TFC’s Herdman full of respect for Forge: “They’re not an underdog.”

Forge FC and its, creative,  constantly-chanting, boosters aren’t going to get any bulletin board material from John Herdman.

The Toronto FC head coach—who has also been Canada’s national men’s and women’s coach during his impactful career—was all peace and love earlier today as he discussed Wednesday’s opening leg of the two-game Canadian Championship semifinal at Tim Hortons Field. The return match is set for the natural grass pitch at Toronto’s BMO Field, on August 27.

“In my mind, given how consistent Forge are as a team, how long they’ve been together, how long Bobby (Smyrniotis) has been with the players, they’re not an underdog when they come into the Canadian Championship,” Herdman said. “There’s no underdog when you go to Hamilton on a turf pitch, with their fan base who are solid. “There’s no doubt that team has Canadian Championship experience, they’ve got Concacaf Championship experience.  They’ve won back-to-back Canadian Premier League titles.

“This is a team that knows how to win. We don’t look at them as an underdog in any way, shape or form. For an away match for us — outside of what’s written on paper with salaries etc.–this Forge team at home is a very difficult team to go and get a result against.”

And that salary discrepancy is always, of course, a boldface talking point any time a CPL team meets a Major League Soccer team in the national title chase.

Three TFC “designated players”—Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi and Canadian Richie Laryea—all make as much as or more individually than the Forge is allowed ($1.21 million) for its whole team under the strict CPL salary cap. According to the MLS Players Association Insigne’s $15.4 million salary is second in the MLS behind only Lionel Messi, while Bernardeschi is sixth at $6.3 million. Six other ‘Reds’ make $700,000 or more.

“The gap between the salaries isn’t massive at certain levels,” Herdman said, but he allowed that the Designated Players and other special categories create a large part of the gap, allowing MLS organizations to recruit Tier 1 players from around the world

Whatever the explanation it’s a good motivational tool for the domestic league teams which find themselves engaged with the three Canadian teams lodged in the longer-established, and much richer, MLS. And it’s part of the many storylines that weave their way through this home-and-home series which plays upon the Toronto-Hamilton rivalry that has existed, mostly in gridiron football, for a century and a half.

Soccer in this country and, in particular, southern Ontario, owes a huge debt to TFC which was the first Canadian side in the MLS, coming in as an expansion side in 2007.

That created an updraft which eventually led to Montréal and Vancouver Whitecaps joining the league. It also quickly developed its rabid fan base, many of whom are from the Hamilton area and who, long before the CPL was formally sanctioned, created the Barton Street Battalion, which in turn was the template for other supporter groups across the CPL.

Until this year, the Hammers had played four games against MLS sides, and not won any of them. They lost twice in Montréal and memorably drew 0-0 against them before losing in the 11th round of penalty kicks at Tim Hortons Field in October 2021.  And they also drew against Toronto in the pandemic-delayed 2020 national final, then lost in penalty kicks, also at Tim Hortons Field. That game was played in June 2022 as part of a compromise which allowed TFC to represent Canada in the Concacaf Champions League in 2021 as long as the “2020” national final game would eventually be played in Hamilton. So TFC didn’t have a lot to be gained from that match but were still outplayed by Forge, which should have won in regulation.

That trajectory was drastically altered this year, though, as Montréal tied Forge 1-1 in the first leg of the Canadian Championship at Tim Hortons Field which seemed to give the MLS side an advantage heading home. But the Forge won that game 2-1, absorbing an all-out onslaught in the second half but prevailing.

Did that make TFC suddenly stand up and take notice? No, Herdman insists, because they were already standing and noticing. Toronto assistant coach Terry Duffield “has been on the Forge project”, ever since TFC knew Hamilton would be their next opponents, and he’s been in town a couple of times to scout games.

“Forge has been doing this for five years,” Herdman says. “They’re a championship team, they know how to win games; they’ve been banging on the door in Concacaf Champions League. It didn’t surprise us.

“At the time  Montréal were in a bit of a tough time, similar to us; low on confidence, their squad was a little bit thin, as well, and so is ours.”

Indeed, some Canadian soccer pundits feel, this might be a good period for Forge to play TFC. The Reds will have added extra international stars by August’s second leg. But they are cold at the moment. They haven’t really been able to field their anticipated starting lineup since jumping off to a good start in Herdman’s first full season (he came on for the final game last year), and they went suddenly cold—at least on the scoreboard—after mid-May, winning just once, with another couple of draws in their past dozen MLS games. But until a deep Columbus side beat them 4-0 Saturday in Ohio, they’d been in games right until the end, while still failing to get the desired result.

They’ve lost six in a row and are without Laryea and captain Jonathan Osorio who are with Team Canada at Copa America. Several others are injured.

“This time of year the squads are very thin with Euros and Copa, back to back,” Herdman says. “Teams are challenged. You see deeper teams like Cincinnati and Columbus thriving. Teams like Toronto, that are almost in like a rebuild process and the squads are thin: no David Flores, no Alonso Coella, no Richie, no Jonathan, Shane O’Neill just coming back, Lorenzo is still building fitness.

“We can make excuses but what I’m trying to do is say, ‘Look this is our reality, but this is also our opportunity.’

“Every step we take is closer to playoffs—we’re right there and I think we can gain traction–and we’re in the semifinal for a  Cup. It’s exciting. We’re two games away from the final and you’ve got a tough Forge right in your way. That’s what you want.”

The winner of the Canadian Championship gets a direct berth in next year’s Champions Cup.

There are multiple storylines in this series, including the salary gap, the missing players—Forge’s Daniel Parra, an emerging star, has to skip the opening match on accumulated yellow cards and he likely would have been marking Bernardeschi—the fact that Bobby Smyrniotis was under consideration for the TFC job that went to Herdman, the difference in the local market size, and the personal history of several Forge players—including stars Kyle Bekker, Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Borges—playing for TFC or in its academy.

“It’s a good team,” Herdman says. “It’s a team that seems to have been together forever. That same core of players — Kyle Bekker who’s a top player, Tristan Borges, (David) Choinière — that core of players they have makes the team tick. They seem to be able to maintain this consistent high standard of performance and I’m sure that’s driven by Bobby. He’s a top coach.”

Even the footing will be part of the series’ plot. Tim Hortons Field has artificial turf, BMO Field has natural grass.

“It’s a factor you have to contend with,” Herdman says. “If a team plays on turf and trains on turf then they understand it. And every turf is different, the speed of it, how it’s managed for match day. All of these things are factors but, ultimately, it’s a mental thing for us: these are the conditions, it’s a slight advantage for the home team but we’ve got to draw on our advantages, whether it’s the quality of players or experiences we’ve had on turf in Gillette Stadium (New England) this year and getting a result there. Those are all factors. We played on turf recently in Atlanta and put out a solid performance so, the players will draw on those elements.”

He also acknowledges that his team could have a similar slight advantage on their playing surface for August’s second leg.

In a two-part series, there’s always the debate about whether it’s more important to try to press in the first game for the away goal, or more, which would serve as the first tie-breaking element in the series, or to proceed more conservatively and try to blank the home side.

“I think you can come into the game with a plan and a mentality and be clear what you want to get out of the match,” Herdman said.  “You can have that plan but you’re coming up against a Forge team that will have their plan. Their plan will be clear and they will be able to manage their environment and get from their environment what they need to achieve their plan.

“So, I think both coaches will be coming into this with a Plan A and a Plan B and based on how the game unfolds you’ll push one way or the other. If there’s a moment that you can really push to go after the away goals then you’ll push.

“I think in these matches the most important thing is to get a result and to come home in front of your fans and manage your environment better than them. You have to be really clear with the players on what that tactical blueprint is going to be and the flexibility involved because the Forge comes with a clear plan to win the match but how they execute that plan might be different to what we expect.

“And it’s important to be humble in the match as well. Be humble enough to know that Forge can win any game at home….which they’ve proven.”