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[Hamilton] Thunder could move to top N.A. division

Thunder could move to top N.A. division
By Josh Brown
Special to The Hamilton Spectator

Hamilton is one step closer to joining Canada's top soccer league after receiving a positive review from the North American A-League's head honcho.

"I came here very skeptical, however, what I'm seeing here is enormous potential," said David Askinas, executive director of the United Soccer Leagues (USL). "Unlike a major market like Toronto, you could be a very big fish in a smaller pond here. I think there is an opportunity for it to become a very big thing in the community. I'm encouraged. I think it can happen here."

The A-League includes the top pro teams in North America, such as the Toronto Lynx, Atlanta Silverbacks and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Askinas was on hand for Thursday's Canadian Professional Soccer League game at Brian Timmis Stadium between the Thunder and Brampton Hitmen. His comments are encouraging for the two-year-old franchise, especially after a rough month that has seen the team go through three coaches in three weeks and the withdrawal of a major sponsor.

Thunder management has been feverishly recruiting international players and coaches throughout the season in preparation for the potential jump to the A-League next year. The move would mean more money for players and a better calibre of soccer in Hamilton.

If the deal goes through Hamilton would be the fifth Canadian team in the 19-team league.

Askinas has been going over marketing and financial proposals with Thunder management. Thursday's game was the first time he saw Thunder play. He was pleasantly surprised by the organization and the more than 500 fans in attendance. Ideally he'd like to see the Thunder play out of Ivor Wynne Stadium, next door to Brian Timmis, since it provides individual seats, better concession booths and corporate boxes.

"As a temporary home it sets up well," he said referring to Brian Timmis. "

Askinas said the USL -- which is the governing body of the A-League -- will spend the next month reviewing expansion plans and hope to make a decision about Hamilton by mid-September. Unfortunately the mood wasn't as peppy on the field where the Thunder dropped their second consecutive game, losing 2-1 to Brampton. The loss drops the club to third place in the league's western conference.

The Thunder came out strong but it was the Hitmen who struck first when Hugo Herrera grabbed a loose rebound and potted a goal at the 14 minute mark. Five minutes later Hamilton defender Srdjan Markovic picked up a red card, putting the Thunder down a man for the rest of the match. The patient Hitmen used the extra player wisely and upped their lead on a goal by Phil Ionadi for a 2-0 lead by halftime.

Despite being outmanned, the Thunder dominated the latter stages of the game and cut the lead in half. Speedy forward Kevin de Serpa took a pass from David Simpson and weaved through three Hitmen players before beating goalie Roy Blanche with just three minutes left in regulation time. But it was too little, too late.


More bricks have been set in place to strengthen the foundation of a future A-League franchise in Hamilton.

Yesterday, several player trades took place that are aimed at putting the Hamilton Thunder back on top of CPSL and improve the teams appeal to the North American A-League.

Player Movement
Hamilton Thunder Midfielder - Orlin Chalmers, Midfielder – Leo Laurito, Midfielder, Vedran Bacek have been traded to Toronto Croatia in return for Striker Peter Curic, Midfielder Josip Bucic from Toronto Croatia. Bacek is on of the three croation players brought over by former Thunder coach Djalma Markovic. Thunder Midfielder, Ross Tobolewski will be returning to England Thunder’s Defenseman, Lovemore Ncube has been traded to Brampton Hitman The Thunder has also acquired attacking midfielder David Guzman who has played for the National Select Team U18. Hamilton Thunder, Head Coach Prof. Neca intends to minimize the number of players on the 1st division roster to 18 or 19 and draw substitutions from the Hamilton Thunder farm team in OSL.

Aug 11, 2003 Author: Soccer Online - It's Called Futbol

The Hamilton Thunder soccer club was not just putting on a show for its fans last Thursday night when the Brampton Hitmen visited Brian Timmis Stadium. Italo Ferrari’s club was also auditioning for A-League status next season as a part of the United Soccer Leagues cross-border professional loop.

USL Executive Director David Askinas attended the match as a guest of Ferrari’s club. The USL have been monitoring the Thunder for the past six months and Askinas’ visit to Steeltown was a clear indicator that Hamilton’s bid for an A-League franchise for the 2004 season is on track.

Hamilton may have lost the game that night (2-1 to an in-form Brampton squad), but they may yet win the larger battle, A-League acceptance. Brian Timmis stadium is arguably the finest soccer stadium in Ontario, and a perfect venue to seat A-League crowds of anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 spectators comfortably…and more if necessary.

Soccer Online asked Askinas about Hamilton’s A-League bid and about the USL’s Canadian markets.

Soccer Online: Do you see any obstacles blocking the Hamilton Thunder’s A-League bid? Perhaps the Toronto Lynx’ territorial rights being infringed?

David Askinas: I’m here on an exploratory journey to find out what the ambitions of the Thunder are and to find out what they’re doing. If (joining the A-League) looks like something they want to do and we want to do, then we will sit down with the Lynx and work it out.

I know (The Lynx) have questions, but we’ll talk with them, and reasonable people will work it out.

Soccer Online: Some of the Canadian teams in the A-League have not always been stable.

David Askinas: We haven’t lost a Canadian team yet, and we don’t intend to. Edmonton is coming into the league next year. Canada is a great market. People up here are very knowledgeable about the game. A lot of them are first-, second- and third-generation fans from Europe and South America. The fan base is very ardent.

We like the markets in Canada. If a team can help the league, the Lynx should see the benefit of that, and it will just be a matter of working through some issues.

Soccer Online: The A-League does seem to enjoy having Canadian teams despite some of the problems that cropped up from time to time.

David Askinas: We have issues here and there because of stadium facilities. Calgary is not a good situation. Toronto doesn’t have a good stadium situation. This (Brian Timmis) is a better set-up than Toronto. It’s a nice field here…and a good atmosphere.

Soccer Online: What are your first impressions of Hamilton and the CPSL?

David Askinas: I think the game was hurt by an early call by the referee. We have the same problem in our league. The standard of officiating in the United States and Canada has not caught up with the level of the players. All the money over the past years has been invested in player development but not enough invested in referee development. We get complaints on a daily basis about referees.

Soccer Online: Having too small a pool of referees?

David Askinas: Yes, too small a pool of good referees, and then a large pool of referees that needs improving. Some of them are just working at a level higher than they should be.

The teams? Yes, they will have to upgrade. You couldn’t take either of these teams (Hamilton and Brampton) and win the A-League championship with them, but I think everybody understands that. They will need to upgrade to be competitive – bring in a few more players, definitely.

Having said that, there is some talent out there. I have seen three or four players who are pretty good on each side, in my opinion. The teams will get better.

Soccer Online: Anything else caught your attention?

David Askinas: I was impressed when I heard that (Manuel Goncalve's) Gomes was coming here to coach. He is very well respected. It is quite a coup to bring him to Hamilton. That tells me they are serious up here.

The Italo Ferrari Interview
Aug 10, 2003 Author: Soccer Online - It's Called Futbol

In the Hamilton Thunder’s 2002 Canadian Professional Soccer League campaign, the expansion team appeared destined for post-season play after starting strongly. Head coach Marko Maschke had assembled a nice blend of youth (ie: Miles O’Connor) and experience (ie: Dino Perri) to catapult his squad to the top of the Western Conference table in the early summer. Then it all fell apart.

Maschke left the club over a disagreement with management, soon to be followed by several of the senior players who were suspended over a pay dispute with team owner Italo Ferrari. The wrangling continued for the duration of the season, and when post-season play began, the Thunder were on the outside looking in, having missed the playoffs by four points.

The 2003 CPSL season began with the same high expectations as the first. A new coaching staff – the experienced and highly regarded Duncan Wilde and co. – plus several new players untainted by the 2002 sideshow were brought in to inject new life into the club.

Preseason training camp in the Caribbean was successful. The team once again jumped out to an early lead in the CPSL’s Western Conference. And then…déjà vu.

Duncan Wilde and his coaching staff left the team due to an amicable(?) difference of opinion with Ferrari. A week earlier, former Toronto Italia owner and National Soccer League president Rocco Lofranco had been installed as the club’s CEO.

Lofranco’s former Italia coach, the world-renowned Ivan Markovic from Croatia, was summoned to replace Wilde. The fiery tactician, who has has brought success to famous clubs in Austria, France and Croatia, lasted a single game (a 3-0 away loss to London City) before returning to his home country for health reasons. Only one of the five players he brought with him from overseas remains on the Thunder roster.

Ferrari and Lofranco deftly pulled off a coup by hiring Manuel Gonçalves Gomes, aka Prof. Neca, to fill the vacant coaching position to the end of the season. Gomes was previously an assistant coach at Benfica of Lisbon as well as for Portugal’s national team at the 2002 Japan-Korea World Cup.

With Gomes at the helm, the Thunder dropped a 2-1 decision to the Brampton Hitmen on Thursday night at Brian Timmis Stadium. The loss knocked them down to third place in the conference, precisely where they finished last season.

Is history repeating itself? Is the Thunder bent on imploding for the second time in its two-year existence? Or is Italo Ferrari’s squad just taking some time to adjust and regroup after a series of painful but necessary changes?

Soccer Online spoke with Italo Ferrari on Thursday to get some answers.

Soccer Online: Some people would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The season appeared to be going well under Duncan Wilde. Why did you switch to Ivan Markovic?

Italo Ferrari: We’re striving to build a team that will finish strongly because of the opportunity to enter the A-League next year. We consider this to be a very important year, and we have to start preparing now.

Duncan was great. He was devoted to the team and to the project. However he was not, for me, able to establish the base of a strong team. So we opted for Mr. Markovic from Croatia. Unfortunately, for health reasons he had to leave. Then we got lucky in getting in Manuel Gonçalves Gomes. He has three months holidays and then he will be leaving, but he will have the opportunity to work with the players and build a base for the team for next year.

Why did we do it when were on a winning streak and not at the beginning of the season? I didn’t want to wait until after the season because we would not be able to get any competitive games at that point.

Soccer Online: How are the players adjusting to the changes?

Italo Ferrari: They are ecstatic with the new coach. There was a big age gap between Mr. Markovic and the players. He is a seasoned, excellent coach with certain ideas. Mr. Markovic is 73 and Mr. Gomes is 51. The reaction of the players to Mr. Gomes has been nothing but positive. He just needs a chance to get settled in here. I’m not worried about him at all. He’s a teacher, and that’s what we’re looking for.

Soccer Online: Are you concerned that you might have broken your team’s momentum by making these changes, though?

Italo Ferrari: No, our main project is to compete in the A-League next year, and we can’t do that only by preparing over the winter. Next year we will be competing with older, more seasoned teams in the U.S.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t want to run behind anybody. I want to be on top. We were in first place, so I would rather (make the changes) now. We can afford to lose a couple games. We will be ready for playoff time. My new coach will be able to work with the players from now to the end of the season and tell us who should form the base of next year’s team.

Soccer Online: So morale on the team is high?

Italo Ferrari: It’s the best I’ve ever seen.

Soccer Online: Will you still have a CPSL team if you are accepted into the A-League?

Italo Ferrari: Yes. Right now we have a CPSL team and another team in the Ontario Soccer League. Next year, we will do the same thing, except we will have an A-League team and the farm team will be the CPSL club.

Soccer Online: Will the Thunder have any problems fulfilling the A-League’s entry requirements?

Italo Ferrari: We won’t have any problems. We have been dealing with the United Soccer Leagues (of which the A-League is a part) for the last six months. We know the requirements. The Toronto Lynx own the territory here, so there is still some internal work to be done there. But the USL’s Executive Director, David Askinas, is here at our game tonight (vs. Brampton) to watch our game. So now the ball is in his court.

Soccer Online: Have you spoken to the Lynx about the territory issue yet?

Italo Ferrari: No, I haven’t spoken to their organization yet, but if I were the Lynx, I would welcome the opportunity. We could stimulate a great rivalry and many interesting games. I don’t think the Lynx would lose fans to us in Hamilton.

Soccer Online: The budget for an A-League club is substantially larger than a CPSL team. Will that be a problem?

Italo Ferrari: I don’t think so. Last year we spent 486,000 and this year we will be over half a million. The budget for an A-League club is about 750,000.

Soccer Online: When will you hear from the A-League about your application?

Italo Ferrari: We’re hoping that in the next couple months we will receive official approval. I have a good feeling about it.

Futnotes: The Brampton Hitmen are playing better and better – we have it on good authority. Since the Brampton players crashed and burned against the Metro Lions early in the season at Birchmount Stadium, they have, to a man, picked up their games.

Perhaps this improvement had something to do with coach Steve Nijjar’s searing post-game tirade, which could be heard in the stands across the field. Or perhaps the Hitmen’s spell of good form has more to do with the arrival of goal poacher Hugo Herrera, the consistent play of veterans like Phil Ionadi and Kurt Mella, and the acrobatic goalkeeping of Roy Blanche. Whatever the reason, it is now nearly impossible to see Nijjar without a smile etched on his face.

“It feels amazing…we’re playing better and better,” the Hitmen coach admits.

Brampton’s team manager, Hector Marinaro Sr., who has been around pro soccer in Ontario for 40 years, is not as enamoured by his team’s play thus far, but even he had to admit they are in good form. “We are doing well, but we still h! ave to fix a few things,” Marinaro reflected. “The team is coming along. We have the material. We just have to put it together. But so far, so good.” High praise from a tough but knowledgeable critic

Many Thanks to News Digger John Zukas who scours up all of the local news links during the year.