CHARLOTTETOWN — The Canadian Premier League is just two years old but it's already clear who is the team to beat.
Forge FC won the CPL title for the second straight year Saturday, defeating HFX Wanderers FC 2-0 on second-half goals by Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and Maxim Tissot in the Island Games final.
Under coach/technical director Bobby Smyrniotis, the Hamilton club has gone 22-7-9 in regular-season play and 3-0-0 in the playoffs over the last two years.
"The expectation is we want to be on the top. That we want to be a club that competes for whatever's put in front of us," said Smyrniotis. "We know winning championships is not easy. We've done it now two years in a row. The hardest thing to do is repeat. And the hardest thing after you repeat is to do it a third year. But we want to always put ourselves in a position to be able to do that."
Eight teams started the Island Games, an abridged 35-match, 38-day season played in a P.E.I. bubble due to the global pandemic.
"I told the guys this is probably the most challenging football experience you'll go through in your lives," Smyrniotis said. "The best way to go about it is to try and come out as champions so we're able to tell a story that has the best ending."
Forge was good value for the tournament win, finishing on a six-game unbeaten run (4-0-2) in the bubble. The Hamilton side went 6-1-4 through the tournament, with its lone loss coming 3-2 to Toronto's York 9 FC on Aug. 26.
It scored a league-best 19 goals and allowed the fewest (10) of the four teams that competed beyond the first stage. Ten different players scored and every player on Forge's 22-man roster made at least one appearance.
Goalkeeper Triston Henry recorded a league-best five clean sheets, including three straight to finish the season.
Forge's team's culture was reflected in the post-game availability when captain Kyle Bekker and Achinioti-Jonsson took time to thank their support staff for all their work behind the scenes.
The breakthrough came in the 60th minute on the latest of a string of Forge corners. Goalkeeper Christian Oxner failed to deal with Bekker's delivery to the far post and the ball went to Mo Babouli, who chipped it back to the other post where Achinioti-Jonsson headed it in.
Halifax will rue the Swedish midfielder's goal, having had seven defenders in the six-yard box.
"All credit to them," said HFX coach Stephen Hart, a former Canada and Trinidad & Tobago national team coach. "In their period of domination, they got the goal and they hung on to (the lead) very, very well."
Substitute Tissot rubbed salt in the wound with a long-distance free kick that was fumbled by Oxner in the 90th minute.
In addition to hoisting the North Star Trophy, Forge earned a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF League — a feeder competition to the CONCACAF Champions League — and will meet Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final, with the victor there earning a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
Time and location of the Canadian Championship final has yet to be announced.
HFX went 4-3-4 at the tournament, with earlier losses of 2-1 to Calgary's Cavalry FC on Aug. 23 and 5-0 to Pacific FC of Langford, B.C. The loss to Pacific came Tuesday in a meaningless game with a reserve lineup after the Halifax team had already qualified for the championship game.
"I thought they were excellent this tournament," Smyrniotis said of Halifax.
HFX came into the season with just seven returning players after finishing bottom of the table in 2019 with a 6-12-10 overall record over the spring and fall seasons.
"We showed that we can run with the big boys in this league," said Halifax captain Andre Rampersad. "I can never be more proud of these guys. We keep working and we come back stronger next year."
The two finalists had tied 1-1 twice earlier at the tournament — Aug. 19 in the first stage and Sept. 9 in the group stage.
Both teams survived some sloppy play in the early going on a gusty day at the UPEI Artificial Turf Field with the stands empty. Babouli, the beneficiary of a Halifax giveaway, was on target in the sixth minute but his weak shot did not trouble Oxner.
HFX had more of the ball but failed to turn that into scoring chances.
That changed late in the 40th minute when Alessandro Riggi's shot deflected off Forge defender David Edgar's arm to teammate Akeem Garcia but the Trinidad & Tobago international's lunging shot from close range was stopped by goalkeeper Triston Henry.
Forge began to turn the screw with HFX having to defend four straight corners some 10 minutes into the second half.
Oxner came up big in the 73rd minute, denying David Choiniere from in-close after another HFX turnover. Babouli turned heads six minutes later, beating three defenders before Oxner stopped him.
Forge outshot HFX 10-6 (5-2 in shots on target) despite the Halifax team having 55.7 per cent of possession. Forge had 11 corners to two for HFX.
Hart said his club has shown its lofty expectations.
"It takes a while for anybody to build a team that has a certain character, that has a certain culture. And I think we're well on our way to do that if we could retain the majority of this squad.
Forge is already there.
Smyrniotis had 17 players back from last year when Forge defeated Cavalry FC 2-0 on aggregate last year in the two-legged final. And it defended its title despite losing Tristan Borges, last year's MVP, to Belgium's Oud-Heverlee Leuven in January.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2020.