'I'm excited to see what's next': After brief taste of Europe, Forge's Kwasi Poku eager to be latest CPL export
There aren’t many better feelings than the ones that a good title race can emit.
From the thrill of a victory to the crushing pain of defeat, and everything in between, only a title race can evoke such a wide range of emotions across those involved.
Because of that, however, it’s important to be able to manage those swings to be able to compete for a title. It may be cliche, but there’s a reason why some say that you’ve got to not get too high or too low in those moments, as it’s important to maintain an even keel in the face of this sort of challenge.
That’s something that Forge’s players know all too well. Having won three out of the four North Star Shields in the Canadian Premier League’s history, while also making some deep runs into the Concacaf League and the Canadian Championship, as well as testing the waters in the Concacaf Champions League, they’ve seen their fair share of big games over the past few years.
Therefore, while the race to this year’s CPL regular season crown has heated up, they’ve kept a cool head.
Yet, as Forge’s Kwasi Poku noted this week, that also doesn’t mean that Forge isn’t enjoying the drama of this title race - far from it, much to the joy of the Forge youngster, who has been pleased to be a part of this process at this stage of the season.
“Yeah, it's been exciting,” Poku told OneSoccer. “The mood in the dressing room has been great. Every training day has been intense, and I feel like the table is just a testament to the growth of Canadian Soccer and the CPL.”
“It's extremely close, it’s exciting football and it's exciting times, for sure.”
Thanks to the presence of several veterans who have been there for every twist and turn that Forge has experienced, they’ve helped keep everyone grounded, too, something that has been massively appreciated by youngsters such as Poku.
“Yeah, that experience is big for us,” Poku added. “I feel like they can calm us down in situations where we may feel anxious or nervous, and just guide us and teach us things based on what they've done in the past in their career, such as what they did and learned as young players, so it’s good to have them as mentors.”
“Even if we lost someone like Ashtone (Morgan) earlier this year, we still have the likes of Kyle Bekker and Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson leading us, and making sure we're on task.”
But while Poku is relishing this chance to enjoy the thrills of a title race, he’s also gotten a taste of both what those highs and lows can look like. In fact, during a recent clash against Vancouver, he got to experience both across 90 minutes.
A big 3-0 victory for Forge, he had an excellent performance across 90 minutes, picking up a secondary assist on their second goal, while helping factor in on the third goal.
Unfortunately, things ended on a bit of a sour note, as he then picked up a red card late in the match, one that could see him suspended for two games (Forge has appealed to shorten the suspension to one game, but as of writing there has been no confirmation on if they were successful in that or not).
Despite that, Poku isn’t stewing over what happened. Certainly, there’s some natural frustration in not being able to help Forge in some crucial games, as well as pick up some valuable U21 minutes, but he knows that when he gets called on again, he’ll be ready to keep contributing.
Having already picked up two goals and one assist in 1068 minutes this year despite dealing with some injuries, playing both as a left back and as a winger, he’s been a key part of this Forge side, one that head coach Bobby Smyrniotis is happy to lean on.
“Yeah, he’s an important player in this team,” Smyrniotis said of Poku. “It's unfortunate that there have been two periods this year where when he really started to get form in his game, small little injuries have taken him off the pitch, as he's probably lost about six or seven games in that way, and that usually can put a player a little bit off of rhythm.”
“I think he's been excellent going back a few games for us now, though, and he can play different roles, he's been excellent playing as a left back and a progressive left back, but we've seen him play on either side of the front line as a winger, and we’ll keep seeing him in both of those roles.”
GOAL @ForgeFCHamilton⚒️— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 22, 2023
Like the last time they met at Starlight Stadium, Forge opens the scoring early vs Pacific, courtesy of a cheeky Kwasi Poku header off a nice David Choinière cross🔥
And that just shows the faith that Smyrniotis has been able to put in Poku, who has become a key part of this Forge team ever since he’s arrived at the club.
Having arrived as a fresh-faced 18-year-old ahead of the 2022 season, with just one six-minute cameo at Toronto FC II on his CV, he quickly integrated himself into a hungry and ambitious Forge side.
One fresh off a mixed 2021 campaign, where they reached the semi-finals of both the Canadian Championship and Concacaf League, earning a berth in the Champions League off the back of their performances in the latter competition, they’d also missed out on a chance at three straight North Star Shields in the CPL final to Pacific.
Because of that, they entered 2022 eager to avenge that finals loss, while also showing well in the Champions League and going on another Canadian Championship run.
And Poku was hoping to be a key part of that. Certainly, he had his role to play in the CPL, given his presence as a U21 player who could help fill that requirement, but it wasn’t a guarantee he’d see the field in the other competitions.
Yet, as Forge began their Champions League run that February against Mexican giants Cruz Azul, Poku found himself in the starting XI as a winger that day, ahead of Forge regulars such as Chris Nanco, Emery Welshman, Woobens Pacius and more.
Having impressed Smyrniotis right from day one, it helped him earn a key opportunity, one that he felt helped him really find his feet quickly to begin his Forge career.
“Yeah, it was a crazy moment for me, but definitely the best start any young player could ever ask for, Being trusted by your manager to play and start in the most important game in your club's history,” Poku explained.
“So from that point on, I knew I was an important piece of this team, and I knew the coach had trust in me, so I feel like that really propelled my career in the right direction, so I'm very thankful for that.”
And thanks to that, Poku was able to have a pretty good debut season, one that went nearly exactly as planned for Forge.
Their Champions League run ended up being short-lived, and they didn’t go as deep in the Canadian Championship as they would’ve liked, but they ended up winning that third North Star Shield that they so badly craved.
Poku played a decent role in all of that, too, playing over 1000 minutes in the CPL, as well as a further 200 or so minutes across the Champions League and Canadian Championship, cementing himself as a key part of that Forge side.
As a result, he was rewarded with a pretty special opportunity at the end of the season - a trial with Swedish giants, BK Häcken, who were fresh off a title-winning season of their own in the Swedish league.
There, he impressed, too, doing well enough to play in several preseason matches for Häcken as they began their title defence.
Despite making the jump up to a Europa League club (they also qualified for this fall’s edition of that tournament), he didn’t feel out of place at the level, showing that he could eventually make that jump up when ready.
The time wasn’t right earlier this year, as he then returned to Forge to build on his first full season as a professional, but his stint there should only open the door for something like that to come around in the future, be it with Häcken or someone else.
“It was definitely a very good level,” Poku said of his time with Häcken. “I learned a lot tactically and technically, the level was very advanced, very sharp, and I really enjoyed myself there. I held my own, got to play in a few friendly matches, and did well, so I’m just excited to see what's next.”
“It's great to see, the CPL has been like a catapult for young players, especially with the U21 Canadian rule. We have to play, we have to develop, so it puts us in an environment where we can be shown off and be displayed to the rest of the world, and really advance our careers to where we want to go, so it’s provided us with a great opportunity.”
But while Poku is pushing to make that jump to Europe, as many other young Canadians are, eager to follow in the footsteps of past CPL exports, he’s also got another goal - to play for Canada.
It’s something he’s gotten a taste of - another reward for his strong play last year was earning a call to the U20 Concacaf Championships with Canada, where he earned over 385 minutes and performed well despite their early elimination to Guatemala in the Round of 16, but he’s eager for more now.
Therefore, he’s excited to keep working in pursuit of that goal of donning the Red and White, one that he now knows is possible, as fellow CPL alumni such as Joel Waterman, Victor Loturi, Lukas MacNaughton and Dominick Zator have shown.
As seen with his performances for Forge, on top of his trial abroad and stint with Canada’s U20s, Poku’s certainly on the cusp of making that jump, so now he just has to keep working to get there.
Yet, that just shows the value of the CPL for someone like Poku, which is why he made the jump from Toronto’s academy to Forge, which could’ve been seen as a gamble.
Now, it’s one that’s paying off for him, and at 20, he’s just getting started, so look for him to keep pushing even further from here.
“Yeah, I'd say even though it didn't go exactly how we wanted it to, it’s a special feeling to represent your country and to sing the national anthem before the game, to put on that jersey, it's a really special feeling, and I hope to do that again in the future, for sure,” Poku said.
“But yeah, it's great to see,” he finished. “This league puts us in a position to display ourselves and show what we can do, and you've seen it with the likes of the players such as (Joel Waterman, Dominick Zator, and Victor Loturi).”
“They took that opportunity and they were rewarded for it, so it’s inspiring to know that all you’ve got to do is keep working, keep playing your best and when an opportunity comes, go and take it.”