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

Written by on July 10, 2024

HAMILTON — Toronto FC’s free fall continued Wednesday as the slumping Major League Soccer side was beaten 2-1 by Canadian Premier League champion Forge FC in the opening leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal.

Beni Badibanga and Kwasi Poku scored for Forge, which led 2-0 after 14 minutes.

Substitute Prince Owusu pulled an important goal back for Toronto in the 88th minute off a goalmouth scramble following a corner.

There could have been more in five-plus minutes of frantic stoppage time but Forge ‘keeper Chris Kalongo made a diving save to deny Lorenzo Insigne and Toronto substitute Deandre Kerr headed wide.

Toronto had lots of the ball on the night but didn’t take care of it at times and showed wasteful finishing with just one shot on target in the first half. Forge could have added to the lead in the second half had it not been for Toronto goalkeeper Luka Gavran’s shot-stopping and the woodwork.

The return leg at BMO Field is Aug. 21, where Toronto must dig itself out of a hole in order to advance to the final.

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

Toronto (7-13-3 in MLS play) has lost seven straight in all competitions and is winless in 10 (0-8-2). 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.

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 made changes at the break, bringing on Matty Longstaff and Owusu. Kevin Long, Jahkeele Marhall-Rutty and Kerr came on later as coach John Herdman looked to find a way back.

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.

Herdman made five changes to the starting 11 that lost 4-0 in Columbus on Saturday with Insigne, Gavran, Aime Mabika, Deybi Flores and Kobe Franklin slotting in. Flores was suspended for the weekend contest while Insigne, nursing a knock to the ribs, came in for the final 30 minutes off the bench.

Bernardeschi, who shed his distinctive blond cornrows, wore the captain’s armband.

Forge made three changes from the team that tied Vancouver FC 3-3 on Friday with Bekker, goalkeeper Chris Kalongo and defender Garven Metusala returning.

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.

Toronto has won the tournament eight times and finished runner-up five times. But it has not lifted the trophy since the 2020 competition.

The Canadian Championship winner hoists the Voyageurs Cup, collects $50,000 from Canada Soccer and earns a berth in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the elite club competition in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

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

The Canadian Press