May 4, 2014: Vancouver Whitecaps U-23 @ Victoria Highlanders

Victoria Whitecaps U-23
29 GK Elliott Mitrou 1 GK Nolan Wirth
15 DF Andrew Ravenhill 23 DF Reynold Stewart
5 DF Ryan Ashlee 6 DF Jordian Farahani
4 DF Gavin Barrett out 83' 5 DF Nicholas Prasad
13 DF Tyler Hughes 27 DF Chris Serban
23 MF Cam Hundal out 87' 24 MF Cody Cook goal 29', out 74'
6 MF Alex Rowley 4 MF Mark Baldisimo
10 MF Riley O'Neill goal 90' 7 MF Harry Lakhan
18 MF Cam Stokes out 64' 14 FW Brett Levis out 86'
21 FW Blair Sturrock out 71' 9 FW Niall Cousens
9 FW Carlo Basso goal 34' 25 FW Yassin Essa
26 MF Sam Prette in 64' 21 MF Ali Musse in 74', goal 82'
19 FW Ian Greedy in 71' 20 MF Kyle Jones in 86'
14 MF Wesley Barrett in 83', goal 84'
8 DF Adam Ravenhill in 87'

The kickoff to the 2014 Juan de Fuca Plate had a little bit of everything. The weather threw full Vancouver Island variety at the brave crowd of 1,412, with rain all day turning into hopeful glimpses of sun during warmups, then back to rain, before ending with a lovely partially-cloudy sky and bright evening sun with, of course, rain coming down anyway.

And on the field there was enough for even the most impatient observer. Spills and aggressive tackles abounded on the slick Royal Athletic Park grass. There were cracking goals and fine defensive plays. Brett Levis, one of the Highlanders most valuable players from 2013, returned to Victoria in the shirt of the Vancouver Whitecaps, adding insult to injury by wearing the Whitecaps' armband. Opposing him were two former Whitecaps PDL players, Alex Rowley and Cam Hundal, who had won Juan de Fuca Plates in Vancouver and were looking to lead the Highlanders to their first ever British Columbia crown. Finally there was controversy, as the game ended in one of those ways that two fanbases will never agree on.

The pre-game festivities were a story in themselves, as the Highlanders unveiled their 2013 Western Conference championship banner with the help of Victoria mayor Dean Fortin and an energetic drum band. When the crowd stopped applauding, and play got underway, it took a little while for the action to match the hype, as Victoria and Vancouver passed the ball around their own defenses and felt each other out. There were a few half-chances, including a frozen rope of a shot from range by Victoria's Andrew Ravenhill that Whitecaps U-23 keeper Nolan Wirth spilled before it was cleared by his defense, and a mazy run from Vancouver's Yassin Essa that beat two defenders but ended for naught when Highlanders captain Tyler Hughes masterfully blocked Essa's cross towards Niall Cousens.

The run of play went slightly Victoria's way, but it was the Whitecaps U-23s who opened the scoring just before the half hour. Reigning CIS Canada West MVP and University of British Columbia captain Reynold Stewart took a corner kick from the left side, and his drive cruised untouched through the Highlanders defense and onto the head of a ducking Cody Cook, for Cook's first goal as a Whitecaps U-23 player and a 1-0 Vancouver lead.

Vancouver had little time to feel good about their lead, though. On a jog down the first base line, Victoria's Cam Stokes suddenly burst between two defenders and got clear. His driven cross was perfectly aimed at the head of big Highlanders striker Carlo Basso, who headed home his first goal in Victoria silks to tie the game at 1. The Highlanders kept up modest pressure through the end of the first half, including a good chance from Gavin Barrett off a Blair Sturrock corner, headed not far wide. They might have felt hard done-by going into the break only level, but the Whitecaps were giving as good as they got in an increasingly physical game.

The wet grass, with a few notable dead patches, made for a very slippery surface, and a few players from both teams took advantage. Mark Baldisimo, Nicholas Prasad, and Chris Serban made some serious sliding tackles, while Victoria soon learned to give it back. And there was no blaming the pitch for the way Tyler Hughes and Ryan Ashlee crunched their old teammate Brett Levis in a tandem bodycheck that would have raised an eyebrow in the NHL. As a rule referee Evan Fryer let the teams play on; the refereeing was controversial in both directions, and that was even before the end of the game.

As play resumed chances slowly started to pile up. Basso had another good chance on a header that went just wide, and O'Neill took a few good shots. Vancouver thought they had reclaimed the lead, with Stewart again turning provider off a dead ball, but his free kick to Nicholas Prasad was flagged offside. Victoria kept the pressure up the other way, and O'Neill was found alone in the area with the ball coming to his feet. He stung a blistering shot, but straight into Nolan Wirth's stomach. Quickly the Whitecaps turned the ball around but Victoria defended adroitly. It didn't seem like there was much of a chance in it, until just within the eighteen-yard box young Winnipegger Ali Musse turned and calmly placed a shot into the corner beyond a stunned Elliott Mitrou to put Vancouver back on top.

It was a marvellous strike but the Whitecaps had no time to celebrate. Almost immediately Victoria was back at it. Basso, holding the ball up, dumped it away to Victoria substitute Wesley Barrett. He took a couple steps and fired a screamer past Wirth's fingertips, levelling affairs once again with almost perfect offensive symmetry with an 85th-minute equalizer. Victoria's fans were celebrating, but neither team looked satisfied with the single point. Yassin Essa, who had been active for Vancouver all game, forced a first-class diving save out of Mitrou with yet another wide shot from range. As the two minutes of stoppage time were announced Victoria was still maybe the better team but the position looked very draw-ish.

In the first minute of stoppage time, though, the game turned. The ball went over the top and Carlo Basso chased it down towards goal. Whitecaps defender Jordian Farahani was in position, but laid off the ball in favour of the charging goalkeeper Wirth. Wirth was first to the ball with an arms-stretched dive but he lacked authority and the ball remained half-loose, Basso and Wirth struggling for it until the whistle blew. There didn't seem to be much in it, but if there was a foul it looked like it would be on Basso, maybe for kicking a little too exuberantly. So it was to the profound shock of the dozen Whitecaps U-23 supporters in attendance that referee Fryer pointed to the penalty spot. Wirth (who was assessed a yellow card), Farahani, and Nicholas Prasad protested loudly, while the Whitecaps faithful hurled abuse and the Lake Side Buoys stood and sung in delight. Victoria midfielder Riley O'Neill strode to the spot and put a confident penalty into the lower-right corner as Wirth guessed wrong. Victoria's supporters were triumphant, and their songs of joy filled Royal Athletic Park for the remaining actionless seconds as Victoria walked out 3-2 winners at home, with one hand on their first Juan de Fuca Plate.

Scoring Summary

29': 0-1 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Cody Cook [1] (Reynold Stewart)
34': 1-1 Victoria Highlanders. Carlo Basso [1] (Cam Stokes)
82': 1-2 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Ali Musse [1]
84': 2-2 Victoria Highlanders. Wesley Barrett [1] (Carlo Basso)
90'+2: 3-2 Victoria Highlanders. Riley O'Neill [1] (penalty kick)

Match Reports

Victoria Highlanders FC: O'Neill goal lifts Highlanders over 'Caps
Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Whitecaps FC U-23 fall to Victoria Highlanders FC in season opener
Victoria Times-Colonist: Victoria Highlanders score cool win over Whitecaps U-23

Highlights (CHEK News Victoria)

Available at cheknews.ca