The Canadian Premier League’s Island Games kicked off with a bang Thursday with a controversial stoppage-time penalty giving Cavalry FC a 2-2 tie with defending CPL champion Forge FC.
The 94th-minute penalty came after Mo Farsi’s shot appeared to hit more of Dominic Samuel’s side than arm. But Samuel, who was trying to block the shot after being turned by the Cavalry attacker, had his arm outstretched and referee Yusri Rudolf pointed to the spot.
Nate Mavila converted the penalty to earn the tie.
“From where I saw it, the lad’s brought his arm up and it looked like from the direct line I had I thought it was a blatant penalty,” said Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis saw it differently.
“It’s not a penalty, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “I would probably say that 100 times out of a 100. But at the end of the day the call was made.”
He also noted the referee initially waved off calls for a penalty.
Forge FC captain Kyle Bekker’s diving header in the 71st minute had looked like the winner.
Bekker split two defenders and launched himself like a missile to get his head to substitute David Choiniere’s cross. Bekker rewarded Choiniere with a kiss on the top of his head at the subsequent hydration break.
Bekker, a 29-year-old midfielder who spent five seasons in the MLS with Toronto, FC Dallas and Montreal, came close again in the 88th minute but his shot from distance was saved by Marco Carducci.
The contest was frenetic and a little sloppy to start, not that surprising given the on-and-off training camp and lack of warmup games. But there was no shortage of resolve with several no-holds-barred challenges.
Anthony Novak also scored for Hamilton’s Forge, who grew stronger as the game wore on.
Dominick Zator had the other goal for Calgary’s Cavalry.
“These are the games you kind of want to play, they’re the big games, they’re the rivalry games,” said Zator.
“The two powerhouses knocking heads and this is what happens. It’s scrappy, it’s exciting. Everybody gets after each other. There’s goals, blocked shots and everything.”
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Forge lived dangerously in the first half, with more than a few giveaways. Cavalry pressed early and went ahead in the 11th minute when Zator got some separation from his marker and headed in a Nik Ledgerwood corner.
Forge pulled even in the 26th minute when the Cavalry defence, despite having numbers, failed to clear a cross and the deflected ball went to Novak who acrobatically poked out a foot to guide the ball over Carducci.
A Forge set play off a corner came close early in the second half when Bekker’s blast deflected off a body in front and bounced off the crossbar.
Triston Henry saved Cavalry substitute Marcus Haber’s effort in the 81st minute.
The game, the first of 35 matches on the artificial turf at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) Alumni Field, was a rematch of last year’s championship series. Forge FC became the first to lift the North Star Shield trophy after a pair of 1-0 wins in the home-and-away final.
The trophy comes with a bonus this year. The Island Games winner will advance directly to the final of the Canadian championship against MLS opposition. The MLS finalist will be the team that earns the most points in the upcoming all-Canadian stretch of the Major League Soccer schedule.
The Charlottetown winner also earns a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF League, a feeder competition for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Both teams returned a lot of talents from 2019 but were missing some key players.
Cavalry was without midfielders Jose Escalante and Richard Luca, who have been unable to join the team this season from Honduras and Brazil, respectively. Striker Dominique Malonga, who led the Calgary team with 11 goals, departed for a team in Bulgaria.
Forge sold 2019 league MVP Tristan Borges to Belgium’s Oud-Heverlee Leuven. Belgian attacking midfielder Paolo Sabak, a product of KRC Genk’s youth academy, was brought in during the off-season to help fill the void.
The 21-year-old Sabak was flattened by Cavalry’s Elijah Adekugbe in the first minute of play. Another tough challenge earned Adekugbe a yellow card in the sixth minute.
Sabak had some nice touches but took his lumps from the Calgary side.
The first phase of the tournament will see each of the teams play each other once. The top four clubs will then advance and meet in the second round. The top two clubs will meet in the championship game.
The CPL’s original schedule was to have started April 11 and conclude on Oct. 4 with teams playing a 28-game schedule.
On Saturday, expansion Atletico Ottawa makes its debut against York 9 FC and HFX Wanderers FC faces Pacific FC. Forge and Cavalry are back in action Sunday against FC Edmonton and Valour FC, respectively.