Forging his way: The flexible Elimane Cisse providing value to Forge after a unique path to CPL

After Forge’s historic CPL season, where they eventually lifted the ‘North Star Shield’ as Champions, we take a look at Elimane Cisse, the versatile Forge midfielder that we got to speak to during the finals. 

When things don’t go as planned, you can be excused for wanting to look back.

Shortly after his team had won a hard-fought 1st leg of the Canadian Premier League Finals, beating Western rivals Cavalry FC after an eventful 90 minutes, Forge’s Elimane Cisse instead preferred to look forward. 

Rather than lamenting missed chances, as many had, he kept his eyes on the prize ahead, the North Star Shield, which would be theirs if they managed to keep their nerve for another 90 minutes. 

“We played well, even despite the score,” Cisse said to BTSVancity after the 1st leg. “We should have scored a lot of goals, but hey, we got 1, that’s what we needed, all that’s left is to finish it off and win the cup.”

“It’s not going to be easy, but we will do everything to win the cup, even despite our lead, it won’t be easy, but we know what to do.”

Cisse’s positive attitude would play a big role in Forge’s eventual triumph, as they did what many people have failed to do in Calgary this year: win at Spruce Meadows. Thanks to some stout defending, quality goalkeeping and a timely counter-attack at the right time, they did just that, etching them in the CPL memory books as ‘Forever First’. 

In that 1st leg, Cisse was a menace for Cavalry to deal with, and he only continued that on into the 2nd leg. While he ended up coming off the bench in Calgary, he helped them close down shop in the latter stages of the game, he once again paid off the faith that Forge manager Bobby Smyrniotis had in him all season long, capping things off with the title-winning assist on David Choiniere’s late goal. 

A versatile player, Cisse gave Smyrniotis a trump card to use. As a coach, it gave him the dream player to have, as he could be deployed pretty much anywhere on the field and put in a shift, giving Forge various options based on how they wanted to play. 

“We’ve got guys who step up in different occasions and in different roles,” Smyrniotis said after the 1st leg. “We saw that today with Cisse playing a new role for the first time this year, so we’re confident in the guys and we’re confident in our tactical flexibility to go into the game and be prepared.”

Part of what shaped Cisse’s flexibility was his time in his home country, Senegal, where he often ended up playing every position. Often as a player that can be a death knell, as certain players can struggle to adapt enough to stick in the pro game, but in the case of Cisse, it was all part of his unique skillset. 

He’s fast, as seen by the 70-yard galloping run that he went on before setting up Choiniere in the final. He’s defensively sound, as suggested by his 32 interceptions (1.4/game) and 31 tackles (1.2/game) over the course of the 23 games he played. You add in his solid offensive touch, with 2 goals and 2 assists, along with 7 big chances created and an 85% passing percentage, and you’ve got a complete package. 

It only shows why Smyrniotis had equal confidence when Cisse slotted in at right back, as he would if he deployed in the middle of the park, something that most coaches don’t get the opportunity to have.

“In Senegal, I played everywhere,” Cisse explained. “I’ve played in the middle, both defensively and offensively. I’ve also played centre back, right back, on the wing, you name it (I’ve played it). I’m used to having that flexibility.”

He credits that flexibility, as well as the similar nature of teammates such as Tristan Borges, Chris Nanco, Kwame Awuah and more, as part of the reason why Forge felt confident against all opponents as part of their strong 2019 campaign. 

“Of course, that helped us a lot,” Cisse said. “Because it gave us a lot of confidence. Because a lot of our players could play all over the place, it gave us a lot of satisfaction when playing, as it allowed us to push forward with confidence.”

So while on the pitch, things went pretty smoothly, off of it was a new experience. Moving away from home for the first time is never easy, even at 23, especially when you move from a country that’s as hot as Senegal is to somewhere as chilly as the Greater Toronto Area.

While he said that he actually prefers the chillier temperatures, which is part of the reason that he moved over, he had to adjust to a new home all alone, as none his family joined him. That’s set to change next year, as his wife Seynabou, who he actually married over WhatsApp this fall (must-read!), is likely to join him in Canada, but overall, even despite the ups and downs, when reflecting on the experience, he had lots of good things to say.

“It went well. It was a lot to process, as it was all part of my first year, but it was overall a positive year,” Cisse said.

“Over there, in Senegal, football is difficult, because you can play at any time in the league. That means that you might play at 3PM, and it’ll be super hot, which compared to here, where it’s sometimes cold and sometimes warm, but it’s still a lot colder than there, which is nice. Over there, it can be super hard because of the heat, and the level of play.”

Given how smoothly his experience went, don’t be surprised if other CPL teams start to actively recruit other talents from Africa, where there are plenty of quality talents waiting to be unearthed. With the continent playing home to many top leagues, like the Senegalese league where Cisse previously plied his trade, there are plenty of quality players that just haven’t been discovered by European teams. 

While they might not get an Idrissa Gana Gueye, the Paris Saint German star who came up through Diambars, the team Cisse played for before his move, there are several players that can make a difference in the CPL. With many teams unwisely using their international spots on older European talent, they could instead pick up players like Cisse, who was of great value to Smyrniotis and Forge this season. 

And given his pedigree, it was no surprise that he was a revelation in this CPL season, as he had previously received over a half-dozen caps for Senegal’s senior national team, along with several appearances with the U20s, where he helped them to a historic semi-final appearance in the 2015 U20 World Cup. With Senegal being the class of Africa at the moment, thanks to the performances of Gueye at PSG, Sadio Mane at Liverpool and Kalidou Koulibaly at Napoli, amongst others, it shows the quality that Cisse has in order to have gotten the chance that he did. 

With Senegal being as stacked as they currently are, as they have many players starring in Europe’s top 5 leagues, a return for Cisse into the National Team fold doesn’t appear to yet be in order. But after a historic first CPL season, where many players earned call-ups to National Teams within CONCACAF, including Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and more, Cisse isn’t ruling out another call-up. 

As the CPL continues to grow, who knows, maybe another shot will come. After giving his all during the 1st season, don’t expect him to stop, as he chases the dangling carrots of another CPL Championship, CONCACAF League glory and a return to his National Team fold. 

With the good experience of 2019 in the back of his head, he’s just happy to give it another shot in 2020, as he continues to enjoy life in Canada. 

“Of course, I think so,” Cisse said when asked if he believes that a Senegal National Team return could be in the cards. “I’m going to give my all, do everything in my possibility. It was a good experience, so I want to put my name out there again,” 

“I will continue to give everything to get another call for the National Team.”

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