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The Method, Vol. 3: How to win in knockout football (ft. Bobby Smyrniotis & David Edgar)

It has been a remarkable run for a club in its second year of existence.

Since last year’s Concacaf League kicked off on August 1, two-time Canadian Premier League champions Forge have played 10 matches in a knockout or playoff format.

The club from Hamilton has won seven of them, losing just one — an away defeat at Honduran giants Olimpia.

It makes Forge’s run in this year’s Concacaf League, which begins in El Salvador on Thursday night, an intriguing Canadian soccer story.

Win three rounds and a CPL team will be going to the Champions League for the first time.

It also makes Forge something of a case study. This club started with a blank slate less than two years ago; how has it become so good, so quickly in the games that matter most?

In Volume 3 of The Method, Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis and defender David Edgar take us through their recipe for success.

Step 1. Scout, scout, and keep scouting

There’s not a lot of tape on Municipal Limeño, Forge’s opponent on Thursday.

But if it exists, Smyrniotis and his staff will find it as they gather every morsel of intel available to create a picture of what they can expect.

Their search is not restricted to team information — formation, style of play, set pieces, and so on.

Few outside of El Salvador would be able to name a single player in the Limeño squad, but Forge’s staff will have a briefing ready on every single one of them.

“We’ll have a scouting report on each player,” Smyrniotis explained.

Edgar, who has played in the English Premier League and has 42 caps for Canada, has praised Smyrniotis as one of the best coaches he has ever worked with.

“Our coaching staff has been fantastic in terms of preparing us for an opposition,” Edgar said.

“That’s every game. They’ll do all the work and we’ll have full confidence in that what we’re hearing will be correct.”

Step 2. Take the pressure off your players

Of the aforementioned 10 matches of this type that Forge has played, only three have been decided by more than a one-goal margin.

Forge’s players will know in the back of their minds that in a single-leg format, any slip up or lapse in concentration could prove fatal.

That’s a lot of pressure to carry.

As a result, Smyrniotis stays on the lookout for any signs of tension in training in the days leading up to the match.

“We usually keep things very light,” he said. “The night before the game, we’ll usually do some fun stuff with the group.

“There’s a message about what the game is, what’s important, and what we need to stick to, but the rest of the time I think it’s important to take any pressure off of the players.

“At the end of the day, we want these guys to go out on the pitch and enjoy and be engaged in what they’re doing — and when they do that, they do it best.”

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Step 3. Be aware of your environment — but no excuses

It’s not too often that Forge has had the luxury of playing a significant match on a beautiful day in a gleaming stadium with a pristine pitch.

There was the unheard-of experience of the Island Games and six weeks in a bubble. There has been trips to Guatemala and Honduras that come with their own quirks.

“It’s something different,” Smyrniotis said of playing in Central America.

“The refereeing won’t be good,” Edgar added. “The tackles won’t be good. They’ll be doing anything to get you off your game.”

Smyrniotis will account for daily highs of 28°C, 90% humidity, a bumpy pitch, and a lack of sympathy from the officials when preparing his game plan this week.

But among the players, those factors will not be allowed to become a talking point.

“There are never any excuses before or after our games when it comes to our coaching staff, and that transcends into the players and our mentality,” Edgar said.

Step 4. Make them break you down

Olimpia, a two-time Concacaf champion with over 100 years of history, had too much for Forge in Honduras last year.

But that 4-1 loss aside, Smyrniotis’ team has been near impenetrable in the other nine playoff and knockout games, conceding just two goals.

One was a spectacular half-volley from 25 yards and the other a result of a glaring individual error.

Forge’s ability to maintain its shape and control and avoid being dragged into a more open, back-and-forth transition game has been outstanding.

“Throughout the whole team, especially in the defensive line and in midfield, these guys are very good defenders,” Smyrniotis noted.

“Whether they’re very good in the 1-v-1 battles, whether they’re very good tactically reading situations, to winning balls in the air, we’ve got a very good mix in who our back four is.

“It’s also that they’ve played with each other quite a bit. They know their motions; they know when guys may step out and how to cover themselves.

“That plays a big role.

“And then just the general confidence in the group. We’ve played the past two seasons mostly with the same guys in those areas.

“You’ve got big confidence when you’ve won two championships.”

Step 5. Find and exploit a weakness

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All that’s left to do is score a goal.

Forge is rarely kept off the scoresheet. But these matches tend to be less about creating flurries of opportunities from different sources and more about repeatedly prodding at any weakness Smyrniotis and his staff can identify until it bears fruit.

“Limeño has shown that they give a lot of space in certain (areas) of the field,” the coach said.

“I think as a team we’re very good in those situations. When it’s very clear to us on how to attack and how to do things, that’s the one thing we do very well in these one-off games.”

Needless to say, aesthetics will not be high up the list of priorities.

“This is about getting the job done and moving on,” Edgar concluded. “You don’t have to play terrific football.”