It's been more than forty years since a semi-professional soccer team last competed in Sudbury.
The Sudbury Cyclones, members of the National Soccer League from 1976 to 1980, were the last remnants of a level of play that existed, locally, previously via the Italia Flyers, but not since.
That all could change in 2024, should the Greater Sudbury Soccer Club (GSSC) have their way.
Bringing a League 1 Ontario franchise to Sudbury in 2024 is the final pillar of a five year strategic plan prepared by the GSSC, one which covers off a variety of areas of development in the sport.
What is common, from start to finish, is really the end target for what the GSSC wishes to achieve in the process. "The overall goal is about improving the state of soccer in Sudbury, and in the north," noted club head coach Giuseppe Politi. “We are trying to move the game forward."
Those discussions started in earnest when the group surpassed an initial milestone last summer.
"We hit our ten year anniversary in 2010 and it really got people thinking about what we wanted to accomplish in the next five or ten years," stated Executive Director Connor Vande Weghe. "If you look at what the GSSC does, right now, in nearly everything that we do, we've hit a point where we can begin to expand."
And while many local soccer enthusiasts have entertained countless discussions regarding the state of soccer in Sudbury over the years, perhaps over an occasional beverage or two, things quickly became more formalized under the lead of Politi, Vande Weghe and GSSC president Joe Snofl.
"With the plan, we have a measuring stick," said Politi. "If you're not planning, how do you know if you're progressing."
With a clear emphasis on effective goal setting (SMART = Specific / Measurable / Attainable / Realistic / Time bound), the group addressed priorities that ranged from an internal perspective (improving club processes, governance, etc..), over to a more external perspective (becoming a leader in the soccer market, north of Barrie), and closing with the need to have clearly defined player pathways to success.
"We want to ensure that players have access to what their peers might have access to in Toronto or Ottawa or London," said Politi. "We shouldn't have to be sending players away so that they can have access to something that we can achieve here."
In fact, the notion of League 1 soccer on a local level is but one facet of the GSSC strategic plan, one that also outlines the following priorities:1 - Accessibility Soccer Programming to be introduced in 2022
2 - Expanded opportunities for players U13 to U18 to play at a local level in 2023
3 - Expanded opportunities for Adults to play soccer locally in Sudbury in 2023
4 - Ontario Player Development League OPDL) program to start in 2023
5 - Bring a League1 Ontario franchise to Sudbury in 2024
All those involved with the effort suggest that it is all part of a larger vision, one that would see the club also redesign their Mission and Vision statements, reflecting the goals and values of Ontario Soccer and Canada Soccer.
"We're a club that wants to develop athletes and develop people, but we're also a club that wants to help develop the community," stressed Vande Weghe. "That's one of the values that we've put forward in the plan, to focus on the community."
That community centric approach was fundamental to the inclusion of the Accessibility Soccer component, very early in the process.
"It only makes sense that if we are a club of the community, then it was logical to make sure that we can support and give access to everyone in the community, regardless of what their situation might be," added the former standout netminder with the Laurentian Voyageurs.
While the first three items on the list above might speak to a very broad base of club involvement, there is little doubt that the targets of both the OPDL and League 1 are geared towards creating an environment where elite northern talent need not travel south, for weeks on end, every single winter.
"We are going to need to stimulate more interest, in general, in high level soccer," said Politi. "The OPDL requires a lot of commitment and dedication, a lot of time on the field and cost."
"We are going to need to educate the players and parents on the possibilities that soccer can provide, for the individuals involved. If you are playing OPDL, they need to see it as a pathway to something else."
Certainly, the construction of the indoor facility on the grounds of Lasalle Secondary School constituted a game changer, in the words of Politi, though there were other signals that aligned nicely with the goals of the GSSC.
"Seeing other clubs in Ontario from communities that are not necessarily as big as Toronto getting in (to the OPDL), that gives us hope," said Politi. "When you see a Windsor, a Kingston have access to the OPDL, there is hope that we have similar parameters."
Plenty of questions remain about exactly what the summer of 2021 might look like for enthusiasts of the beautiful game. Long-term, the GSSC would like to offer some of the answers.
"We want to drive that lifelong love and passion for soccer," said Vande Weghe. "Hopefully, we keep knocking things off the list until we hit the final goals of the strategic plan."