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Striking gold: Guelph United's Kotsopoulos filling the net

Jace Kotsopoulos sits atop the League1 Ontario Men's Premier Division scoring race

There’s something about playing for a Guelph soccer team that sure suits Jace Kotsopoulos.

“I’ve definitely been scoring goals for Guelph for some years now and it's been a lot of fun,” he said.

The Guelph United FC striker leads the League1 Ontario Men’s Premier division in scoring with 12 goals in eight games in a season that started with Kotsopoulos trying to rediscover his passion for the game.

“I was playing in the (Canadian Premier League) for two years and never really felt like I got a fair chance there playing so (I thought I’d) take a step back to take a step forward,” he said. “I thought it was the best decision at the time. I knew the coaching staff. I knew a lot of players who would be interested and I thought we could really build something special here.”

So convinced was he that Kotsopoulos was the first player to sign for United.

“I was excited to and didn't really hesitate as I thought it could be a great opportunity,” he said. “I hadn't played many soccer games in the last two years so I knew I'd get a lot of playing time and a lot of chance to build my confidence back up and make something special here.”

Kotsopoulos knew the coaching staff of Keith Mason, Justin Springer and Don Ferguson well, as they’d been the coaches with the University of Guelph Gryphons during his time with the team. When Kotsopoulos used up his five years of eligibility following the 2019 Ontario University Athletics season, he owned the all-time Gryphon scoring record with 58 goals, beating the previous mark by nine goals.

“I'm very proud of that record and I hope one day fortune does come to the Gryphons and another player does break it,” Kotsopoulos said. “That's what records are meant for – they're meant to be broken. I hope I set it high enough that it takes a long time, but I'm sure one day along the lines they're going to get another great soccer player and he's going to come scoring goals. We'll see when that comes.”

And the record could have been so much higher had Kotsopoulos been able to stay healthy. He missed a portion of his third year after after tearing his meniscus and also missed most of his fifth year by spraining an ankle.

“I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind because that last year and half of my third year, that's a year and a half,” he said. “I definitely think whoa, what could I have gone to if I had a little bit more time?'”

His fourth year with the Gryphons was one he’ll never forget. He led the OUA with 15 goals in 17 games to be named national U Sports men’s soccer player of the year. At the end of the school year he was named the OUA male athlete of the year.

“Those awards, they're amazing accomplishments I've had in my life,” Kotsopoulos said. “To be named the country's best university player of the year is something special. I worked hard. I worked hard that year. It was not what I was aiming for, I'm always aiming for winning with my team, but I've got to play my best to make those dreams happen, too, and sometimes the individual awards come, too, and you've got to be proud of them and I am.”

Prior to his fifth season, Kotsopoulos was selected by Forge FC of Hamilton in the very first CPL draft of Canadian university players. He made three appearances with Forge FC and scored two goals. He then played with York United in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, getting in one game when the entire season was played in the P.E.I. bubble. All in all, not what he had expected of his pro career and that led him back to Guelph.

“I still love to play and that's kind of why I took a step back. I wanted to get some playing time and I wanted to build my passion for the game,” Kotsopoulos said. “It's not fun when you're playing professionally and you only get a few games during the year and sometimes you don't understand why. It can be tough on the confidence, but you've got to find a way to build that confidence up and that's what I did. I came back to Guelph. I was really excited, I'm having a great year right now and I'm really enjoying it. I'm loving the game and I'm getting back in my rhythm.

"I'm still young, 23, and I feel like I haven't even hit my prime yet so if things keep going well, I'm always open to the next level or more options. I'm just taking it step by step.”

It might seem that scoring goals at the pace it might become a little ho-hum for Kotsopoulos, but that’s not the case.

“I definitely get excited when I score,” he said. “You see the smile on my face or the gritty look I have if I score when it's a close game. That feeling when you score a goal, it never changes.”

And he knows his team counts on him to score.

“It definitely starts to feel like it's my job now,” he said. “When I'm scoring now, especially since I've played professionally, it's nice to feel like my job is to score goals and when you're doing well at that you just feel like you're doing well at your job and everybody loves to do well at their job.”

As for Guelph United, they’re in the midst of a successful debut season in L1O as they’ve won seven of the eight games they’ve played. They’re tied for the lead in the West Division with FC London with four games to go in the regular season, but have a game in hand. United have a simple plan to win the division.

“If we win every game from here on out, we come first place. There's no other thought in our minds than that,” Kotsopoulos said. “We're just focusing on winning every game.”