There’s a new game in town.
With the MLS Cup Playoffs winding down and the Canadian Premier League not set to debut until next year there is a lull in the calendar, a footy itch that need be scratched. Luckily, there is a new franchise just about to kickoff as winter comes to town.
The Mississauga MetroStars will begin their inaugural season in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) on Saturday, December 1 when they travel to meet the defending-champion Baltimore Blast. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and the match will be streamed live on MASLTV
with audio simulcast on NewsTalk Sauga 960 AM (scratch that - only home matches will be simulcast on Sauga 960, apologies).
Stocked with recognizable names from Toronto FC’s past — Dwayne De Rosario, Adrian Cann, and Mo Babouli, as well as Anthony Osorio, formerly of TFC II and brother of Jonathan — Mississauga will face a stiff test in their first-ever match, as Baltimore lifted their third-straight Ron Newman Cup Championship in March, defeating the Monterrey Flash in the final.
Both sides will play in the Eastern Division of the Eastern Conference, alongside the Harrisburg Heat and Utica City FC. Last season, the top two sides in each division made the playoffs.
WTR’s Senior Arena Soccer Correspondent, Benedict Rhodes will be providing regular coverage throughout the season – look out for another piece coming out later this week.
Arena soccer has a long history in North America. Guiding the MetroStars will be a man who forged a 15-year career in the alphabet soup of Canadian football leagues during some rather barren times: Phil Ionadi.
At the start of the 90s, Ionadi represented the North York Rockets in the old Canadian Soccer League, played for Toronto Italia and Toronto Supra in the Canadian National Soccer League, and then with the Glen Shields Sun Devils of the Canadian Professional Soccer League. He then made the move to the USL A-League with the Toronto Lynx, crossed the divide of the two solitudes to play both indoor and outdoor with the Montreal Impact before closing his career with the Brampton Hitmen and the Oakville Blue Devils as the CPSL became the newer Canadian Soccer League.
Well-travelled, Ionadi knows the trials and triumphs of professional soccer in Canada.
“It’s good to have arena soccer back here in Canada,” said Ionadi, the club’s head coach and general manager at the opening day of training camp. “Mississauga has embraced the franchise. We hosted a few games with Canada to see the response; people loved the action. You can’t take your eyes off of it. That’s the beautiful thing about the game.”
“The league has been around for 30 years,” explained Ionadi. “Back in the day, it was known as indoor soccer. I was fortunate to play in it with the Montreal Impact: [attendances of] 10- The action comes thick and fast as they then host the Kansas City Comets the following Thursday.
The rest of the roster, the full schedule and ticket information can be found at mississaugametrostars.ca.
Arena soccer is the same sport, but a radically different game.
“It’s a very exciting game: quick, dynamic, incorporating the line changes. It’s a totally different style of play compared to the outdoor game,” explained Cann, who spent three seasons with TFC. “The dimensions of the field – very small, very narrow – gives the opportunity for defensive-minded players, such as myself, to get forward, be creative.”
“A lot of physicality,” continued Cann with relish. “Using the boards, bouncing it off the boards; different angles, especially in the corners. It takes time to get used to that, as well as the rules: the three-line rule, the blue card, which is a two-minute penalty. It’s nice; an amalgamation of football and hockey.”
A full reading of the rules is available at the MASL website – it is worth the click.
Ram Mustafa, the director of youth development, highlighted, “the sheer energy and speed,” of the game.
“The ball is always moving,” emphasized Mustafa. “It’s the North American mentality of sport: hockey, lacrosse, soccer, all rolled into one. High scoring games, exciting games. Non-stop action.”
It tests the mental aspects, according to Mustafa. Reaction time, ability to think, and the need to know what to do before the ball arrives. It strains the physical ones as well.
“A minute-and-a-half; two-minute shifts. Compare it to hockey, to basketball,” likened Ionadi. “You really have to be ready fitness-wise in short sprints. You have to be really focused on set plays; know your defensive responsibilities.”
And be wary of the lightning fast counterattack.
“The transition is a lot faster because of the size of the field,” warned De Rosario. “You have to be very technical, have a lot of control with the ball. And understand the game: when to attack, when to hold. When you go up and down it can be taxing. Thankfully we have guys that have played the indoor game for many years.”
For those in need of a sample, video of an exhibition match between the Blast and Team Canada from August is available on YouTube.
Professional arena soccer is back in Canada, another means to help further the game. The MetroStars seek to provide yet another pathway for players and fans alike to extend their love for soccer.
“You have MLS, now the CPL coming; this is another avenue,” said Ionadi. “We want to build this, grow across the country, and give every kid the opportunity. It’s critical. Arena soccer is here; now we have to come together for the game.”