Take last year’s winner, Vaughan Azzurri, for example: Current CPLers Matthew Arnone (HFX Wanderers), Dylan Carriero (Valour FC), Daniel Gogarty (York9 FC), Jace Kotsopoulos (Forge FC), Austin Ricci (York9 FC), Dylan Sacramento (Valour FC), Tomasz Sklublak (HFX Wanderers), Justin Springer (York9 FC), Duran Lee (HFX Wanderers) and Colm Vance (York9 FC) all played for the club that beat Woodbridge Strikers in the 2018 finale, amounting to the most players from any L1O club to jump to CPL – and a considerable chunk of the over 40 players that went L1O-to-CPL this off-season.
While a championship and Canadian Championship berth will be top of mind for FC London and the Saints on Friday, this year there’s that added element: Attention from the CPL universe.
“Knowing the league was coming last year, I thought the guys were really at their best,” Arnone told CanPL.ca of his 2018 League1 Ontario win.
“This year it gives players a direct light at the end of the tunnel.”
Upsetting Vaughan Azzurri and Oakville Blue Devils en route to the Final, FC London and Masters are set to break a run of L1O dominance by Vaughan, Oakville, Woodbridge Strikers and Toronto FC development teams, who have captured all of the available hardware since the league started in 2014.
“Playing with Vaughan Azzurri and (current York9 FC assistant coach Carmine Isacco) and being surrounded by tons of pro-quality players was huge,” Arnone said. “The team from 2017 and 2018, there are about 10 of us playing in the CPL right now.
“The standard was always super, super high. Those are things I will miss and forever cherish as a footballer in the early stages of my career.”
Valour’s Dylan Sacramento scored the first goal in L1O history in 2014, on a Toronto FC Academy team that featured Mark-Anthony Kaye (LAFC), Chris Mannella (Ottawa Fury) and Manny Aparicio (York9 FC), among others. TFC was bounced from the semifinals by Sigma FC that year, thanks to goals from Jonathan Grant, Marcel Zajac and Emery Welshman – three players on Forge FC’s inaugural roster.
“There are a lot of good players in that league and it goes unnoticed,” Sacramento said. “I watch highlights and video to see who’s succeeding.”
Sacramento scored 11 goals for Vaughan last season, including one in the final.
“You look at last year with (Justin) Springer, (Matthew) Arnone, (Daniel) Gogarty, (Austin) Ricci, (Duran) Lee … Maybe if that Vaughan team stayed together and added a few more pieces they could have been a Cavalry or Forge because of the familiarity,” Sacramento offered.
HFX Wanderers defender Duran Lee is also keeping a close eye on this year’s final since he was playing in the league earlier this summer. Lee moved to CPL mid-season from Vaughan, suiting up for the team that shocked HFX 1-0 in the second leg of their Canadian Championship first-round matchup.
“The mentality of everyday work of trying to go from League1 to CPL or any other professional league is the hardest thing,” Lee said. “It’s a big stepping stone.”
The 24-year-old also spent time with Sigma, the academy current Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis operated, with its League1 outfit producing well over half of the Hamilton-based club’s inaugural roster.
“There’s a lot of talented guys out there, young or a little bit older.”
So, will we see the CPL’s next leading scorer or standout player on the pitch Friday? Tough to call.
But maybe you should keep an eye on it, just as CPL coaches clearly did last season.