Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis calls Tuesday's Scotiabank CONCACAF League quarterfinal rematch with Costa Rica's Santos de Guapiles the biggest game in club history.
Certainly the stakes are high with the series winner earning a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, the flagship club competition in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
But so is the task at hand. Forge lost the opening leg 3-1 Oct. 20 in San Jose, Costa Rica.
"It's not your right to be in this competition. It's a privilege that comes along with being the champion of this (Canadian Premier) league," Smyrniotis told reporters in a virtual availability Monday "You don't know if that comes along every year.
"So these competitions are important. Continental competition has become part of the fabric of this club, of Forge FC, and we want to make sure we keep going forward. One way to do that is to take care of business (Tuesday) night here and get ourselves into Champions League for the start of 2022."
The CONCACAF League is a 22-team feeder tournament that will send six sides to the Champions League. The four semifinalists move on to the Champions League, along with the two best losing quarterfinalists.
Javon East, Christopher Meneses and Brayan Lopez scored for Santos in the first leg. Captain Kyle Bekker had the Forge goal.
Also Tuesday, FC Motagua has a 2-0 lead as it hosts CD Marathon in an all-Honduran quarterfinal. On Wednesday, Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa takes a 4-3 lead into the second leg at Guatemala's Comunicaciones FC.
Guatemala's Club Deportivo Guastatoya has already advanced to the semifinals after Suriname's Inter Moengotapoe and Honduras' CD Olimpia were booted from the competition midway through their round-of-16 tie for what CONCACAF called "serious breaches of integrity rules.''
Forge (14-8-2) currently is second to Pacific FC (13-8-6) in the CPL standings. The third-year Hamilton club has won the league title twice already.
Tuesday's game is Forge's sixth in 18 days, a stretch that has already included three matches in the CPL, the CONCACAF League quarterfinal first leg and the Canadian Championship semifinal that saw Forge lose 8-7 to CF Montreal in a marathon 11-round penalty shootout.
"One thing we've been able do is keep a very high standard on the pitch," Smyrniotis said when asked about the congested schedule. "I think that's what we take with us from that (Montreal) game. You take that little bit of disappointment but at the end of the day you've kicked 11 penalty shots. There's not much separating you from the opponent."
Forge downed visiting HFX Wanderers 4-1 in league play Saturday and heads to Toronto this weekend to face York United FC.
Tuesday's forecast calls for four degrees Celsius and the chance of a shower for the 8 p.m. ET local kickoff at Tim Hortons Field.
"The colder the better, I guess," said Smyrniotis. "We've played a lot of games in Central America with 30 degrees, 90 per cent humidity, storms, different things. You know what? It's November in Canada. So zero, minus-two, bring it on. Our players are prepared for it. And we have to make sure that's an advantage that we use."
Forge will be without winger Chris Nanco with a question-mark over the status of fullback Johnny Grant.
Forge advanced to the CONCACAF League final eight with a 2-0 aggregate victory over Panama's Independiente. The teams tied 0-0 in Hamilton before Forge won 2-0 in Panama on goals by Mo Babouli, who was controversially sent off in first-half stoppage time, and Bekker.
Santos downed Panama's CD Plaza Amador 3-0 on aggregate in its round-of-16 series. The Costa Rican side was runner-up in the CONCACAF League in 2017, losing to Honduras' CD Olimpia in a penalty shootout.
Forge defeated El Salvador's CD FAS 5-3 on aggregate in the preliminary round, with both legs played in San Salvador.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press