What CONCACAF League taught us about Canadian Soccer

Canadian Premier League teams have been competing in the CONCACAF League, which is essentially our region’s equivalent to UEFA’s Europa League, a tier below the CONCACAF Champions League, since 2019. At the outset, narratives and expectations were minimalist and humble. CPL teams were still within their first year of existence with rosters comprised predominantly of players that had barely, if ever, been in a professional football environment.

That outlook however, quickly changed.

Hamilton based Forge FC were the first CPL team to face CONCACAF competition by way of a 2019 playoff based on head to head league matches of the inaugural CPL season for the three teams that had ‘registered’ before the previous year’s deadline.

The predominant sentiment to the CPL’s involvement, despite the league not yet even having ever crowned a winner, was “isn’t this a great thing for us, as Canadian football supporters, to have access to? And it’ll be even better in a decade when we start winning some of these high profile matches.”

Chris Nanco scored against CD Olimpia in the first leg of their CONCACAF League match-up.
Brampton soccer’s Chris Nanco in action against CD Olimpia.

Then the unexpected happened… …Forge FC, a team that had only existed for about 4 months, as a competitive entity, played a home and away series against Guatemalan side Antigua GFC and won. Forge progressed to the round of 16 where they were matched up with Honduran side Club Deportivo Olimpia and while eventually dropping out with a 4-2 aggregate over the two legs, there was the memorable 1-0 victory over CD Olimpia with Brampton soccer’s very own Chris Nanco scoring the winner. (BAS Fact: Chris’ brother Ian has played in BAS in the past.) The significance of that victory rests in the fact that CD Olimpia is a club that was formed in 1912. Forge was founded in 2019, making CD Olimpia 107 years older and vastly more experienced than the Canadian representatives from Hamilton.

CONCACAF League already looking better

While Forge’s round of 32 advancement and subsequent win in the round of 16 over a storied club like CD Olimpia, despite not advancing, had Canadian football diehards excited already – no one was really prepared for the next progression. The expectation? More of the same.

In 2020 with a COVID shortened CPL season, which took place as the “Island Games“, Forge FC (as the 2019 Champions) were once again Canada’s team in the CONCACAF League. While supporters of the league as a whole were now feeling a bit more confident about CPL teams in international competition, there was still the specter of “getting CONCACAFed” to impede any progress. Canadian teams traditionally, for lack of quality or naiveté, simply couldn’t overcome the non-technical aspect of our region’s football culture.

The journey began again and Forge beat Honduran side Municipal Limeño 2-1 in San Salvador which saw them progress from the preliminary round.

In the Round of 16 it was Tauro Fútbol Club of Panama that was cast aside by the Hamiltonians after a 2-1 win.

It was in the Quarter-Finals that Forge FC finally failed to clear a hurdle as they went to Haiti and drew 1-1 with Arcahaie Football Club, losing 4-2 in the subsequent penalty shootout.

There was a ‘play in’ round added to lock up a final qualifying spot for the CONCACAF Champions League that involved the 4 teams who had lost their Quarter Final match-up and Forge FC, having lost theirs, were set to face Club Deportivo Marathón in Honduras. CD Marathón won 1-0 and thus Forge FC’s second go at the CONCACAF League came to an end. Undeniably however, Canada was now a nation that the rest of CONCACAF were paying attention to. Forge was new, IS new… …and they were still holding their own against clubs that had 50 to 100 years of history and experience.

Could it get even better?

Forge FC, having once again won the CPL title in 2020 were Canada’s representatives in the CONCACAF League for the 2021 season. The CPL representatives once again started in the preliminary round with Forge hosting CD FAS (Club Deportivo Futbolistas Asociados Santanecos) and winning 3-1, before the return leg in Honduras that ended 2-2. Forge advanced with a 5-3 aggregate score.

The Round of 16 saw Forge play host to Panama’s C.A. Independiente de La Chorrera and after a 0-0 draw, they visited Panama and escaped being “CONCACAFed” after Mo Babouli was sent off before half-time… a 2-0 victory saw them advance to the Quarter-Finals.

The trip to Costa Rica to play Santos de Guápiles F.C. was traumatic and everyone could be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the road for the CPL side. But, on the return leg at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, Forge FC stunned the region by not only winning, but comprehensively dominating in their 3-0 win over Santos. In the final 10 minutes, with Forge leading 4-3 on aggregate and set to advance, it was Forge that had Santos pinned in their own half. It was Forge that was generating opportunities to score. That moment was a historic one for Forge, the CPL and for how the rest of CONCACAF was going to view Canadian teams.

The Semi-Finals were next and both legs ended in draws… …2-2 in Hamilton and 0-0 in Honduras with the final aggregate between Forge and Club de Fútbol Motagua at 2-2. CF Motagua advanced on ‘away goals’. Reaching the Semi-Finals as they did meant Forge had already achieved something historic. They were 2022 CONCACAF Champions League entrants along with the other 4 semi-finalists from the CONCACAF League.

Canadians are pretty good at this football thing

We’re talking specifically about the CONCACAF League but would be remiss to not mention Forge FC’s brief stint in the CONCACAF Champions League where Forge, with a player salary of under $800,000 CAD total, lost home and away legs against Mexico’s Cruz Azul with a player budget estimated at $60,000,000 (million). It was still great to see a CPL team playing to a packed house at the Azteca though.

On the 4th go round in the CONCACAF League, with the rest of the region undoubtedly paying attention and wary of facing these pesky, fledgling Canadian teams, the 2021 CPL season threw a new team into the mix. Having beaten Forge FC 1-0 in the league final, Canada’s participants were now Pacific FC from Vancouver Island.

Pacific, like their predecessors, entered the 2022 CONCACAF League via the Preliminary Round and were matched up with Jamaica’s Waterhouse FC. The away leg in Kingston ended 0-0 with Waterhouse taking on a very defensive approach and Pacific applying pressure as much as they could. The home leg for the islanders however, was something entirely different. Pacific FC galloped to a 6-0 win, comprehensively trouncing their Jamaican counterparts.

Mississauga soccer's Kunle Dada-Luke takes on Costa Rica's CD Herediano.
Mississauga born Kunle Dada-Luke in action for Pacific FC.

The Round of 16 saw Pacific FC hosting Club Sport Herediano of Costa Rica where the guests, consistently under pressure from Pacific, snuck away with a 1-0 victory. Herediano, when visiting the CPL side converted to a back 5 out of possession. Pundits and supporters alike assumed this was a tactic employed for the away leg as Herediano normally play with a back 4 in their domestic league matches. When Pacific visited Costa Rica in the return leg however, Herediano once again deployed a back 5. It was evident then that the rest of CONCACAF were eager to defend and protect themselves from the Canadians, who both via Forge and now Pacific had showed themselves to be proficient in possession and looking to play attacking football.

Leading 1-0 on aggregate, with an away goal to boot, Herediano defended tirelessly for 89 minutes against Pacific who had been reduced to 10 men in the 55th minute. It was in the 89th minute that Gianni dos Santos scored a stunner to put Pacific 1-0 up and set the aggregate score at 1-1, both teams with a single away goal. (Full highlights below, but cued up to start with dos Santos’ strike at 5:31.)

Gianni dos Santos equalizes for Pacific FC with a stunner.

Pacific would unfortunately lose out 6-5 in a penalty shootout. This however doesn’t discount their overall dominant performances, their thrashing of Waterhouse and the trepidatious approach their Costa Rican opponents adopted in both legs.

What about the Canadian National Teams?

We can all sit back and appreciate that the Canadian Men’s and Women’s National teams have, particularly in the past year or so, really signaled to the rest of the world that Canada can play football. However, and this is truest on the men’s side, our stars have been refined and had their cutting edge honed elsewhere. Denmark, Turkey, Germany, England, Portugal, France, Uruguay and the United States… …that’s where Canada’s key national team players, on the men’s side mostly, have grown to be the ‘world class’ players they are. (If you qualify for the World Cup or win a Gold Medal at the Olympics, you get to be considered ‘world class’.)

But that’s 22-30 players on either roster. What about Canada’s depth? The CPL sides’ performances in the CONCACAF League have gone a great way to addressing that uncertainty. Pacific FC did lose to a Costa Rican team, but that team had several Costa Rican internationals who will be at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Pacific FC had no internationals and still held their ground with a progressive display that fell short ONLY when it came to spot kicks.

What about the MLS?

The MLS is a US league whose priority is being an entertainment product. There’s nothing wrong with that. Canada’s MLS teams are in there to be part of that entertainment business, not to develop Canadian players. Historically, 2-3 Canadian starters is all one could expect from a Canadian MLS side. Substantially fewer, if any, for US based teams. This has started to change however, but in part due to the impact of the CPL. We now have Joel Waterman, Lowell Wright, Lukas McNaughton, Kadin Chung, Mo Farsi, etc… playing in the MLS as a result of their CPL performances and experiences. Canadian MLS sides are fielding a larger number of Canadian players thanks to both the results of their academy programs and the CPL’s ability to provide opportunity and a showcase for young Canadian footballers.

CONCACAF League’s end is a new beginning

The 2022 CONCACAF League is the final iteration. In 2023 the competition is being merged within an expanded CONCACAF Champions League. Things are only going to get harder for the smaller, lower budget sides like the one’s progressing via the CPL but should we start to worry? We didn’t expect the quality and success we saw in the CONCACAF League so perhaps our expectations for the Champions League will also be surpassed. Even if they aren’t however, lets consider an appreciate the long-term effects that will be afforded to squads comprised of 80-90% Canadians, traveling to even bigger venues, playing even greater quality opposition, in front of even larger crowds… …consider what that experience means for the health of Canadian football and how it will further strengthen the depth we can draw upon in the future.

The significance of the CPL’s U21 minutes is paramount here as it has resulted in every CPL team stocking their roster with young Canadian players to ensure they meet their U21 minutes quotas. It’s become very apparent that none of the teams just fill out minutes with their younger players, but are rather consistently looking to build their teams with those younger players for the long term.

The Final Verdict

The Canadian Premier League teams’ successes and performances in the CONCACAF League are a close second to the Men’s National Team finishing first in WC Qualifying, with regards to being an indicator as to where Canada sits in the global football hierarchy. Forge FC’s and Pacific FC’s displays in the CONCACAF League play an arguably bigger role in both our understanding of where we fit in and how the rest of the world sees us, than TFC’s Champions League final and MLS Cup wins do. It can be debated, sure, but the fact that both Forge and Pacific have rosters that are vastly more Canadian is an important detail that can’t be dismissed. When TFC reached the final, it was a team from Canada with a couple of Canadians that did it. (Admittedly, it was our very own Jonathan Osorio that played a massive role.) When Pacific thrashed Waterhouse, when Forge dominated and bullied Santos, it was Canadian players on Canadian teams that did that.

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