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Woodbridge Strikers: 2018 Big Game Hunters

10/18/2018, 1:45pm EDT
By Jonathan Cheng

Woodbridge has embraced their identity as the team that rises to the big occasions....

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

Disaster was imminent at Vaughan Grove back in late August, when key player Joshua Parades-Proctor was dismissed just before halftime, leaving the Woodbridge Strikers a player short for the rest of the evening.

The slim 1-0 lead wasn't likely to hold against a powerhouse Sigma FC side that had been firing on all cylinders at the top of the men's division.

Still, defying the odds, Woodbridge dug deep that evening to extend the lead to 3-0, due to the combination of Stefano Voci's second-half brace and keeper Roberto Stillo's clean sheet - earned after saving both a penalty and the ensuing rebound. The Strikers handed Sigma their first and only loss of the regular season.

Woodbridge has embraced their identity as the team that rises to the big occasions, and the Strikers were surely salivating as they were placed in the "Group of Death" with Unionville-Milliken, Oakville Blue Devils, and Sigma FC. The challenge certainly fired up Woodbridge defender Kyle Watson.

"We get really geared up for the big games," Watson told League1 Ontario.

"When we hit the playoffs, we knew we were going to bring it every single game."

And they did - the Strikers went undefeated in Group B, clinching a berth in the 2018 League1 Ontario Men's Championship Final at a canter.

Woodbridge are very familiar with playoff finals. They reached the 2017 Championship Final, only to narrowly lose in a penalty shootout to Oakville. 

The memory still stings head coach Peter Pinizzotto.

"That took a while for me to get over," Pinizzotto said.

"If you lose in regulation, that's one thing. To lose on penalty shots, we didn't show that they were the better team, or that we were the worst team."

Peter Pinizzotto (Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

Pinizzotto shuffled the deck after that heart-breaking loss.

Only four players remain in the squad, while more firepower has been added in players like Mathew Santos and Jose De Sousa - both have scored crucial goals in the 2018 playoffs.

The reinforcements were seen as necessary changes for Woodbridge. They were never short of creative talent, but they occasionally lacked the ability to finish their chances.

"If we had them last year, we probably would’ve won the final or ran the table," Watson said.

Pinizzotto also praised the performances by his talent up top in the latter half of the regular season, while lamenting what had been some underwhelming and low-scoring performances in the early half of the year.

"It got a lot better once Mathew came over, and also with Jose," the head coach said.

"We now have two guys who are able to score, and you can see in the last few games - they're scoring."

But, along with the productive new incoming players, one can also see it is the core of the Woodbridge team remaining after last season that still makes up the heart of this current group.

A slow start to the season left the side win-less in the first three games, but the Strikers eventually gelled to win seven out of the next nine matches, culminating in a win and a draw in their meetings with Vaughan Azzurri and TFC III. Woodbridge then went on to draw Oakville and truly hit their stride with the undermanned win over Sigma.

It was a run of form that was also highlighted by an eight-game scoring streak from long-standing striker, Emmanuel Issac.

In fact, the team's strong spine of Watson, Issac, Parades-Proctor, and Michael Krzeminski, all of whom played in the 2017 Final, has provided an excellent foundation upon which to build the new squad.

Incomers like De Sousa, Joey Melo, and Niklas Bauer, all who joined just before the September roster deadline, have appeared to fit in smoothly.

"The core guys who have been here, we just try to stick together and help bring the new players in," Watson said.

"It's not like a group of new players going free-for-all here. We have a good structure of how we like to play in place, and we're a tight knit group."

Robert Stillo (Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

This team cohesion has helped the team maintain their reputation as one of the league's dominant defensive forces, despite all the new personnel changes. In 2018, the Strikers again finished in the top three of the least goals conceded category.

Concerning for all their opponents, however, Woodbridge had also figured out how to score in bunches. The Strikers finished fourth in the league in the most goals for category.

With a high level of workrate evident in the team's production at both ends of the pitch, the Woodbridge players of 2018 have truly embodied the type of hard-working player profile it seems is needed to play under Pinizzotto.

The 2014 League1 Ontario Coach-of-the-Year has clearly figured out a formula that sets up his team for success, while still trusting his players to make smart decisions in the moment.

"He really gives us control," Watson said.

"He gives us the lineup and what we really need to do, and then we just go out an execute."

Having confidence to come out with a result even in the big games, especially when things have gone awry, has led Woodbridge to another big final - this time against Vaughan Azzurri - and with another shot at gaining entry into the Canadian Championship on the line.

Some would fear a repeat result from last year's final, but Watson instead sees the sort of pattern that has worked in the team's favour in 2018.

"This is a different game, a different final, different year, and different players," he said.

For the Woodbridge Strikers, they know what to do - every game for them is like a final.

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)

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