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HFX Wanderers FC's mission of going from worst to first was not to be.
The Wanderers fell 2-0 to Forge FC in the Canadian Premier League championship game in Charlottetown on Saturday, ending a bid to complete an impressive turnaround from 2019. The Wanderers finished in last place in the inaugural CPL season a year ago but got all the way to within one victory of winning it all in 2020.
"I'm definitely proud of the group," said Wanderers defender Peter Schaale. "We had a very, very good season. The guys were amazing and I give a lot of credit to the players, the coaches and everyone else with our team. It was an amazing tournament for us and it was unlucky we couldn't grab the title."
On a sunny, breezy day at UPEI's Alumni Field, the teams went at each other hard in front of a few hundred socially distanced spectators. The modest crowd lent a tad more of a realistic championship feel to a tournament that has been almost entirely without fans inside the tight Charlottetown bubble.
True to the circumstances, there was a tense, pent-up feel on the field throughout, which finally broke when Forge's Alexander Achinioti Jonsson snapped a 0-0 deadlock in the 59th minute. Forge's Maxim Tissot added another goal off a bad bounce in front of Wanderers goalie Christian Oxner in the 90th minute to make it 2-0.
"We were ready (mentally); it's just that things happen in a game and you win or you lose. That's football," said Wanderers striker Joao Morelli. "There's always pressure and that's normal. We
were prepared but whoever makes less mistakes wins and that's what happened today.
"It was tough because they press hard. We knew that was coming but we needed to be better, get more opportunities and score goals."
It was a fittingly hard-fought final between two teams who ground each other to a stalemate leading up to Saturday. Forge and the Wanderers played to 1-1 draws in their two previous meetings of the Island Games so something had to give in the winner-take-all finale to the tournament.
"We came here to win and we had a good plan but they got two goals off set pieces," said Akeem Garcia, who led Halifax in scoring for a second straight year. "Of course we're disappointed; it's a very hard time for us.
"The team played well, we just had a period where we were under pressure and they capitalized from it. Congrats to them."
Forge won last year's CPL championship and it was evident from the opening kick they were determined not to give up their reign without a fight. They were the more aggressive side through the first two thirds of the game and gave the Wanderers attack no breathing room going the other way.
"It's a decent day at the office, right? Not a bad little business trip here to Charlottetown," joked Forge captain Kyle Bekker.
"We talked to each other at the start of the tournament about legacy. Whether you're here for one year, a few games or a couple of years - we just want everybody to leave their imprint. We want everyone to leave the shirt in a better place. But to do that you've got to win and now we've done it back to back. There's no denying that we're the best team in this league."
Whether the Wanderers wound up winning or losing, the tournament was going to be considered a success either way. They established themselves as a model franchise in their opening season but didn't quite get the results on the field.
This year they qualified for the playoffs with a second-place round-robin showing and then advanced to the final with an assertive group stage performance.
"The first thing I would say is I'm super proud of the boys," said Wanderers captain Andre Rampersad. "We couldn't ask for more from anyone. We did excellent in this tournament.
"For the game today, I think we played well. I'm happy the boys did what they did out there today. We can hold our heads high and say that we did our best."
But in the final analysis, even the Wanderers had to concede - even if grudgingly - the day belonged to Forge. They did not relent on the ball and neutralized Halifax's dangerous attackers with robust defence.
"Definitely give credit to Forge," Rampersad said. "They were defending champions and they came out and they gave everything they had, just like us. But that's the way football is - sometimes you win and sometimes you don't get the luck.
"We didn't win (the championship) but we feel like we were successful here. It is a great group of guys and they worked hard every day in practice. We're going to come back next year even harder and better."
Notes: The players from both teams formed a circle at centre field and knelt with their fists raised during the playing of the national anthem. ... Garcia won the Golden Boot award as the top scorer for the Island Games with six goals.