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 final match in the men's east division pits two of the 2016 debutantes against each other for the sophomore season - North Toronto Nitros travel to Toronto Skillz.
In 2016, the Skillz put on fantastic match days at their home ground of Birchmount Stadium in Scarborough, and will be looking to resurrect that atmosphere on Sunday April 30 (4 p.m.) when they take on one of 2016's top performers.
North Toronto finished their 2016 campaign in third position in the east division with 45 points and a record of 14 wins, five losses and three draws. Behind Woodbridge Strikers, the Nitros had the best goals against record in the entire men's division, recording only 27 goals against in 22 contests. The team's industry, organization and rapid attacks left many teams unable to solve their puzzle.
Toronto Skillz had three wins, 15 losses and four draws, but were unlucky not to get more from their early season performances when they quite nearly toppled Woodbridge Strikers and Vaughan Azzurri at Birchmount.
North Toronto will have good memories of this fixture from last year, going to Birchmount and securing a 3-0 win that set them off on a run of form that saw the side only lose two matches in the following three months.
Can the Skillz turn the tables on the Nitros on matchday three?
Toronto Skillz Head Coach: Leslie "Tiger" Fitzpatrick
Coaching staff on both sides remains unchanged in 2017, with the Skillz being run by former Trinidadian international Leslie "Tiger" Fitzpatrick and Nitros helmed by former Cameroonian international Hermann Kingue.
Both coaches set up their sides to produce smart attacking play, but on the defensive end North Toronto have had the advantage. The core of the team is together nearly 12 months a year due to the partnership the club has in place with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues program, and Nitros assistant coach Ilya Orlov adds to this continuum due to his assistant coach role with the Varsity Blues.
Toronto Skillz have some outstanding individuals in the side, and Fitzpatrick's main concern over 2016 was the team's inability to hold their composure and see out results that were within their grasp after highlight goals. The Skillz had leads on both perennial title challengers Woodbridge Strikers and Vaughan Azzurri last season, but couldn't hold their advantage and allowed both sides to come back and win the matches.
This contest has a number of intriguing variables, with both sides now missing key performers from their 2016 seasons. However, both squads have added some interesting new recruits as well...
North Toronto Nitros Head Coach: Hermann Kingue
As one would expect from an academy, Toronto Skillz will have a number of homegrown products in their team, prioritizing the development of their top products while at the same time seeking results.
Head coach Fitzpatrick laid out some of their best prospects.
"Here is our list of players who we think can make a positive impact this season," he said. "As usual for us, it's top heavy with our younger talent and in no particular order."
"Thanujan Jeyathilaka (1998) is looking to build on his 2016 League1 All-Star Second Team selection from last season," said Fitzpatrick.
"TJ will continue to anchor the defence and be supported by a couple more experienced players on the back line in the hopes of a tremendously improved defensive showing by the team in 2017."
"Sameer Fathazada (1997) showed great versatility throughout the course of last season when he played in multiple attacking roles and ended the season as one of the most exciting wingbacks in the league," he added.
"Buoyed by his recent acceptance of a full scholarship to NCAA D1 Oral Roberts University, Sameer looks to lead the team's offence before departing for his next challenge in the U.S."
"Roen Fordyce Hlywka (2001) showed that he was ready to make the jump from academy to the highest level of soccer in the province with some outstanding performances following his debut in League1 in the second half of the season," continued the coach.
"His talent has him on the radar of a number of scouts both in Europe and the U.S. and this year could be the perfect springboard for him in his goals moving forward."
"Wadohi Fadul (1999) is another exciting young player whose transition from academy to League1 was smoother than we could have envisioned. His blistering pace and knack for getting into the box could see him potentially scoring in double figures for the organisation this season," he said.
"Another of the players who has caught the attention of some European scouts, this season could be pivotal in his continued development."
"Finally, Chihiro Noda (1988) has come to us from Japan via Vancouver and has shown a level of maturity and a soccer IQ that should bring an element of calm amid all the youthful exuberance," he revealed.
"His vision and passing quality may be the key to unlocking some of the tough defences in the league and we are excited to see how he combines with the young players around him."
In addition to the young talents, Skillz have added some maturity as well. Former Masters attacker Alex Dimitriu joins up, as does 28 year old defender Julien Edwards, who has six caps with the Guyana men's national team and professional experience with Capital City FC, Kingston FC and PLSQ side FC Gatineau. Edwards played his college years in NCAA DI for the Drake University Bulldogs in Missouri. In addition, former Sanjaxx Lions standout Frantz Bill has been added to increase the strength and maturity within the team.
Fitzpatrick will be hoping this new mix of youth and maturity is dynamic enough to overcome the loss of two of his three top players from last season, Michael Jahshan (4 goals in 20 matches) and Ryan Reid (4 goals in 13 matches) - both of whom have moved on to professional clubs in Europe.
North Toronto also has some rebuilding to do, having lost their top scorer and a League1 Ontario All-Star from 2016 - Bermudian international Killian Elkinson. Elkinson scored 15 goals of the team's 52 goals over 22 matches, and was a massive piece of puzzle for North Toronto, allowing the team to defend in numbers while always remaining deadly on the break.
The team has also lost influential centreback Niba MacDonald, who moved on to Slovakian second division side FC Nitra in the off-season, who was Kingue's most regular player in 2016 with 1,577 minutes and seven goals over 18 matches.
Finally, a player that personified the team's workrate and commitment, midfielder Abdallah El-Chanti also left in the off-season for Swedish pro side Tenhults IF. In summary, the Nitros have lost key players up through the spine of the team.
However, due to the club's affiliation with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, the team can still call on a strong core of players such as keeper Marc Rogal, defender David Colelli, Lukas MacNaughton, Nikolay Saveliev and Russell Rodrigues, among others.
Coach Kingue highlighted the return of Rogal between the sticks and captain Carl D'Abreo as key players for the 2017 season.
He's also made some shrewd acquisitions to replace those that have moved on. Mirza Custovic played for TFC III in 2016, and showed outstanding quality and creativity for the Junior Reds with four goals in just 442 minutes, and will now line out of the Nitros in 2017. 17 year old Custovic had a look into the Canadian national team program when he was just 15, and will be eager to show his quality.
Kyle Laborde played for Durham United FA in 2015 and 2016, and showed strength, conviction and definite goal threat when the Nitros and Durham met in the semi-finals of the 2016 L1 Cup. Laborde also comes over to the Nitros and will be looking to clear up any concerns the inner city team may have over goals in the absence of Elkinson.