Forge FC takes its next step on its Scotiabank CONCACAF League journey Tuesday and this time it doesn't need a passport.
For the first time since August 2019, the Canadian Premier League champion gets to host a match in the feeder tournament that will send six clubs to the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, the flagship club competition in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Having dispatching El Salvador's CD FAS 5-3 on aggregate in the preliminary round last month, with both legs in San Salvador, Hamilton-based Forge welcomes Panama's CAI (its full name is Club Atletico Independiente de La Chorrera) to Tim Hortons Field in the first leg of their round-of-16 tie. The return leg is Sept. 28 at Estadio Rod Carew in Panama City.
Forge has been the tournament's road warriors, with pandemic-related travel restrictions forcing it on the road the last 18 months. Eight of its 10 CONCACAF League games have been played away from home, including the last seven — three in El Salvador, two in Honduras and single games in Panama and the Dominican Republic.
After much work behind the scenes, Forge is now able to welcome CAI — helped by the fact that the Panama side is fully vaccinated. Forge is 2-0-0 at home in the CONCACAF League.
"Just playing in front of our fans, playing on this field, gives us a very comfortable approach on how we go into the game," said Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis. "There's not many variables on quality of pitch or what we're going to find. So from that end, we've played some very good football here and we expect that to continue (Tuesday) night. And that's need to be our advantage. Our crowd and the field and the way it plays for us."
CAI, currently third in the Panama league at 8-5-3, knocked Toronto FC out of 2019 CONCACAF Champions League with a 5-1 aggregate triumph in the round of 16.
"First and foremost, Independiente is a very good squad," said Smyrniotis. "They're a squad with a pretty good history in this competition, going back a few years."
Forge, third in the CPL at 9-7-1, It is coming off a 2-1 win Wednesday over Valour FC in the quarterfinals of the Canadian Championship. That game saw the return of veteran forward Emery Welshman, who re-signed with the team earlier in the week.
One of 12 teams in the CONCACAF League's two-legged preliminary round, Forge won the first leg 3-1 over CD FAS on goals from Tristan Borges, Mo Babouli and David Choiniere. Play was suspended in the 85th minute for some 20 minutes after lights went out in the empty Estadio Cuscatlan.
The second leg finished in a 2-2 tie with Joshua Navarro and Jonathan Grant scoring for Forge.
Forge made it to the CONCACAF League quarterfinal last year, losing in a penalty shootout loss to Haiti's Arcahaie FC. It then lost 1-0 to Honduras' CD Marathon in a play-in match, which represented one final chance to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Forge downed El Salvador's CD Municipal Limeno 2-1 in the preliminary round and Panama's Tauro FC 2-1 in the round of 16 prior to the loss to Arcahaie.
In 2019, Forge beat Guatemala's Antigua GFC 2-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round before losing 4-2 to Honduras' Olimpia in the round of 16.
"Every player around the world wants to play continental football … It's always a great thing to play some competition from a different country," said Smyrniotis. "Somebody who brings something different to the table, away from our regular weekly matches here in the Canadian Premier League.
"And I think the guys have enjoyed it. They understand the importance of it and I think they've done a great job rising to each occasion."
Smyrniotis said defenders Maxime Tissot and Dejan Jakovic and forward Omar Browne, a former Independiente player, are unavailable for the match Tuesday.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021