Toronto FC given bye into CONCACAF Champions League, with Forge FC unable to train

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Toronto FC has been given a bye into the CONCACAF Champions League with Forge FC, its opponent in the Canadian Championship final, unable to return to full training.

Canada Soccer, which runs the Canadian tournament, said the final will be played at a later date.

The pandemic has taken a toll on both clubs. Hamilton's Forge is still waiting approval from local authorities to start camp while TFC, which started training Feb. 17, has been sidelined by a series of positive COVID-19 tests.

Canada Soccer was facing a time crunch given the winner of the Canadian Championship final has an April 7 date with Mexico's Club Leon in the first leg of round-of-16 play in the CONCACAF Champions League, the confederation's flagship club competition.

Canada Soccer said TFC and Forge had both signed off on the decision, adding "every effort will be made to hold the Canadian Championship at a later date pending league schedules and in accordance with all public health and safety measures."

Canada Soccer, which had previously only said the final would be played in the first quarter of 2021, confirmed Thursday that March 20 had been the tentative date. The Champions League dates and a FIFA international window opening March 22 left it little wiggle room.

Still it did not sit well with Forge owner Bob Young, who released an open letter last Saturday complaining his team was not prepared given the lack of training. Forge has not played since a Dec. 8 loss to Honduras' CD Marathon in the CONCACAF League, a feeder competition to the Champions League.

Two days after the Young letter, TFC announced its camp had been closed with players and staff sent home to self-isolate after several positive COVID-19 tests.

Canada Olympic coach Mauro Biello opted not to pick any of TFC's youngsters for the CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico, saying they would not be ready for Canada's first game March 19.

The Canadian Championship final will be played at a later date in Hamilton.

“Canada Soccer looks forward to hosting the Canadian Championship final at Tim Hortons Field and celebrating the achievements of both clubs with their fans in the stands in a safe manner," Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis said in a statement. "Eventually, we will crown a Battle of the North champion and award the Voyageurs Cup for the 2020 season."

The 2020 Canadian Championship originally was to have featured 11 clubs — three Canadian teams from Major League Soccer and eight Canadian Premier League sides. The tournament was slated to kick off June 16 and run through Sept. 23, but was delayed when soccer suspended play due to global pandemic.

In August, Canada Soccer decided to scrap the tournament and just stage a one-off final.

Forge qualified for the final by winning the CPL's Island Games in Charlottetown last summer. Toronto made it by finishing first among the Canadian teams in the first phase of the revised MLS 2020 schedule.

The Canadian Championship was first held in 2008. Toronto FC has won the Voyageurs Cup seven times compared to four for Montreal and once for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Toronto (2018) and Montreal (2014-15) have both finished runners-up in CONCACAF Champions League.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press