The Mississauga MetroStars jump into the deep end of the Major Arena Soccer League on Saturday, kicking off with a visit to the defending champion Baltimore Blast.
The expansion team features such familiar names as former Toronto FC players Dwayne De Rosario, Adrian Cann and Mo Babouli. Anthony Osorio, younger brother of TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio, is also in the squad but will miss the trip because of injury.
Baltimore finished with a 17-5 regular-season record before dispatching Syracuse, Milwaukee and Monterrey in the playoffs for its third straight title in March.
"It's going to be a very big hill to climb," said MetroStars coach and GM Phil Ionadi, no stranger to Baltimore from his playing days. "But you know what, at the end of the day we're coming in as the underdogs and if we come in there and just do the simple things — honest defensive work — we give ourselves a chance."
De Rosario and Cann will serve as co-captains of the MetroStars, who have been training together for about a month. While De Rosario is 40 and Cann 38, Ionadi notes indoor soccer is like hockey with line changes that give players breathers.
"It's not like he has to work for 90 minutes. He can take a break when required," Ionadi said of De Rosario, who scored 22 goals in 81 appearance for Canada. "But he's going to be key on set plays. He's going to be key in calming the guys down in high-intensity game situations.
"He has that calm coolness about him. The players gravitate to him. He's just a natural leader."
The MetroStars hope to do what the Toronto Shooting Stars and Toronto ThunderHawks couldn't do — make pro indoor soccer work in the Toronto area.
The MetroStars, owned by Gladiator Sports Media Entertainment Corp., will play the home half of their 24-game regular season at Mississauga’s Paramount Fine Foods Centre. The home opener is Dec. 8 against the Florida Tropics.
Gladiator Sports tested the Mississauga market with a series of international games against Brazil, Mexico and the U.S., using De Rosario, Cann and other players now on the MetroStars roster. The company says it averaged 4,000 fans a game.
Unlike outdoor soccer, whose chain of command here involves the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA, the indoor game is governed by the Canadian Arena Soccer Association (CASA), which reports to the World Minifootball Federation (WMF). De Rosario is on the CASA pro development board.
FIFA and Canada Soccer sanction their own code of indoor soccer known as futsal, which has its own national and international competitions.
Futsal involves teams of five players competing in two 20-minute periods. Indoor soccer has teams of six players and four 15-minute quarters.
Indoor soccer has long been an alphabet soup of leagues with the NPSL and MISL — which had several incarnations — the most prominent circuits in the past.
The MASL will operate with 17 teams this season, with Mexico represented by the Monterrey Flash. Mississauga will play out of the Eastern Division, alongside Baltimore, Utica City FC and the Harrisburg Heat.
Ionadi, who played indoors for the Montreal Impact and the ThunderHawks almost 20 years ago, believes the MASL can return indoor soccer to its former glory.
"There's no reason why with the right structure, the right people, the right groups ... this could be a really great opportunity. Especially for Canadians. We don't have a lot of professional (soccer) teams — three right now in MLS. Thank goodness for the CPL (Canadian Premier League), giving more Canadians an opportunity as well.
"Why not, why not the arena game where November, December through March there's not much to do (for soccer players)?"
There is no salary cap in the league. Gladiator Sports says the MetroStars team payroll, including bonuses, will be about $500,000.
The MetroStars owners have a six-year window to develop other markets north of the border for the league, saying there is already interest from Hamilton, Ottawa and Edmonton.
The ill-fated Shooting Stars lasted just one season, 1996-97, in the National Professional Soccer League, playing their home games at Maple Leaf Gardens. The team’s ownership collapsed three games into the season, forcing the NPSL to take over the franchise.
The Stars folded after a dismal 6-34 inaugural season.
The ThunderHawks, based in Mississauga, played in the NPSL in 2000-01. Co-owner Neil Jamieson said the team lost "deep seven figures" in its inaugural season.
Mo Babouli, Adrian Becic, Shawn Brown, Adrian Cann, Dwayne De Rosario, Martinho Dumevski, David Guzman, Josip Keran, Alen Kucalovic, Sebastian Lopez, Joshua Paredes, Matthew Rios, Luis Rocha, Spyros Stergiotis, David Velastegui, Lerohne Young.
Anthony Osorio (injured), Marco Rodriguez (suspended)
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press