In a season that has seen it travel to El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica, Forge FC is looking to make its mark at home Sunday when it hosts York United FC in the Canadian Premier League semifinal.
It's game No. 37 in a congested schedule that has seen the two-time defending CPL champions juggle league play with the Scotiabank CONCACAF League and Canadian Championship.
"There's definitely no playbook for what we've been doing this year and what the players have been able to do," said Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis. "But we'd rather be doing what we're doing right now than not."
While Forge exited the Canadian Championship in a marathon penalty shootout loss to CF Montreal in the semifinals, it remains in play in the CONCACAF League with a semifinal series against Honduras' FC Motagua set to open next Wednesday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton with the return leg scheduled for Dec. 1 in Tegucigalpa.
There is also the delayed final of the 2020 Canadian Championship, which was reduced to a one-off game between Toronto FC and Forge that has yet to be scheduled.
Calvary FC hosts Pacific FC on Saturday in the other semifinal with the championship game set for Nov. 27 or 28. The final could be delayed to Dec. 5 if Forge wins Sunday and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats host the Canadian Football League's Eastern semifinal on Nov. 28.
Forge finished top of the standings at 16-10-2 while York was fourth at 8-8-12, 14 points in arrears.
York is well-rested, finishing off the regular-season in a 3-1 loss to visiting Forge on Nov. 9. Forge, meanwhile, had to squeeze in two more league outings after to complete the campaign.
While Forge won four of the six regular-season meetings between the two, York's two victories both came at Tim Hortons Field — 1-0 on Aug. 4 and 2-0 on Sept. 11.
"Look, they're a good side, there's no doubt about it," said York coach Jim Brennan. "And I feel we match up well with them and that's why I think we've had some good games and we've had some success against them.
"But obviously it's a local derby. It's playoff football now. And it's a one-off game. With our players, we're really looking forward to this match. We've got a young group. This is something else to add to their experience … We're up to the challenge and we can't wait to get going."
York is the youngest team in the CPL, with the likes of Lowell Wright (18), Isaiah Johnston (19), Cedric Toussaint (20) and Max Ferrari (21).
Brennan had planned to bring in some foreign players but was prevented by pandemic-related restrictions.
"But I think it worked out well for us in the end. It just gave us more opportunity to play some of these young guys … They've really kind of embraced this challenge. Things happen for a reason sometimes, don't they."
Diyaeddine Abzi (22), Alvaro Rivero (24) and Wright led the team with six goals apiece.
"They've shown they're a resilient team," Smyrniotis said of York. "They're a team that's shown throughout the season that they can keep pace. They're a team that's tied a lot of games which shows that they're sticking into games in different ways. And they're showing that versatility. They work hard on the field and Jimmy's got them playing a good brand of football."
York finished off the regular season with a pair of losses to visiting Forge, 2-1 on Nov. 6 and 3-1 on Nov. 9. But York rotated its roster in the season finale while Forge, looking to secure first place, fielded an almost full-strength starting lineup.
There was some niggle in the Nov. 6 meeting between the two Ontario rivals with eight yellow cards issued, six to Forge and two to York. There was just one yellow, to Forge, in the Nov. 9 game.
York won just one of its final eight games (1-3-4), a 2-1 victory at Pacific FC on Oct. 30. Forge lost its last two outings after going five games unbeaten (4-0-1).
Forge is missing the injured Johnny Grant. Brennan says his squad is healthy.
"The guys have been looking lively in training. And there's a lot of energy," he said.
The CPL playoffs will involve extra time, if needed, In the event of a draw after regulation time, the teams will play two 15-minute periods to decide the winner. If the score is still tied, the game will be decided via penalty shootout.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press