Catalano Pushing For Pro Return
When Gianluca Catalano stepped out onto the pitch at Stade Saputo and felt the crowd buzzing, the feeling was reciprocal.
The Vaughan Azzurri goalkeeper looked good between the sticks that night, though his underdog team fell to a respectable two-nil loss against Major League Soccer hosts CF Montreal. The Vaughan shotstopper completed several sharp saves that elicited a chorus of ‘oohs’ from the home crowd, leaving him all the hungrier to restart his professional career.
“It was an unreal experience,” he reflects, “going into the game, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. You have to just soak it all in because you don’t know when you’re gonna get that opportunity again.”
Catalano, 23, has had two stops at the professional level in his career so far: the former Canada U-17 keeper had turned professional with Toronto FC II back in 2018, and last season saw him carve out a playing opportunity with York United. Between those two clubs came spells outside of the pro level with AC Connecticut and Vaughan Azzurri, the latter of which he helped to an undefeated season in League1 Ontario last year.
Suffice to say, last month’s cup match against CF Montreal was a big moment.
Rather than feeling nerves, Catalano had a sense of excitement: the match came as a golden opportunity to showcase himself against professional opposition – something he hadn’t done since filling in as an emergency goalkeeper for York United last season. Still on the hunt for a new professional contract, the cup tilt against CF Montreal was exactly what the doctor ordered.
“Nothing beats hearing like the roar of the crowd after after making a big save to deny like one of their players, and I had never really experienced anything like that. I’m never going to forget about that experience,” says Catalano, who after being heckled by the Montreal supporters all match, had a much friendlier experience with them at the side of the pitch-post game, taking some photos with fans and even inking a few autographs.
Catalano’s team had earned a berth in the cup competition by way of League1 Ontario, where they capped off an undefeated season by lifting the league’s championship trophy last season. That success saw two members of the club’s staff and multiple players broker moves up into the pro game, with the Azzurri team that came out against CF Montreal featuring plenty of differing faces – many of whom, like Catalano, had CPL experience to bank on.
“When you join Vaughan, it has a culture that you buy into: everybody is welcome there. You feel part of the team. In the cup, we got to represent League1 Ontario as a whole, which was pretty cool, and that’s another thing everyone bought into. Instead of being nervous, I feel like we just took it as a positive and were excited to showcase ourselves on that kind of scale.”
Still, having several fresh players in the lineup likely didn’t help, nor did the fact that Vaughan was only one match into its season when they faced their MLS competitors. While they came out with a loss, the scoreline was quite respectable given the Davis-vs-Goliath nature of the match.
The semi-pro league in which Gianluca plays has come a long way since a teenage Catalano first played in it back in 2016. He suited up for Toronto FC III back then, making nine appearances on a very young team which regularly suited up against much older players. In the time since, the league has become more ‘professionalized’, with higher standards for clubs translating to higher standards on the pitch, too.
“Now it’s literally a bunch of guys who are right on the verge of playing professional soccer, or guys that CPL experience already. The level of play is really, really good. It’s not a walk in the park. The league has grown so much.”
The semi-professional league was purchased by the Canadian Premier League in 2018, with the country’s top flight recently announcing a new pilot project that will allow CPL teams able to affiliate themselves with L1O clubs, sending a limited number of players out to earn competitive minutes that they might not be getting in the CPL.
“I think that’s vital for like the development of players, but it also speaks volumes to the amount of quality that we have in Ontario,” he adds. He’s adamant that whether it’s the CPL, MLS NEXT Pro, or the USL, there’s a lot of players in L1O that deserve a crack – or a second chance – at the professional level.
To that end, he’s also pleased with how the semi-pro league has made itself accessible to interested eyes.
“They’ve done a really good job of promoting it,” adds Catalano. “Every single game is uploaded on YouTube, guys are writing articles on players – it’s great for scouts if they want to have a look at a certain player.”
It’s no secret that the 23-year-old is hoping to be one of the players scouted and scooped up from the league: last year he was on the precipice of a pro deal with York United, filling in as an emergency goalkeeper for just about half the season, even featuring in a match against FC Edmonton before the club signed someone else instead.
“You’ve just got to keep your head down and keep working hard, and I guess you can have a little bit of an underdog mentality: it’s not that teams are overlooking you, as long as you know your worth. You’re doing all the right things in training and continue to be consistent in that regard, and things will fall in place eventually.”
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While York ultimately opted to bring in a domestic U-21 player instead of Catalano – something which saves the club a bit of budget wear-and-tear – he says his tenure with the Nine Stripes remains a positive memory. There was also a near-move that would have seen him follow Patrice Gheisar to the Halifax Wanderers, but this winter saw him return to training with Toronto FC instead, where his professional debut came via their USL Championship reserve team in 2018.
Now he’ll be splitting his time between training and fighting for a contract opportunity with Toronto FC while also helping the Vaughan Azzurri in itheir title defense season. If a professional playing opportunity should put up elsewhere, however, he’s ready to grab it with both gloves.
“At the end of the day, as a goalkeeper games are the most important thing. Training is one thing, but game experience is huge, it’s critical. So I’m aiming to break into the professional level and get some games there at some point this year.”
One of Gianluca’s teammates to feature against CF Montreal, Klaidi Cela, has already secured a return to professional heights through Valour FC. By the season’s end, the expectations are that Vaughan might be down a few of their former pros.
While he’s waiting for his next career step to materialize, Gianluca remains focused on helping Vaughan win the league again. Following up an undefeated season is no small task, but Catalano believes a repeat League1 Ontario championship win is a reasonable objective to set.
He certainly isn’t the only Vaughan player seeking a move to the pro level, so it’ll be an interesting season to follow for the title favourites.
“The fans are always buzzing at North Maple Regional Park, they’re always there supporting the team. I think it’s gonna be a great season,” says Catalano. Where it ultimately takes him remains to be seen.
Header Image Photo Credit: Vaughan Azzurri