Sat May 2
One of two League1 Ontario organizations representing key Ontario regions outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Windsor Stars returns to 2015 league play as the Southern Ontario representative.
With a number of strategic community partnerships in place, an increased focus on the regional youth base (which features via some exciting new additions to the squad), and a new head coach that has brought some key technical tweaks to their preseason preparation – the Stars look like a force to be reckoned with in the pursuit of the 2015 League1 Ontario title.
"The idea is to be the pinnacle of peak experience for soccer in this region, and we're trying to build the right relationships here to be to achieve that goal," explained Windsor Stars owner/ director Vancho Cirovski.
"We are targeting the youth section, with the thinking that it's fine to have the roof in place but you need a foundation."
"In soccer terms, a strong foundation would be OPDL participation and so we have formed an affiliation of clubs (Bell River F.C., Croatia S.C., Kuboto S.C., Polonia White Eagles), along with the district program by the Nationals, and the women's program, the East Side Kickers, to apply for an OPDL license. This affiliation gives us the feeder system, and the coaching and emphasis on development, from the age of 13. That is an application that we are in the process with, so we're hopeful that it could be active by 2016 at the earliest, but is very important to mention as it speaks to the focus we have on building from the youth base, and we are in year two of that endeavour."
"It is a relationship that is already beginning to pay dividends, as we have added a number of new youth products to our group this year."
The Stars did not sit idle in the off-season, instead building on existing relationships in the community, or forging new strategic ones.
Windsor is increasingly becoming the regional hub for the elite level of the game, currently leading an affiliation of local clubs applying to compete at the highest youth levels, providing a talent pathway for local men's amateur teams, and building upon an already rosy State-side relationship with fellow semi-professional club, Detroit City.
Although a couple key 2014 performers have departed, the core of the squad has remained together in the off-season to gel and build chemistry, and the addition of new head coach and professional trainer, Shane Topalovic, has added an increased focus on fitness and conditioning regimens.
"In terms of how things went last season, I think the same pattern was evident across the league," said Cirovski. "Teams that were deep in talent and numbers appear to have had more success and consistency."
"In creating that level of depth, we have done what a number of other League1 organizations have done and gone deeper into the youth system in our community. We have created some partnerships and attracted some of the graduating players of our district club (Windsor F.C. Nationals) to add to our existing roster, so we won't be as thin as we were at times in the season last year due to players having work/ life commitments. That has been the major off-season initiative for us – to get deeper in numbers, and consistency of players."
"Apart from that, I think one of the lessons from last year is we need to have a greater level of strength, conditioning and fitness in our players, and so one of the particular strengths of our new head coach is that area of commitment and development. We will be looking to use Shane's capability in that regard. He has high-level certifications and training, is a soccer aficionado and junkie, and is very well-known in our soccer community. In addition, his business is personal and professional fitness, that is to say he is the head trainer for the Windsor Express professional basketball team."
"In turn, we're very close in our relationship with NPSL team Detroit City F.C., with which we hold regular home and away friendlies for example. It's a shared path for the locally based semi-professional soccer teams and we will continue that relationship of course, but our real focus is on the youth development in our community. We will strategically use some of the Detroit players as they conclude their season, which lines up well with when many players will be going back to college."
"The Windsor Nationals is our district level youth club, and I think we will have six or seven graduates from their program in our team this season. It remains to be seen how they can fare in terms of cracking our eighteen, but inevitably being a part of our training and matches will be very good for their soccer development. Some of them may need to be placed with a local men's amateur team, where we also have affiliations with – and can call-up from. Some of these clubs would be Croatia S.C., Windsor Serbs S.C., and more – some of the best amateur clubs in this region that could support player movement."
"Fitness and consistency are two of the most important things to us, and the third would be emphasis on youth. These are the three pillars that we're going to drive and develop. We can't compete for players because of the size of our region – it's small. We have to develop everything that we keep, and can't afford to move into a semi-pro state where we pay to bring in players from outside the community. We save those situations for the kids we know from the Michigan area, from Detroit F.C."
"They have a great level in Detroit, and fantastic local support. They play home games in downtown Detroit in front of 3,000 people. They have done a fantastic job marketing this team. They sell out every game, and it's like one big party. When we play them, it's often closer to 4,000 fans. Anyway, we have a strong interest in the game in this region, and overall we are just trying to improve our connections within it, build from the bottom to ensure it continues, and take some leadership in the present."
Most notable absences from last year's Stars roster will be centre-back Chris Suta, who signed a professional deal with Pallokerho Keski-Uusimaa in Finland's second division, and long-time goalkeeper Anthony Santilli, who retired.
However, due to the Stars' partnership with district level youth club F.C. Windsor Nationals, a number of youth products have bolstered their ranks and will add real pace and energy on the pitch. In turn, with their affiliations throughout the local men's amateur levels, the Stars have assembled some of the best experienced players from the area. With their partnership with Detroit City of the NPSL capable of offering late season support, expect the Stars to be unaffected by any sort of major mid-season personnel turnover. The Stars have much to be positive about for 2015.
"We have lost our centre-back, Chris Suta, but we are replacing him with a standout in Brendan Woodfull. Brendan is on a scholarship at Oakland University, and has moved from a midfield to backline, and will be one of our key players this season. Brendan comes out of the Windsor Nationals program, and was actually at TFC Academy in his early years."
"It's difficult to replace goalkeeper Anthony Santilli, just because of his years of experience and leadership qualities, but Kyle Vizarakis – our backup from last year, who played as our #1 in many games – has all the qualities to emerge and own that position."
"We have an exciting new player that has moved into the area, Martin Nuiyl, who we expect will contribute a great deal. He is a wide attacking midfielder with great pedigree."
"We have three key returning or emerging players: Jamar Kelly, Michael Pio, Noah Pio – an emerging player from the FC Nationals program. We have another player from FC Nationals, Stefan Zastanikovic, who was with us last year but has also been showing very well. Another player that is coming to us from St. Clair College, is Stefan Milidrag."
"These are some of the new or key faces, and we will of course rely on the likes of Stephen Ademolu, who is a former international and is always an exceptional leader."
"We started out pretty well last season, but took a bit of setback and finished in the middle of the table," recalled Cirovski.
"This season I would like to be finishing in the top four or five. I want to be realistic as every program is getting stronger. I think if we finish in the middle of the table and give ourselves a chance at the top, that would be realistic."
"I'm definitely not going to be so brash as to say we're going to win it," he concluded, laughing. "We'll aim for mid-table/ top four, and see what we can do from there."