Sunday’s Canadian Premier League Final meant a lot more than which club would be spraying champagne in the locker room after the final whistle.
Just less than 15,000 checked in at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa for the winner-takes-all match between Forge FC and Atlético Ottawa, a league record for paid attendees.
Forge of Hamilton claimed its third North Shield in four years after defeating Atlético Ottawa 2-0.
Moments after adding yet another piece of silverware to the trophy cabinet, Forge FC’s head coach and technical director Bobby Smyrniotis acknowledged the momentous occasion for Canadian soccer, rather than gloat about his team’s success.
“Take away the championship and everything, look at the environment here,” Smyrniotis said in a television interview. “Just looking in that corner and seeing our supporters here I think that’s the growth of football culture in this country.
“I want it to become contagious from East Coast to West Coast.”
After falling at the last hurdle to Pacific FC last year, Forge was looking to cement its dynasty by bringing the trophy back to Hamilton.
Success hasn’t come as easy to Ottawa. The 2020 expansion side qualified for the playoffs for the first time in style by winning the regular-season title.
After washing away Pacific FC over two legs in the semifinal, Atlético got to host the championship match.
For Bryce Crossman, the Supporter of the Year for the Capital City Supporters Group, Sunday’s grand finale meant a lot more than the result.
“Our whole intent was, let’s make sure this is a great game, let’s make sure this atmosphere is great. Let’s make sure that the 3,000 or 4,000 people that are coming to their very first soccer game in Ottawa maybe think about it all winter long and when we have that home opener next year they want to come out,” Crossman said.
“To see 15,000 people there was incredible, to feel that energy.”
It wasn’t the start to the game that the buzzing home supporters were looking for. Even without suspended club captain Kyle Bekker, Forge didn’t miss a beat in the midfield, with 23-year-old Noah Jensen stepping up in his place. The visitors controlled the possession against an organized Ottawa team that doesn’t mind defending.
It would take a set piece for the away side to break the deadlock.
Alessandro Hojabrpour headed past Ottawa goalkeeper Nathan Ingham in the 28th minute. The defensive midfielder celebrated with his teammates in front of a jubilant and orange section full of travelling Forge supporters.
One of those individuals was Marco Leon, a drummer for Forge’s official supporters group, the Barton Street Battalion.
“We exploded in joy,” said Leon. “It was such a fantastic experience … these moments are just building and they’re only going to get bigger.”
Hojabrpour scored the winner against Forge for Pacific in 2021.
“I owed Forge one, I’ll say that,” the Burnaby native said to Charlie O’Connor-Clarke following the match.
Atlético failed to trouble Forge keeper Triston Henry in the opening 45 minutes. Carlos Gonzalez’s squad would have to take more risks going forward following the interval if they were to have a chance at glory.
“They’re just missing that lethal attacker who can consistently put balls in the back of the net,” said Benedict Rhodes, a contributor to CanPL.ca.
“If they can start scoring more goals they could be even more dangerous next year and quite possibly lift that North Star Shield.”
Forge came close to doubling its advantage right after halftime. A pair of saves in quick succession from Ingham denied Aboubacar Sissoko and then Woobens Pacius as the Ottawa shot stopper kept his team in the match.
Ottleti got its best chance to make it a tie game in the 75th minute when defender Sergio Camus ran onto a through ball from Abdoul Sissoko. Camus’ powerful effort was turned aside by Triston Henry for an Atlético corner kick. The Spanish centre back threw his hands up, imploring the Ottawa faithful to keep their spirits high.
“If Atlético would have scored a goal, that place would’ve exploded,” said Crossman. “It was a great game but we didn’t get to see the full fireworks on the Ottawa side for sure.”
Forge forward David Choinière delivered the killer blow in the 78th minute by dancing his way into the Atlético penalty area and around Camus to strike the ball into the net and give The Hammers a 2-0 advantage.
As the final whistle sounded on the banks of the Rideau Canal, Forge and their supporters were ready to celebrate their latest championship as if it was the first.
“The players have acknowledged that to have our unconditional support and to hear our roar means a lot,” said Leon. “The celebrations were pretty intense. We all went to the same bar, players and fans.”
Crossman didn’t allow the pain of the loss to linger. The “Masked Maestro” as he is sometimes called, recognized that the weekend in the nation’s capital, and the season as a whole was positive.
“The sadness didn’t last long,” he said. “To be there, to be in that game when you were last place in the league the year before, and second last in the league the year before that, we cannot be upset about the success we’ve had, we can’t be upset about hosting that game.”
“We definitely proved last weekend that the supporter culture is here, that we can sustain a team, and that more people should be coming out to these games.”
With attendances rising at every CPL ground in 2022 and soccer becoming a growing part of the sports landscape, Sunday’s final could eventually become the norm for Canadian footy fans.
For Rhodes, this latest showcase ranks top when he thinks about the CPL matches he’s taken in.
“There were a lot of people there passionately supporting their club rather than checking out a game for the first time.
“It felt like a big occasion and that’s what it turned out to be.”