It’s now crunch time for League1 Ontario soccer teams as the teams approach the playoffs, but these last two weeks may mean more to the North Mississauga men’s Panthers than any other team in the league.
The Panthers are coming off a big win against Darby F.C. on the road in Whitby last week. The win gives them a three-point advantage over Darby, who they were tied for in points this year, being in eighth place at 17 (the top eight teams make the playoffs). The win puts them in sole possession of seventh place, with 20 points and a record of 6-5-2 going into this week.
But there are plenty of other teams waiting in the wings. The Woodbridge Strikers, who beat the Panthers at home three weeks ago, are one point behind the Panthers in the standings in eighth place. Tied in points with Woodbridge, but sitting just outside the playoffs, is F.C. London.
Then there’s Darby themselves, who are still mathematically in contention, as is ProStars F.C. Along with sixth place Aurora F.C., who at 21 points is still vulnerable, and you have a dog fight.
Six teams, three spots, two more games for the Panthers at home to clinch.
This week, they play Windsor TFC. They aren’t one of the teams in contention for the playoffs, being in 13th place out of 17 teams in League1. What they can gain is pride.
A team in that position can be dangerous, as they both have nothing to lose and can be underestimated by their opponent. Coach Balta knows this and has absolutely tried to keep his team composed after a big road win last week.
“We’ve been training very hard this week,” said Balta. “Both training sessions were physically demanding. They were upbeat. … My comment to the players at the beginning of the week was ‘we haven’t made the playoffs’ yet … we have to strive to constantly get better.”
Like the Panthers, who have had 12 different goal scorers, this year, Windsor TFC tends to score by committee. The team’s 11 goals this year are spread over eight players, with no individual players having more than three (courtesy Leonardo Ferreira DaSilva).
There isn’t a player on Windsor that their opponents can afford to ignore. But the Panthers also know that with 28 goals scored against Windsor this year, there is an opportunity to put hard pressure in the offensive zone, which Balta has been emphasizing all year.
“We’re going to have to go after them,” said Balta. “So, our ability to create chances and be good on the ball is going to be very important. They’ve been close in a few games and in this league, anyone can beat anyone.”