Match Analysis: Pacific FC 1-1 Forge FC — CPL Match #99
Canadian Premier League

Final Score: Pacific FC 1-1 Forge FC
Goalscorers: Achinioti-Jönsson (OG) 17′; Hojabrpour 3′
Game of the 2022 season: 99
CPL match: 349

Match in a minute or less

Pacific FC and Forge FC held one another to a draw on Sunday evening in Langford, as a pair of first-half goals cancelled each other out in a match that would ultimately end 1-1. Alessandro Hojabrpour, who scored the championship-winning goal for Pacific against Forge with a header in December’s CPL Final, opened the scoring here with another header against his former club just two and a half minutes in.

Not long after, however, Pacific drew level with a marker that would go down as an own goal for Forge’s Alex Achinioti-Jönsson. Kunle Dada-Luke drove down the right flank with the ball and whipped in a cross toward the six-yard box, where goalkeeper Triston Henry was unable to catch it and ultimately knocked it in off his teammate’s leg.

Neither side would find the net again from there, as the two teams took a point each and remained in their respective positions in the table exiting this weekend — fifth for Pacific, and third for Forge.

Three Observations

No ground gained in playoff, title chases with points split

This contest could have been a golden opportunity for both sides. With a win, Pacific could have leapfrogged Valour into fourth place after the Winnipeg club drew with Atlético Ottawa earlier on Sunday. Forge, meanwhile, could have returned to the top of the table had they taken all three points, as they now find themselves in the hunt for the regular season championship.

Instead, neither team gained much of anything. Pacific remain outside of the playoff picture, as they moved level with Valour on 37 points but drag behind in goal differential. Forge moved to just two points back of first-place Atlético Ottawa and one behind Cavalry, but they’re still in third.

Both parties were left fairly disappointing after Sunday’s draw, believing they’d left more on the table. Forge gaffer Bobby Smyrniotis, for his part, felt that his team had done enough to win but didn’t make good use of their chances — most notably, Terran Campbell’s first-half shot that was saved off the goal line. Forge had 11 shots and three big chances on the night, but they couldn’t find the net after Alessandro Hojabrpour’s early goal.

The first half in particular saw a lot of dangerous football from the visitors and they did well getting behind the Pacific back four, but they couldn’t convert those positive moments onto the scoresheet.

“We exposed a lot of spaces that we thought we could find against Pacific,” Smyrniotis said postmatch. “I thought we were very good in the attacking moments, but I thought we needed to be a little bit more aggressive in hitting certain zones of the pitch. We did a very good job especially in between the lines with [Tristan] Borges and Abou [Sissoko], and then Ali Hojabrpour did a great job tipping us through midfield.

“I think we were good for another goal today with the chances we had — Terran Campbell at the back post, Kwasi Poku off the crossbar, and a few in the second half. Generally I’m pleased with the guys, it’s not the best way to give up that goal in the first half, a play that’s probably under control, but there’s a lot of bodies in the box and that’s why sometimes you’ve just got to get the ball there.”

The other cause for concern with Forge at the moment is the health of centre-back Daniel Krutzen. The Dutch defender, who returned last weekend after a nine-month ACL injury recovery process, clashed heads with Pacific’s Georges Mukumbilwa late in this game and had to leave the match. Smyrniotis said postgame that Krutzen had a bit of a headache, and that he was “not feeling the greatest,” but the team will carefully monitor him over the next few days.

Pacific, meanwhile, are perhaps even more frustrated by the points they’ve left on the table recently. This match was the last of a three-game homestand, from which they managed just two points — this draw, and last week’s with Atlético Ottawa. Had they won just one of those three games, they’d be firmly within the top four, possibly in second place. Instead, they remain on the outside looking in with very little runway.

“We’ve been saying it for a while now; the games keep coming down and points are being left on the board,” Pacific goalkeeper Callum Irving said. “Last week, a draw against Ottawa, a direct rival. This week, a draw against Forge. Two teams that have had to travel across the country to play us here. I think we have to look at that and realize we have an advantage playing here at home, we have a great crowd that comes to support us, and for us leaving points on the board is not acceptable. We’re definitely leaving a game like today and a game like last week’s feeling that we didn’t do enough.”

Coach James Merriman was particularly frustrated with his team’s sloppy ball movement in advancing into dangerous areas. He pointed out that a number of attacking moves went awry due to missed passes or heavy touches, which always spells trouble against a Forge team that usually presses quite aggressively.

“In the build-up when we’re on the ball and we’re building, we need to have more quality and take care of those passes,” Merriman said. “Some of those passes you see we’re mis-hitting, we’re not connecting, the technique’s not right, quality’s not right, we’re playing the ball off the shin, and we need to get rid of those. We need to be more consistent there to have a better flow coming into the second half in the final third, that’s what creates goals.

“We’ve always been very good on the ball and in the build-up, and I thought we’ve been a little bit sloppy and poor especially to start out the game today. And we all know we’re missing Manu Aparicio in driving us into the final third. We have new pairings, new central strikers trying to find a rhythm, but we don’t have any time left. We need it now.”

Pacific play three of their final four matches away from home, including visits to play regular season title contenders Forge and Cavalry. They have a game in hand on Valour, but the margin for error is incredibly slim.

Jensen proves capable Kyle Bekker understudy in Forge midfield

The greatest concern for Forge heading into this match was how they would cope without captain and attacking engine Kyle Bekker in their midfield, with the skipper serving the first of his three-match suspension. Bobby Smyrniotis elected not to change too much of his tactical blueprint without Bekker, so he deployed his side in the same 4-3-3 they typically use, but with 23-year-old CPL rookie Noah Jensen in Bekker’s spot.

Despite having just 22 professional matches to his name — a far cry from Bekker’s 250 — Jensen looked fully composed and confident in the middle of the park. Indeed, Jensen didn’t miss a pass until after the 50th minute, deftly pulling strings and advancing the ball upfield.

Jensen shouldered a lot of the load Bekker normally does, covering ground all over the pitch when out of possession to try and win the ball or press opposing midfielders. He also took a number of set-pieces from the left side for in-swinging corners from his right foot — which, again, is normally Bekker’s role in such situations.

In his 90-minute shift, Jensen made three successful tackles, won 10 of his 16 duels, and had a team-high 16 passes in the final third, missing just two out of 37 attempted passes all evening. He also, impressively, won five fouls, helping set up dangerous set-piece opportunities with his dribbling and elusiveness with the ball.

The maturity from such a young player in a very difficult position is to be admired; Jensen has been prescribed as Bekker’s deputy for much of this season, which has helped take some of the workload off the captain and allowed him to find some welcome moments of rest at times.

Noah Jensen's passes against Pacific.
Noah Jensen’s passes against Pacific.

“He’s a player that we know, whatever time he’s going to start or get in as a sub, he’s going to give us exactly that,” Smyrniotis said of Jensen. “He’s excellent on the ball, good range in his passing, good movement; he can skip lines, he’s very comfortable. This is a guy who has come off the bench the last few games, hasn’t had a start in a while, and goes into what’s a little bit of a pressure cooker match at this point in the season and just goes about doing his business. That’s what makes him an excellent player.”

Alessandro Hojabrpour, who was also excellent at the base of midfield, spoke glowingly of Jensen after the match. Hojabrpour has played a lot of minutes with Bekker this season, and the two have a strong understanding of where each other needs to be on the pitch; it seems that with Jensen in Bekker’s role, Hojabrpour is similarly comfortable.

“He’s a fantastic player, he shows up every training session and puts in the work,” Hojabrpour said. “He’s so good on the dribble, he’s very good on the ball, plays forward, very good in front of goal — he finds good spots. I think on a smaller field tonight it is difficult to find a lot of space, but we asked him to do a similar job to Kyle and dropping lower beside me at times. I can’t say it enough, I’ve really enjoyed playing with Noah.”

With Bekker still set to miss two more games after this one — both of them crucial ties in the final stretch of the regular season against FC Edmonton and York United — Smyrniotis will be comforted by what he’s seen from Jensen, knowing that his team’s midfield will continue to be an area of strength.

Pacific concerned by defensive breakdowns, especially set-pieces

Conceding less than three minutes into a match is never part of the game plan, but Pacific left this match quite unhappy with their defensive performance throughout the contest, despite only allowing that one goal.

The first half-hour or so of the match, in particular, saw a number of dangerous chances for Forge, who managed to get in behind far too often. Set-pieces, as well, continue to be a problem for the Tridents; they’ve conceded the most goals from dead-ball situations in the CPL this year, and the one they allowed to Hojabrpour early in this match was a particularly poor one to concede.

Hojabrpour found himself completely unmarked at the back post, as perhaps some miscommunication led to nobody picking him up during the short corner routine that led to a tight Tristan Borges cross.

“That’s not an acceptable goal for us to give up,” admitted goalkeeper Callum Irving postgame. “We have such an emphasis on trying to remedy the problems we have on set-pieces, and early on in the match you have to be completely switched on. We have to prepare before games so when the whistle blows we’re already in it. It felt like we were a little sluggish in a lot of ways in the beginning and that came to the forefront with the goal right there. We just weren’t all on the same page.”

He elaborated: “Clearly something broke down between us, communication-wise, shape-wise, to allow that to happen.”

Pacific’s centre-back pairing for this game was Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Abdou Samake, with Amer Didic missing out due to a suspension for card accumulation. That’s not necessarily a huge problem for Pacific; Meilleur-Giguère and Samake have played a lot of minutes together, especially this year. Largely, they actually did play quite well together in the second half especially, but they found themselves flat-footed a couple of times on the first few chances Forge created.

Irving went to bat for the defenders in front of him after the match, but he reiterated that the team’s defending in the match’s early stages still wasn’t good enough.

“It’s a different look obviously; Amer is a unique player with his size and ability, but I think we all have faith in our roster from the bottom to the top,” Irving said. “You’ve seen this year there’s been good rotation between Thomas [Meilleur-Giguère], Abdou [Samake], and Amer, so Abdou sliding in was a completely natural thing. Obviously if you haven’t played in a game or two it can be tough to get your feet under you but I thought for the most part they actually had a good game, the guys in front of me. They worked really hard, they shifted well, but I think it was that first 20 to 30 minutes where our movement, our communication, and maybe our one-v-one defending just wasn’t quite up to the level we expect of ourselves.”

Pacific’s 32 goals conceded this year is more than any of the other four teams in the playoff race right now. They’ll be desperate to shore things up, especially from set-pieces, over the next month as they strive to get back into the playoff picture. Player of the Match

Alessandro Hojabrpour, Forge FC

The former Pacific man was outstanding in midfield for Forge, shouldering some of the burden left by the suspended Kyle Bekker. He had a 91 per cent pass accuracy and won possession six times, helping advance the ball up the field extremely well.

What’s next?

Pacific will head out east next Saturday, Sept. 24 for a match with HFX Wanderers FC (3:30 p.m. AT/2:30 p.m. ET). Forge, meanwhile, head to Alberta on Sunday, Sept. 25 to take on FC Edmonton (2 p.m. MT/4 p.m. ET).

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