York United FC wants to be 'new beacon' for community, inclusivity

York United FC coach and former Toronto FC player Jim Brennan. (Aaron Lynett/CP)

A lot has changed in 12 months for the Canadian Premier League.

From postponing its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to staging the successful Island Games in Prince Edward Island, it's been a remarkable 2020 for a league that could've faced significant issues like the CFL or various sports across the planet.

Those issues are still very real as the league attempts to kick off its 2021 season as normally as possible, but the CPL will be welcoming a new club of sorts.

York United FC, previously known as York9 FC, officially rebranded on Friday afternoon after meticulous research into the club's identity and how it can better reach fans in the region.

Unlike some rebrands, York United was conducted in-house by club president and sporting director Angus McNab along with the marketing team. McNab consulted Karl Hudson, the creative director for the NHL's New York Islanders, as a devil's advocate of sorts to examine the York9 brand and its restrictions.

"We were tackling things that were not very flexible, adaptable, able to fit what we needed to do even in formatting, in vibrancy and what we wanted to be and how we wanted to present ourselves," McNab told Sportsnet. "Having that approach to it all was absolutely critical to it in that people who had lived the design and creative limitations of the ground previously are absolutely central to how this should be and be driven forward in a visual identity and what this could mean for us longer term."

Club supporters were consulted for their thoughts on the team's identity and where it could improve as well. McNab said there was "confusion in the marketplace," even with naming consistency in the media.

That, in turn, had a knock-on effect on supporters, including ticket demand. York9 registered the lowest average attendance during the 2019 season, just 2,636 fans, much lower than other CPL clubs such as Forge FC (8,107), Valour FC (6,689) and HFX Wanderers (6,015).

Obviously in markets like Halifax, there is significantly less competition compared to York's, with Toronto owning a franchise in every major professional league. But the low attendance was clearly a factor.

"If we had been selling out York Lions Stadium and we had made that connection, we wouldn't be stripping something from the community and where we were," McNab said. "When I look at the cold-hard facts and the numbers and season seat members that we had on the books, multi-game packs and single-game tickets, it's not good enough. We have to progress. We have to see dramatic growth in that and how we do that is keeping them. This is why we've done this.

"United is not just a word thrown into this. We need to unite the communities of the GTA and York Region in their support of this team... We're very proud that we have the opportunity for someone's entry point into football to be us. We want to build something truly spectacular and we want people in the stands dreaming of playing for our club and one day going on and playing for our club and going on to playing higher for the national team as well."

McNab looked at Newcastle United as an example to follow for York United to attract fans. Newcastle was founded after a merger between the clubs in the east and west ends of the city, and York's president is hoping that this new identity caters to all fans across the region.

"We want to bring everyone into the fold," McNab stated. "Whether you are downtown and you live close to Royal York, whether you're in Yorkville, whether you are in York Region, this is your club. You are welcome. We want you here. We want to have the most diverse fanbase. Not just where you live, but creeds, races, sexuality, religion, everything. We want you all. You are all welcome at our stadium and we want to be this new beacon of the community and beacon of inclusivity, where everyone is welcome and we're very proud of that."

The rebrand will be especially noticeable on the pitch. Not just with the new kits and logo, but the squad itself. Captain Manny Aparicio joined Pacific FC, midfield stalwart Joe Di Chiara signed with Cavalry FC, while Luca Gasparotto – the club's ironman at the back – retired. Even Morey Doner, one of the most solid full-backs in the league, has departed.

But McNab and the rest of the sporting operations have been tirelessly working to replace everyone. U-21 Player of the Year nominee Chrisnovic N'Sa and his younger brother Felix, a player with "huge potential," signed with United last month.

No less than nine players have joined the club since the off-season began, with the team's final international signing expected to be announced next week. But there's a theme with every addition, one that the CPL was founded on.

"I think as it stands right now at 20 players, we have an average age of 22 years, three months," said McNab. "That's where we want to be in terms of this league and the purpose of this league was to develop Canadian talent. To do that, we need to bring players into the system earlier and give them exposure to first-team football and a first-team training environment. I'm very proud of how bold we may have been with the decisions we made in the off-season, but we think it'll stand us in good stead in the long term."

Shifting to a younger squad comes with risks, but they have to be taken in order to redeem the rewards. Pairing those young Canadians like the N'Sa brothers, Ryan Lindsay and Lowell Wright with young international signings such as Mateo Hernandez or Lisandro Cabrera, who have strong pedigrees despite their age, is key.

Should those players be handed significant minutes and shine with York United, the club can sell them for a hefty profit. It's a strategy utilized by countless teams, but one that's necessary when working under financial constraints, which everyone in the CPL has to deal with due to the salary cap.

York United has the potential to be the most exciting team in the league next year. An entertaining team that wins with a clearer identity across the board almost always attracts bigger crowds.

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