-kick loss in the 2022 national final, this will be only the second time Jordan faces his soccer alma mater, after a single match against them as a Crew member.

“It’s definitely emotional,” Hamilton says of playing against TFC Wednesday night. “A lot of the staff is the same. Some of the players are the same. I think any former player of any team feels that way, especially when you were traded from the team after having done a lot for the community and the club. Any player in my position, I think, would feel like they need to prove something and I do plan on going out and putting my best foot forward and hopefully getting a goal.”

The 28-year-old striker, who won three Canadian titles with Toronto, scored twice for Forge in the first round of this year’s national tournament against York United but injured a hamstring soon thereafter and missed three weeks before returning a couple of weeks ago and is now in full game fitness.

Bekker, meanwhile, is the CPL’s most recognizable player and has captained Forge to four of the league’s first five titles and at 33, is central to everything the Hammers do on and off the pitch. He’s an Oakville native and played three years for Bobby Smyrniotis’s Sigma FC which led to a scholarship at Boston College, from which TFC drafted him.

“At the end of the day it’s the team where I started my professional career, where I took my first step of following the dream I had as a kid,” he says of Wednesday’s head-to-head with his former side. “And in that sense it is special. It is pretty cool.

“But I’ve also played on a few teams now; it’s not like I was a childhood supporter of TFC. They weren’t even around when I was a kid growing up. Ultimately, it’s just a big game, it’s something exciting for our club.”

Forge’s former TFC players —Tristan Borges, Kwasi Poku, Malik Owolabi-Belewu and Dino Bontis, all spent time with the TFC academy—are also intrigued by the geographical proximity of TFC, which plays in a stadium closer to Hamilton than the Hammers’ nearest CPL rivals York United do. It becomes, in an irregular sense, a derby game. And it continues a theme that’s permeating Tim Hortons Field this month; the history of Toronto vs. Hamilton in sport; the Big Smoke vs. The Real Smoke.

“I think ultimately it adds a special air to it, in that they’re a club that’s had notoriety, they’ve had success,” Bekker says.  “With that, they have a following. They have fans who are passionate, they come out and support. The close nature might mean we have travelling fans, which is something we don’t necessarily see week-in, week-out in the CPL, given the distances. That adds that extra layer to it. Then you add that it’s a Cup game, mid-week, under the lights. It is special so if there is that away section it just adds to the atmosphere coming into the stadium, which is fantastic.”

Hamilton supplements that with, “I think everybody in our locker room wants to play against Toronto FC every year. For some reason, we always play Montréal. Now we have the opportunity to go out and prove something and show that we deserve to be talked about in the GTA.”

TFC head coach John Herdman was complimentary of Forge’s skill level and successful history during a Monday interview with, insisting that his organization “in no way, shape or form” considers Forge an underdog in this two-leg series. He said it wasn’t just Hamilton’s elimination of CF Montréal (a 1-1 home draw, 2-1 road win)  that alerted them to the danger Forge can present– they were already alert because of the international and league games Hamilton has won–but that was a factor.

“I don’t know how they’ll deal with it in their locker room and among their coaches,” Bobby Smyrniotis said of the Montréal series in his pre-game media conference today. “I think for us, it was an important thing after playing quite a few matches against (MLS) opponents to get through these ties. It’s one thing we hadn’t done in the five-and-a-half years we’ve been around as a club and I think that just helps you going forward. Every positive experience, every negative experience, can help you in what you do next. That last series gives us a good frame of mind to prepare for what will be a challenging two games with TFC.”

Smyrniotis went on to say that his team has always wanted to think big and they don’t consider “anyone else as a giant.”

A lot has been made and will continue to be made about the salary discrepancies between the MLS and the CPL. Toronto has numerous big-money players like Italians Federico Bernardeschi ($6.3 million this year); Lorenzo Insigne ($15.4 million) and Canadian national team member Richie Laryea  ($1.21 million) while the CPL salary cap is just over $1.2 million per team. Laryea and captain Jonathan Osorio ($836,000) are away at Copa America, so they will miss this game, as will a couple of injured TFC starters.

“Of course, every player wants to make as much money as possible but I think in our locker room we have a lot of guys who have that experience at the top level but have kind of got the crap end of the stick in their careers, for whatever reasons that might be,” Jordan Hamilton said today. “So I think we’ll go out there and not really think about who’s making what…but who’s on the field., We have guys who’ve played MLS, guys who have won trophies, guys who’ve played in Europe, so I think we’re good on that.”

Neither team is lighting their league on fire at the moment, with TFC winning only once in their last dozen MLS outings, and Forge uncharacteristically harvesting just five of their last possible 15 CPL points.

“We haven’t been in our best form,” Bekker concedes. “But we’ve scored six goals in two games and we have to take that into this game. But we also have to be aware that we’ve given up seven in two games. And that’s not good enough. We know we need to tighten it up, and we know with the quality of the players (TFC) have on the other side, it’s going to come down to those details.”

Addressing TFC’s current slide, Hamilton said, “They’re probably viewing us as an opportunity to turn their ship around and advance to a final. I think we need to  go out and assert ourselves and put it to them that it’s not going to be an easy game and if we can go up early and score,  or win the game,  they’re really going to have their backs against the wall.”

The winner of Forge-TFC will advance to the national championship final against the survivor of another regional derby-ish semifinal—CPL’s Pacific FC vs. MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps. The winner of that gets a berth into next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup.

The second games of both two-leg semifinals won’t be played until Aug. 27, too far away for Smyrtniotis to even consider it in his planning. His focus is on winning Wednesday.

And, he and his players hope, the upset over Montréal will provide a tailwind for the semifinals. There’s also some motivation from 2022 when TFC came into Tim Hortons Field for the pandemic-delayed 2020 national championship and escaped from a 0-0 tie that could easily have been Hamilton’s win, and into a narrow penalty-kicks victory for the title.

“I think ultimately it just provides proof-of-concept,” Bekker says. “I think it should give guys a ton of confidence. Any of these games we’ve played in, be it the Champions League, the games against Montreal, against TFC, whatever it is, it’s the fact that we have the ability. We deserve to be on this stage and go out and showcase what we’re all about.

“It’s just confidence. Go be brave and dare to do it.”

HAMMERS AND NAILS: The biggest news of the week for Hamilton was Tuesday’s arrival of Senegalese midfielder Elimane Cissé, an original Forge who rejoins the team after encountering entry visa delays. “He just lit up the room as soon as he got here,” Captain Kyle Bekker said … Daniel Parra, one of Forge’s best players, will miss the game because of accumulated yellow cards … striker Terran Campbell will be out a few more weeks with injury … Forge FC’s David Choinière was selected to the CPL’s Team of the Week for his outstanding play, and goal, against Vancouver FC last Friday … Hamilton’s Chris Kalongo was named the  CPL’s goalkeeper of the month for June … TFC star Lorenzo Insigne had a “reaction” to training on the artificial turf of the TFC practice centre this spring. No word on whether that would affect his status for Wednesday … Federico Bernardeschi leads TFC in goals (8) and assists (6), Prince Owusu has six goals and Insigne has four goals and four assists.