Head coach Patrice Gheisar and his players have been waiting for this day for three months.
The Vaughan Azzurri, champions of League 1 Ontario, host Halifax’s HFX Wanderers FC of the Canadian Premier League in the first round of the Canadian Championship on Wednesday.
Gheisar says his players have been waiting for this night since the Feb. 12 Canadian Championship draw.
“Excitement sets upon us like I’ve never seen,” he said. “And we’ve been in a lot of big games. But the big games we’ve been to have been League 1 finals or League 1 Cup finals.”
How excited are they? The Azzurri played Saturday night and practised less than 12 hours later.
“I wasn’t sure that everybody would show up, with Mother’s Day, fatigue, work,” said Gheisar. “Everybody came. Great mood. Great morale.
“Look we have little to lose here. We’re just there so we can compete, represent our community, our club, our league and Ontario at its best.”
Also Wednesday, Quebec (PLSQ) champion AS Blainville hosts York 9 FC and Calgary’s Cavalry FC entertains Pacific FC in an all-CPL Canadian Championship matchup.
The return legs are May 22.
The arrival of the CPL has resulted in an expanded tournament format this year with five rounds, 13 teams and 24 matches.
Teams from League 1 Ontario and Quebec’s PLSQ joined the field last year with Blainville beating the Oakville Blue Devils before falling to the USL’s Ottawa Fury. Toronto FC went on to win the title for the seventh time, earning a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
With more than 50 representative teams including the Azzurri, the Vaughan Soccer Club has a proud record of producing talent.
Defender Kamal Miller started for Orlando City SC on the weekend while goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was on Minnesota United’s bench.
In his 11 years with the club, Gheisar says more than 100 alumni went to play in the NCAA while more than 10 have gone on to play professionally in Europe.
Gheisar says his Azzurri team lost 11 players from last season, including Daniel Gogarty, Austin Ricci and Justin Springer (all with York 9 FC) and Dylan Sacramento (Winnipeg’s Valour FC). York 9 forward Joe di Chiara also has past Vaughan ties.
Former Vaughan defender Matt Arnone and forward Tomasz Skublak are both wearing Halifax colours this season.
Gheisar has no problem seeing his talent move on.
“Our job is to prepare these young men to get those opportunities,” he said. “We can’t hang on to them forever. They have ambitions of playing professional soccer. And this CPL couldn’t come at a better time.”
He points to centre back Shiquan Lowe, co-captain/midfielder Eddie Lay, fullback Jarred Phillips and Syracuse University teenage midfielder Ryan Raposo among the players to watch on his current team.
HFX coach Stephen Hart, a former Canada and Trinidad and Tobago national team coach, is expecting a motivated Vaughan team.
“I think they have a lot of players playing on the team that deserve to be in the (CPL) and they would very much like to prove that,” said Hart.
Gheisar estimates 80 per cent of his roster is between the ages of 18 and 22, with the other 20 per cent 28 and over. While none of the players are paid, they are committed. Gheisar says the team gets together at least five times a week.
He has players coming from as far as Barrie and Hamilton. “We can’t even help them with gas or anything,” Gheisar said.
The Vaughan club and League 1 Ontario are helping pay for the travel and hotel costs associated with the return leg in Halifax. Some players will have to take time off work to make the trip.
Halifax is 1-2-0 after 1-0 road losses to Pacific FC and Valour FC and a 2-1 home win over Forge FC.
“They’re exactly what we expect them to be, which is a very structured, organized, tough determined team,” said Gheisar.
The first-round winners will join CPL clubs FC Edmonton, Forge FC and Valour FC in the next round.
Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps and the USL’s Ottawa Fury enter in the third round with defending champion Toronto FC coming on board in the semifinal round.