Kwasi Poku’s Breakthrough: Wingback Turned Striker is a Mainstay in Forge FC Lineup Heading into Match with Cavalry FC

While remembering that he is only 21 years old, take a moment here to consider what Kwasi Poku did within a recent 10-day stretch.

On May 22, in the second leg of the Canadian Championship against heavily favoured CF Montréal and Forge FC in a disadvantageous tie-breaking situation–because of the 1-1  first leg draw at Tim Hortons Field–Poku galloped full speed onto a long through ball and pushed it by the sliding goalkeeper to make it 2-0 Forge.

That was one of the biggest goals in franchise history, the away goal they needed to erase Montréal’s advantage, the deciding goal in the massive upset (3-2 aggregate) that launched the Hammers into July’s national quarter-finals against Toronto FC in July.  It not only silenced the Stade Saputo crowd for a moment, but it also turned them against the home team.

Fast forward to July 1 at Tim Hortons Field against York United, after the Forge had reaped only one of their previous possible nine points in CPL play and scored just one goal in the process. Poku went wild, with two brilliant assists and a far-post block of a rocketing goal-bound York shot.  Forge arrested their slide with the all-in 3-0 victory. 

These were strikers’ plays. But Poku’s first Forge game, ever, as a striker was that memorable game in Montréal. The club’s top two strikers, Terran Campbell, who had 10 goals last year, and the surging Jordan Hamilton have been injured, and still are, forcing head coach Bobby Smyrniotis to shift the versatile Poku, generally a wing or wing back, into the No. 9 slot. He’ll likely be there for tomorrow’s game against bitter rivals Cavalry FC  in Calgary.

“I’d say my natural position settles in the final third of the pitch,” Poku says. “I’m enjoying striker right now. I like to get involved in the final act, obviously getting in behind and shooting. I like to play to my strengths.

“I knew when our strikers were injured I would get an opportunity there but wasn’t sure whether it would be on the wing or at 9. But Bobby knows my attributes; size (6-foot-3), good speed, shooting. I know that Bobby has faith in me and he’s shown it through my career.”

That started almost as soon as the Brampton native arrived in Hamilton in February 2022 from Toronto FC’s second squad. Almost immediately, he made his pro debut in a high-pressure Concacaf Champions League match against iconic Mexican side Cruz Azul. 

“It got the ball rolling for me,” Poku says. “It showed that Bobby had faith in me. It was a start against a Mexican giant, probably the biggest game to that point in Forge’s history, and you take a 19-year-old who hadn’t played a pro game yet. It takes a lot of faith from the manager and I think it got me going. It helped me excel in my first CPL season.

Smyrniotis often refers to the development arc which gradually brings along a raw talent such as Poku and allows him to learn by making mistakes and evolve into a core player, which he has become.  He had only 19 matches in 2022, upping that to 21 last year, as he played behind legendary left back Ashtone Morgan who eventually retired last July.

“That first year took me a bit longer than I had figured but starting is a process and that’s how I looked at it,” Poku says. “Having a legend like Ashtone in my position, and him being the guy who was going to start, I learned a lot from him. He mentored me.”

Poku actually wanted to be a basketball player when he was young – “It was really my father’s dream that I play soccer”—and Brampton had a strong culture in both sports. He constantly practised soccer shooting drills with his father, which is how he developed his strong delivery and is thankful his father made him make the switch to the pitch from the court. He switched from Brampton East when he was 12 years old to join Woodbridge for better coaching and organizational structure, then played OPDL for Unionville. TFC Academy made him an offer after he played well against them in the BMO Cup. But he wasn’t getting the playing time in USL League One for TFC II so he joined Forge FC “and I haven’t looked back since.

“When I was really young I was a centre-back, then I became a striker. I was a bit all over the place. The majority of my career was spent in midfield and on the wing. During my final days in TFC,  I was playing on the wing and  Bobby saw strengths in me that were versatile: we needed a left back and someone who could do both. So left wing back became my role.

“It’s a serious running role: and that’s one of my strengths.”

His fastest time sprint in a game this year is 34 km per hour and in the York game he travelled 11.5 kilometres, and that was while playing high as a striker. He logs more distance from wingback, where it’s a 90-plus-metre game of attacking and defence.

His size, speed and soccer sense were on full display last weekend against York.

He was among the two Forge who pressured York keeper Thomas Vincensini into a horrible miscue that led to Kyle Bekker’s opening goal. In the 34th minute, he chased down Alex Achinioti-Jönsson’s long pass, deftly rescuing it from crossing the end line and feeding it back to Tristan Borges, who fired home his third goal of the CPL season.

“He’s been on fire for us,” Poku says of Borges. “He’s been our everything at the moment. He’s the one who gave me the ball for Danny as well.”

That would be the 3-0 goal in the 53rd minute when he took Borges’ pass into the middle turned his back away from the goal with defender Max Ferrari right on him, then spotted Daniel Parra coming down the left side and hit him with a perfect lead pass which Parra struck home. It was a cutback play they had been working on in training, knowing York’s backfield was often exposed in a cutback.

“I think it just comes down to instinct. I did take a little check over my shoulder (at Ferrari),” he recalls. “The ball was in front of me and I knew I was slowing down a bit,  and if somebody were to run past me it would be easier for them because they’d have more speed from that position than me.  So I decided to turn either way and luckily I turned to my right and saw I had a willing runner and Danny did the rest.”

In the 61st minute, with York still having some chance to get back in the game, Poku was perfectly positioned on the right post to instinctively stop a screaming shot from Elijah Adekugbe as it was heading past keeper Jassem Koleilat and into the net.

“Maybe I was channelling my inner left-back from last season,” he laughs.

Left-back was where Team Canada had Poku in all four round-of-16 games of the 2022 Concacaf U-20 championships. He hasn’t been contacted by the senior team yet  “but that’s the plan. Hopefully, I’m somewhere in the depth chart. It’s a dream of mine.”

Assuming he’s playing up front tomorrow at ATCO Field in Calgary, he’ll be confronted by a strong Cavalry FC back line that can include Eryk Kobza, Brad Kamdem Fewo and tough Daan Klomp, the centre-back who’s reigning CPL Defender of the Year.

Forge beat Cavalry 2-1 in the season opener and although that’s the last game Cavalry lost, they’ve also only won just once since then, while recording six draws. The players have spoken aloud about the mounting frustration of so many draws, especially when they’re playing well enough to win. They’ve had five shots hit the woodwork as well, and are looking to turn those kinds of deliveries into goals when Forge comes into town to renew by far the deepest head-to-head rivalry in the CPL.

Like Forge, Cavalry had a big away win against an MLS side in the Canadian Championship quarter-finals but their 1-0 victory at Vancouver Whitecaps wasn’t enough on aggregate to advance to the semis. They are coming off an encouraging 1-1 draw at second-place Pacific in which they rallied during a brilliant second half of soccer with a Tobias Warschewski goal.

Hamilton will have to watch Warschewski, find ways to turn last week’s goal output into a habit, defend the hard shooting of veteran Fraser Aird, and keep a wary eye on dangerous winger Ali Musse, the defending CPL Player of the Year.

Hamilton and Calgary have met 26 times across all competitions over the five-and-a-bit seasons the two teams have existed with Forge winning 13, drawing six and losing six. At Spruce Meadows (ATCO Field) they’re 7-2-5. But in those 26 games, the total goal differential is just seven.

“That’s a team that we’ve had a lot of great games with in the past,” Poku says. “It’s a bit of. bloodbath when we play them and we’re excited to go there and think we can get a result.”

Both teams are skilled, physical and well-coached, although Smyrniotis and Tommy Wheeldon Jr. have often taken different approaches. Cavalry will be motivated by both last season’s championship loss and the bitterness that’s percolated since the very first game.

Poku, who plays with an edge, knows that trait will be necessary in and around the Cavalry box.

“I think I’m very calm outside of the pitch,” he says. “But when you’re on the field you have to enter into a different mode and I think that is how I get into my zone. Having that edge, having that confidence and thinking that you’re the best every time you play is very important.

“You have to have that confidence, that edge and the physical and mental strength to deal with the toughest defenders on the field…the centre backs. You have to believe in yourself or you can’t do much in this game.”

HAMMERS AND NAILS: Forge’s Khadhin Khane was called up to Canada’s U-20 National Team youth camp today …. Garven-Michee Metusala will miss the Cavalry game because he’s playing for Haiti in the Concacaf region World Cup qualifying round … Alex Achiniotti-Jönsson leads the CPL with 510 passes, the only player over 500, Cavalry’s Daan Klomp is third at 472 and plays his 100th CPL game Saturday … Tobias Warschewski of Cavalry is tied for second in the CPL with with four goals … Tristan Borges leads the CPL with four assists and also has three goals … kickoff Saturday is 5 p.m. ET for the annual Indigenous Peoples Celebration Match at ATCO field.