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7v7 for a million

Nkele Martin
Hanin Mazri

The truth is, everyone should have known that this group was going to achieve what they did at The Soccer Tournament (TST). In a star-studded contest, the boys from Canada flew under the radar and almost won it all. From June 1–4 in Cary, North Carolina, the fourteen players that made up Sports League Canada FC (SLC FC) made an incredible run to the finals in the first-ever TST, and took the Canadian football world by storm.

SLC FC is a team that represents a well-known amateur league in Toronto that runs small-sided games out of the Hangar Sports and Events Center.

“Here at Sports League Canada we're doing our best to just grow and expand. We have over 200 teams each season from fall, winter, spring, and summer. Working to get more venues and expand as much as possible every year, and the main goal has always been to grow the soccer community,” said Josh Kohn, coordination director at Sports Leagues Canada.

Sports Leagues Canada was merely a facilitator of matches, but when the opportunity to participate in TST arose, they knew exactly where to look, and tapped into the hotbed of talent that is Canadian small-sided football. The players on the squad accurately represented the culture of Canadian football. where many grew up playing 7v7 games and continued playing for the majority of their lives.

“In so many other soccer countries they play full-field outdoor soccer all year around,” said Kohn. “Here in Canada, we typically have around 6 months of playing indoors because of our very long winters, and when we play indoors it’s almost always 7v7. So when you look at it that way, it's half the year every year. All of our guys, everyone is playing small-sided soccer, and it's just ingrained in us. Were used to the formations, the tactics, used to the shift in momentum, and during the tournament we felt that. We picked things up very quickly while other teams needed a lot more time to make adjustments.”

SLC FC’s players came from places where football is part of their identity, places like Driftwood, Regent Park, Scarborough and Vaughan.

In these neighbourhoods and many others throughout the country, players can easily find a local pitch to join a small-sided pickup game. These atmospheres shape many players and help them find their identity on the pitch. All who grew up playing football in Canada are familiar with this pickup culture. You play the sport you love until you go professional, or you just keep playing.

When Kohn began creating his squad, he looked to build it around current and former players from 2022 League1 Ontario champions Vaughn SC. From that team, Kohn took Daniel Chamale, Daniel Gogarty, Jarred Phillips, Filip Zendelek, Emmanuel Zambazis, Mario Kovacevic, Omar Marzouk and Raheem Rose. Alongside those players, the team featured players from the professional, collegiate and semi-professional levels of the game. They were Kai Martin, Mihai Hodut, Sammy Ssebaduka, Abdallah El-Chanti, Jon Smits and Damion Graham. At the helm of the team was Humber College and former Canada futsal coach, Lorenzo Redwood.

Although many of the SLC FC athletes played at various levels of the game, they never stopped playing 7v7 football. Defender Daniel Chemale plays on the Canada futsal team and Rose won the 2023 Ontario Futsal Cup.

All of these players commit full-time hours training and playing for their professional, collegiate or semi-professional teams, but you can still find these boys running 7v7 across the GTA. For the love of the game, they manage to find the time to play an extra few nights a week on various small-sided teams.

The team was registered in October, formed in May, and began training that month. With only a month until they would pack their bags and head to Cary, N.C., they had little time to prepare. According to Kohn, bringing the team together as a whole was a challenge.

“Going into the tournament, we wanted to try and get as many people together from the squad to start training sessions, but it was difficult. Players’ schedules were all different, we never once had a training session that every single player attended, it was always around 10 players out on the pitch, never once did we have the full 15 to train with,” he said.

Despite the scheduling conflicts, he remained confident.

“We weren’t worried, we selected a team that knows the sport extremely well,” he said.

While the team prepared, the football world did, too. On social media, the TST account began promoting the upcoming tournament and the stars that would be featured in it. their followers rapidly rose, as the account began to flood its page with the faces of legendary players and teams. Players such as Cesc Fabregas and Dwayne De Rosario were announced to be participating alongside celebrities like Noah Beck, Steve Nash, and Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.

As the hype train departed the station, filled with tens of thousands of fans, SLC FC was seemingly left behind. Before the commencement of the tournament, almost no mention was made of the only Canadian side.

And just like that, the boys from the north went down south, travelling many hours by car, instead of a plane, to get to the tournament. Their ride down to Cary was - according to Kohn - a “blessing in disguise,” as it provided an opportunity for the players, some of whom had never met, to bond.

Upon arrival, SLC FC was not given the attention that their star-studded competitors were, but that did not deter them. The team was not there to fraternize with other teams or pose for the cameras, they were there to play football, and win.

“We wanted to show that Canadian Soccer is no joke, and that players from this country are capable against all opposition. We had no fear, and we were there to make a name for ourselves,” said Kohn.

Their first game was against Club Necaxa, a historic Mexican club that currently competes in Liga MX. Made up of former and current Liga MX players, the team looked like a formidable opponent. As the whistle blew, it was as if the team was transported to the Hangar, Monarch Park Stadium, or any other pitch in the GTA. They played the game the way they knew it, and they played it well.

After just five minutes of play, a penalty was converted by Chamale, giving SLC FC the lead. Although they drew first blood, the boys did not grow comfortable, playing well on the ball, and even better without it, fiercely keeping Club Necaxa at bay. Anyone watching could see two distinct styles clashing on the pitch. Necaxa spread out, playing lofted balls across the pitch and looking for space to run into as SLC FC played a fast, direct style of football. Just before the half, their lead was doubled by Rose, who netted a shot from just outside the box.

As the second half kicked off, SLC FC led 2-0, but that would only be the case for a short time. In the span of 12 minutes, the team from Mexico scored three unanswered goals, and the second-half whistle blew with the score reading 3-2 for Club Necaxa. If it weren’t for TST’s unique target score time, which saw every gameplay beyond the 40-minute halves until the leader scored one or the trailing team became leaders, this story may have been over before it began.

As target score time began, the YouTube livestream chat was filled with negative comments about the boys from up north. Almost as if they had been reading them, the boys soon made the disbelievers eat their words.

After a goal from Ssebaduka leveled the score, the pressure was on. It was next goal wins.

As per TST rules, a player leaves the field every five minutes in target score time. By the time the game became level, there were five men on the pitch. With more space on the field, dangerous chances became more frequent, and both teams again demonstrated their differences. Club Necaxa’s ‘keeper moved forward as a player during their attacks while SLC FC’s Jon Smits stayed around his net.

In the fifty-second minute, after a blocked shot by Ssebaduka rolled into the path of El-Chanti, he quickly released the ball to forward Marzouk. Club Necaxa were out of position, and as Marzouk took the ball to the right side of the field, taking his defender with him, defender Gogarty made a darting run behind Marzouk , receiving the ball with no one between him and the opposing goalkeeper. Gogarty took a few touches and convincingly beat the ‘keeper with his left foot, ending the game.

Within seconds the field was flooded with red jerseys, running - as if they hadn’t just played an entire game - to celebrate their comeback. The joy was palpable, and as they formed a dogpile in the middle of the field, it felt as if one was watching the celebrations of a team who had played together for years.

According to Kohn, winning their first game in such a dramatic manner set the tone for SLC FC.

“The first game of the tournament dictated our trajectory massively,” he said. “We won that game in a very close last goal win, and all of a sudden you can feel the belief, this is possible. The vibe completely changed, we all understood the mission, no celebrating our wins by going out at night. We all knew we’re in this and we share the same goal, nothing needed to be enforced, we all wanted the same thing.”

If the Canadian football world was sleeping on SLC FC before the tournament, after game one, they had woken up.

“We had a lot of people against us, we knew that nobody really cared for the Canadian team, but right after that first win we had a lot of support. I'm not even playing and like my phone's blowing up after the first game. People I haven’t spoken to in 10 years, friends, family, but also just everyone in Canada started tuning in more and more. ‘Go Canada’ they kept saying. Constant social media posts cheering us on, the followers just kept coming and coming,” said Kohn.

Not only did their victory build momentum, but it brought the entire team closer together. After the first win, Kohn said every player will have their dinner paid for. Winning for dinner became a tradition for the team. players and coaching staff bonded in those moments off the pitch.

Despite their success on the pitch, SLC FC continued to be overlooked by many in Cary.

“The last group game, they forgot to wash our jerseys, having us play in unwashed gear unlike anyone else,” said Kohn. “We used all this as extra motivation, and we don’t blame TST at all, they were just understaffed and things like this happen. But it specifically happened to us, not to any of the ‘pro’ teams.”

The team went on to finish with a record of 2-1 in the group stage, and moved on to the playoffs in second-place.

During the group stage, the song The Boys Are Back In Town by Irish band Thin Lizzy became a theme song for the group, and the chorus could be heard ringing out from the crowd of celebrating players. Overlooked and underestimated, the song’s lyrics resonated with players, who were there to show all in Cary that “the boys are back in town.”

Eventually, it wasn’t just the players singing the song; it could be heard throughout the stadium, bouncing from one side to the other.

“We weren't the only ones singing, after each win, I would hear the fans cheering behind our backs and congratulating us on every win,” said El-Chanti.

On their path to the finals, their style - crafted on the turf fields and hardwood floors of the GTA - was distinct and dominant. Even the players who played predominantly eleven-a-side football, like wing-backs Kai Martin and Sammy Ssebaduka, were able to bring their skills to the smaller field. The pair wowed with their pace and flair, making lightning-quick runs up the field, pinning opposing defenders and creating space for their teammates, occasionally getting themselves in a scoring position. As a result of their ability to eat up space on the field, Martin, former OUA East rookie of the year and Ssebaduka, a member of the Uganda U-20 national team, each netted two goals.

SLC FC, before reaching the finals, defeated - in exciting fashion - three teams filled with players from major leagues including the Premier League, Bundesliga and MLS. In the semi-final game against Zala FFF, both sides were scoreless until target score time when Raheem Rose ended the game with a well-placed finish from inside the box.

Just like that, the lowly team from Canada was one game away from one million dollars.

The hype train, which passed by SLC FC just days before, had now doubled back to pick up the boys from the north. By the semi-finals, the team was playing live on NBC in front of nearly sold-out crowds and signing memorabilia for fans. They were even featured on the Instagram of 12-time NBA all-star Chris Paul.

“The more we were achieving, the more recognition we gained. Those people that didn’t care for the Canadians now started caring for us. TST began sharing our winning celebrations, collaborating on our posts and everything,” said Kohn.

Coming up against Newtown Pride FC in the finals, the boys fell short, losing 2-0 in a game that broke hearts across the country. Of all teams, however, Newtown Pride FC was the most similar to SLC FC in terms of playing style. The team consisted of many professional small-sided football players, spearheaded by Kelvin Oliveira Nunes, who was voted the world's best 7v7 player in 2021. It was Nunes, a former AC Milan academy player, who scored the winning goal, sending SLC FC home with nothing.

Nunes’ goal in the fifty-fifth minute abruptly ended the journey of the underdogs from Canada, who were so close to winning it all. When the ball crossed the goal line, SLC FC not only lost the game, but $1 million.

“It hurts in the moment for sure,” said El-Chanti. “Knowing what was on the line of course made it sting a little more. We came so close and just fell short in one game.”

Despite the loss, Kohn said the team will never forget the amazing journey that they embarked on.

“It took a while, and the loss stuck with us for a bit, but if you ask anyone from the team now, they’ll say it was an incredible experience.” And it was incredible, the team went on an unbelievable run that they will never forget. While the money certainly could have changed some lives, some would be the exact same - but the experience, and bonding with their teammates, will last forever.

The next day, the boys departed from Cary, heading back to their normal lives. While they left TST, it never left them. El-Chanti describes his experience as “surreal.”

“I don't know if words can do this tournament justice. playing in front of such a big crowd, especially when we got into the knockout rounds was amazing. Meeting and playing against former and current professionals who have played in the Premier League and other popular leagues around the world made this tournament even more special. I am happy to have had the opportunity to - technically - represent Canada, as we were the only Canadian team in the tournament. Signing jerseys, celebrating with the fans, scoring game-winners, bringing joy to everyone back home after each win are just some of the reasons this sport never fails to bring such incredible feelings to the players.”

Representing their country was special to the entire team, who seemingly embodied the whole of Canada to both commentators and fans. The boys put on a show, proudly displaying the talent that comes from a place that, despite reaching the 2022 World Cup, is still seen by some as a hockey country.

“Bringing the soccer community in Canada together to collectively cheer on one team made it extra special,” said El-Chanti.

Three months later, the dust has settled. All eyes are on TST 2024.

The success of the last tournament has attracted talent from all over. Kohn said he has received many messages from players requesting a trial for next year's tournament. Currently, Sports Leagues Canada is operating at full throttle, managing dozens of leagues, but behind the scenes, they are preparing for another finals run.

“We’ll be back next year and like I said we’ll be ready,” said Kohn. The coordination director says that he is looking to see SLC FC improve before the June tournament. Not only in terms of the squad, but with sponsorships, media, equipment, and travel. They are looking to do everything better than last year. Above all, next year, they hope to win it all, that is the main goal.

At 28, El-Chanti is looking to return for next year's tournament but is aware that an ongoing knee injury may sideline him. Regardless, El-Chanti will be with the team in some capacity when they return in 2024.

“I would love to run it back with those boys again and see how far we can go,” he said. “We want SLC FC to become a brand, a team that everyone can cheer on here. It's exciting to see what comes next, but there is a lot of background work being done from my understanding.”

As the weather cools down and winter approaches, the harsh Canadian climate will force former and future members of SLC FC back to the same pitches where they learned to play small-sided football. In these environments, they will continue to hone their skills in preparation for the tournament.

For El-Chanti and the rest of the team, everything they do over the next year will be done with one goal in mind, making it one step farther in TST 2024 and showing the football world that the boys from up north are not to be played with.

“Stay tuned for a lot of surprises to come as we try to shock the world once again,” he said.

“The boys will be back in town.”

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