The fifth League1 Ontario season starts with a bang this weekend, featuring 14 matches across the men's and women's divisions.
In Game 9 of Matchweek 1, we head all the way up to the home of perennial top four side Vaughan for an Azzurri home opener against downtown based academy, Sanjaxx Lions:
Vaughan Azzurri will host Sanjaxx at their McNaughton Turf facility on Sunday April 29 (2 p.m.).
Typically one of the top sides in the men's division, Vaughan Azzurri missed out on a berth in last year's final by one point to their arch-rivals Woodbridge Strikers - who also beat the Azzurri in the L1 Cup to rub salt in the wounds.
Head coach Carmine Isacco is highly respected in the league and a former Coach of the Year, and we caught up with him to get some highlights of who to expect to see suiting up for the Azzurri in the season ahead.
"We don't always have consistency in our roster as a lot of guys come back and then leave again for schools in the States but we'll have all the main guys, like Jarek Whiteman - who was Golden Boot winner in 2017; Brandon Mills, he's always steady; we have Joey Amato, he's the captain."
"Some of the guys coming back from school are Alistar Johnson, Nyal Higgins - these are top players, they play at Oakland University. Kamal Miller will probably see at least a month of season between his time at Syracuse University. Our focus is on developing these players, keeping them fresh and getting them to the next level."
"Ryan Raposo is a young player that we have coming back as well."
"We've added Justin Spring, who was a solid player for KW United in the PDL."
"We believe we have enough to win. Last week we split our squads up and played Woodbridge and Alliance at the same time on separate fields and we we did very well. So we are confident we have what is needed to win, but our main focus is to move each of these players along to the next level at the pace that they need."
"We also have Marco Rodriguez and Anthony Osorio from TFC, and our job is always to keep everything balanced and in place amongst our depth."
"Malcolm Johnson and Daniel Raimondo are two young players that have done some excellent work and are two players up and coming. Riley Ferrazzo is another one of the kids that is going to make a good transition. We also have a large number of kids coming back from the States, too many to list."
Ryan Raposo (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Head coach Laza Lowe continues to head up the Lions and has a group of young talented players that now have quite a lot of League1 experience as well.
Lowe prepared a highlight list of players to look for:
"Stefan Nikolic (centre mid) is technically gifted and showing great maturity," he said. "A graduate of Sanjaxx Academy, he now has international experience in Italy as well and this is his fourth year playing in League1. He won the League1 Ontario Fair Play Award in 2017."
"Goalkeeper Tayjon Campbell is a graduate of Sanjaxx Academy program, who has now become our starting GK," he added. "He's the Seneca GK is technically very skilled and has amazing vertical ability, is extremely agile and elastic."
"Central mid Kemar Rowe is a talented and hardworking central midfielder with great leadership qualities," said Lowe. "He plays for the team—heart and soul. He's a mature player who inspires the team."
"Left fullback Martin Goralski is a new recruit. He's young but already has international training in Italy and Spain."
"Right fullback Nate Rodney-Scarlett was a L1 All-Star 2017 and is a very athletic and talented defender," he continued.
"Finally, striker Morgan Copeland is a new recruit with experience in the USL. He's a physically strong striker and a clinical goalscorer."
Sanjaxx Lions 2017 (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
"Our objective is to play every role of the ball and provide the best opportunities to win and do well," said Vaughan's Isacco.
"Obviously we want to do well, win and compete for everything and that's what we'll do."
(Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Vaughan has been one of the top sides in the league for some time, while Sanjaxx has steadily improved but not been able to find the winning touch.
A new season is a new start for everything, and despite the embarrassment of riches in terms of player personnel in the Azzurri side, it always remains to be seen who will fit and ready to start the season.
The Lions have stayed relatively intact as a group and their players have grown in ability and maturity over the seasons, while these two sides have always produced excellent match-ups.
Result: Very unlikely for a strong-as-ever Vaughan side to drop points at their home opener after a season when they were so agonizingly close to winning their division and had to watch their rivals walk away with the L1 Cup as well. A win for the home side, but a strong showing for Sanjaxx.