Inspiration comes from a whole host of places, but one thing that will always give us that extra push is a great sports underdog—the Cinderella team that defies expectations or perhaps a David who finds the means to triumph over the insuperable Goliath.
For Niagara men’s soccer team members Rene De Zorzi and Bryan Da Cruz, it does not matter how one chooses to describe it. All that matters is they played the role of the ‘little guy’ and came out on top.
Seniors De Zorzi and Da Cruz, along with Niagara alum Carl Haworth (’12) were members of a Forest City London squad that were expected to lose four-straight playoff games in the 2012 Premier Development League (PDL) Tournament.
Instead, for four-straight playoffs games London refused to lose, defeating four Goliaths en route to the title.
“At the beginning of the PDL season I would have never guessed we would’ve won the title,” Da Cruz, a member of the 2009 All-MAAC Rookie team said. “I didn’t even think there was a chance, but once we started winning games we started to believe this could be a reality.”
His teammate echoed his sentiments.
“In the beginning of the year we knew we had a good team, but we just underachieved all year,” De Zorzi said. “Then late in the season, we started to find our rhythm. We played really well as a team. That was the main thing; collectively we started to play better and certain players stepped up.”
Of the four semifinalists, FC London was the biggest surprise after securing victories against the two teams with the best regular season records in the PDL. The Canadian soccer team based in London, Ontario began its historic run by winning its first PDL playoff contest when it defeated the Thunder Bay Chill 1-0. FC London then followed that with an upset against the PDL regular season champion Michigan Bucks, 2-1, to claim the Central Conference crown.
“We were the underdogs from the beginning of playoffs,” Da Cruz recalled. “The first playoff game was against the number two seed in North America and then our second playoff game was against the number one seed so we were supposed to go home that weekend. But we ended up beating them both and just like that, we were in the semifinals.”
It was not until the semifinals where the Cinderella story seemed to be coming to a quick halt with the team down 2-0 at halftime against Sounders FC U-23. However, it is at these particular moments where the little guys shine—where the size of the dog does not matter, but the fight it has left.
With that mentality ingrained in its mind, London clawed its way back, eventually defeating the Sounders, 3-2. The Purple Eagles played an integral role in the victory as Haworth pulled a goal back for London a minute into the second half before Da Cruz tied the game five minutes later. With seven minutes left in the game, another London goal capped off the victory, sending the team to its first PDL championship.
“We didn’t give up,” Da Cruz said. “Even though we were down two nil, we were in that locker room at halftime just thinking of ways of getting back into this game. We just didn’t give up. That’s basically what it comes down to.”
The remarkable playoff run was capped off with a win over the Carolina Dynamo, 2-1, to take the league championship, but not before battling their way back once again from a goal down.. Haworth, a MLS supplemental draft pick (Montreal Impact) and Canadian U-23 member, tied the game at one apiece to spark the team to victory.
“It was amazing,” De Zorzi said. “The whole city was behind us. The support was amazing. We had thousands of people at our games. It’s something I will never forget.”
With that bit of history under their belts, the Ontario natives now share a single-minded goal for the upcoming season with the Purple Eagles.
“Win a MAAC championship,” De Zorzi answered without hesitation. “We lost in the finals our freshman year in double overtime so I definitely want to win at least once.”
Da Cruz and De Zorzi were rookies on the 2009 squad that was denied its first-ever MAAC Championship to Loyola, 1-0, in double overtime. The seniors would like nothing more than for the team to make it back for a deep run in the tournament. With last year's heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Marist in penalty kicks now in the past, the team can move forward and attempt to make it back to the finals for the first time since 2009.
“Coming off that,” Da Cruz said, referring to the PDL title win, “there is nothing less than winning now.”
With De Zorzi anchoring the Niagara defense and Da Cruz wreaking havoc in the attacking third, the Purple Eagles have an opportunity to do just that and experience another first, but this time within the Niagara soccer story.
Second-year head coach Chase Brooks is expecting his seniors to be the leaders steering the team towards victory, knowing they have the experience and the ability to stay poised in pressured situations.
“Their mentality is really going to help this fairly young team,” Brooks said of his upperclassmen. “You could see in the tournament, when they came back from being a goal down or two-goals down once or twice in the tournament that they possessed that never-quit attitude that you want in all your players. You hope in the 90th minute where we need that goal to get us over the hump, one of those two are going to be there to lead us.”
With the regular season upon us, De Zorzi and Da Cruz along with the other 23 members of the men’s soccer team are preparing to take the tradition of the program to the next level.
“It’s tough to keep fighting because we’ve been fighting all PDL year,” De Zorzi said. “But now that we’re back at Niagara, it’s the same thing. We absolutely want to win.”
They want to experience their second Cinderella story, only this time as a Purple Eagle.