It has the makings of a soccer version of David meets Goliath Tuesday when Guelph United FC meets Halifax HFX Wanders at Alumni Stadium.
It's the road to the Voyageurs Cup Canadian men’s soccer championship as Guelph United FC of the League1 Ontario semi-pro league plays Halifax HFX Wanderers of the pro Canadian Premier League in preliminary round action.
The winner meets the MLS Toronto FC later this month.
“Everybody that loves the game or even has any interest in the fairy tale of sports should be there cheering us on,” says Keith Mason, United’s general manager/associate head coach. “We're a franchise that's had one short season and already we're playing in the Canada Voyageurs Cup with the opportunity of playing Toronto FC in the next round. That in itself is a mind-boggling prospect.”
Game time is 7 p.m.
United captured the L1O championship in a COVID-shortened inaugural season last year.
“This is a defining moment in soccer in the city of Guelph and the community of Guelph and surrounding areas,” Mason says. “It's not just Guelph to me. It's Kitchener, Waterloo, Elora, Rockwood, everybody. This is what we were hoping to do when we created this team, was bring the highest level of soccer to Guelph and the Tri-Cities.”
The team that takes to the Alumni Stadium field at the University of Guelph on Tuesday will be pretty similar to the one that won the league title last year.
The return of goalkeeper Svyatik Artemenko, one of the key factors in the championship win, brings the total of returnees to 15. The returnees include every one of the players who won West Division year-end awards last season – league scoring champion and division MVP Jace Kotsopoulos, division goalkeeper of the year Artemenko, division defender of the year Amardo Oakley and division midfielder of the year Alexander Zis. Mason and Justin Springer were also names division coaches of the year.
Also back are division all-stars Tomasz Skublak and Dion Stergiotis.
“It's very similar, but slightly stronger,” Mason says of this year’s squad. “Having (Artemenko) back was the last piece in the jigsaw. We've added Marcel Zajac who potentially could be MVP of the league in my opinion. He's a very, very good player.
“We added Marko (Maletic), the centre back from London FC who's really strengthened up our defence. We've got two or three starters that are coming brand new with all those quality players that made us a strong team last season. We're in pretty good shape and we're excited about what's ahead.”
Artemenko and Skublak are questionable to play Tuesday. Artemenko is returning to game shape, both physically and mentally, following his stint fighting in the war in Ukraine, while Skublak had his appendix removed a little more than three weeks ago, just a few days before United’s league opener.
The Wanderers are expected to use Colin Gander. He was with United for the first part of last year before deciding to concentrate solely on playing for the University of Guelph Gryphons. Halifax selected Gander in CPL’s U Sports draft and he’s played in three of Halifax’s games for a total of 31 minutes of field time.
The locals aren’t fooling themselves as they know how tough a task winning Tuesday’s game will be.
“Halifax should win, that's what the pyramid of play tells us,” Masons says. “They are the professional players. They train, eat, play this game every single day of their lives, travelling all over the country playing the best teams in Canada. That's the reality and we are not naive enough to not understand that. We totally understand that and we respect that, but games are played on fields and on fields things can happen.
"It's our special day and we've got to try and make things happen, try and make things not be the norm, but something beyond the norm. That's what we're focused on trying to do. We think we have the quality enough to at least put on a good show and make that a potential hiccup and upset in the Voyageurs Cup.”
However, no League1 team has ever advanced out of the preliminary round, although Vaughan SC tied the Wanderers 3-3 in 2019 when it was a two-leg affair. Halifax advanced due to scoring more away goals. Now the Voyageurs Cup features single-leg rounds.
“Every stat has to be changed,” Mason says. “Nobody's ever done it and it might not be done in 2022, but one day somebody is going to change that stat and say they were the first team to go past the prelim round and go to the quarter-finals of Canada's championship. Ok, why not us? Why not 2022? Why not Guelph United? That's going to be my message to the players on Tuesday.”
The winner gets the right to host Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC in the tournament’s quarter-finals May 24, 25 or 26.
“That's scheduled to be at home,” Mason says.