York 9 FC players see the league — and Saturday’s inaugural match — as a great opportunity
TORONTO — The life of a professional Canadian soccer player can be a nomadic existence.
One of the mandates of the Canadian Premier League is to offer a more linear path to becoming a professional that Canadians can follow in their home country.
“The way the league has been set out is perfect for myself. It’s perfect for trying to develop more and become more of a national team player consistently,” said York 9 FC defender Luca Gasparotto. “It’s an opportunity to play at home and it’s something that I always wanted to do and now that I’m able to do it, it’s really just exciting more than anything else.”
As York 9 FC trained at Alumni Field at York University, the excitement ahead of the CPL inaugural match was palpable as the York Region club prepared to head down the highway to face Forge FC.
“When do you get a chance to play the inaugural game for a new league? And a Canadian league?” asked veteran York 9 FC winger Kyle Porter. “We all know this is a once in a life opportunity, so we’re all excited, buzzing and ready to get going.”
History will be made Saturday as York 9 and Forge launch a new chapter in the history of Canadian soccer in front of 24,000 people at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field and a national TV audience on the CBC.
Gasparotto made his professional debut in the Scottish Third Division at the age of 17. He did so, however, with Glasgow Rangers in front of 44,456 people at Ibrox after the Old Firm club had secured promotion as they began their climb back up the pyramid.
While Gasparotto has tasted big atmospheres in Scotland and at the 2011 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Saturday’s packed house will be new for many of his teammates.
“Most of these guys probably wouldn’t have played in anything like that, so it’s going to be a great experience for them,” Gasparotto said. “The atmosphere should be really good. We just focus on us and we focus on the soccer part of it. We want to go out there and make a statement and show what we’re all about and then come back down the road with three points.”
Gasparotto will be an important organizer from his libero role in the centre of their three-man back line. He is looking forward to being a leader — he was named a vice-captain Friday — but notes at 23 he is still young and has goals still to work towards.
“I want to bring that leadership and communication and try to help as many people as I can, while obviously focusing on myself and developing as a player,” he said.
Two years ago he was a regular starter for Falkirk in the Scottish Championship as they made a push for promotion. They finished second, lost in the playoffs, had a slow start the following season and quickly fired their manager. And just like that Gasparotto had fallen out of favour and was moved.
“It’s just the realities of football. It’s a tough business. Stuff happens. Coaches change, you fall out of favour, maybe your form dips a bit and it’s hard to get back into the team. So there are a lot of factors there,” Gasparotto said. “This is another opportunity for myself to come and play. I enjoyed my time over in Scotland. I got a lot of experience over there and I am able to bring some of that experience back to help some of these guys who haven’t been in a professional environment before.”
Opportunities can be difficult to find on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Porter was with the Vancouver Whitecaps academy in the per-MLS era and also spent time on loan to FC Energie Cottbus in Germany. In 2011, he signed with FC Edmonton while they were in the NASL and played 47 matches in two seasons. His strong play in the NASL earned him his first caps with the national team and a contract with DC United of MLS in 2013.
“It gave me the experience to play high-level games — especially at a young age,” said Porter who added that he sees a lot of young players reach MLS and feel like they have to stay at that level, even if they aren’t seeing first-team minutes. He believes it can be valuable to take a step back to take two steps forward in the future.
“I think a lot of players are stuck,” he continued. “(They believe) that to drop down, that’s degrading to your career, but really and truly to play the most games as possible is the best thing possible for your career. And this league offers that. It offers the opportunity for young guys to get professional games and play at a high level. That’s what this country needs from a professional standpoint and for our national team.
“That’s what our national team needs. Young players playing at a high level.”
At 21, Porter started both legs of the Voyageurs Cup semifinal for FC Edmonton against Toronto FC. They then lost 4-0 on aggregate, the experience buoyed his confidence.
“Once you get the opportunity to play against an MLS team and if you make a statement in that game then that gives you the confidence to say ‘yeah I can push on to bigger and better things,’” Porter said. “It’s confidence. It’s hard for some players to get it, but once players have it, the sky is the limit.”
He sees a lot of potential in his young teammates and he is looking forward to seeing them grow in confidence and grow in their football.
“One player that sticks out for me is Cyrus Rollocks, a young guy, and I think he has a bright future. He just has to take this first opportunity and grow from there,” Porter said of the 21-year-old TFC academy product who was the League1 Ontario young player of the year in 2017 after scoring 17 goals in 17 matches.
Under head coach, co-owner and executive vice president of soccer operations Jim Brennan, the York 9 players are hoping to blend their youth and experience into a winning combination.
There are fitness concerns for defender Roger Thompson and captain Manuel Aparicio leading up to match day after both picked up knocks in training.
Porter and last year’s Toronto FC revelation Ryan Telfer will provide problems for opposing defenders on the flanks.
Telfer won a U Sports title with forward Michael Cox and assistant coach Carmine Isacco at York University. Cox and Swedish League1 Ontario veteran Simon Adjei lead the line.
Joe Di Chiara — who made his Russian Premier League debut as a teenager for Krylia Sovetov — will pair with Aparicio to provide leadership in the centre of the midfield. While players like Gaparotto, Thompson and Di Chiara provide a foundation out of the back, expect to see a lot of fluidity and from York 9 when they attack.
“We’re just so dynamic and we’re able to interchange and understand the game. I think that with the experience — from the players that do have experience — we’re able to allow these guys to adapt with us as we move on the field. I think that’s something that not many teams will be able to cope with,” Porter said.
Gasparotto hopes that the nine stripes can win admirers for the way they approach the game.
“We have a lot of strengths,” Gasparotto said. “We like to play football. First and foremost we like to get a ball down and pass and move. I think defensively we’ll be very, very hard to beat. We’ve worked a lot over the past eight weeks in getting our defensive shape and our tactics spot on. That’s obviously important. If you don’t concede, you don’t lose games. We’re going to take a lot of pride in that.”