And it all came down to one final game.
One of the Canadian Premier League’s biggest rivalries, in its short history, has been played out twice in the new format of the playoffs.
Perennial winners Forge defeated Cavalry 2-1 in their own backyard in the Playoffs opening game for the top two in the regular season, confirming home advantage in the Final. The odds at most bookmakers had them as favourites and many new online casinos reflected those feelings. The regular season champions needed to host Pacific FC for a second chance to reach the playoff final and a second chance for Tommy Wheldon Junior to get one over Bobby Smyrniotis and his Forge side.
Forge have won three of four North Star Shields, losing in the final once in a season which was packed full of fixtures and a CONCACAF League run to the semi-finals, which saw them eventually lose out to Pacific FC back in 2021. Cavalry has been the consistent side throughout the season, winning the regular season by 13 points, and being the league’s top scorers and strongest defence. The almost wild part of one of the CPL’s strongest sides over these past five years is that they had never won a playoff game.
The Preliminary Final was a chance for Cavalry to get their first, hosting Forge after being so dominant in the regular season but couldn’t get themselves over the line, struggling to find shots on target after a lightning-quick start to the game.
Forge hosted a final which saw 13,925 at Tim Hortons Field for the Canadian Championship Final and looked to put a stop to a run of defeats for home sides in the final since going to a single game in 2020.
A close encounter which saw the sides end regular time 0-0 was not one without incident. After a combative first half the game began to open up in the second. Players Player of the Year Ali Musse curling just high and wide from the corner of the box 10 minutes into the second half helped build up the excitement in the crowd.
Just two minutes later Musse again was released down the right, this time crossing and the ball going agonisingly too far in front of a lunging William Akio completely free at the far post which could have given the visitors the lead.
Calgary continued the second half with the clearer of the chances and it was Musse again with the cross in the 75th minute, headed back across goal by Akio and Australian Jessie Daley hit a first-time volley from eight yards which saw an incredible reflex save from the Goalkeeper of the Year Tristan Henry to somehow keep the tie level.
Into extra time the game went, and it was Cavalry who got the scoring started with a sensational effort from Ali Musse. Silencing the crowd after Myer Bevan did well after going down under pressure, but not enough for a penalty, to react and play the ball across to Jessie Daley while still on the floor. Daley laid back the ball from Musse to strike and once again an away side had the advantage in the CPL Final.
Forge took control of the ball from there, pushing Cavalry back and two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half of extra time, Béni Badibanga drew the score level with a curling effort from the corner of the box into the far top corner over a sprawling Marco Carducci.
With the crowd rallied and loud, the home side sent their fans into pandemonium as Tristan Borges, a player who has struggled to find his form this season, sets up to deliver an in-swinging corner with his left foot. A crowded six-yard box sees players starburst across the box as the corner is struck straight into the far corner, a stunning delivery over the back peddling Carducci from Borges.
An ‘Olimpico’ to win it, an incredible end to a fifth season in the Canadian Premier League. A record fourth title for Forge, and they become the first to win it in their own stadium. Bobby Smirniotis, rumoured to be a candidate for the Canadian Mens National Team role, continues to build a dynasty in Hamilton.
For Wheeldon Jr, a successful season ends in disappointment, though both will go on to represent the CPL in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2024.