Steve Milton’s Notebook focuses on Saturday in B.C. as Forge tries to crack Pacific’s CPL-record clean sheet streak

Fresh off the transformational experience of Tuesday’s School Day Match, Forge FC players now must recalibrate their focus and their legs as they return to CPL action Saturday (5 p.m. ET) on the road against the altered look of Pacific FC.

Neither team has lost this season, with the Hammers taking all nine available points with home wins over Cavalry and Valour, and a road win against York United. Meanwhile, the Tridents have taken advantage of the familiar confines of Langford’s Starlight Stadium for wins over Valour, Halifax Wanderers, and York United, while drawing with Cavalry in their only road game.

Because Hamilton had to shift its opponent for the School Day Match from a league game against Halifax to a Canadian Championship quarter-final first-leg match against CF Montreal, Forge FC has played one fewer game than co-league leaders Pacific and Atlético Ottawa, who each have 10 points.

Stunningly, the only team not named Forge to win a CPL title (2021) hasn’t allowed a goal in their four matches, which established a CPL record for consecutive games without the opposition scoring. They’d been regarded as more of a scoring team last year but are clearly leaning on their defensive structure in this young season. At the other end of the pitch, they’ve been opportunistic, scoring only five goals in their four matches but posting a league-leading shooting accuracy of 60 percent.

And that sets up not only a battle for first place but a study of opposites. The Forge has played most of their minutes this year on the front foot with a dynamic, attractive offence that has created repeated chances from both flanks, leading to a CPL-tops 2.33 goals per game. It could have been higher, but the Hammers have only a 41 percent shooting accuracy.

Emil Gazdov has three of Pacific’s four clean sheets and has been aided by his defenders’ early success in forcing shots from distance or unfavourable angles. The central defenders and midfielders, led by France’s Aly Ndom and a maturing Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, are meshing well together and getting the ball—Ndom is fifth in the CPL in passes—to Sean Young and 23-year-old Cédric Toussaint to advance. Toussaint also tops the CPL in tackles with 13, although Forge’s Malik Owolabi-Belewu would likely be leading had he not been injured. He had 10 tackles in just two games.

“It starts from the backline,” Ndom has said. “We want to start from the goal kick and take the ball.”

The composure of that defence will be tested by Forge’s offensive creativity, paced by, among others, Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Béni Badibanga, and surging Jordan Hamilton. The first three all have two goals in three CPL games. And of course, there’s the ever-present attacker and distributor Kyle Bekker, through whom the offence flows.

Forge has the occasional defensive lapse, which has led to a couple of goals against and necessitated some perceptive saves by Chris Kalongo, but their backline has been physical and solid, anchored by Alex Achinioti-Jönsson, Daniel Parra, Malcolm Duncan, and returned-from-injury Garven Metusala and Dom Samuel. Even without Owolabi-Belewu, they’ve been generally steadfast. And Kalongo has been a revelation.

“I think we need to keep on our same rhythm,” Smyrniotis said in his pre-game press conference. “We attack very well and we’ve scored in every game we’ve played. Not only goals but high-quality opportunities.

“It’s always a tougher task playing on the smallest field in the CPL. But we’ve had success there over the past. We have to be careful here because Pacific has shown over the first part of the season that they don’t need a lot of chances to put the ball in the goal either.

“We’ll look for certain areas on the pitch where we can be aggressive. If we’re not, it plays into Pacific’s hands.

“Like I said, we’re at our best when our tempo is high when we’re moving the ball quickly. And on the flip side, when our defensive energy is very good because that’s an indicator. It’s been very good even in the Cup game against Montréal.”

And speaking of Montréal, the city’s—and the country’s—soccer communities spent much of the week buzzing about the Tuesday morning School Day Match in which Forge was 1-0 at the half and could have led by more, forcing the visitors to insert four frontline players they’d planned to rest.

Choinière’s emotional goal against his former team was the first that Forge has scored in an official game against an MLS team, but on the other side of that, in three tries, no MLS team has bested Forge in regulation time in three tries (two Montréal, one TFC) at Tim Hortons Field.

Hamilton, though, has yet to score in Montréal, where they’ve lost Canadian Championship matches 3-0 and 2-0, respectively, in 2022 and ’23. They’ll try to correct that—as they did their goal-less record against MLS teams—on May 22 at Stade Saputo.

After Tuesday’s game, Forge had only three days’ rest before Saturday’s match and had to fly across the country. But Pacific played Wednesday in a scoreless draw Canadian Championship match at Ottawa, so they’re also leg-weary.

“I think the script writes itself,” Smyrniotis said of getting a tired team mentally up for the game. “You go out there and get three points and you’re at the top of the league. That’s motivation in itself for the guys.

“We put in a massive effort on Tuesday and it’s a quick turnaround but a quick turnaround for them too. We need to make sure our energy is there.”

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It’s been quite a week for the CPL, highlighted by the 14,932 fans—about 11,000 of them school kids—who attended the Canadian Championship game at Tim Hortons Field.

And the CPL announced Kelowna, B.C., as the site of the first stop of its “On Tour” series. Vancouver FC will “host” Cavalry in a game there next month because the Okanagan Valley is a primary target for league expansion. Other potential expansion sites will get future games.

Additionally, Pacific FC and German club VfL Bochum of the top-tier Bundesliga revealed they’ve entered into a partnership that will involve several tentacles, including potential player transfers, player and coach development, and business and age-class programming.

Then there’s Friday night’s milestone: York United and Valour will meet in the 500th CPL match. York, then known as York9, visited Tim Hortons Field in April 2019 for the league’s first official game.

“100th makes it seem like I’ve been here a long time, No.1 and 500,” laughed Smyrniotis, who has been at the helm for all of Forge’s six years. “It’s only inevitable that we get to 5000 at some point. The game is only getting bigger. Soccer is in the best place it’s ever been in this country and it’s only going to get better.”