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Forge defeats slumping Toronto FC in opening leg of Canadian Championship semifinal

HAMILTON — While Toronto FC suffered another setback Wednesday, substitute Prince Owusu tossed the slumping Major League Soccer side a timely lifeline.
Toronto FC midfielder Derrick Etienne (11) jumps over Forge FC goalkeeper Christopher Kalongo (29) during first half Canadian Championship semifinal action in Hamilton, Ont., on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nick Iwanyshyn

HAMILTON — While Toronto FC suffered another setback Wednesday, substitute Prince Owusu tossed the slumping Major League Soccer side a timely lifeline.

Trailing 2-0 to Canadian Premier League champion Forge FC in the opening leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal, Toronto got an all-important away goal in the 88th minute from the German forward to cut the deficit to 2-1. That made the hole TFC has to climb out of in the Aug. 21 return leg at BMO Field a little more manageable.

The latest loss can still turn into a win. But black clouds continue to hover over TFC, which had lots of the ball on the night but didn't take care of it at times and showed wasteful finishing.

Owusu finally put Toronto on the board off a goalmouth scramble following a corner, with Forge players appealing unsuccessfully for a foul on the play as bodies hit the ground.

"The away goal was super important for us," said Toronto coach John Herdman, who believed his team had a goal incorrectly called back for offside.

"The second leg at home is going to be different. It's going to feel different," he added.

Beni Badibanga and Kwasi Poku scored for Forge, which led 2-0 after 14 minutes and could have had more had if not for Toronto 'keeper Luka Gavran.

"We're a little bit disappointed that it's not 3-0 at some point," said Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis. "Because we created some excellent opportunities."

Thanks to Herdman throwing on starters like Owusu, Matty Longstaff and Kevin Long, Toronto mounted a furious final attack. There were five-plus minutes of frantic stoppage time with Forge 'keeper Chris Kalongo making a diving save to deny Lorenzo Insigne and Toronto substitute Deandre Kerr heading wide.

Toronto had 68 per cent possession, outshot Forge 18-10 (5-5 in shots on target) and had eight corners to Forge's four. TFC managed just one shot on target in the first half.

Pacific FC hosted the defending champion Vancouver Whitecaps in the other cup semifinal Wednesday.

Toronto (7-13-3 in MLS play) came into the game having lost six straight and was winless in nine league games (0-7-2). It has not won since May 18 when it thumped semi-pro CS Saint-Laurent 8-1 in the cup quarterfinal.

Badibanga's goal came from inside the Forge half after he looked up and saw Gavran off his line. That prompted the Congo-born former Belgian youth international to launch a 60-yard shot, à la David Beckham, that soared over Gavran's head before bouncing into the Toronto goal.

Badibanga, who celebrated the highlight-reel strike with a double somersault, started the play by dispossessing Federico Bernardeschi.

"Hell of a goal," said Herdman.

It was the second freakish goal Gavran had conceded in as many games. Atlanta forward Jamal Thiaré caught the Toronto backup 'keeper napping in the 97th minute on June 29, coming from behind to pilfer the ball — as Gavran was about to boot it forward — and put it in the open goal for a 2-1 win.

Poku made it 2-0 three minutes late, backheeling the ball in at the near post after the Toronto defence was carved open by some pretty passing from Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges and David Choiniere.

TFC should have scored first when Bernardeschi found Insigne in space in front of goal but Insigne's shot squibbed wide. It was a sequence Insigne replayed several times on the night.

Bernardeschi, Toronto's danger man, was manhandled by Forge players all night.

It was 21 C at kickoff at Tim Hortons Field with thunderstorms in the forecast. And the skies opened at halftime.

Toronto and Forge have history, having met in the final of the pandemic-delayed 2020 Canadian Championship final with TFC winning in a penalty shootout.

Forge had seven Canadians in its starting 11, compared to three for Toronto.

Toronto was without the injured Tyrese Spicer, Alonso Coello and Brandon Servania. Captain Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea are away with Canada at Copa America.

Forge was missing injured forward Terran Campbell while Mexican fullback Daniel Parra was suspended for yellow card accumulation.

Forge (5-4-3 in league play) had won just one of its five previous outings (1-2-2) and sits fifth in the eight-team CPL, an unaccustomed perch for the four-time league champion.

TFC made it to the semifinals by blanking League1 Ontario's Simcoe County Rovers 5-0 in the single-game preliminary round and Ligue1 Quebec's CS Saint-Laurent 11-1 in the two-legged quarterfinal.

Forge defeated CPL rival York United 3-1 in the preliminary round before upsetting CF Montreal 3-2 on aggregate in quarterfinal play.

Prior to this year, Forge had lost all four cup encounters with MLS opposition, beaten by Toronto via penalty shootout in the 2020 final, and ousted by CF Montreal in the 2021 and '23 semifinals and '22 quarterfinal.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024

The Canadian Press