Andrew Aitken still remembers what it felt like 10 years ago to win the Challenge Trophy, emblematic of the best senior men’s soccer team in Canada.
"It was the best game I’ve ever been involved in," said the captain of the FC Winnipeg Lions of the 2002 championship match that his team, known as Sons of Italy until this season, won against a host Newfoundland squad. "There were 10,000 people there cheering for them. Winning that game, nothing could top that."
Well, until now.
The Lions earned a spot in this year’s national men’s championship, which will be played in Winnipeg from Oct. 3 to 8, by winning the MSA Cup. Now Aitken and his teammates will have a chance to give the Lions a second national championship in a decade.
The victory over Hellas in the MSA Cup final was especially gratifying for the Lions because of how close they came the previous two seasons. Both ended in heartbreaking losses in the final, one in extra time and one in a penalty shootout.
This year’s final saw the Lions defeat a Hellas team that has gone undefeated through the season. Even though both teams were guaranteed spots in the nationals (Manitoba received an extra berth as the host province), the win was meaningful for Aitken and his teammates.
"We were going into that game to win our way in," said the 35-year-old centre-back from St. Vital. "We weren’t thinking like we’d made it already."
The win didn’t just give the Lions the MSA Cup. It also gave them a better seeding — at least in theory — in the nationals, placing them in a group with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia rather than Alberta and B.C.
Goalkeeper Steve Sawatzky was also on the 2002 team that won it all. He thinks this year’s squad matches up quite well.
"That was a real hard-working team," said the 39-year-old from St. Vital, who would likely hang up his cleats if the Lions were to win gold. "It maybe wasn’t as skillful. It was just a gritty team with a lot of jam. With five games in six days (in the nationals) you have to be that way."
While few of the Lions remain from the 2002 team, the bulk of the team did play in the 2007 nationals, where they finished fifth. What are the biggest lessons that can be taken from the past competitions?
"You need to be prepared for anything," said Sawatzky, who as the team’s elder statesman was also a bronze medalist at the 1996 nationals. "You need 18 players who can contribute.
Guys get hurt or tired, and can’t keep going. I think we had that (in 2002), and I think we have that now."
The Lions, most of whom came up through the FC Northwest, Bonivital and South End United programs, play with a defence-first philosophy. Led by coach Tony Nocita, their strength lies in their back end.
"We like to keep teams off the scoreboard first and foremost," Aitken said. "We have some skillful players that can take the game in their own hands at the right moment."
The Lions open their tournament against Newfoundland on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Winnipeg Soccer Complex.