When HFX Wanderers FC visit York9 FC on Saturday afternoon, it will be homecoming for Matthew Arnone.
Born and raised in Vaughan, Arnone has been a key piece for Stephen Hart’s side this season, making 11 league appearances, as both a midfielder and a centre-back, as well as four in the Canadian Championship. He scored his first goal for the club in Saturday’s 3-1 loss away to Pacific FC – the first away goal HFX has ever scored in league play.
Just how did an Ontario boy with ties to York University and Y9 assistant coach Carmine Isacco end up plying his trade in Halifax?
“Fluke, really,” Hart told CanPL.ca. “I was looking for a centre-back, somebody told me there is (one) you should take a look at.
“I looked at some videos, we were at the point where we thought we had a long-term injury to one of our centre-backs, so we took the chance.”
Arnone was in Italy, in talks to sign for Vis Artena, a Serie D club, when his phone rang.
“I got a call from Stephen,” Arnone recalled. “The next thing I know, I’m on a flight to Halifax.”
Released from the Toronto FC Academy after two years, Arnone switched gears, enrolling at York University, where he spent five seasons.
“Some good times, two National Championships (2014 and 2015), but more of a place to continue my studies, continue my football, but with different aspirations,” Arnone said, of his time at York University. “The first couple years I didn’t really play much, but I kept chipping away. The goal was to play, be a contributor, help win a National Championship … win two if I could. Accomplished that.
“As I reached one goal, I pushed for another and another.”
It was Isacco who planted the seed that Arnone could strive for the next level.
“Once I graduated, there were a couple of years where I was in a dead space,” Arnone explained. “I couldn’t find a professional club. I went to North Carolina FC to play PDL, hoping for a sniff at the first team … but that didn’t work out.
“I found myself back at Vaughan (Azzurri in League1 Ontario) for a couple years, trying to show my stuff.”
All the while, his love for the game had him taking any opportunity to be close to it, including a stint as a stats tracker for TFC II.
“It’s a funny story,” Arnone said, with a smile. “I was looking for part-time job in soccer because that’s my passion. An assistant coach at York, Luca Forno, was a referee liaison for TFC for MLS games. I’ve coached with him, done a bunch of stuff and he offered, ‘TFC II is starting, do you want me to put you in contact with someone and maybe they can give you some sort of a job?’
That link turned into work at TFC II, though Arnone and Vaughan, under Isacco, would go on to do the L1O league and cup double in 2018, prompting the player to want even more.
“Carm always hinted at this professional league coming. To be honest I got impatient and went to Italy,” said the now 25-year-old. “After the last season, in October, I booked a flight. Two days after the final I was off travelling and training with clubs there, waiting for my passport.
“I had found a home there. They treated me really well.”
Then came a phone call from Halifax that changed everything.
Change of scenery, on and off the pitch
Arnone was initially a forward, but as often happens in a career, he switched positions to centre-back with Vaughan and York for three years.
“It ended up being an amazing switch for myself,” Arnone offered. “I found the most success I’d ever had in a L1O season. I went to Italy with that, (and) earned my way into a spot there.
“Here in Halifax, whatever the team needs, whether midfielder or defender, I’m here to help.”
That versatility has been useful for HFX, where Arnone is enjoying honing his game under coach Hart.
“He’s a great footballing mind,” said Arnone. “He doesn’t speak much, but when he does you better listen because he’s got some insight that you can take and make yourself a better player with. I find that a lot of coaches like to speak, like to yell, but since I’ve gotten here, everything he’s said has been constructive, everything he’s said has been with the intent to make you a better player, to make the team better.
“I respect his composure in all situations. When times are good, when times are bad, he doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. Above all, he’s such a wonderful person that he’s somebody you want to play for.”
And that he gets to do so in front of the most boisterous fan group in the Canadian Premier League is a nice little bonus, too.
“It’s wonderful,” Arnone told CanPL.ca. “We’ve been to every stadium, our fans are bar none the best in the league. They support us through our worse and through our best, cheering, singing, rain or shine, cold or warmth. They’re chanting, they’re energetic, they’re passionate.