Wednesday, February 20, 2002

London Soccer History

The first London team to make an impact on soccer at the provincial level in Ontario was London Marconi who won the amateur level Ontario Cup in 1966 and 1978 along with the Ontario Centennial Championship in 1967. Prior to the early 90's pro level soccer in London was limited to participation by the London German-Canadians and London City in the 70's and then London Marconi in the 80's in the semi-pro southern Ontario based National Soccer league. This league operated from the 20's onwards and after WWII it was usually composed primarily of ethnic based clubs who had little or no contact or involvement with the province's official soccer association, the OSA. Although London Marconi won the NSL in 1985 spectator interest dwindled due to the relatively poor playing standards of some of the weaker Toronto based ethnic teams. After the demise of the North American Soccer league in early 1985 and the failure of the short-lived Canadian Professional Soccer league in 1983, a new national pro league called the Canadian Soccer League was formed in Canada the summer after the national team appeared in the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. An organization called the London Pro Soccer society was formed to seek a CSL franchise for the London area. The league had started play in 1987 with 8 franchises in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, North York and Ottawa. The league received regular coverage on TSN with Graham Leggat and Vic Rauter providing the commentary for games on a weekly basis throughout the season and playoffs. Although most of the teams with the exception of Vancouver were struggling when it came to spectator support, a Montreal franchise was added in 1988 and a Victoria team debuted the following season. In the summer of 1989 3 exhibition games were held at JW Little Stadium on the University of Western Ontario campus between a London Pro Soccer selects roster and Køge Boldklub who had just won the 3rd Division in Denmark, Toronto Blizzard of the CSL and Eastern Illinois a US college team to test the level of spectator interest for pro soccer within the London area. The crowds of over 1000 spectators for the first 2 games was sufficient to persuade the CSL executive to award London a franchise. Storm clouds were gathering over the league however as after several near death experiences with other franchises, the Calgary franchise folded at the end of the 1989 season. But since a Kitchener team was admitted along with London the total number of CSL clubs increased to 11. Before the 1990 season (click here to see the contents of the souvenir program) started the Lasers spent a sizeable amount of money to secure the services of Ivan Markovic from Toronto Italia of the NSL and several out of town players. A strong Croatian influence was obvious in the shape of 3 import players called Vlado Bilic, Al Lukic and Nick Milenkovic. The Lasers also signed Dino Lopez and Mike Mazza from Toronto Italia and Hunter Madeley from Toronto Panhellenic of the NSL, Jorge Rodriguez and Larry Pretto from Toronto Blizzard, Marco deLuca from North York, Darren Fernandez from Ottawa and Colin Samuels from Hamilton of the CSL. Mike Vigh returned to Canada to play for the Lasers after a spell with Siofok in Hungary. Amongst the limited number of local London area players signed initially were 16 year old Jason Devos who has since gone on to play for Dundee United in Scotland and for the 2000 Gold Cup Champion Canadian national team, as well as Jurek Gebcyznski and Frank Rockitnicki of the White Eagles, Syd Marsh from Marconi, Andrew Tomassini from Hungarians, Simon Mayo from Sarnia Bluewater and Steve Papp who's father had been a prominent member of the Pro Soccer Society. Unfortunately after a very encouraging crowd of around 2700 for the season opener against the Toronto Blizzard crowds soon dwindled to around 200 or so. Very few people ever actually had to pay to get in as there were usually plenty of complimentary tickets that had been distributed to local youth clubs being given away outside the stadium. This sort of level of support is clearly insufficient to sustain full-time contracts for out of town players and coaches so the Lasers were soon in very deep trouble financially. By mid-season they were not even able to pay the rental for JW Little and most of the out of town people had left. The Lasers were able to struggle through to the end of the season after the Hamilton Steelers had taken some of their most expensive players in a trade by fielding a squad made up mainly of top local amateur players such as Craig Sinnott, Louie Fotia and Woitek Rabenda. They were coached by Rocco Basacco of the Marconi club who later led the UWO men's soccer team to back to back national championships in 1998 and 1999. By the end of the season the Lasers had won only 2 of 26 regular season games and it was no surprise when they ceased operations after the last game. They were not alone as Victoria, Edmonton and Ottawa also folded in what was the beginning of the end of the CSL experiment. The other highlight of the 1990 season in London was a visit by AC Milan's first team squad including top stars like Donnadoni and Barese to play an NSL select squad at JW Little. London City had reentered that league after paying the Marconi club $1 for the local franchise rights. The Lasers and City played a challenge game against each other at the German Club for local bragging rights. As far as I can remember the Lasers won something like 3-2.
A team was added in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the 1991 CSL season. The league boasted about being the first pro league from coast to coast but the travel expenses that this created due to the need for air travel after most of the western teams had left the league made its eventual demise almost inevitable as the North American economy was moving into an economic recession. At the end of the 1991 season Halifax and Kitchener folded. Surprisingly shortly before the 1992 season the Hamilton Steelers who were run by the league president Mario DiBartolomeo also pulled out. The league would have been down to 5 teams but for a reincarnation of the London Lasers under the ownership of Bob Facca a local businessman. His embryonic franchise folded before the season started after a mysterious non-appearance of the North York Rockets for an exhibition game at the Marconi Club when it became clear that Facca was unable to make the financial investment required to enter a team in a national pro league. The Canadian Olympic squad under Paul James was then drafted in to make up the numbers under the London Lasers name in the 1992 CSL. The team may well be the best to have ever played its home games in London and Jason Devos and Geoff Aunger were two of the key players within the squad. The "Lasers" went from strength to strength after a poor start and narrowly missed a playoff berth amid rumours that they had been told to lose to cut expenses for the league. By the end of the season about 400 people were showing up for their games and interest was growing but unfortunately the CSL folded a few months after the end of the 1992 season after its top 3 franchises the Vancouver 86ers, Montreal Supra and Toronto Blizzard decided to defect to the US based American Professional Soccer league despite talk of a possible expansion franchise in the Okanagan valley in BC. The 3 defecting franchises opted for a north-south continental league format with American cities as the CSL had lost its contract with TSN by this stage due to low ratings and it was clear that franchises from smaller Canadian cities like London just could not cope financially with the travel and hotel expenses associated with a coast to coast pro soccer league. The playing standards were just not high enough within these communities to provide a high enough calibre of soccer to sustain spectator interest amongst mainstream sports fan and there simply were not enough hardcore soccer fans to support a league that was below even lower division pro level in European terms.After the demise of the CSL the 2 surviving franchises from Winnipeg and North York merged with the National Soccer League to form the Canadian National Soccer league for the 1993 season with London City representing London. The franchises that joined from the NSL were the Brampton Jets, Richmond Hill Kick, St Catherine's Roma, Toronto Croatia, Toronto Italia, Windsor Wheels and Woodbridge Azzuri. The soccer was not as good as the CSL but in retrospective terms one highlight was the visit of Tomasz Radzinski who was playing for the Toronto (North York) Rockets that year. Quite a contrast between visiting the London German Club in the CNSL and scoring the winner against Manchester United in the Champions League I would imagine. At the end of this season the travel costs and dwindling spectator interest resulted in the demise of the Winnipeg Fury and the Rockets departed to replace the Blizzard in the APSL after the Blizzard folded. In 1994 there were some Montreal teams in the CNSL but that only lasted for one season. Rocco LoFranco the CNSL comissioner who also ran the dominant Italia franchise fell out with Toronto Croatia their main rivals who departed for a rival ethnic team based pro league in Toronto sponsored by Puma that played briefly at Lamport Stadium. The CNSL staggered on for 2 more seasons without Croatia who eventually returned in 1997 for the last ever CNSL season after Italia had folded in 1996 after having assembled an expensive squad a players in 1995 including some players brought in from overseas for possible entry into the APSL that summer. The Toronto Rockets like the Blizzard before them had been unable to attract enough spectators to support a viable franchise and had gone into hiatus shortly before the 1995 APSL season but had still held the franchise rights for the Toronto area and were unwilling to step aside to allow Italia to take their place. Rocco Lofranco left the CNSL during the 1995 season and Italia moved from Centennial Stadium in Etobicoke to Woodbridge under new ownership. In 1997 the newly formed Toronto Lynx entered the A League and became the main focus in soccer for the Italian community in Toronto when they succeded the Rockets as the top Toronto professional team. The A League was formed as the US Division 2 league after the APSL merged with a league called the USISL after the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996. Prior to that MLS and the APSL had been competitors for sanctioning as the US Division I soccer league by the USSF and to gain control as a result of the money left over as a legacy for pro soccer in the USA from the profits generated by the 1994 World Cup.
At the end of 1997 the 3 surviving CNSL franchises (London City, Toronto Croatia and St. Catherines Roma) merged with 5 teams who had applied to join a rival OSA sponsored semi-pro league to form a new league called the Canadian Professional Soccer league that was firmly under the OSA's umbrella. Despite what might be suggested by the impressive sounding name 6 of the 8 original franchises were based in the Greater Toronto area. In pro soccer terms the CPSL is a very weak league and it is not even close to being at the level its predecessor the NSL attained in the 70's and early 80's when players were regularly brought over from Europe each summer on lucrative contracts worth up to $100,000 and crowds of over 5,000 were not unheard of. A new team in Ottawa in 2001 called the Wizards had a large $300,000+ budget and won the championship in their first season but they appear to have their sights set on eventually playing in the A league within the next couple of years. Very few people in London regularly attend London City games these days and crowds are often made up primarily of youth teams who receive discounted or complimentary tickets. The CPSL's Primus Cup playoffs came to London in 2000 but only a small handful of people from the local soccer community bothered to attend. Interest in the CPSL also appears to be minimal in the GTA as well as crowds of under 100 are reported to be the norm. Except when a touring pro team like Maritimo of Portugal visits such as in 2001, most soccer spectator interest here in London tends to be focussed on the most important league games in the Western Ontario Soccer League our top district amateur league rather than the GTA-centric CPSL and in particular on the exploits of our top local club London Portuguese in the Ontario Cup. Portuguese made it all the way to the final in 1998 and 2000 but lost on both occasions. In 2001 they were knocked out in the early rounds by Aurora Hearts, the eventual winners, despite having been 2-0 up at halftime. Crowds of 700 to 800 are not unheard of at the Portuguese Club for top league and cup games.
2002 turned out to be the summer that London Portuguese finally brought the Ontario Cup back to London for the first time since Marconi managed it in the 1970's.

Academy making an Impact

It was actually the Maltese club in London...
by London Ont. soccer fan

...(who now have a non-ethnic name than I can't remember off the top of my head) and in particular a guy called Cam Vassalo that did most of the work where the London Soccer Academy is concerned and in getting the link with Grimsby started rather than Harry Gauss and London City. City's youth program is called Kensal Park and they've never really done anything that was too spectacular which is why the Soccer Academy program was needed. North London, Forest United and to a lesser extent Southend United are the top youth clubs in London right now and the London Soccer Academy helps by bringing together many of the elite players from all the top local clubs for extra coaching.

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Three players on overseas trials


VAUGHAN—London City general manager Harry Gauss is all smiles these days. Perhaps it's the holiday season, or because he thinks he has the best pro team in Canada.

But City is not the best team in Canada—in fact the team from southwestern Ontario finished bottom of 12 in the 2001 CPSL final standings; they conceded the most goals in league and cup play and finished nowhere in the OZ Optics League Cup and Rogers Cup competitions.

But London City may well be the best pro team when it comes to giving good young players a chance at the big time. And that, everyone is saying, must be a major role for all professional soccer teams in this country if we are to become a contender on the world stage.

There are now three players from the City squad on trial with overseas clubs—all part of a strong player development program for which London City is quickly gaining an enviable reputation.

Scott Mueller, a 24 year old goalkeeper is with Scottish First Division side St. Mirren, while Tyler Hemming, 16, a defender and Cameron Medwin, 19, a midfielder, are with Grimsby Town in the English First Division.

"But while we are doing a big job on the player development side of the organization, we must get back to winning which is still very much a part of the London City culture because that's the name of the game and we must instill in young players the need for a fighting spirit—that desire to win," explained Gauss while talking about his young players recently.

"To be honest, we were caught a bit by surprise in doing so badly in the league—teams in the CPSL are better today and the improvement this year was much greater than we bargained for."

Not surprisingly, London City has the youngest squad in the CPSL with 15 of the 25 players on the books for the upcoming season all born in the 80s. The average age of players in the CPSL is 25. At 16, Hemming is the youngest CPSL player and was recently selected by Ontario head coach Jim Cannovan for some tough games against older, more seasoned players at the full-size indoor field at the Soccer Centre in Vaughan.

"I obviously think Jim is right in his approach, that most young players who show great promise accelerate their development playing against older players in a professional environment like the CPSL," said Gauss.

Frantz Simon, the recently appointed director of player development for the Ontario Soccer Association and himself a former pro with the Toronto Blizzard of the NASL agrees. "I'm aware of Tyler Hemming and I can relate to what he is going through having been a very young player with a pro team myself," he said.

Scottish-born Tony Taylor, the former coach of Canada's under 17 squad is one of the best Canadian examples of a player who mixed it up with the big boys when he was one of a select few to sign pro forms at 16 in Britain and eventually became a hit with Crystal Palace, one of England's top clubs of the day.

London City is determined to get back to winning. "While our priorities have not changed much and we will continue to focus on developing young players, we have set our sights on a marked reduction of the goals against and our aim in 2002 is to make the playoffs," said Gauss while talking about the upcoming season.

It's season number 30 since London City was launched on St. Valentine's Day, 1973.

Friday, February 08, 2002

This coach helps make kids better

Friday, February 8, 2002
MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

John Curk's curriculum vitae is as simple as it gets: JOHN P. CURK PROFILE: Soccer coach He's been a soccer coach coming on 28 years now. He's one of those hundreds of coaches in many sports who seek to provide enjoyment and make life better for your kids. Like those hundreds, he toils in relative obscurity. While he may be more successful than many of his coaching counterparts, the creed he espouses has little to do with trophies and victories, even though he has plenty. "I just want the kids to be the best they can," he says. Curk is coach of the London United Spirit under-16 boys' soccer team. This year, they will be participating in the highly competitive and high-profile Ontario Youth Soccer League. It's the first time the team has competed at that level. All teams in the league, most of whom come from the Toronto area, had to win their league to be promoted. London United won the South Region Elite League last season. For Curk, the foray into the rarefied air of the OYSL is but one more challenge, one more step in a process that improves his kids as players and people. This is not a short-term involvement. Curk has had some of these kids on his team since they were five years old. Ten years with the same coach is a long time. Most have been with him for six or seven years. In that time they've won the South Region Elite League as well as the London and District Youth Soccer League and Challenge Cup three years in succession. They've won more than 20 championships and tournaments. In addition, Curk, a teacher at Regina Mundi College, has coached at various high schools since 1974. Included in that record are Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations gold, silver and bronze medals with John Paul II high school. "I guess you have to be a little bit nuts to hang in as long as I have," Curk said. "But you do it for the kids. You do it because you have an inner drive to excel. The job with these guys is not done yet. "My job is to take them to the highest level they can achieve." That doesn't mean they have to win. It only means they have to achieve their best. It's why Curk is looking forward to the jump to the elite league to really see the kind of stuff his kids have. "You can only sit on a rock for so long, then you have to get your feet wet," Curk said. Imagine 28 years of commitment, practices, weekend tournaments, 28 years of putting up with parents and the vagaries of youth. "Give me half an hour to an hour with a boy and I can tell you whether it's going to work," says Curk. "OK, that's simplistic. But I can't take 15 of them out of detention and turn them into something. You need a team with character, not a bunch of characters. I want them to make the right choices on and off the field. I believe kids will rise to your level of expectations." Curk isn't going to fool anyone with how he feels about the game and developing good kids. Nor does he want to fool anyone."That's the way it is,' he explains. "He's done so much for the sport and for the kids," says Ed Lauterbach, London United's president. "People swear by him . . . or at him." Curk laughs at the comment. "I don't ask anything of my kids I wouldn't do. I understand the need to be a little more flexible and I'm not the most flexible person I know. "I would practise seven days a week if I could. But you can't expect to be successful practising once or twice a week, half an hour, and showing up in a shirt and tie." Curk is warming up to the subject. "You've got to have a passion for it. Rain or shine we're there. If we have to run through a swamp, we will." It's been a long time along the sidelines for Curk. How much longer? "Until they tell me," he says. "I love the kids. "Besides, we haven't finished our job yet."

Saturday, February 02, 2002

Soccer in the city makes its presence felt, and felt

Saturday, February 2, 2002
MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

It's got to stop eventually, they thought. Maybe even this year. After all, the growth in the sport over the past five years as been extraordinary. But apparently the end is not yet in sight. The London and District Youth Soccer League got a real eye-opener about the growth industry that is soccer at their initial meeting. When the executive met with club representatives recently, they suspected the total for competitive level teams would remain somewhere near the 222 they operated with last year. "Let's say we were somewhat surprised. We are ready to take the load, but we were still somewhat surprised," said director Tom Partalas. The league registered 250 teams, 28 more than last year. It's an astonishing figure when one realizes that when LDYSL was established in 1990, Partalas says the group began with 15 teams. Up to 1995, the league did not have competitive women's teams. Now about 40 per cent of the teams are. "We thought we'd reached saturation," Partalas says. Apparently not. And those are only the competitive teams. The numbers on the house league teams won't be known until registration in April. Potential numbers of the house league, though, could be staggering. For example, Norwest (combining north and west London) will probably register more than 4,000, Oakridge more than 1,500. Byron has to cap their house league totals to about 1,600 because it doesn't have enough fields. The number of competitive youth players and youth house league players will probably go well beyond 15,000. Around 6,000 will be girls and young women. More teams, more players and a fair greater strain on fields. The soccer community can count itself fortunate that after years of ignoring soccer fields, the city began to work seriously on the problem last year. It is upgrading dozens of fields and while some of them won't be ready until later this summer, the type of inactivity the city has been famous for would have doomed a lot of programs. "The city is doing the best they can," says Partalas. "Parks and rec has gone crazy looking after the fields. This is the first time we've seen so much co-operation from the city. They are starting to see that soccer is the summer sport." The city has put lights and irrigation systems at a number of fields. Some fields won't be ready until 2003. Others, like north London, will need time for the grass to grow and might no be available until June. The soccer field task force will be meeting with the city Feb. 20 to get an update on just how far along the city has come. "We know this year is going to be a little bit of a crunch," Partalas says. "Thank goodness for the private clubs like White Eagles, the German Canadian Club, Portuguese Club, Marconi. If it wasn't for them, we'd be in bad shape. "The manager of the German club said, 'Tom, I can't keep up. We don't have enough room. My field will be ruined.' His field will be used seven days a week and because they have lights, they'll be able to play two games a night. But they have to do it for the kids. This year will be struggling but it will get better." The addition of lights and irrigation to some of the fields will mean that field usage will go from eight hours a week to around 24 hours a week -- in some cases 30 hours. In 2003, Partalas says the much-anticipated facility behind the Adelaide Street sewage treatment plant should be ready. "Five soccer fields with lights, bleachers and a clubhouse, one of them an international-sized soccer field. The city started work there last year. It won't be ready until 2003. After that, London will be ready for any kind of increase." Any kind? "We're happy," he said, speaking for soccer people. They should be.