HAMILTON, Ont.—What a game that opening match was.
Expectations were high for the first leg of the inaugural Canadian Premier League Finals, and it certainly didn’t disappoint, providing viewers with a little bit of everything.
With the two best teams in the league taking part, the match promised to be an electric affair, both in the stands and on the pitch.
Half an hour before the match had even started, Forge FC’s supporter’s group, the Barton Street Battalion arrived on the scene, sparking Tim Hortons Field into life. The group was rowdy from the moment they got into the stands, and were so loud that we could hear every word they were chanting from the press box... on the opposite side of the stadium — behind some glass. It was a phenomenal scene, and was the latest example of just how important the CPL is to people across this country.
Over 10,000 fans packed Tim Hortons Field, around 3,500 higher than the Forge FC average attendance, and nearly 6,000 above the league's average. The stadium was rocking, and clearly meant something to both fans of the two participating clubs, but also to neutrals who support the league.
Credit must also be given to the few dozen Cavalry fans who made the journey to Hamilton to follow their team, it's great to see the effort that fans are putting in to support their sides.
Before the game, members of the media had the opportunity to speak with Forge FC owner Bob Young.
Young, who also owns the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, was hesitant to take too much credit for the success in the club's first year, instead deflecting it to other people within the club, including Head Coach Bobby Smyrniotis.
Young said that his job at the club was to be their biggest fan, but he also of course sees things with a business perspective.
"It gives us great pleasure to be this good in our first year," he said. "But the interesting one is how much better we can be next year and the year after that."
"I'm actually a very bad manager because I don't really care about this year, I only ever care about five years from now. Where could we be, not where are we."
Shortly after our conversation with Young concluded, the biggest Canada flag I’ve ever seen was unfurled, the anthem was sung, and it was finally game time.
The first few minutes were uneventful, but as soon as Cavalry FC’s Oliver Minatel picked up the game’s first yellow card following a reckless challenge, the match got a bit more feisty, giving viewers flashbacks to the entertaining Canadian Championship game between the two sides earlier in the year, in which a massive brawl ensued after the final whistle following a late penalty equalizer for Cavalry.
This game never reached that boiling point, but there were certainly signs that the two sets of players didn’t particularly like each other throughout the match. Cavalry captain Nik Ledgerwood said after the match that given what's at stake, the two sets of players almost need to dislike each other when they're on the pitch.
"I think, no matter what, if the two teams in the Final look like they're friends, something's wrong," started Ledgerwood. "You can see that both teams want to win; there's a lot of players who wear their heart on their sleeves, and that's what everybody wants to see in a Final."
Tempers flared on multiple occasions, especially between Ledgerwood and Forge FC's Tristan Borges, who took every opportunity to remind one another that they were there.
Things getting tense already. Borges getting stuck in with Ledgerwood after so-called contact between Frano and Escalante.— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 26, 2019
Right call or no?
FOR 0 - 0 CAV #CanPLFinals | #FORvsCAV | #CanPLxOneSoccer pic.twitter.com/xQjogxurD6
And as always seems to be the case, especially in leagues like the Canadian Premier League which don't use VAR, there was plenty of refereeing controversy.
Two Red Cards stole the headlines in Saturday’s opening leg. Cavalry's Joel Waterman saw red for denying a goalscoring opportunity after the ball struck his arm, and first-half goalscorer Tristan Borges saw red for violent conduct after kicking out at Jay Wheeldon, who certainly made the most of the situation, shall we say.
After both sides appealed the referee’s sending off’s to Canada Soccer, only Borges saw his Red Card overturned, making him eligible to play in this Saturday’s second leg.
On the ensuing penalty following the Waterman incident, Golden Boot leader Tristan Borges' penalty was saved by Marco Carducci, but he'd make up for it shortly after.
Borges' goal in first half stoppage time, the only tally of the CPL Finals thus far, also stirred up some controversy. While it's undeniable that it was a heck of a shot, and one of the better goals of the season, if you go back a few seconds, the ball rolled along the touchline, and according to the Cavalry players defending it, it went out of bounds.
From my view high above the field level, I thought it had gone out of bounds at first, but after watching replays, it's impossible to tell whether or not the ball stayed in bounds.
He's done it! Who else?!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 26, 2019
@tristandborges puts @ForgeFCHamilton up one after some magical movement up the left side from @ChrisNanco
FOR 1 - 0 CAV #CanPLFinals | #FORvsCAV | #CanPLxOneSoccer pic.twitter.com/B2GUoVbGs5
"I won't say too much about the officiating," said Ledgerwood. "I already got in trouble last time."
That was a sentiment echoed by several people who spoke post-game. Both coaches kept the officiating talk to a minimum, and multiple players said that they disagreed with certain calls, but didn't call out the referees, or criticize them too harshly.
The second leg on Saturday in Calgary promises to be another exciting match, and a great conclusion to what's been an entertaining first year of the Canadian Premier League. Some members of the Cavalry camp will be hoping to use the weather conditions in the area to their advantage, even if they don't like it.
"That warm?," Head Coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr asked with a laugh when a reporter told him that the forecasted temperature for the second leg is 0°. "I'll just stay in my waistcoat, won't I? It's a wonderful climate, it does wonders for my hair, it stays in place with the frost. It's a tough place to play, with the altitude as well.
"There's a reason we've got a great home record. Every advantage we can get at this point, we're going to take it."
After the match, Forge FC midfielder Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson praised the hometown fans, saying that they had a big impact on him and his teammates.
”They were amazing,” Achinioti-Jonsson said. “It helped us to push that little extra bit and when you pressured you felt like you got more energy.
”We got a great sendoff here tonight, and now we’re just gonna finish it. The fans have been great, the stadium and everything here has been amazing, so I’m looking forward to next year when there will hopefully be even more people here and it’ll be even better.”
If leg two is anything near as dramatic and exciting as the first leg, we're in for a treat.
Waking the Red will have thorough coverage of the second leg, so stay tuned.