The fifth League1 Ontario season starts with a bang this weekend, featuring 13 matches across the men's and women's divisions.
In Game 7 of Matchweek 1, we get another big men's clash:
Darby FC kick off their first men's League1 season against one of the giants of the men's div, Woodbridge Strikers, at Whitby Soccer Centre on Saturday April 28 (8 p.m.).
Darby FC begin their first men's League1 season ever on Saturday, but the squad will not be entirely unknown to League1 supporters.
An original member, Durham United FA took a one year hiatus from the men's division for 2018 and a number of the regular players from that squad - as well as coach Sanford Carabin - have made their way over to the Whitby-based, Darby FC.
"I moved over to Darby from Durham, and a lot of the players we had [at Durham] were based in the region so it was a natural port of call for those local players to come to Darby," said Darby assistant coach, Sanford Carabin.
"The players all knew each other, had played with or against each other for years, so there was a core chemistry that made it easy with new players and to create the team."
"Unfortunately, at the end of every League1 season, we always lose a couple players each year to the professional ranks," added Carabin. "This year, Joe [Zupo] has gone to Australia and Stephane Lamanna has gone to Iceland."
"But we have a good number of quality returning players, like Cameron Brooks, Taylor Lord, Christian Moncrieffe, Mike Mariano, LaRohne Young, Eugene Alves, Vince Sasso, Jonathan Parolini - quite a few of the core group."
"We will be relying on them to provide the leadership for the young players that we're trying to incorporate from the area and from Whitby and Darlington clubs that form Darby FC."
Eugene Alves (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Youth is always a major part of every League1 side, with the U23 rule mandating that clubs build out their squads with attention paid to several generations of players coming through over the six month season.
"There are some very good young players in this region," said Carabin.
"Players like Dylan Campbell, who played for us last year as a call-up, but who is really taking the step forward this year and we've signed him in. He is a local player, a Whitby player."
"We have some players in the U17 program at Whitby that we're keen on," he added. "DeAndre Kerr, Jack Sears and more - a few boys that will play mainly in their last season of OPDL and will gradually get incorporated."
"In addition, a few guys came over from other teams, like Adrian Gallo," he added.
"We also brought over Steve Furlano, who comes to us from TFC III. He is still young, but with all his years playing in League1 and with TFC he is almost like a veteran to the league. He will bring a lot to the team, we will be relying on him a lot."
Woodbridge Strikers (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Woodbridge Strikers had a dream season in 2017, winning the men's L1 Cup and going toe-to-toe with Oakville Blue Devils in the 2017 Men's Championship Final.
Had the roll of the ball gone differently in that penalty tiebreaker, Woodbridge would have had a double-winning season and a berth in the Canadian Championship. As it were, it's time for head coach Peter Pinizzotto's charges to pick up the pieces and head into a new year and new challenges.
"We had some tryouts and we found some good players that we've brought in," said Woodbridge head coach, Peter Pinizzotto.
"We feel that they were the best that we found that are in the 19-21 age group. There were other, older, players that we thought were good too, but with the League1 structure focused on U23 we couldn't commit to the older players."
(Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Some spots have opened up for the Strikers, with a number of important players departed from the side.
We don't have Milan [Beader], Jamie [Baker], Oscar [Cordon], Dylan [Carriero] back, due to injuries or other commitments," explained Pinizzotto.
"Quillan Roberts is gone as well, I believe he is in the States playing professionally."
"In net we are looking at a couple keepers, some that are experienced and a younger keeper as well. Again, it's a challenge because we'll bring through a new player in this position."
"We do have a core of older players back, because they still have a lot of value and we can showcase them for the CPL and so they can help mentor and mix with the younger players," he said.
"Players such as Christian Cavallini, Emmanuel Issac, Quante Abbot-Hill-Smith, Kyle Watson and Steve Almeida."
"We also added Bruce Cullen [previously of Durham United FA] at left-back and Tyrell Rayne, who was previously with Masters and Durham. We picked up another young guy from North Mississauga, his name is Ali El Zeir. I think he played about 1000 League1 minutes last season." he revealed.
"In addition, we have some new ones coming in, and some good prospects in the U17 group that we brought in briefly last season," he concluded.
"So we've added some experience, but it will be a challenge to mix the older players with the young and we are in a transition phase now."
Peter Pinizzotto (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
"I think we've got a really good mix of veteran players and good young players," said Darby's Carabin.
"It's always a challenge to mix those two groups, but we have been going since January and we've seen some good progress. We will need to make sure this season that we have a very strong work ethic. Our veterans are fine with that, but the young ones will need to come up to speed quickly and realize that you can be a strong, technical player, but in League1 you must match that with full intensity for 90 minutes."
"The culture we want in the team is that we are the side that never quits and nobody wants to play," he said.
"At the end of the day, you have to put the ball in the net to be successful. In past years, we have a tough team to break down but we have not always been good at finishing our chances. We have worked a lot in preseason at our entry into the final third, and all we do is keep working at it and making sure we finish the opportunities that we create."
(L-R) Darby Assistant Coach, Sanford Carabin; Head Coach Davy Thorburn
"My mentality has always been the same," said Woodbridge's Pinizzotto.
"We are trying to develop players, but at this age I think the mentality should be about winning games."
"Having a good defence wins you games. It doesn't mean we put everyone behind the ball, but it does mean that everyone has to contribute to the defensive phase. If you look at teams that finish on the top at the end of the season, it is those that are the best defensively. That will never change with us. We have always had either the best or second best defensive record."
"Overall, I think we will again be competitive this season, but I'm not sure if we'll be able to repeat the year we had last year. That was a very, very good season."
(Photo: Martin Bazyl)
One new side here in Darby, but at the same time not exactly a brand new entity given the considerable number of players, as well as some tech staff, that migrated from the erstwhile Durham men's program.
Conversely, Woodbridge is an established side with one of the best records in the league and coming off the club's best League1 season to date. However, the Strikers are going through a transition, which makes their performance very difficult to predict.
Result: Expect a very physical, high-tempo and intense match-up here to start the weekend. This could be the match of the week for neutrals, and a nail-biter for those with club affiliations. Two very strong defensive sides, expect a low-scoring draw or either team to edge this by a single goal.