The League1 Ontario 2017 Matchweek Two kicks off tonight - featuring the five first matches in our Women's division - and anticipation is at an all-time high for what the season ahead will hold.
It's the fourth season in the lifetime of this standards-based, pro-am, Ontario senior league, and every year brings a new level of quality of talent to the 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 the 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 May 5-7 is all about these 2017 debut matches in the women's division, with a special women's kickoff event planned for the following weekend at the home of the 2016 Champions, FC London, on May 13 in London, ON.
Stick with us as we sequentially preview these match-ups and the teams that will do battle over our opening three weekends!
The second women's match of L1O Kickoff 2017 features 2016 debutantes Aurora FC and - brand new to the league - 2017 debs Unionville Milliken S.C.
Taking place at St. Maximillian Kolbe H.S. in Aurora on Saturday May 6 (4 p.m.), this fixture will feature two sides with some big names, and some exciting youth.
Aurora finished sixth in the league in 2016 with a record of five wins, eight losses and three draws, and demonstrated that they were capable of some impressive results - drawing the eventual L1 Cup champions Vaughan 1-1 on opening day, and toppling 2014 title winners Durham United FA 4-1 in an away fixture in Pickering.
Aurora also had some top end players to display in 2016, with Canadian international Sarah Stratagakis leading the team with nine goals in ten appearances and winning the 2016 Young Player of the Year award.
Unionville is a brand new entity in the league, so very little is known about how this team will perform. However, there is a very intriguing list of players assembled so head coach Alex Morales will have a great team on his hands to realize the club's ambitions very quickly.
Aurora has a change of personnel in the technical staff with 2016 head coach Ramin Mohammadi not involved for 2017 and instead the club has brought in highly-respected club coach and Toronto FC academy coach, Gianni Cimini.
"Gianni is one of our top coaches with the club," said Aurora technical director, Dave Di Placido. "He’s been doing quite a lot of coaching development with the club, and now takes on this very important role with the women's team.
"He’s now been with Aurora for four or five years, and his background in the game is outstanding. He is currently involved at TFC Academy as well, where I believe he is head coach of the U21 side, and works with the younger players as well."
"We’re obviously delighted to have him in our club and working with our high performance players as his experience working with this level of player is second to none."
Unionville's Morales is obviously a new addition to the league with the debut season of Unionville, but is no stranger to his team.
Morales is a longstanding coach with Unionville and has personally coached many of the players from youth levels all the way through to the highest levels of the game. One can see the good work that was done after looking at the roster, which is full to the brim with Canadian youth internationals.
"We have an outstanding list of players together," said Morales. "I'd like to highlight a few."
"Kennedy Faulknor is 17 years old and is a 2017 graduate," he began. "She received a full-ride scholarship to attend UCLA later this year. Kennedy was recruited by every top school in the US."
"Kennedy has been with Unionville since the age of eight, and she has represented Canada at the U15 CONCACAF Championship in Cayman Island, the U17 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in Grenada, and at the four nations U17 tournament in Carson CA."
"At the age of 16 Kennedy was called up to the full women's senior national team and was the youngest ever centre-back to start for the senior national team when she did so at the Natal Invitational Tournament in Brazil," he added.
"An injury set her back in 2016 but we are in constant contact with the national team and they are eager to bring her in to both the senior and U20 national teams."
"Shana Flynn has been with Unionville since 2014," Morales continued. "She is a 16 years old and is a 2018 graduate. She has received a scholarship to attend UCLA although Shana was recruited by many of the top schools in the U.S."
"Shana has represented Canada at the U15 CONCACAF Championship in Cayman Island, the U17 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying in Grenada, the Four Nations Invitational in Carson CA, and the U20 World Cup Qualifying in Honduras. At the U20 WC qualifying tournament Shana started the finals against the U.S. at the age of 15."
"Shana had an injury setback in 2016 but is looking forward to League1 and rejoining the U20 national team in 2107."
"Samantha Chang has been with Unionville for the last several years," he added. "Sam is 16 years old and a 2018 graduate. After being heavily recruited from many top schools in the U.S. Samantha decided to accept a scholarship from U of South Carolina a school that was ranked #2 in the country this past season."
"Samantha has represented Canada at the U15 Concacaf Championship in Cayman Island, the U17 World Cup qualifying tournament in Grenada, the Four Nations Invitational in Carson CA, the Four Nation Invitational in China and the 2016 U17 World Cup in Jordan."
"Sam has recently been invited to attend a U20 national team camp in B.C. and is looking forward to playing in League1 and representing Canada this upcoming season."
Marissa Zucchetto (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
"We will have Marissa Zucchetto, who is 18 years old and a 2017 graduate," he said. "She has accepted a scholarship to attend Texas Tech University after several full ride offers."
"Marissa has represented Canada at the U15 CONCACAF Championship in Cayman Island, the U17 Four Nations Invitational in Carson, CA, the Four Nations Invitational in China, the U17 World Cup Qualifying Championship in Grenada and the 2016 U17 World Cup in Jordan."
"Marisa is looking forward to playing in League1, and preparing for national team opportunities and leaving for school later this year to play D1 soccer."
"Oliva Gonsalves has played for Unionvillle for the last several years. Olivia was a four year starter at the University of Toronto where she was a three time OUA All Star and team captain her junior and senior team."
"Olivia is a member of the Guyanese National Team, and she played for the Guayana U20 national team from 2008 to 2012. She has been a member of the senior national team since 2008. She has represent Guyana at the 2010 and 2016 Gold Cups as well and both Olympic and World Cup qualifiers."
"Kavina Ganeshan is 18 years old and is a 2017 graduate," he said. "She has been with Unionville since the age of nine. Kavina has accepted a scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University."
"Kavina has represented Canada at the U15 CONCACAF Championship in Cayman Island as well as the Four Nations Invitational in Carson, CA. In addition, Kavina has been invited to several national team camps. Kavina was a provincial team player every year of eligibility and was a member of the national Regional Excel program. Kavina is looking forward to playing League1 this season and also leaving for Florida where she will be playing D1 soccer."
"Lastly, there is Isabelle Nashmi, who is 17 years old and is a 2017 graduate," he concluded. "Isabelle has played for Unionville since the age of seven. She has accepted a scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas. SMU was voted as having the top campus in 2016."
"Isabelle was a provincial team member every year of eligibility. Isabelle was also a member of the National Regional Excel program where she was one of the few under-aged players on the senior REX team. Isabelle is looking forward to playing League1 and leaving for Dallas in 2017 where she will be playing D1 soccer."
Sarah Stratigakis (Photo: Canada Soccer)
Aurora will also have a strong side, featuring returning players and prospects coming through from the club's highly rated youth set-up.
One player that many will be wondering about will be last year's Young Player of the Year, Sarah Stratagakis, who has been a regular with the U20 side and been getting consistent appearances with the Women's Senior National Team.
"With Sarah’s continued involvement and ongoing commitments with the National team we are waiting to see how things shape up in the coming weeks," said Di Placido. "Her leadership and experience was obviously a very important aspect of the team in 2016, but we have a strong side together and we're excited to get the season started."
"We're very glad to welcome back the Reynolds sisters (Meghan and Sarah)," he said.
"Last year they were two of our more experienced players in the roster, and this experience is well needed with the young group we’ll have playing," he added.
"Both sisters have US college experience and both were locally-based players growing up, which makes them a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do with the club – giving opportunities to players that want to further their aspirations to high-level play."
"From there, we have a long list of U21, U18 and U17 players that we're excited to bring into League1," he explained.
"One of these is Michaela Iocono, who is a very dynamic attack-minded player who is great on the ball. In the few games she played last year with League1, she was very impressive. We’re looking to have her take a bigger role with our League1 this summer. She has had quite a bit of interest from US colleges, and is looking to commit very soon for the fall of 2018."
"Iacono is an example of the type of player we are really prioritizing," he concluded.
"At the 15, 16, 17 and U21 age groups we were in the top half of every competition we competed in during 2016 and a lot of them are in the provincial and national team programs as well, so this is the perfect situation for these players and the club."
"We want to provide a full pathway to players to both stay in the club and go to the highest levels of the game."
(Photo: Martin Bazyl)