FC London’s list of rivals keeps growing.
There are five new men’s teams and three women’s sides poised to join the League1 Ontario mix for the 2021 season. An entire under-21 program called League1 Reserve now fits underneath the top loop, too.
The big challenge, of course, is to figure out where and when it’s OK to play this summer as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.
“We’re head down and running toward a season,” club CEO Ian Campbell said in a recent interview. “Normally, we would get going at the end of April, and that’s a little optimistic. If we can get going by middle to end of June, we will have a full season for the most part. If we don’t start by Aug. 1, then unfortunately, players are committed to schools and it will deplete rosters.
“There may be an exhibition season in the fall. Right now, we wait.”
There will still be plenty of training at all ages at the organization’s new Tricar Field home in southwest London. The club remains connected with Toronto FC and a number of young talented players who would have been evaluated last year are working toward that end now.
“Everybody’s aware in soccer that you train three to four times a week and have one game,” Campbell said. “If you look at proportionality, the competitive aspect of play is around 20 to 25 percent of the actual soccer experience at the competitive level. That training and development is a huge component of what we’re offering. Everyone is waiting to see if the colours change. The challenge in not only playing local is in crossing counties, jurisdictions and potentially colour zones for elite level league games in places like Barrie, Ottawa and Windsor.
“There’s no guarantee, if we get to green, they’re going to get there, too, so that’s one of the challenges on the horizon.”
Mike Marcoccia remains the senior technical director for the club and will continue coaching the men’s and women’s team, plus the men’s reserve squad. Longtime on-field leader Randy Ribeiro upgraded his coaching certifications during the long offseason and will run the women’s reserves.
FC London grad Belal Halbouni earned a Canadian team trial in Florida in January and signed a contract to play for German SV Werder Bremen’s reserve side. Academy alum Kaila Novak and NCAA freshman has joined the UCLA Bruins, Jessie Fleming’s alma mater.
“Our grassroots is strong and deep in quality,” club director Dave DeBenedictis said. “We’ve been inundated with inquiries from people who want a little bit more soccer. We’ve created Zoom sessions over the past two months with guest speakers like (senior women’s national player) Samantha Chang; (Tottenham’s) Shelina Zadorsky had a one-hour Q and A; Bill Manning, the president of Toronto FC, talked about how they’re managing the pandemic. There were a lot of inspiring stories to learn from.”
It’s a little boost after one cancelled season and some uncertainty in how a new one will look.
“As we come into 2021, we may be playing games with an empty set of stands,” Campbell said. “People are doing that all over the world, biting their tongues and moving forward. Our fan base continues to be strong and people have reached out to ask what’s the plan. Friday and Saturday at the Cove has been a soccer standard for a decade and for that not to be the case last year was disappointing.”
The growth at both the club and league level should help soothe some of that pain.