TORONTO — League 1 Ontario kicks off its 2017 soccer season, with some familiar names and a few that may well feature in the top flight in the future.
Canadian international goalkeeper Quillan Roberts has joined the Woodbridge Strikers while former Toronto FC teammate Chris Mannella, who helped the TFC academy win the inaugural 2014 League 1 title, is with the defending champion Vaughan Azzurri.
Jaime Peters, who won 29 caps for Canada and played professional in England for Ipswich, Yeovil Town, Gillingham and Bournemouth, leads Master's FA.
The Woodbridge team also includes Oscar Cordon, who spent time with Toronto FC, and Canadian under-23 midfielder Dylan Carreirro, who played at Queens Park Rangers in England and Dundee and Arbroath in Scotland.
"It's a good league, to tell you the truth," said Woodbridge coach Peter Pinizzotto, whose team opens Saturday against Master's. "There's some good soccer ... This is the type of league that if you have an 18-, 19-year-old, you give them a chance and if you see they're good, there's maybe a pathway to the USL, NASL — it could be Europe."
His team normally trains three times a week. The players aren't paid but can pick up some money if they help with coaching clinics.
Pinizzotto, who is also director of coaching and player development at the Woodbridge Soccer Club, is a veteran of the Canadian soccer scene. As coach of the now-defunct Toronto Lynx, he helped send future Canadian internationals like Paul Stalteri, Dwayne De Rosario, Marco Reda and others on their soccer journey.
Stalteri, now Canada's under-17 men's coach, and Reda are giving back to soccer these days. Both coach youth soccer at the Woodbridge club.
League 1 features 16 men's teams and 11 women's sides this season.
OSU Force is a new Ottawa-based team in the men's East Division, replacing the Kingston Clippers. Toronto FC's senior academy side has been rebranded as Toronto FC 3.
Sigma FC, whose talent pipeline has produced the likes of Orlando's Cycle Larin, plays in the West Division.
Unionville Milliken, Toronto Azzurri Blizzard and West Ottawa Soccer join the women's division, which opens play May 5.
Vaughan (17-1-4) won the Eastern Conference last year while FC London (15-5-2) took the West. Vaughan took the title, defeating London 4-2 in the championship game. The Azzurri also took the knockout League 1 Cup competition, edging Woodbridge 1-0 in the final.
Founded in 2014, the league began with a 10-team men's division. Today it is a stepping stone for young talent.
As a 15-year-old, forward Adonijah Reid tied for the League 1 scoring lead with the ANB Futbol team. In January, FC Dallas took the 17-year-old forward in the second round (40th overall) of the MLS SuperDraft.
Midfielder-forward Mo Babouli, a Canadian under-23 international recently released by Toronto FC, led League 1 in scoring in 2014 with 21 goals for the TFC academy side.
Midfielder Sarah Stratigakis, who made her debut for the national women's team this year, won Young Player of the Year honours last season with Aurora United FC. Forward Alex Lamontagne of Durham United FA also made her debut with John Herdman's Canada team in 2017.
League 1 Ontario and the PLSQ league in Quebec are sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Association as Division 3 leagues.
In contrast, MLS is sanctioned by U.S. Soccer as Division 1 while the USL and NASL are Division 2.
The soon-to-be-announced Canadian Premier League is expected to be sanctioned by the CSA as a domestic Division 1 league.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press