With only three days before the League1 Ontario 2017 season kicks off, anticipation is at an all-time high for what the season ahead will hold - the fourth season in the lifetime of this standards-based, pro-am, Ontario senior league.
The off-season has brought a number of changes, with two new clubs coming into the league from Ottawa, a venerable name added to the women's division in Toronto Blizzard, and an exciting young women's team out of Unionville that looks stacked with junior national team players. These are only a few of the storylines in the league, and there are so many more...
The weekend of April 28 - 30 is all about the men's division, with the women starting up on the weekend of May 5 - 7 (and a special women's kickoff event on May 13 in London, ON), so stick with us as we sequentially preview the match-ups and the teams that will do battle over our opening two weekends!
The fourth match of L1O Kickoff 2017 features a pair of the original ten League1 men's teams - Scarborough-based Masters FA Saints and Woodbridge Strikers.
Masters will play hosts for this match on Saturday April 29 (9 p.m.) at their traditional home at L'Amoreaux, adding a third match into the books for the men's east division.
Masters record of three wins, 17 losses and two draws in 2016 didn't tell the full story about the team's performances. The team quite nearly handed the eventual champions Vaughan Azzurri what would have been only their second loss in the entire season, going to Vaughan and forcing the Azzurri into a 4-3 battle of contrition.
Woodbridge Strikers, on the other hand, were again one of the top teams in 2016. The team narrowly lost a 1-0 result in the L1 Cup final to Vaughan Azzurri, and placed second overall with 47 points and a +35 goal difference courtesy of their league leading stingy defence. The Strikers only allowed 17 goals in 22 matches.
The Strikers also had the Saints well in their pocket in 2016, with both league matches going 5-0 and 4-0 in their favour. But, for a team that has been had a regular and stable roster in the past four years, 2017 marks the first year where Strikers have had to tinker with their team, in particular rebuilding their signature backline.
Can the Saints finally dictate at home to a Strikers side that may need time to find their feet and that all important ingredient of team chemistry?
Masters FA Saints Head Coach Andriy Savelev
In contrast to the multiple roster changes both teams have registered, both Strikers and Masters will benefit from an unchanged technical staff on both sides.
Masters' coaching team of owner Junior Groves and trainer Andriy Savelev will once again set up the Saints, and their ongoing familiarity with every player that has ever set foot in the academy will undoubtedly help with getting jigsaw puzzle of team-building correct.
Woodbridge can also rely on a steady hand in head coach Peter Pinizzotto, whose long and decorated career as a coach at the professional level includes four Canadian Championships and a USL First Division Championship with the Montreal Impact.
Pinizzotto has consistently created the most defensively solid team in League1 Ontario, and his Strikers sides have always been title-contenders. His excellence was recognized in part in 2017 through his selection to the Men's East Division All-Star coaching panel by the other coaches across the league.
On the player end of things, Masters' owner Junior Groves has a number of interesting additions and returnees to his roster.
A former Canadian international, 29 year-old Jaime Peters is a name in the squad that will turn many heads following his six year professional career in England with Ipswich, Yeovil Town, Gillingham and Bournemouth.
Groves has also brought in a bright-minded attacking player with professional experience in Macedonia and Australia, as well as League1. Martinho Dumevski scored five times in nine appearances for Durham United FA in 2015, and the Saints will be praying he can repeat the feat.
Returning player Jelani Grant was selected to the Men's 's East Division League1 Ontario All-Star team in 2016, and will be the team's "midfield general" to accommodate for the attacking talents of Peters and Dumevski.
Peter Christidis is another new addition to Masters bringing European experience, having played in Greece and Sweden before returning to Canada and having success with Queen's and Ryerson varsity teams.
Ashton Hyde should be a important part of Masters defensive unit after his time spent in the NCAA with Ohio Dominican University.
In addition, Masters have some interesting prospects coming through, such as U18 provincial players Matthew Ali and Mark Anthony Blackburn, as well as Justin Robertson - who was just 15 years old last season when he earned the Man Of The Match for his pace, creativity and industry in midfield during Masters' late 2016 season battle with Aurora.
Woodbridge Strikers Head Coach Peter Pinizzotto
Woodbridge have had a very interesting off-season with numerous changes in the team, not least the loss of League1's Goalkeeper Of The Year 2015-2016, Matt George, to west division rivals, Oakville Blue Devils.
Pinizzotto has had to make wholesale changes at the back for the Strikers, but some of the new charges could arguably exceed the accomplishments of their predecessors.
Quillan Roberts, for example, has been a massive off-season signing for the Strikers after five years playing professionally in both the MLS and USL for Toronto FC, including a season long loan to Wilmington Hammerheads.
Pinizzotto has also attracted some standout players from across the league, pulling in defender Michael Fayehun from Pro Stars FC and the physicality of defensive midfielder Joel Anderson from Sanjaxx Lions. Both players bring pro experience, Anderson previously with Jamaica's Boys Town FC and Fayehun previously of North York Astros and Mississauga Eagles, as well as having trialed with MLS sides Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City.
Attacker Milan Beader has been attracted from local rivals Vaughan Azzurri, and again brings next level experience after several years in Europe with OFK Belgrade (Serbia), FC Cuckaricki (Serbia), FK Rad (Serbia), 1860 Munich (Germany) and Dundee FC (Scotland).
Perhaps most important in light of the loss of longstanding squad members though is who the Strikers have kept. Kyle Watson and Stephen Almeida return to the defensive corps, while former professionals Dylan Carrierro, Oscar Cordon, Christian Cavallini and Emmanuel Isaac will still be present in midfield and attack.
Outstanding youth talent Ignazio Muccilli also returns, this time with two years NCAA experience at Jacksonville University.
An interesting contest is in the making at L'Amoreaux in the Matchday 2 finale, with both sides having a changed look and new directions in mind.
The sheer number of former professionals, as well as a host of potential future pros, will guarantee the individual quality on the pitch, but the real question is in the sum of the parts - which side will find that all-important chemistry needed to take all three points?
If you can't make it out to the match, follow the minute-by-minute account on League1 Ontario's Live Match twitter account, and tune into the League1 YouTube channel or head to League1Ontario.com afterwards for full match video, match recap, and post-match interviews with the coaches!