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 of Matchday Three and of the first of the L1O Kickoff 2017 weekends is fittingly one of the biggest - 2015 League1 Ontario and Inter-Provincial Cup Champions Oakville Blue Devils will play hosts to powerhouse academy side Sigma FC.
Held at one of the best stadiums in League1, this match will kick off at Sheridan College Stadium in Oakville on Sunday April 30 (4 p.m.). Expect a big crowd. The Blue Devils are one of the most popular amateur sides in the country, having won no less than five national titles either in their previous iteration under the Toronto Lynx name or under the Blue Devils banner. Learn all about the club's history here.
Sigma FC is also well known far beyond their home in Mississauga, having produced a long line of professional players, many of whom have been League1 stars. Orlando City and Canada Senior Men's National Team player Cyle Larin is one obvious example, as is Louisville City's Greg Ranjitsingh and Emery Welshman, currently with NASL side Puerto Rico F.C.
Strap yourselves in for this fixture, it is bound to be played at a torrid pace and contain some of the best individual talents in the league.
Oakville Blue Devils Head Coach: Duncan Wilde
Both Sigma FC and Oakville Blue Devils can benefit from the stability of having a longstanding technical staff in place.
At the Blue Devils, Duncan Wilde heads up a technical team of Billy Steele, Brett Mosen, keeper coach Glenn McNamara and U21 coach Colin Pryce. This group has been operating together for quite some time, and the fruits of their labour have been evident.
Although the Blue Devils had an uncharacteristically difficult season in 2016 League1 play, the work they put into developing players was evident in their domination of the OSL Provincial Elite U21 division. League1 supporters will get a good look at graduates from this program in 2017.
Sigma continues to be run under the expert eye of technical director Bobby Smyrniotis, who year in and year out manages to weave a near perfect balance of youth and maturity on the pitch, bringing through skilled young players that continue to be recruited by highly coveted college and university programs before turning professional.
2016 was a very good season for Sigma, hauling in 44 points with a record of 14 wins, six losses and two draws. The team also maintained the third best defence in the league after conceding only 28 goals in 22 matches. Sigma's ability to dominate possession is the fundamental upon which their defensive solidity and high tempo combination play is based.
Sigma FC Head Coach: Bobby Smyrniotis
Following a difficult 2016 season in contrast to their 2015 double winning season, Oakville have made smart moves to set things right for the year ahead.
Wilde recruited the two year defending League1 Ontario Goalkeeper Of The Year in Woodbridge's Matt George, who will expertly marshal the backline and ensure there are no defensive lapses.
Two returning players - 2015 Golden Boot winner Filipe Vilela and Anthony Novak - should provide the attacking verve needed to keep defenders on their toes, while young Matt Santos also comes in as a sharp striker option. Santos won the OSL U21 Golden Boot in 2016.
Finally, Wilde highlights new acquisition Marco Nunes, who won the inaugural League1 Ontario title in 2014 with TFC III, before being signed to USL side Toronto FC II in 2015 where he had 15 appearances.
The club will also welcome back the likes of Braden Culver, Anthony Doran, Khody Ellis, Judah Hernandez, Al James, Blake Jones, Hitesh Joshi, captain Taylor McNamara and Christopher Mitchell. Having both hit the heights of title winning seasons in 2015, and suffered through the lows of a challenging 2016, these longstanding players will be hungry to prove a point.
With so many attributes to the squad, and a tried and true system in place that the entire team is familiar with, Oakville must be considered as one of the top sides in discussions of 2017 title runs.
Sigma's Smyrniotis has typically seen his best players move on to professional ranks in recent seasons, but in 2017 he is in the unfamiliar position of welcoming several back to the fold. Here are a few of his highlight players:
"24 year old Giuliano Frano is a central midfielder of great quality whose previous clubs include Vancouver Whitecaps II, Seattle Sounders II and a university career at Boston College," revealed Smyriotis.
"He will bring a great deal of leadership to the dressing room by his work on and off the field. He's a big presence in midfield and comes off two strong seasons in USL after playing for Sigma in the inaugural League1 season."
"We'll also have 24 year old Johnny Grant, a right back that has been playing for Swope Park Rangers and FC Montreal in the USL," he added.
"Grant played with Sigma FC in the 2014 League1 season and since played at FC Montreal and Swope Park Rangers where he played in the USL final in 2016. He's an attacking fullback who will bring pro experience to the team."
"23 year old Dom Samuel is a central defender that played for Rochesser Rhinos in the USL and in the NCAA for Southern New Hampshire."
"Dom was the 2015 League1 Defender of the Year and played 2016 with the Rochester Rhinos in USL," he added. "A dominant 1v1 defender."
"In terms of younger guys, we have 19 year old Marcel Zajac, an attacker currently playing his college years at University of Akron."
"Has played a key role in League1 for Sigma FC since the first season in 2014," he explained. "As a 17 year-old he led the team in scoring in 2015 with 14 goals."
"Finishing his first season at U. of Akron - an NCAA powerhouse - he scored three goals as a freshman and will be looked upon to led the attack for Sigma and Akron in 2017."
"We'll also have Faisal Ghaffur at central mid, central defence, who is an 18 year old signed to U. of Akron for Fall 2017."
"Ghaffur is a member of our U18 academy team who started 15 matches in League1 in the 2016 season before missing time due to injury."
"He's an intelligent player who can build and control tempo from deep in the park."
"Finally we have 18 year old Simon Triantafillou at central mid who is signed to Syracuse University for Fall 2017," he concluded.
"Simon is another player who put in double digit appearances as a 17 year old with the first team at Sigma in 2016. He is a strong midfielder who brings a good presence to the field."