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

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TORONTO — A Canadian Championship that had been delayed, revamped and ultimately stripped down to its bare essentials was finally put on hold Thursday with Toronto FC given a bye into the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

TFC and Hamilton's Forge FC were to have squared off March 20 in the Canadian Championship final with the winner advancing to face Mexico's Club Leon in the round of 16 of the Champions League, CONCACAF's flagship club competition.

But with time running out ahead of the April 7 first leg against Club Leon, and Forge FC still yet to resume training due to pandemic-related restrictions, Canada Soccer shelved the final for the time being, saying it will be played at a later date at Forge's Hamilton home.

COVID-19 has taken a toll on both teams. Forge is still waiting for 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.

TFC was able to train because it was put on the provincial high-performance exempt list. Forge wasn't, something the club has been trying to sort out since October, according to a club spokesman.

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."

“We are supportive of the outcome that Toronto FC will play in Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League given it’s in the best interest of our players’ health and safety and because it’s the right thing to do for Canadian Soccer given these highly unique circumstances," Forge president and CEO Matt Afinec said in a statement.

TFC GM Ali Curtis said parties, including local authorities, had worked hard to find a way forward.

"I think especially nowadays where there's so much uncertainty, to have a little bit of clarity and have the Canadian championship kind of squared away, gives us a bit of a road map in terms of how we're going to kick off the 2021 season, which is good," he said in an interview.

Still Curtis is expecting a challenge in Mexico.

"It's going to be a difficult game in Leon, against a good team," he said. "We'll prepare as much as we can for that match."

TFC's camp remains on hold, with players and staff self-isolating at home, and Curtis said he did not have a return to training date. The team is essentially restricted to video preparation for its Mexican opponent, as of now.

Toronto is slated to open the MLS regular season April 17 in Florida, with Orlando its pandemic home away from home.

The Canadian Premier League, meanwhile, has targeted the Victoria Day long weekend (May 22-24) for the start of its season.

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 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 2020 Canadian Championship originally was to have featured 11 clubs — the three Canadian MLS teams 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 the 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.

“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 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