York United has big decisions to make ahead of 2022 season York United has big decisions to make ahead of 2022 season
York United Football Club is at a crossroads. The Canadian Premier League (CPL) club declined to extend the contract of head coach and technical... York United has big decisions to make ahead of 2022 season

York United Football Club is at a crossroads.

The Canadian Premier League (CPL) club declined to extend the contract of head coach and technical director Jim Brennan after he led the team to its first franchise playoff appearance this season.

Brennan, who was the club’s first manager since it and the league were founded in 2018, managed York United to a fourth-place finish and spot in the semi-final in 2021. The team lost 3-1 to local rival Forge FC, and management released Brennan days later. York United and whoever takes the vacant head coaching role will now look to build on the most successful season in the club’s history.

York United fan Namu Yoon, who has supported the club since its inception was announced, said the team surpassed expectations after offseason difficulties.

“Overall, it was optimistic, and exciting, and probably a bit over expectations,” he said. “I follow the club closely enough to know that when we were coming into the season, it was a lot of young guys, and we lost a lot of veterans from the last two years. […] Also, among the CPL clubs, we probably had the most issues in terms of getting our international signings Visas to come over.

“Nobody really gave York United much of a chance. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad, I thought it was going to be just fine, but I think we did better than what was expected.”

Players from York United FC stand during the national anthem ahead of their match against Forge FC, at York Lions Stadium in July 2021.

Players from York United FC stand during the national anthem ahead of their match against Forge FC, at York Lions Stadium in July 2021.

Brennan’s release was “the biggest thing they could do” as an offseason move, Yoon said. Brennan represented the Canadian team as a player 49 times while also playing for clubs in England, as well as Toronto FC. He was an assistant manager for Toronto, managing one game as a caretaker manager, and was in charge of Aurora FC in League 1 Ontario for three seasons before taking over at York. Brennan initially shared ownership of the outfit but ceded his interest upon his first contract extension. York failed to qualify for the final in the CPL’s inaugural season and missed the playoff round by one point in the following year. The team – originally called York9 FC, then rebranded to York United before the 2021 season.

Yoon said he understands the move due to Brennan’s extended term at the club without solid results.

“Three years is a long time in sports, especially in soccer,” he said. “Jimmy [Brennan], being the first manager, and previously being a part-owner, he was very much in the fabric of this team. But if we’re a mediocre, mid-table team for three years, clearly you’ve got to make some changes at some point. So it makes sense. I think most people agree it was time for something new to be tried, and that’s what it’s going to be.”

Nicholas Friend, a York United supporter since 2019, said he was surprised by the move but considered it an inevitability.

“To me, it was kind of a shock. To bring that young of a squad [that is] inexperienced to the playoffs, just to get let go [was surprising],” he said. “But I think it had to happen in a way because all the people in upper management changed over when the brand changed, so I think that was going to be the next step regardless of how good he did or not.”

York United, nicknamed The Nine Stripes, largely utilized young players in the 2021 season after four international signings fell through due to work permit issues. Eighteen-year-old Lowell Wright made 27 appearances for the team last season, 20-year-old Isaiah Johnston appeared 26 times, and Under-21 Player of the Year Award nominee Max Ferrari played in all but one of 28 regular-season games. Twelve of the club’s eighteen rostered players are 26 or younger, and York United beat the league-imposed minimum quota of 1,500 combined minutes for under-21 players after four games.

Captain Dominick Zator, goalkeeper Nathan Ingham, and regular starter Jordan Wilson were the club’s most notable veterans. The team won eight and drew 12 of its games, picking up 36 points. It was nine points behind third-place finisher Pacific FC and 14 behind Forge FC and Cavalry FC, which finished first and second, respectively.

Yoon said York’s performance has been middling since its creation, but he’s happy with how the young roster came together off the field.

“The gap between the top three and the rest of the league is big, and that’s why Jimmy was let go,” he said. “Our team has been very mid-table – it’s been very mediocre – for the three years. Whether that’s tactics, whether that’s Jimmy’s leadership, whether that’s the signings that couldn’t come over, or whether it’s the lack of veteran leadership – it could be any of those, it could be all of those, we don’t know.

“Veteran leadership is always important – like Jordan Wilson – it helps keep a good locker room presence. As long as the locker room is in harmony, that’s probably the most important thing. [Age] doesn’t make much of a difference on the pitch, because if you’re good, it doesn’t matter how old you are. But off-the-pitch stuff matters too. […] Right now, it seems like everyone’s in a good mood together, so I think the veteran leadership we have right now is probably good enough as it is. ”

Friend said the direction the team is taking with young, local talent and communication with fans is encouraging.

“I think the squad has some good potential,” he said. “I think it was really cool that the club was very open with us throughout the season – they said ‘our team is young, we’re not really looking to do as well as we would’ve probably liked to tell our fans, but we’re hoping for a good year.’ And they made the playoffs, so it definitely turned out very well. I think the fact that we crushed the under-21 minutes [quota] by a longshot just goes to show that this team really wants to build up the Canadian talent.”

York United is a new entity in a highly-saturated Toronto sports market. Many fans, including Yoon and Friend, also back Toronto FC, the city’s Major League Soccer representative. However, the CPL club has a dedicated group of followers. Two fan groups – Centre of the Universe, representing York United fans from urban Toronto, and The Northern Corridor, for supporters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) – have formed. Soccer in Canada has made key steps forward in recent years: the women’s national team won Olympic gold, the men’s national team is close to securing its first World Cup qualification since 1986, and the CPL gave the country its own domestic competition.

Friend said he was pleased to see fan presence grow throughout the 2021 York season.

“It was nice seeing the number of fans slowly grow back over the season after losing out on a bunch of people leaving,” he said. “It was nice seeing everyone coming back together again.”

Yoon and Friend emphasized their positive experiences as supporters, such as attending an away game against Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship. They are involved with the community of York United supporters and have both said that there are many passionate fans.

To foster continued expansion of the York United fanbase, Yoon said management must make greater attempts to market the club.

“The biggest thing I’d say – that I’ve been saying for years – is that the club […] just needs to make a bigger marketing and advertising presence within the GTA,” he said. “I feel like the club, the owners, they should really take advantage of the incredible excitement that people have for Canadian soccer at the moment.

“York United has to spend the money it needs to make ourselves known in the GTA as much as possible. Simple things like billboards or those little advertising banners on the TTC. […] We were saying we never saw a single presence of the club, whether it was York United or York9 in any parts of North York.”

The next CPL season is likely to begin in spring 2022. York United is yet to fill the vacant head coaching position but has already begun improving its roster. The team announced on Wednesday that it signed free agent striker Mamadou Kane to a two-year deal.

Yoon is positive about the upcoming campaign.

“[I’m] pretty optimistic because we did better than we thought we would do last year,” he said. “We think the new manager is probably going to be someone more in line with Angus [McNab, CEO, President, and General Manager of York United], and as long as the GM and the manager are in sync, it usually means better things for the club. […] Obviously we have to see the signings – we haven’t even seen who’s departing. There’s always going to be a big roster turnover – I’m sure we’re going to see like 10 new players or more and all that.

“But overall, based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re pretty optimistic.”

Nick Barnsdale