Toronto, ON- It’s 4:00 PM on a brisk Sunday in Vaughan, but this Sunday is different. Soccer is back in Ontario, returning from its 150+ day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players of Alliance United and the Woodbridge Strikers shuffle in, a little hop in their step as they exit the parking lot. One laughs as they pass “Nonno’s Snack Stand,” en route to their teammates. The cones are set up by Alliance Head Coach, Ilya Orlov, and it finally begins to set in: today is matchday.
As the players go through their warmups, something they have done thousands of times, gleaming smiles grace their faces. When the balls are finally brought out, the giddiness of everyone elevates once more.
It’s 4:47, kickoff creeps closer, just over 10 minutes until soccer is back, and the small, yet mighty crowd begins to trickle in. There’s a player’s little brother, all of five years old, he plays with a toy firetruck on the sideline, meanwhile, an elderly man sips on a coffee alongside his wife, awaiting the first kick since March.
League 1 Ontario, the top division of men’s soccer in the province, postponed its regular spring start in favour of a fall season, however, that also had to be cancelled due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
While a league competition was not possible, teams are able to organize three-team “cohorts,” which can face each other in a round-robin fashion, before taking two weeks off and moving to another cohort. There are no official standings, there is no champion nor berth to the Canadian Championship, but at least there’s a match.
The referee blows his whistle to begin the match, and suddenly everything feels almost normal. Family, fans and partners are all spread out across the sidelines, some wear masks, but everyone is watching soccer. Woodbridge has a roster that has just recently come together, whereas Alliance has many who have played with each other in the past.
Alliance’s roster is built of mostly current and former U SPORTS players, 15 of their 18 registered players have played university soccer, and many have played together before. Orlov, the manager also coaches the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and has led many of Sunday’s roster with that team.
The chemistry of the Alliance side, dawning simple white kits is clear, they dominate possession of the ball from the opening kick. Mere minutes into the match, the jitters have worn off, and the tackles begin to fly. A challenge goes in, and the referee lets it go, he is also getting back into the swing of things.
As the first half wears on, and both teams become a little more coherent, passes are completed, and it does not feel like a meaningless game. The effort is clear, the tackles fly, and every refereeing decision provokes a crowd reaction.
A big sliding tackle from a Woodbridge defender pulls down Alliance’s Atchu Siviranthan, who hits the ground with a thud. The ball trickles out of a throw-in, no foul is given from the official. A voice exclaims from the bleachers, “Would you like to share a cappuccino and talk about that call?” a comment directed at the referee. The official is not too pleased, and the throw-in proceeds.
Players have been training for months, just awaiting any sort of match, and with the U SPORTS and League 1 seasons cancelled, this is all they have, and everybody was playing at 100%. With all the confusion in the world, this little patch of plastic grass in suburban Toronto offers a sense of normality.
Midway through the first half, Alliance gains the ball in their own half, and Nicolas Osorio sends the ball out to the right wing for the aforementioned Siviranthan. The former Varsity Blue beats his defender and whips the ball towards the goal, where former Ryerson Ram Abdallah El-Chanti leaps, sending a flying header that trickles the netting.
The goal is a thing of beauty, it reminds you of the reason soccer is called “The Beautiful Game,” but it also reminds you that this match doesn’t matter, the normality is briefly removed. If El-Chanti had scored that goal in a competitive season, he would run around the pitch in ecstasy, rather, he just hugs his teammates and walks back to the centre circle. It’s a stark reminder that this is just an exhibition match, and competition has not fully returned.
El-Chanti’s goal proves to be the winner, despite Alliance peppering the Woodbridge goalkeeper through the rest of the match. As the referee blows his final whistle, there is no big celebration, no cheers, the game just ends. Alliance, although victors, are not happy about the win, they missed at least five chances, the game could have been 6-0.
“We made him look good,” an Alliance player says, “We could have scored four more,” says another. Nobody is happy with the result, but after everything that has happened over the last eight months, being able to play in a match was a welcome escape for everybody. “We’ve been training twice as hard, finally it was nice to actually play,” a player says.
By now it’s 7:00 and the sun has just set beyond the plastic pitch. The players, coaches and families all file back into their cars to head home, but everybody seems refreshed. Even the players who just played their first match in over half a year continue to have a hop in their step, knowing that soccer has returned, and they will be back at it again in a few days.
Although COVID-19 continues to ravage the world and heads toward a second wave in Ontario, sport has returned, and for a few hours in Vaughan, the world seemed nearly normal, as live, high performance soccer hit the pitch.
Cover Photo: Benjamin Steiner