PANAMA CITY — Reduced to 10 men on hostile ground, Forge FC rolled up its sleeves Tuesday and got the job done against Panama's Independiente.
The Canadian Premier League champion was all smiles after a memorable 2-0 road win that moved it into the quarterfinals of the Scotiabank CONCACAF League.
"There's beauty in coming in here and doing it the hard way," Forge captain Kyle Bekker said.
Forge faced a stiff challenge to start with after Independiente, saving a first-half penalty, left Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field with a 0-0 tie last week in the opening leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF League round-of-16 tie.
Things looked brighter Tuesday after Mo Babouli scored to put Forge ahead 1-0 in the 27th minute of the rematch. But the task got considerably more difficult when Babouli was controversially sent off in first-half stoppage time. Forge stayed strong and added to its lead on a marvellous free kick by Bekker in the 54th minute at a mostly empty Estadio Rod Carew.
Forge advances to face either Panama's CD Plaza Amador or Costa Rica's Santos in the quarterfinals. The two Central American sides meet Wednesday in Panama City with Santos holding a 1-0 lead in the round-of-16 series.
The CONCACAF League is a 22-team feeder tournament that will send six sides to the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, the flagship club competition in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Forge fell just short of joining the big boys in the region last year. In just its third season, Forge is on the doorstep again.
The two-time CPL champions have proved to be a worthy opponent in the confederation. Tuesday's win saw the Hamilton-based side improve to 6-3-3 in CONCACAF League play.
Currently third in the CPL at 10-7-1, Forge is also still alive in the Canadian Championship with a semifinal date against CF Montreal looming.
Forge went ahead Tuesday off a Bekker corner. The Forge captain found an unmarked Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson at the back post and the six-foot-two Swede headed it back towards goal where Babouli, nipping in front of an Independiente defender, headed it past Samudio.
There was bad blood in the game with Forge players upset at the play-acting of Independiente players. And Forge was reduced to 10 men when Babouli was sent off after an incident with Abdiel Macea on the eve of halftime.
Macea objected to a Babouli challenge and got in the Forge player's face. Babouli swatted away Macea, making little contact, but the officials saw an elbow as Macea went down dramatically and Costa Rican referee Keylor Herrera eventually produced the red card.
The ejection seemed unwarranted with a shocked Babouli eventually leaving the pitch.
Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis called the red card "harsh," saying he had a close view of the action and saw nothing.
"We were pretty confident that there was nothing going to be given and all of sudden there was a red card," he said. "At that point, you can do two things — you can lose your mind a little bit and panic or you can just make sure that you get everyone composed and look forward. It's harsh one but we have to live with it. That's football. It happens. We dealt with it and we moved on."
Bekker made it 2-0 in the 54th, beating Cesar Samudio under the crossbar with a free kick from just outside the penalty box.
"An absolute beauty," said Smyrniotis, who has seen Bekker work his magic many times in training.
"One thing we've learned abut Kyle Bekker in the three years here at Forge is he comes up big in the moments when the team needs him and when those big games are there," he added. "That's what he did today."
Forge sent on former Independiente forward Omar Browne in the 63rd minute. Browne came off the bench to score the winner in the 80th minute in his Forge debut Saturday, helping the Hamilton side to a 2-1 win over league-leading Pacific FC.
The second half essentially saw Forge in full defensive mode after going ahead 2-0. Needing three goals to advance, Independiente threw everything into attack.
"The guys in the second half were absolutely brilliant. Patient when we needed to be. Patient when we needed to get forward. And also patient in our defensive structure," said Smyrniotis, who built Forge along with brother Costa, the team's director of football.
There were danger signs for Forge in the third minute when Guido Rouse's header, off a fine cross from Alexis Palacio, beat Triston Henry only to hit the goalpost.
Independiente hit the goalpost again in the ninth minute, this time on a Rafael Aguila free kick. Rouse poked the rebound in but the goal was called offside.
Smyrniotis rearranged his troops at halftime after the red card, sending on Joshua Navarro for David Choiniere.
Henry was called on early in the second half, diving to push away a deflected shot. Achinioti-Jonsson then cleared a high ball as Independiente came close on a free kick in the 50th.
Forge was without star attacking midfielder Tristan Borges, suspended for yellow card accumulation. Babouli came in for Borges with Emery Welshman replacing Woobens Pacius.
The CPL side has been the tournament's road warrior, with pandemic-related travel restrictions forcing it on the road the last 18 months. It has played just three of 12 games at home in the competition, with the rest in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Independiente, whose full name is Club Atletico Independiente de La Chorrera, knocked Toronto FC out of the 2019 Champions League with a 5-1 aggregate triumph in the round of 16.
Independiente had a bye to the round of 16 this year after qualifying as the 2020 Clausura champions with the best aggregate record in Panamanian football.
Forge defeated El Salvador's CD FAS 5-3 on aggregate in the preliminary round last month, with both legs played in San Salvador.
The Hamilton side also made it to the CONCACAF League quarterfinals last year, beaten by Haiti's Arcahaie FC in a penalty shootout. It then lost 1-0 to Honduras' CD Marathon in a play-in match, which represented one final chance to qualify for the Champions League.
In 2019, Forge lost to Honduras' Olimpia in the round of 16.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2021