Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MB Major Soccer League moves into north Winnipeg

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VINCE Leah Recreation Centre will see more soccer balls this summer than David Beckham and Ronaldo combined.

That's because the north Winnipeg community club will be the home field for nearly every team in the Manitoba Major Soccer League's men's Premier division, as well as for a good chunk of the First, Second, Third, and even Fourth division teams.

While the field has always been a favourite of the league in the past, it's taking on a new importance this season because the Winnipeg Soccer Complex will be shut down all summer for ground repair.

"The fields are just not good enough to use this year," says Ron Boulet, chairman of the Manitoba Soccer Association's Winnipeg Soccer Complex Committee. "We're restoring the fields. If we used them, we'd destroy them so badly that we'd probably have to shut it down for two years instead of one."

Boulet says the complex's fields, widely regarded as the three best soccer pitches in the city, have been deteriorating steadily over the years, largely because of overuse. He said the committee will take a serious look at changing the maintenance schedule at the complex, so that when the fields reopen, they will remain in the shape that the soccer community has come to expect.

"A couple years ago they were ranked in the top three fields in Canada," says Boulet.

Although Boulet says the fields will almost certainly only be closed for this season, the closure has still put a crunch on the teams who regularly called the complex home.

"The complex needed work," says Mike Nardiello, general manager of the Premier division club Lucania. "Closing it down is a bit of a blow, but (the work) has got to get done somehow."

Games held at the complex have always had a small entry fee for spectators, and the home clubs got a piece of that money to put towards their operations. Now that the complex has closed, however, the teams are hoping to make up the lost revenue by charging $2 to attend Sunday night double-header bills at Vince Leah. Nardiello is encouraged that this might actually mean more attendance.

"The good thing about Vince Leah is that it's a good end of the city to play in because it brings out more people than the complex (located off Waverley Street) ever did. There seems to be a lot of soccer people in the north end," he says.

But Vince Leah Recreation Centre won't have to handle all the playing pressure alone this year, as a new pitch will soon open up at the Centro Caboto Italian Cultural Centre on Wilkes Avenue. The field will be home to four teams, with the first game on the new pitch scheduled for July 6. The pitch will also be named in honour of Tony Nocita, one of Winnipeg's finest soccer players.

Nocita is a former national team member who played for years with the Canadian Soccer League's Winnipeg Fury. He is also a member of the Premier division team Sons of Italy, which won the national senior men's club championship last fall, as well as the Manitoba Soccer Association's MSA Cup.

The Sons will be looking to repeat their MSA Cup victory this season, but will have to conquer a new tournament format to do so.

The Cup has used a single-knockout bracket format for the past few years, but that format often kept weaker teams out of the tournament for fear of drawing a powerhouse in the first round. This year's Cup will use a guaranteed-three-game round-robin format, with the group winners moving on to the elimination rounds.

"We listened to the teams, we listened to the players. Nobody wanted single knockout. It got to the point where nobody wanted to participate anymore," says Lou Guffei, director of senior soccer for the MSA, and co-ordinator of the MSA Cup.

"It's nothing new. It's a format that's existed in the past, we're just reviving it," says Guffei. "It will make it fairer for all the teams involved, rather than it just being a horserace between the two or three top teams."

Another change soccer players will see this season is a new divisional alignment in the MMSL. Every division in the league, with the exception of the Fifth division, will have 12 teams, of which eight will make the playoffs. Divisions had varying numbers of teams last season, with only six teams from each making the post season. The league was formed last year when the Super Soccer Alliance and the Manitoba Central Soccer League merged, bringing nearly all of the teams from Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk, Steinbach, Carman, and Winkler into one league.

MMSL president Sean Drain says the league's first season was successful, and he hopes that a new divisional alignment will make things even better this year.

"I think we had a very successful year last year," says Drain. "We had good competition throughout the league. All the teams enjoyed it."

Drain also notes that the Winnipeg Soccer League has affiliated itself with the MMSL for this season. While the two leagues have not formally merged, they will be sharing referees and some administrative functions, which Drain says is a step towards an official merger.

The MMSL season starts on May 14.

PHOTO MIKE DEAL/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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