HAMILTON, ON – Not many things in sport are better than one-game playoffs. When you buy a ticket to a one-game tie, you’re bound to find some drama, often more than if you attended a Broadway show.
When the Canadian Premier League’s Pacific FC played the Vancouver Whitecaps off the pitch on a perfect West Coast night in August, it set the stage for an ultra-dramatic Canadian Championship, unlike anything Canada had seen before.
While the Voyageurs Cup is not a baby lion, Forge FC has set their sights on raising the trophy like Simba in “The Lion King.” In 2020, they had a chance when they qualified for the Voyageurs Cup Final by winning their second CPL title, but that match has yet to happen.
So as the hazy September sun kissed Tim Hortons Field’s East Stand on Wednesday for Hamilton’s match against Valour, there was Forge, beginning their trek towards the 2021 Canadian Championship before taking a final crack at the 2020 title.
Forge might not be the dominant team in CPL action as they have been over the first two seasons. Still, as an exciting side, with talent galore, they entered as the favourites against a Winnipeg club that had dropped three straight in league play.
The two-time defending CPL champions got out to a quick start, controlling the play from the first kick. By the 15th minute, the home side had 72 percent possession and had hemmed Valour in their own end. Even then, with the backing of over 2,800, they could not break through for the first half-hour.
Headlined by the likes of 2019 CPL leading goalscorer Tristan Borges, alongside the midfield of Kyle Becker and Emmanuel Cisse, Forge could not get the better of Valour for their first eight shots of the night and did not get on the board until the 33rd minute.
As the match reached an aggravating point for the home side, they finally found the breakthrough from David Choiniere in the 33rd, while hundreds of kilometres away, David’s brother, Mathieu, also rippled the netting for CF Montreal in MLS play.
Just minutes after Choiniere opened the scoring, controversy struck, as Hamilton’s Woobens Pacias doubled the host’s lead but looked to have used his hand while doing so. Valour goalkeeper Matt Silva stopped Pacias’ initial shot before the ball deflected off the attacker’s hand, settled in front of his foot and ended up in the back of the net.
“Don’t get me into the controversy; I’ll get fined,” chuckled Valour Head Coach Rob Gale post-match. “The second one, It’s not a goal. It is a handball, and it is as clear as day.”
Reeling at the halftime break, Gale faced a locker room trailing by a pair and a group that had only picked up four points since leaving “The Kickoff” bubble at the start of the 2021 CPL season.
Gale introduced a pair of fresh legs at half in forward William Akio and midfielder Raphael Ohin, who has been a critical player for Valour in 2021. In the second half, Akio, Ohin, and the rest of Valour looked like a re-born team, maintaining long possession spells, despite being unable to penetrate two solid blocks of four that Forge had established.
While the ‘Drama of The Cup’ mantra fleeted as the match wore on at 2-0, Forge goalkeeper Triston Henry and Valour forward Austin Ricci ensured it returned. Henry took too long with the ball at his feet and overlooked Ricci, who barreled in to knock the ball into the goal, cutting the lead in half, albeit injuring himself in the process.
“I want us to play like we did in the second half,” said Gale. “You saw with more of our personnel there in the second half, that is the kind of football team we can be, and that is the blueprint going forward.”
Ricci’s goal was as close as Valour got on Wednesday, but the waning moments could have repercussions in their 2022 tournament, as the referee sent off Raphael Galhardo after the final whistle.
Hamilton now looks ahead towards a Canadian Championship semi-final match against either 2020 CPL final foes HFX Wanderers, or CF Montreal, who could become their first date with an MLS side.
“It would be amazing; I think my family is really looking forward to that moment,” said David Choiniere of potentially facing his brother Mathieu and Montreal. “If that game can happen, it would be a magic moment for my family.”
For nearly an hour, Wednesday’s match looked as though it was going to be a forgetful night for both sides, with Forge waltzing their way past Valour. That was not the case — there is something special about cup competitions, even in a country without a rich domestic history, and between two clubs of just three years old.
Buy a ticket to the show, and settle in, you’re bound to see some drama in cup soccer, and on this brisk September night in Hamilton, that is precisely what happened.
Cover photo: Canada Soccer/Ryan McCullough/Brandon Taylor