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James Pantemis threw a ball against the wall to work on his hand-eye co-ordination. Masta Kacher went to an empty park in his neighbourhood to kick a ball around. Stefan Cebara was running on the treadmill and doing pushups and situps at home.
For professional soccer players who are used to travelling the world playing the game they love, it’s safe to say the past few months of Zoom calls and going for runs around the block won’t go down as the most exhilarating time of their careers.
It became even tougher for Pantemis and Kacher, who hail from Montreal, and Windsor, Ont., native Cebara, when they saw their Valour FC teammates who live in Winnipeg have been able to train at IG Field for nearly a month now. It started with individual drills where the field was split into four separate stations, but last week the club entered Phase 2 of the reopening of their training. The Canadian Premier League has now given teams the green light to have 10 players on the pitch at a time, but no tackling is allowed. Out-of-town players such as Pantemis, Kacher and Cebara arrived in Winnipeg this week and hit the field with the squad for the first time on Tuesday.
"I was jealous for sure. I wanted to be here as soon as possible. But the rules and regulations from province to province vary, so we had to self-isolate for two weeks before we got here," Cebara, a winger, said after Thursday’s training session in the blistering heat at IG Field.
"So I was in quarantine working out at home, staying as fit as I could... It was definitely pretty boring. Two weeks I’d like to forget pretty fast. I don’t want to be on my computer for another two months. I’ve had enough of Netflix, TV and computers. It’s back to regular life and I’m happy for that."
The Valour staff tried their best to keep everyone busy while they were stuck at home. Players were given training plans and had to review game film, but Kacher said there’s only so much that you can do away from the field.
"It’s hard because running on your own isn’t the same. When you’re on the pitch, you have to think where the ball is, where your teammates are, where the opponent is, where the goalie is, and we had a long (time) off the pitch. Just the sensation feels good. Waking up early in the morning coming here, it’s just good habits coming back and it feels good," said Kacher, a midfielder, who last played for Saint Louis FC of the USL Championship.
Pantemis, 23, is on loan from the Montreal Impact of MLS as a way to get the young goalkeeper some minutes to help him develop. This was supposed to be a big year for Pantemis as he was going to suit up for Canada’s 2020 Olympic qualifying team in Mexico in late March before the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans. Olympic soccer is for players aged 23 and under, but the International Olympic Committee has said players born in 1997 who will be 24 next summer, such as Pantemis, will still be allowed to participate next year in Tokyo.
"I think this year for me was a big year for my development. The (CPL) season is 28 games and I was eager to play as many of them as possible," said Pantemis, who started two games in the Canadian Championship last year for the Impact.
"With the Olympics being postponed, it was going to be a great opportunity to showcase my talent at the international level. Obviously, with the postponement it won’t happen, so we’re looking again for next year. The way I see it, I’m just optimistic this season can go on. Whether it’s a full season or 10 games lets say, a game’s a game and I’ll take anything I can get right now."
What these players are training for remains to be seen. All signs are pointing to the CPL replacing the season with a tournament at a single site, which is rumoured to either be Prince Edward Island or Victoria. On June 8, CPL commissioner David Clanachan told the Free Press he envisioned teams would arrive in the host city by mid-July. The league has yet to finalize plans, but whatever they end up deciding, it’s fine by Cebara as long as he’s playing.
"Whatever we can get out of this pandemic is great," said Cebara, a 28-year-old who made five appearances for the Canadian senior men’s team in 2013.
"I think there are a lot of leagues that didn’t get the opportunity to resume or get back to playing. For us to be one of the first leagues to actually have a chance at going back is exciting. We’re obviously working hard for that and staying hopeful."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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