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 K√łge 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.

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