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Guelph Union looking for big season on provincial women's soccer scene

Club, which will operate two teams this season, opened its Premier Division campaign with a 1-0 win Sunday

Guelph Union couldn’t wait to open its second season in League1 Ontario women’s soccer play.

“I'm so fired up and I'm so excited,” said coach Onkar Dhillon. “And I'm really excited for the players and the staff behind the scenes because we've been working around the clock since Gryphon season ended in mid-November to get ready for this. There's been countless stuff going on behind the scenes.”

The squad opened its season with a 1-0 win over Darby FC at Alumni Stadium on Sunday. Tessa Ladhani had the goal and Elizabeth Brenneman the shutout.

Union won its division title last year in its inaugural season, but won’t get to defend that title as that division no longer exists. It was one made just so the teams that were heavily-laden with players who’d be competing in university soccer would get a chance to have a few games beforehand.

“It was just largely for university players to polish up before the varsity season and they went longer for the non-varsity players,” Dhillon said. “That was kind of a one-year thing, but now everyone's together again. There's a top division, a reserve division and the U19 division. We'll participate in the top division and the reserve division, but we don't have a U19 component because we're not a youth entity.”

It was a pandemic-caused division as lockdowns delayed the start of the season so long that a normal one couldn’t be fit in before the return to school.

While the season didn’t start until late July last year, it begins in late April this year and the regular season is to wrap up in late July.

Union will have a pair of teams in L1O this season and both will draw from a player pool of 40 or more. Their website has 49 players on the roster.

The flagship team will compete in L1O’s Women’s Premier Division while the other squad – they’re calling it U2 – will compete in the Women’s Reserve Division.

The Reserve league’s West Division and is to start May 4 at the North London Stadium against Whitecaps London.

With the large player pool, players will move up and down between the two Union squads.

The player pool has a large local contingent as it includes 12 players from Guelph and one each from Rockwood, Ariss and Puslinch.

It also includes 17 players who were with the University of Guelph Gryphons for Ontario university play last fall, at least four Gryphon graduates and five who are playing NCAA soccer – Jordan Faveri (North Carolina-Wilmington), Abbi Morrell (McNeese State), Adaira Nakano (Southern Mississippi), Isabella Villaflor (Dartmouth) and Isabella Randall (Jackson State).

The NCAA players will not be playing with Union early in the season and some of the current Gryphs or others on U Sports teams might miss the opener due to their university exams schedule.

“We always knew this was going to be the case because they wanted to start early and the idea of that is very sound because it gets tight on the other side,” Dhillon said. “Having them start early precludes us from including some of our NCAA players who aren't back home yet and some of our non-Gryphon players or other U Sports players are still in their centres. We have some girls from St FX in Antigonish. We have some players at different universities. They'll be arriving probably towards the end of April or maybe early May, so we'll be running with a smaller compliment for the home opener, but again the most important thing is to bring them all in, get them trained, get them understanding how we want to do things and then get them ramped up in a safe way so that we can perform in the first few matches.”

While Union picked up its practice routine the closer it got to the start of the season, it allowed its university players to keep practising the way their universities wanted them to practice. Of course, that worked out well for the Union’s Gryphons as the coaching staff is the same, just with Dhillon mainly in charge of the Union workouts. Gryphon head coach Shayne Campbell is Union’s football director and Elise DeDecker is an assistant with the Premier squad and head coach of U2.

“We have a player pool of 40 players and they train as one unit and work as one unit,” Dhillon said. “All their objectives are aligned as one unit. At the midpoint of the week we have a playing assignment. You'll either play with U1 (the Premier Division team) or you'll play with U2. That comes with a lot of reasons behind that. It could be load. It could be just where they are in their development cycle. It could be where they are in their playing ability, age. A lot of things go into that.”

However, players could be moved between U1 and U2 depending on each week’s specific situations.

“Our idea is that you could see a lot of movement,” Dhillon said. “You might see some mainstays in the first team and some mainstays in the second team. The idea is that there'll be movement in between for many reasons, even just exposure, trying different combinations, getting girls opportunities and that's the philosophy of what we want to do. We could pick 20 girls and go, but we wanted to pick 40 girls and really roll as quote unquote union.”

U1 is to play a 19-game regular season as they’re to play each team in the league once. They’re to play 10 home games, with eight of them on Sundays (either 3 or 4 p.m.) and two on Thursdays (9 p.m.). It’ll use Alumni Stadium as its home field.

Three of the team’s first five games are road games and then it’ll play three in a row at home.

U2 is to play a 12-game regular season with its first three games on the road before hosting its home opener May 27. U2 is to play its home games at the Gryphon Soccer Complex with five home games set for Friday nights and the other for a Thursday night. Game time will be 9 p.m. for all six home games.

With L1O switching to a three-division format in 2024 with promotion and relegation between the divisions, Union will be looking for a strong record this season as the team’s records this year and next will decide which division they’ll be placed in. However, next year’s record will count for more than this year’s record.

“We set our target on executing at the level of a Premier League side and we'll start that from this year, whether that's on the field, in the technical operations, on our matchday operations and our marketing and our back-of-house business operations,” Dhillon said. “We want to execute at the level of a Premier League side and we think that the rest of it will take care of itself on the road to 2024.”