Reds brace for crucial Canadian Championship semi-final clash against Forge FC


It’s cup time.

Toronto FC will make the short trip down the highway to Hamilton on Wednesday night for the first leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal against Forge FC at Tim Hortons Field.

“There's an excitement when it's a cup match,” said John Herdman on Tuesday. “A change of scenery, local competition, a bit of a derby, so for us we can talk about a different type of opponent and get excited being two games away from a final.”

“Both teams are competing for that now,” he underlined. “Getting to a cup final will mean a lot to everyone at the club, so we'll be fighting hard this first match to come back to Toronto with a little bit of something in the bag.”

That change of scenery is just what the doctor ordered for TFC. It offers a chance to break up the rhythm of the league with something just different enough.

Toronto has won all three matches in the Canadian Championship, beating League1 Ontario side Simcoe County Rovers FC 5-0 in the Preliminary Round and then dispatching Ligue1 Québec’s CS Saint-Laurent 11-1 on aggregate over the two legs of the quarterfinals in May.

Since then, results in the league have been hard to come by.

“We’re in a tough moment right now,” said Luka Gavran. “It's not easy when nothing is going your way, but we're staying positive, we're training really well, everybody's ready for whoever is called upon, so we'll see what happens tomorrow.”

“It'll be nice to be in Hamilton,” added the Hamilton-native. “I know there's going to be a lot of people there to support me and the team, so it's going to be good.”

Gavran has started all three matches in TFC’s quest to lift the Voyageur’s Cup for the first time since 2020 (2022), but Herdman was coy about his midweek selection.

Toronto are in the midst of yet another gruelling stretch of action: this is the fourth game in quick succession and another three lie ahead in short order before the 2024 Leagues Cup kicks off on July 27.

“I can't give too much away at this stage. It's important to keep all our cards up our sleeve,” concealed the coach. “It's a cup semifinal.”

“We're coming off a lot of games, back-to-back games, so we've really got to manage that rotation of our squad and a couple of guys that are still carrying some things from the weekend,” Herdman laid out. “So anything can go, given where we're at – plus a massive game at home against Philly on the weekend – just managing a group across four or five games in two weeks.”

Pacific FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC will meet in the other semifinal later Wednesday night at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C.

It is a rare treat that TFC can take the team bus from the BMO Training Ground to the opponent’s ground. Despite being so close to home, the club does not expect an overly friendly reception.

“Battling the environment is the starting point,” said Herdman. “They're really strong at their home base, they’ve got good support there. They're a team that understands [themselves] well, they've been together for a long time, a good core group of players in [Tristan] Borges, [David] Choinière, and [Kyle] Bekker.”

“Those players make the team tick, they’re very good players who understand each other and understand the coach's vision,” he continued. “[Bobby Smyrniotis] has coached the team for five years, it's rare you see that in North America, that sort of consistency. It’s a team that's won a lot, with a clear tactical identity; a cohesive group that know what they want to get out of the game, they know how to get it out of each other. It will be a really tough opponent for us.”

Forge have been Canadian Premier League champions in four of the five seasons, winning back-to-back titles in 2019-2020 and 2022-2023. They were runners-up in 2021 as well and have represented the CPL in the Concacaf League, reaching the semifinals in 2021, the Concacaf Champions League, and the Concacaf Champions Cup earlier this year, where they clashed with Mexican giants, Chivas (C.D. Guadalajara).

“Forge speak for themselves,” said Gavran. “They've always been competitive, they've won basically every year.”

“That kind of pedigree is not easy to come by,” he continued. “You have to have a proper team, you have to have a proper system, a well-coached team. A game against them is always going to be tough."

The two have met once before, clashing in the much-delayed 2020 Canadian Championship final in 2022, playing out a 1-1 draw before TFC won the shootout 6-5 to lift the Voyageurs Cup.

Forge have already knocked one MLS side out of this year’s competition. A 3-1 Preliminary Round victory over York United FC earned them a quarterfinal series against CF Montréal. The two drew the first match in Hamilton 1-1 before Forge won 2-1 at Stade Saputo in the second leg.

“They were good performances,” observed Herdman. “The Forge team and the coaching staff there, they've had a lot of experience in the Canadian Championship, a lot of experience in cup competitions in Concacaf. They got their strategies, their tactics right for the home match, and then grabbed that away goal early with their quality.”

“A very dangerous opponent,” he continued. “That have the quality to tip up MLS teams.”

“You've seen this in the CanChamp, whether it was the Whitecaps this year with Cavalry and obviously, Montréal, there was a couple of upsets there. We've got to be ready for that,” Herdman added. “We know that they're going to bring an intensity, we know that they're going to be tactically organized, we know they're going to be rested, and they're going to be at home on a turf field with a great crowd behind them. We've got to embrace that, get excited for it, and be very clear about what our mission is going into Hamilton.”

Throughout this quest for the Vs Cup, playing against League1 Canada sides, Herdman has put additional goals in front of his side. No extra motivation will be needed on Wednesday.

“Just the clarity, the clarity of getting through to a cup final,” said the TFC coach. “It's been a while since we've lifted the Canadian Championship and, while MLS Playoffs are important for us, to give our fans something to really celebrate.”

“So it's the intensity that comes with that level of intent – that this is important,” Herdman underlined. “We want to make sure that we give our fans that opportunity to experience a final and then once you're in a final, it's all about lifting that trophy.”

The return leg is scheduled for August 27 at BMO Field.

A side cannot win the series in the first leg, but they can put themselves in the driver’s seat.

“A team performance,” replied Gavran, asked what the side wanted from this first leg. “There's so many phases of games where we play as a team, we go up 1-0 and then the next 20, 30 minutes we don't play as a team, we lose our structure, we play individually, we go against everything that we trained for and say we're going to do. Our main goal has to be a team performance for 90 minutes.”

“If we do a [that], there's a lot of teams that can't beat us,” he closed. “We've seen it this season, that we can compete with all the best teams. We need to be collectively together for 90 straight minutes, 95 minutes, whatever it is, and give ourselves a good advantage coming back home.”