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The elusive search for just the right level of competition

Finding just the right competitive fit has proven a touch elusive, over the years, for local youth rep soccer teams.

Picture Goldilocks without the “just right” option.

Two summer ago, the GSSC (Greater Sudbury Soccer Club) 2003 Impact boys vaulted from being a tournament team, unable to find any viable regular season play alternatives, directly to the Central Soccer League.

Though the locals battled valiantly, it was crystal clear that they were swinging outside of their weight class. “This year, playing against teams that we can compete with better, we're definitely playing a more possession-based soccer, keeping the ball, not necessarily just sending it long,” noted head coach Stephane Legrand at practice Thursday evening at St Charles College.

And though they might enjoy a little less push from their opponents than would be ideal, from time to time, the fact is that the summer of 2019 has provided a much better landing spot for the team, in the form of the Huronia District Soccer League (HDSL).

True, the team boasts an undefeated record of 5-0-1, netting 19 goals to date, while surrendering only five. But the U16 Impact boys are getting a chance to work on improving their game in an environment that does not ensure automatic victory for the Sudbury squad. “Even against Innisfil, we looked really good, at moments, and the other team was just running all over the place, trying to catch us,” said Legrand.

“At other times, we were panicking with the ball, as soon as they put on some high pressure. It's fine-tuning those little things that is still needed.” A pair of home victories over the (Innisfil) Stampeders, registering triumphs of 4-3 and 4-1, fell well in line with the bulk of their scores to date. As coach Legrand noted, this is not a finished product, nor necessarily one that is ready, quite yet, to jump back up to the level of the CSL.

“Nearing the end of that first game, we kind of let go of the game,” suggested right fullback Ryan Rocca, a rare left-footed defender playing on his weak side for a team that follows suit with newcomer Saim Saqib on the opposite side (a right-footed fullback playing on the left side). “We let them (Innisfil) play out, and that's when they started coming back.”

“In the second game, we continued going and pushing it through.”

Yet another area where the team has shown some healthy progression this summer has been in encouraging a much broader approach to the support structure in attacking their opponents, allowing for the “wing-backs” (or fullbacks) to jump, more aggressively, into the offensive tier of their game strategy.

All of which suits Rocca just fine. “I've always wanted to play a little more offensively, so that's good. When our team is having a little bit of trouble, on my side, I usually step up now and try and open up for the ball, get ready for the pass,” said the 15 year old grade 11 student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.

“If we're struggling and I can see that they're about to take the ball away, then I get back and we re-form our shape. I am pretty defensive-minded, so I'm more of a 50/50 guy up there.”

Having endured seasons where the quality of adversaries has been all over the map, Northern Soccer Academy U21 men's head coach Brian Ashton cannot say enough good things about the Ontario Soccer League's Regional Central Division, the eight team loop where the NSA currently hold down third place with a record of 5-4-1.

“It's been very competitive,” said the recent inductee to the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame. “It seems that you win a game and you're up near the top of the standings, you lose one and you're down near the bottom. Every game is either one or two goals, with no real blowouts in the league. Everybody seems to be well-matched.”

After making a living on the professional soccer circuit based largely on the fierce tenacity of his defensive ball challenges, showcasing the kind of aggressiveness which certainly earned him a fair share of yellow cards over the years, Ashton has had to alter the message somewhat for his young troops.

“Maybe because I played that way, I can appreciate the toll it that it takes,” he said. “It's hard on your body. The message I send to the guys is that I want them to play hard, but fair. Don't go into a tackle half-hearted, go in strong. But sometimes you tell these teenagers, these young adults, to go in hard and they misconstrue that message. They think that means go in and hurt someone.”

“When I say go in hard, it doesn't mean you go in and kick the guy in the kneecaps. I have to make sure they understand that's not the message I am sending.”

GSSC Impact U11 teammates Blake Thaxter and Alessandro Moretta still have plenty of time on their side to fully understand the message being sent to the U21 men's crew. Still, there is a starting point, as the grouping of players that represents the local club in HDSL action for the very first time this year learns the boundaries of the allowable levels of physicality.

“What we can do is to use our shoulder to lean against them to get away and give yourself some space,” said Thaxter, a highly talkative 11 year old and first year member of the Impact. “What you can't do is use your elbow or hands, because that's a little too physical, and you can't push, only lean. A push is way more aggressive, but a lean is when your body is at a 30 degree angle and you have not made that much contact, and you can only use your shoulder.”

Taking his place between the pipes as the team keeper, Moretta suggested that he is at least partially shielded from these concerns, by virtue of the position that he plays. “The soccer net is bigger, so you try and cut down the angle,” noted the 10 year old grade six student at Holy Trinity Catholic School. “You can try and dive at them, because the players are not allowed to touch you at all.”

“That's what I've been told.”

Suiting up as a goalie for just the second year, Moretta is working hard on refining his craft, including his ability to quickly transition from a save to an offensive opportunity for his team. “I prefer to punt, because I can punt it harder, farther, higher,” he said. “If I have to do a goalie kick, then I try and find a high place of grass, to put the ball there, almost like you're teeing it up, and then you lean back and try and have more altitude.”

Though the Impact U11 crew come together, on weekends, to compete in the HDSL, their mid-week local outings often involve playing against one another in the GSSC program, a set-up that can actually assist team chemistry in the more competitive setting.

"You get to learn how your teammates play, you understand them when you play against them," said Thaxter. "Farouq (Alzawi), as an example, is a very talented player, he's very fast. When you play against him, you can see how fast he is."

"Then when you play with him, you know that you can pass it up ahead of him, because he's so fast." The 2019 roster for the GSSC Impact U11 boys team includes Alfarouq Alzawi, Maks Beljo, Carter Cantin, Simon Caycedo-Uscategui, Mauro Cusinato, Liam Kuhn, Alessandro Moretta, Mishal Olanrewaju, Luca Pasutto, Caleb Pearson, Michael Seccaspina, Alex Strangis, Blake Thaxter, Masimo Toffoli and Kaden Wicklander.

Truth be told, you simply cannot overestimate the value of good solid game competition.

"All of these skills that we're trying to teach can be taught in practice, but there needs to be that game component as well, the idea that you show them and then they experience that situation in a game," said coach Legrand.

"Just playing more games on a consistent basis, this year and last year, has really helped." And under ideal circumstances, this game experience will take place opponents who provide just the right amount of competition.

Sudbury Wolves