If the draw for the preliminary round of the Canadian men’s soccer championship Voyageurs Cup tournament in March goes their way, reigning League1 Ontario champion Guelph United will host a game at Alumni Stadium May 10, 11 or 12.
The local semipro team that captured the L1O premier men’s title in its inaugural season last year had the option of taking a pass on a home game should its name be picked as hosts.
“What we had to decide was whether we were willing to host the game or not,” United general manager and associate head coach Keith Mason said on a video call. “That's what we had to decide because it's expensive. It's going to cost us a lot of money just to host one game, but we made that decision that we want to host if we're drawn at home.”
Most of the money will be spent getting the stadium ready for the game.
“Canada Soccer Association did a site inspection in December of Alumni Stadium and they gave us a list of things that we need to change in order to host,” Mason said. “One of them is take up all the football lines and just make everything green and just make it a soccer pitch. The university gave me a quote for that and it's $10,000 just to do that, so it's not cheap.”
Other things that need to be done are based around the ability for One Soccer to broadcast the contest.
“The game would be televised nationally and all around the world, actually,” Mason said. “So there are a few things we have to do for that, but we've done the budget and we've decided to give it a shot. It could be once in a lifetime for the community that we can get a game of that magnitude. As long as we get the support of the community, we can make it financially viable. If we don't, it's going to be a huge, hah, hole in our pockets, but we are confident we can get the support of the community.
“The biggest thing for me is the opportunity -- the opportunity to sell our club, to have a professional team come right into Guelph to play a meaningful game. It's not an exhibition game, this is the highest cup competition in Canada in soccer. It's something for us we figure is worth giving it a go, to be honest.”
United’s preliminary-round game would be against one of the eight Canadian Premier League teams (Atlético Ottawa, Cavalry FC of Calgary, FC Edmonton, Forge FC of Hamilton, HFX Wanderers FC of Halifax, Pacific FC of Langford, B.C. near Victoria, Valour FC of Winnipeg and York United FC of Toronto) or Première Ligue de soccer du Québec champion CS Mont-Royal Outremont of Montreal.
A win in the preliminary round could put United in a match against one of the three Canadian MLS teams (Toronto FC, CF Montreal or the Vancouver Whitecaps) in the quarter-finals.
Quebec champion A.S. Blainville did score a win in the preliminary round of the tournament in 2018, but that round was a single game between the Quebec title winner and L1O champion Oakville Blue Devils. Blainville lost to Ottawa Fury in the quarter-finals. Now-defunct Fury was playing in a U.S. league at the time.
CPL teams joined in 2019, its inaugural season, and L1O champion Vaughan Azzurri tied HFX Wanderers in a two-game preliminary-round series, but lost on away goals.
United hopes the team it fields this season will be almost identical to last year’s championship-winning club.
“I'm still working on that and I've been working on it throughout the course of the last month,” Mason said. “Everybody's committed to be back. We haven't had one player not committed. We do have a couple of players that I can't mention publicly right now that I know CPL is looking at. That's still a potential that we might lose one or two. If not, they'll definitely be back. Everybody is committed to come back.”
One player who might not be back is defender Colin Gander. Like many of the younger United players, he also played for the University of Guelph Gryphons in Ontario university play and was selected by the HFX Wanderers in last week’s draft of Canadian university players.
“He'll be flying out to Halifax and joining their training camp and, obviously, if he gets selected, we'll end up losing him,” Mason said. “To be honest he only played the first four or five games (for United) last year and then he wanted to focus purely on university. He didn't want to do both so after that he actually never played (for United) again. He's a very good player and it would be a bonus having him.”
Guelph United swept the L1O West Division awards last season as Jace Kotsopoulos was the most valuable player, Mason and Justin Springer the coaches of the year, Svyatoslav Artemenko the top goalkeeper, Amardo Oakley the top defender and Alex Zis the top midfielder.
United also had six players named to the division’s all-star team: Artemenko, Oakley, Zis, Kotsopoulos, midfielder Dion Stergiotis and forward Tomasz Skublak.
Those awards will put those players in the focus of CPL teams.
“When you're the best at this level, then your team's going to get picked off a little bit,” Mason said. “Then if you don't come back with quite the same team, you might not be at the same level as you were to get there. That's certainly a danger, but that's why we've got to try to keep working to find good players so that if we do lose somebody, we don't have a massive drop off.”
That's the philosophy Mason has used in his position as head coach of the university varsity men’s team.
“You can be good, but if you aren't always working to bring in better players, then it doesn't matter how good you are, you're suddenly going to get a drop off when they all graduate or they move on because somebody else picks them up or whatever it is,” he said. “To me, I know it's a higher level this semi-pro level, but it's still the same philosophy. We've always got to be looking to be prepared for losing players. We always have to be prepared to replace players.”
After a dream first season, United will be out this season to prove their success wasn’t just a result of a season during a pandemic when league play was delayed a couple of months and was in a two-division format when it did get going.
This year L1O will operate with 22 teams in the men’s premier level in its usual single-division format. Electric City FC of Peterborough and Simcoe County Rovers FC of Barrie join the mix.
“I think there's a lot to keep us motivated,” Mason said. “Yeah, that's one year and now we've got to start again because it's totally different. It's not like it's the same league, East and West, and you're playing the same teams again. There's so much change just in 12 months that it certainly gives us a lot to help motivate the players to want to be the best again.”
While the schedule is to be released in March, league play is to start the April 22-24 weekend and end the August 19-21 weekend. Top six teams are to qualify for the playoffs with the top two getting byes in the quarter-finals. The top two are to host the weekend following the completion of the regular season and the championship match is slated for the following weekend, the Labour Day weekend.”
“We had the pandemic year, but we've got the full schedule now and if we can win that division we can really say we've done it,” Mason said. “We'll have played teams we hadn't played before and it'll be a really tough league to win this year.”