The 2019 League1 Ontario Men's Division Playoffs kick off this weekend and you can expect some truly epic contests over this two-leg stage of the post-season, as the top eight sides from the regular season go to battle.
Let's take a closer look at the match-ups, in sequential order as they'll play out this weekend:
1) Sigma FC (5) v Masters FA (4)
Fourth v fifth, fifth v fourth - this particular fixture is often the most entertaining of any early bracket as there is so little between the two teams in the middle, obviously separated by just one spot in the table.
And so it proves to be in the 2019 League1 playoffs, with Masters getting 30 pts from the season and Sigma just one win behind with 27 pts - this distinction essentially made in the final weekend of regular season as Sigma dropped points in the Mississauga derby and Masters took down a winless OSU.
Both of these sides are full of top talent, though Sigma has, in a sense, been cursed by the success of its famed player production conveyor belt.
Nearly the entire starting lineup was absent from the final league fixture as they went to DI NCAA programs. Still, expect to see quality in one of the top scoring forwards in the 2019 season, Leaford Allen, as well as youthful pedigree via smooth operators like Samuel Gardner, Tyriq Armstrong and Justin Stoddart, among others.
Masters, on the other hand, have numerous dynamic attacking talents that impressed throughout the season. The likes of Francis Ameyaw, Akeem Priestly, Tristan Frankson, Maleik De Freitas and Shaquille Agard have all proven in 2019 that they can bang in the goals. With a selection of safe hands in keepers Daniel Gosciniak and Spiros Koskinas - they're well set up to keep the ball out of the net as well.
Forecast: With the loss of players in their squad, and the form Masters has shown in 2019, there is a sense that Sigma needs a strong opening leg at home to show they have the potency still in post-season to go the distance.
Previous Result: A 2-1 result to Sigma way back in May, away at Masters L'Amoreaux Sports Centre Ground.
Quarter-Final Match Details:
2) Woodbridge Strikers (8) v Oakville Blue Devils (1)
So eighth v first may seem like an imbalanced contest, and the favourite clearly defined, but in this case we find two long-time League1 rivals: one with underdog status due to an inconsistent season, but still with lots of quality within its ranks, and the other a well-oiled machine that still struggled to score goals and put games away against the other top eight sides in 2019.
Oakville dropped points only three times in the regular season - two home draws with London and Masters, a home loss to Vaughan SC - and showed they will always find a way. Based on exceptional defensive organization, Oakville hasn't even given up a goal since late June, an incredible 540 minutes without conceding.
Zachary Drake, Carlo DiFeo, Cory Vickers, Manvir Gill, Hitesh Joshi and, of course, keeper Lucas Birstingl - all have ensured the back-line for the Blue Devils is made of steel and led the side to the second best defensive record in the league with only eight goals conceded. A midfield with players such as former Canada youth player Evan James and the outstanding Rajvir Khalon are just a couple more reasons why the side is so stable and hard to break down.
Woodbridge conceded 18 goals in 2019, and for a team that has traditionally been the defensive standard in League1 - this statistic was an unwelcome development. Their early season record was littered with one-sided scorelines against them, and the team seemed to be going through a difficult period. Still, the side has some very potent attacking players in their ranks and the Strikers scored two or more goals in all four of their final matches of the season, albeit mainly against low-ranked competition.
Tyrell Rayne, Cristian Cavallini, Mathew Santos, Damion Graham, Lucas Puntillo and Emmanuel Issac have speed, talent and good attacking chemistry for Woodbridge, while Franceso Sinopoli, Joshua Parades-Procter and Kyle Watson have the experience to lead the side from the back and through the base of midfield.
Forecast: So difficult to call the result in this one, should be an absolute barn-burner with little love shared between the two. Expect this to take every minute of the two legs to decide.
Previous Result: 1-2 to Oakville Blue Devils at Woodbridge's Vaughan Grove ground on May 26.
Quarter-Final Match Details:
3) FC London (7) v Vaughan SC (2)
Another big spread on first glance in the rankings, with Vaughan coming into this contest as the clear favourites following a strong season with only two losses and defending their 2018 League1 title, and a strong appearance in the 2019 Canadian Championships against CPL side, Halifax Wanderers.
Still, London has consistently proven they cannot be counted out of any contest and with the free-scoring Connor Wilson - second in the 2019 Golden Boot ranks with 11 goals to his name - the Southern Ontario club always has goal threat.
Vaughan also has goal threat of course, bragging the 2019 League1 Golden Boot winner in Maksym Kowal, a number nine with years of professional experience under his belt in England, Poland and New Zealand. For fans who like to watch individuals, the battle between Wilson and Kowal will be an interesting one indeed.
Vaughan stormed through their 2019 regular season with little sign of attacking weakness, scoring three or more goals in nearly all matches with their patented press and possess model.
The rare blips in the season came during an opening day defeat to Sigma FC and a late season home defeat to the defensive machine of Alliance United. This last match, as well as an away draw to OSU, showed that when the opponent is exceptionally well-structured defensively and capable of building their own quality of attacking moves on the break, and if the Azzurri are struggling to connect the dots on their final third passing - upsets can be in the making.
London struggled for form early in the season, only finding it at the very end of June before going on a late season winning streak against low-ranked competition that got them into playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Still, the squad will look back on a scoreless away draw to Oakville and narrow losses to Woodbridge, Alliance, Sigma, Masters and North Miss, as proof that they are in the same bracket as the top eight on the day.
Forecast: If London can get into a strong defensive shape and create a top first leg performance at home to Vaughan in this Quarter-Final stage - perhaps replicating a lower-scoring version of the women's 4-3 result over Vaughan women in playoffs last weekend - anything is possible.
Previous Result: 0-3 loss by London at home to Vaughan on June 14.
Quarter Final Match Details:
1) North Mississauga SC (6) v Alliance United (3)
Late season darlings v the talk of the league in 2019, North Miss bring momentum and verve into this contest while Alliance will need to continue to show their unbreakable nature and quality on the ball if either side is going to get what they want here.
North Miss got stronger and stronger in 2019, notably capping it off with a nice bit of silverware via the supporters-driven Credit River Cup, dropping neighbours Sigma FC 3-0 in a raucous final in their final league fixture.
The passion and commitment from the Panthers was undeniably exciting, and some late season pick-ups - high-scoring midfielder, Adel Rahman (tied for third position in the Golden Boot race with ten goals) and his brother Navid Rahman from Pro Stars FC, for example - has given the team even more offensive spark.
Alliance United gave up only six goals in 15 contests in regular season play, and with keeper Praveen Ahilan behind centre-backs Kenny Lioutas, David Colelli, fullbacks Jacob Maurutto-Robinson and Nirun Sivananthan, as well as the midfield cover of Nikola Stakic and Farrell Francis - the team has been a near impossible puzzle for all opponents.
Both sides seem the inversion of the other somewhat. Where Alliance has at times struggled to score goals, but been exceptional at keeping them out, North Miss has leaked goals and at the same time shown a growing propensity to score when needed.
Forecast: It's passion and attacking intent vs. cold, stingy, defensive focus in this one. Should be a brilliant cut and thrust match.
So difficult to call the result, but if Alliance continue to have the same side - this is questionable given the number of university players in the regular starting eleven - one would expect them to maintain their habit of getting a low-scoring result. Still, North Miss have improved greatly from the first time these sides met and, well, form and momentum is often... everything.
Previous Result: A 3-2 win for Alliance United @ Mt. Joy Turf, Markham on June 6
Quarter-Final Match Details: