THUNDER BAY – Gio Petraglia says the Thunder Bay Chill’s natural habitat is the playoffs.
It means the United Soccer League Two team was out of its element in 2018, finishing 6-7-1 to miss the postseason for just the second time since 2007, a disappointing soccer campaign regardless of how one looks at it.
“When the Chill doesn’t make the playoffs, it’s a total failure,” Petraglia said on Wednesday, Day 2 of the team’s 20th training camp, his newly assembled team going through drills at a chilly St. Patrick High School soccer field.
“Last year was a failure and it was my responsibility as head coach. When I say the Thunder Bay Chill’s standard is, that’s what I mean – the minimum standard is for us to play in the playoffs.”
Over the past decade, the bar was set pretty high.
The Chill won the Premier Development League title in 2008 (the league adopted a new moniker in the offseason), then followed up with championship game appearances in 2010, 2013 and 2017, falling in all three to the eventual champions.
Other than a 2014 miss, they had crossed the post-season threshold every year for more than a decade, until last season, when things just didn’t go as planned.
The Chill sported a 4-0 record against Winnipeg, but were just 2-7-1 against the rest of the Heartland Division, which this year sees the departure of the Central Conference champion Chicago Fire and the arrival of the Green Bay Voyageurs, an unknown entity at this point.
It didn’t go as planned, said former PDL most valuable player Sullivan Silva, back for another season with the Chill, still counted on to play valuable minutes for a team that scored six fewer goals and allowed a dozen more than it did the year prior, when it advanced to the league final against the Charlotte Eagles.
“Last year we had quality players, but it was just a lack of commitment from a few players. Hopefully it’s going to be different. The new players know the reputation of this club, which is to make the playoffs and eventually win the title,” Silva said.
Familiar faces from out of town are few and far between in 2019.
Keeper Matthew Moszynski and midfielder Marco Kuemmerle are the only returnees who fit the category, along with former imports and full-time Thunder Bay residents Mattia Rolli, Pedro Adan and Silva, who arrived from Brazil and never left.
Gone are the likes of Sergio Campano Franco, Lucas Mastrantonio and captain Mitch Osmond, who was drafted by the MLS’s Minnesota United and signed with the USL’s Indy Eleven.
“I think the team is going to be very solid. I don’t see a standout player right now. We actually looked to build a team that can play as a team and maybe give us a deep rotation because that’s what we were missing last year,” Petraglia said, still awaiting the arrival of many of his imports.
“Many time we had to use the same 11 to play back-to-back games. Turnover and rotation is what I’m looking for right now.”
There will be plenty of familiar local faces back in the fold in 2019, including Evan Sawula, Devon Jorgenson, Alex Pyke, Liam Ezzard and Marco Colistro.
Sawula, entering his fourth year, said there’s no doubt last year was a disappointment, but he’s confident Petraglia has brought in the right players to vault the team back into prominence.
“We’ve always had a strong recruiting class come into the Chill for the summer and I think nothing’s changed this summer. We’re looking forward to getting started,” the 20-year-old said.
“Obviously last year we had a lot of injuries, so hopefully things go our way that way. The biggest thing right now is gelling and team chemistry.”
The Chill will play a tune-up friendly on Saturday at St. Patrick High School against local club team Juventas, and open regular-season play on the road on May 24 against Kaw Valley. Their home opener is June 7 against WSA Winnipeg at Fort William Stadium.