TORONTO, ON – Carmine Isacco has coached the York Lions since 2007, and over the 14 seasons of Canadian university soccer, he has led teams to OUA and U SPORTS National Championships. Still, as the clock ticked closer to the final whistle, he and the entire York bench were on their feet, pushing for the referee to make the last call.
York led Toronto 1-0 in the dying moments of the OUA quarterfinal, and when the match official finally blew the whistle to end the match, it was the home side who were advancing to the semi-finals.
The York Lions and Toronto Varsity Blues have a fierce rivalry in every sport, but there is another level to the contempt in soccer. Both programs, successful for decades, scramble to get the best academic and athletic talents on their teams, scouring soccer fields and classrooms across Ontario, Canada and the world for potential Varsity Blues and Lions.
In 2021, with the realigned divisions in OUA soccer, the two schools never met in regular-season action. Yet when the playoffs came around, there they were, familiar faces on each touchline, as the Varsity Blues paid a visit to their local rivals.
In front of a raucous crowd of students, alumni, and supporters, the Lions and Varsity Blues battled for a spot in the OUA semi-final and the right to play their third Toronto cousin, the Ryerson Rams.
York, the second seed, pushed from the first kick, while Toronto sat back, absorbed pressure, and quickly counterattacked. At half time, the second vs seventh battle was deadlocked at 0-0, and the Varsity Blues looked like they could come away with an upset victory. That is, until fourth-year York midfielder Omar Marzouk finished off an exquisite passing play in the 71st minute, scoring the eventual winning goal.
“We came out a little bit slow and in not great shape on the wing channels, and they had a couple of opportunities, and then we settled into the game,” said Isacco post-match. “We got a few more players inside to create a little more width, so we made the game a little wider, we looked for options to connect, and that’s how the goal came.”
While the weather hovered around four degrees celsius on Wednesday evening, the match was anything but freezing. October 25th’s OUA Athlete of the Week Geroge Tzimas stood tall in goal for the Lions, thwarting efforts from Toronto’s Kingsley Belele, Anthony Sousa and Shon Siegelwachs. At the same time, University of Toronto law student Ben Grondin kept the Varsity Blues in the match with nine critical saves.
A former York student-athlete under Isacco, Toronto Head Coach Ilya Orlov knew how the Lions could approach the match. Combined with Toronto’s young roster, Orlov and his staff opted to attack up the wings, drawing in some of York’s pressure.
“We’re not afraid to play anybody, and you saw today,” said a disappointed yet determined Orlov. “The game plan and tactical setup was exactly the way we wanted it to be, and we were looking forward to this; it’s always a good rivalry game with them.”
Whenever Toronto or York strung together a passing sequence or transitioned the ball up the pitch, the crowd’s roar grew, sound bellowing from the stands at York Lions Stadium. Despite over an hour of scoreless soccer, the crowd stayed involved, cheering on every opportunity before erupting in red when Marzouk’s shot hit the back of the net.
“Tonight was a fantastic atmosphere. We needed it; the game needs it. It’s an important game to invest in,” Isacco said of the atmosphere, one he hopes will be even louder for a semifinal with Ryerson. “We’ve earned a lot of credibilities, there’s a lot of great programs, and I hope that there are more nights like this.”
With the Lions moving across the street from Alumni Field to York Lions Stadium for the 2021 season, the matches have taken on a professional atmosphere, with more fans flocking to the ground than in recent years.
However, while the re-ignition of a rivalry in front of a passionate crowd lit a spark on a crisp evening, playoff soccer also brings an abrupt end to university sports careers. Within 90 minutes, many student-athletes played their final elite-level game before moving on to other chapters in their lives.
As the Lions advance in the playoffs, the Varsity Blues look ahead to next season, where they will be without stalwarts Anthony Sousa, Matthew Paoletta, and several others. “Today we are disappointed, but in the end, it is about these student-athletes growing and developing as people,” said Orlov. “Their job here is to be student-athletes and use soccer to help them develop in the next stage of their lives.”
When the final whistle blew to seal York’s victory, Isacco could take a breath; however, the four-time U SPORTS champion and six-time OUA Coach of the Year knows that the journey is far from done in 2021. “That could have been a 1-1 game, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles from them,” he said. “Now we have a tougher opponent in Ryerson.”