Friday, August 13, 2004

London soccer not in backseat

Ryan Pyette, Free Press Sports Reporter
2004-08-13 01:44:25

With 13 local soccer teams alive in Ontario Cup play, it's clear London doesn't take a backseat to anybody on the competitive pitch. Of course, you'd still put mighty Mississauga in the driver's seat with their 18 Cup teams and massive Ontario Soccer Association registration numbers. That slides London into the provincial passenger side -- but, hey, there are a lot of other Ontario communities that would love to ride soccer shotgun.
It doesn't take real long to figure out why, year after year, the Forest City manages to hang around in big tournaments like the Cup. The largest reason is the number of players and teams here -- there's been ongoing fanfare that soccer is the sport of choice for the majority of Londoners, even over hockey.
There's a lot of people involved in the sport here and plenty of strong players from around Southwestern Ontario who want to play for London, which naturally expands the local talent pool.
London Portuguese men's premier division midfielder Phil Pacheco, for instance, lives in Sarnia and drives in for games and practices. He's 27 now and he's played for London teams since he was 14.
At first, his parents, Nuno and Maria, or his brother and sister shuttled him around, but now it's just him -- he just finished driving a Grand Prix that had 270,000 kms on it.
"I thought about moving to London a few times, but I have a good job here," the quality control employee at Sarnia's UBE auto plant said. "I never thought about changing soccer teams. All my friends are with Portuguese and there's nowhere else I'd rather play."
The most intriguing aspect of London's success is the number of clubs that field competitive teams, which means many of the top players are spread throughout the city on different teams. Look at the breakdown of the names still involved in the Cup: there's a couple of London United squads, North London, Greater London, Forest United, etc.
In Toronto, there might be 400 talented players trying out for one travel team. In London, a coach will get a small fraction of that turnout, then have to coax the maximum from the group to beat the bigger centres. Some of the more high-profile local teams have a pool system -- so if someone isn't performing, he or she will lose that spot to a more productive player.
At the younger ages, the threat of being replaced may seem sadistic, but it does create the blueprint for success: (a) it means more players exposed to a high level of soccer, and (b) they're hungrier.
To boot, the clubs work on the assumption that if they have a good team with a lot of potential at, for example, the U-13 level, they'll work to funnel resources toward that age group for tournaments and better competitive games.
Some say the Ontario Cup isn't a great indicator of which teams are tops because the NCAA basketball-style draw means many good squads get knocked out early.
A few think the men's Cup final four, which boasts two London teams for the first time, is not top-notch and that a club such as Benfica slid into its first-ever semifinal without playing many quality sides.
Those on the other side of the fence say Benfica, like a lot of London clubs before them, rose to the occasion and beat whatever was thrown their way.
It's become a London trait in the Cup with eight titles in the past two years.
And don't think experience and a team's ability to conquer the unknown aren't important factors in Cup play.
"Our team always seems to raise its level for the Cup games," said Portuguese men's manager Carlos Miranda said.
"That's why I'm a little afraid if we win our semifinal and face Benfica in the final, our guys will look at it like it's just another Western Ontario Soccer League game instead of the provincial championship."
It just goes to show: when you're shooting for king of the road, you never expect your final roadblock to be your next door neighbour.
Saturday, Aug. 28
U-18 girls: London United vs. Oakville at Oshawa Civic Centre, 3 p.m.
U-15 boys (Tier II): Greater London Gunners vs. Sault Ste. Marie at Markham Mount Joy, 5 p.m.
U-14 girls: North London Supernova vs. Oshawa Kicks at Burlington's Sherwood Forest Park, 3 p.m.
U-13 girls: London United 91 Hurricane vs. Mississauga at Mount Joy, 11 a.m.
U-13 boys: North London Cobras vs. Markham at Toronto's Centennial Stadium, 11 a.m.
U-12 girls: London United Cyclone vs. London City Flash at Scarborough's Birchmount Stadium, 1 p.m.
U-12 boys: Greater London Thunder vs. North Mississauga at Sherwood Forest Park, 11 a.m.
Sunday, Aug. 29
Men: Portuguese vs. Cambridge at Birchmount Stadium, 2 p.m.; Benfica vs. Ottawa Royals at Birchmount, 4:30 p.m.
Women: London United Lightning vs. North York at Centennial Stadium, 2 p.m.


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