TORONTO, ON – A game operations staff member cycles along Bloor Street and turns right onto Bedford Avenue, hopping off his bike to store it in the ticket office. For the first time in over 600 days, the Varsity Blues are selling tickets to a University of Toronto soccer match.
On a warmer than average September day, under the crisp fall sky and in the shadow of the CN Tower, the Downtown Toronto Derby returned, pitting the Rams against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
When the Rams visit Varsity Stadium, it is a special occasion for both programs. Toronto gets their home crowd, a loyal core who come out to one of Canada’s oldest sporting grounds. At the same time, the Rams get a pseudo-home-match, playing just a quick subway ride north of their campus, rather than their traditional Downsview Park abode.
The clock hits 10:45 am; just over an hour before kickoff, Toronto’s assistant coach Kieran Doyle-Davis sets up the warmup cones. A simple task, something he’s done thousands of times before, but for the first time since 2019, he is doing it for an OUA matchday. Rams and Varsity Blues student-athletes look on, eyes smiling with masks covering their faces.
“It’s why we do what we do, I am so happy, and these student-athletes deserve all that,” said U of T Women’s Soccer Head Coach Angelo Cavalluzzo. “They’ve put in so much work over the last 18 months at home, over Zoom, to finally be rewarded with a match like this is what everyone deserves.”
The Varsity Blues and Rams have a healthy and spirited rivalry in every sport, but with two years of rookies joining the fold after the cancelled 2020 season, it brings a new flavour. While the men’s side carries some holdovers from fierce matches, the women’s game featured a rivalry yet to be brewed.
“There was a little bit of trepidation, a lot of new faces, and first-year players who were in the game that don’t maybe know the rivalry, don’t know the combativeness of Ryerson, ” said Cavalluzzo. “When the match started, we said that we were okay today.”
When the Varsity Blues kicked off just after noon, they were as okay as could be, and by the end of a chippy first half, the rivalry was back. Toronto fourth-year forward Miranda Badovinac broke the deadlock in the 64th minute, scoring the eventual winner for the home side before Rams defender Emily Porteus capped off the opening derby with a red card.
With a suspension and stingy defensive performance, the opener set the scene for a fierce rematch on October 2, and a feisty men’s match to follow.
For Toronto Men’s Head Coach Ilya Orlov, Saturday was a day circled on his calendar for months. “You miss the preparation all preseason, all week, and it was great to be back at Varsity Stadium playing a big rival,” he said.
Once Orlov and Rams Head Coach Filip Prostran offered final words to their sides, the match kicked off in front of a crowd, anxious to see the nationally-ranked Rams and a Varsity Blues side with some of the best rookie talent in the OUA.
Within minutes, the two teams re-ignited a rivalry that had been stagnant since October 27, 2019, when Toronto eliminated the Rams in the OUA quarterfinal. Once the skies opened up to rain in the 20th minute, it fueled, rather than extinguishing the fire of a rivalry.
“It’s always a blood bath here; it’s always tight,” said Prostran. “I forgot how nerve-racking games are. I think I forgot the feeling of a tight OUA game, and not only is it two years off, it’s our biggest rival, at their place in the first game of the year. A lot of tension, a lot of emotion, and anxiety.”
30 minutes in, the referee awarded a red card to Anthony Sousa, one of Toronto’s few veterans, leaving the Varsity Blues shorthanded for 60+ minutes of rivalry soccer.
As the first half ended, the fans, now drenched, flocked for cover for the brief halftime break. Yet, when the athletes re-emerged from the tunnel, no one came out with more ferocity than Rams senior Abdallah El-Chanti.
El-Chanti streaked into the Toronto penalty area, earning the Rams a penalty kick, before calmly slotting his shot past Varsity Blues debutant Ben Grondin, and running towards the crowd, while pointing at the ground.
“It is my last year and probably my last time playing here. I don’t know if we’ll see them in the playoffs, but when we come here, we know we bring out more fans,” said El-Chanti, who had never lost a match at Varsity Stadium. “I wanted to show them that this is my home, not your home.”
Many of the student-athletes on the two sides are familiar with each other through the tight-knit Ontario soccer community, yet when the Rams meet the Varsity Blues, friendships are put aside. After all, it’s the Downtown Derby, and both sides battle again on October 2.