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

Whitecaps U-23 Victoria
1 GK Nolan Wirth 29 GK Elliott Mitrou
23 DF Reynold Stewart goal 39', out 73' 15 DF Andrew Ravenhill
6 DF Jordian Farahani out 45' 5 DF Ryan Ashlee goal 7'
5 DF Nicholas Prasad 4 DF Gavin Barrett
2 DF Colton O'Neill 13 DF Tyler Hughes
17 MF Mitch Piraux out 67' 20 MF Tarnvir Bhandal out 57'
7 MF Harry Lakhan 10 MF Riley O'Neill
28 MF Marlon Ramirez out 45' 6 MF Alex Rowley out 77'
14 MF Brett Levis out 19' 23 MF Cam Hundal out 73'
9 FW Niall Cousens goal 49' 72' 9 FW Carlo Basso goal 9' 34', out 79'
19 FW Kianz Froese goal 20' 18 FW Cam Stokes goal 4', out 64'
24 MF Cody Cook in 19' 21 FW Blair Sturrock in 57', goal 89'
4 MF Mark Baldisimo in 45' 8 MF Adam Ravenhill in 64'
27 DF Chris Serban in 45' 26 MF Sam Prette in 73'
8 MF Mehdi Ballouchy in 67' 2 DF Kevan Brown in 77'
18 MF Sean Einarsson in 73' 19 FW Ian Greedy in 79'

Early on this game looked like a dud on so many levels. When the sun rose over Vancouver Friday morning it was strictly a metaphor: rain was pouring down and the forecast said nothing but gloom. Victoria was coming off a disappointing home draw against Kitsap in which the team generated chances but the fans roundly derided a boring 90 minutes, while the Whitecaps U-23s were winless in their first three. And though both teams had major players expected to return from injury in Victoria's Jordie Hughes and Vancouver's Mehdi Ballouchy, they were both also missing pieces for the most USL PDL of reasons: Victoria's Wesley Barrett, who played a key role in the first leg, was on Vancouver Island with coaching responsibilities, while Vancouver's Marco Carducci, Marco Bustos, and Jordan Haynes were all graduating from high school.

But as the afternoon dragged on the sun came out. Victoria's Lake Side Buoys sent a decent contingent over for a work day, making UBC's Thunderbird Stadium a more raucous venue than it has been for many a USL PDL game. With the Polytan baking in an unexpectedly perfect evening, the teams lined up on the pitch and... Victoria immediately put the game out of reach. A dud after all, albeit a joyous one for the long-pressed Highlanders faithful. Or so everybody thought.

The fans were still taking their seats when the Highlanders first struck: veteran Riley O'Neill scooped up a sloppy giveaway and sent Cam Stokes down outside right, and while it seemed like a modest chance he cut in and stunned Nolan Wirth with a slicing shot. Before everyone had caught up Victoria struck again when a long ball to Carlo Basso led to some superb hold-up work by the big Simon Fraser University forward, and just when it looked like Jordain Farahani had gotten the better of him the ball spurted into the path of centre back Ryan Ashlee and into the back of the net. Finally, Vancouver forward Niall Cousens gave up the ball cheaply and allowed Cam Hundal to send Basso free down the left-hand side, Basso stepping back inside the eighteen and finishing professionally. Three shots, three goals, 3-0 Victoria nine minutes in, a 6-2 aggregate lead. To make matters worse, Vancouver star and ex-Highlander Brett Levis was helped off at the nineteen minute mark with what looked like a lower body injury. Surely... surely... it was all over for Vancouver but the crying.

But this is the Juan de Fuca Plate, and the same magic that turns rain into sunshine turned a blowout into a thrilling affair. Slowly, Vancouver clawed their way back into the match. Kianz Froese's first goal was a cheap one: goalscorer Ashlee was caught dwelling on the ball, gave it up under pressure by Froese, and the Whitecaps U-18 midfielder/forward coolly rounded Elliott Mitrou and knocked the goal home. But Basso put Victoria back on top by a field goal, 4-1, when an Andrew Ravenhill cross from way out left got through everybody and landed much too easily on Basso's right foot. That should have put an end to Vancouver's tricks, but the Whitecaps refused to know when they were beaten. Froese got involved again as the first half closed, his gutbusting run up the middle leaving the Highlanders midfield flat-footed. His through ball to UBC's Reynold Stewart wasn't the best but Stewart got it under control, had his first shot parried by Mitrou, gathered the rebound and converted on his second bite of the cherry. 4-2. And while the Vancouver Southsiders were telling self-deprecating jokes in the stands at half, there was a spark in the air.

Niall Thompson's halftime substitutions for Vancouver, bringing on U-18s Chris Serban and Mark Baldisimo, livened up the game, with Serban freeing Reynold Stewart to get forward and Baldisimo fighting with authority in central midfield. It wasn't long before Baldisimo struck, working the team passing play well and sending Niall Cousens in free and clear from close range. Cousens buried the chance easily, his first goal of the 2014 Juan de Fuca Plate. The game degenerated into a whipsaw affair, with Vancouver gradually establishing a slight ascendancy after Victoria's very strong opening half. MLS loanee Mehdi Ballouchy, making his return from injury, came on and tested the Highlanders defense with looping rainbow balls that were beaten back by the narrowest margins. While the Whitecaps needed a clear two-goal win to take the Plate thanks to Victoria's superior away goals, the fans gradually realized it wasn't impossible.

Finally, in the seventy-second minute, the dramatic equalizer. The Victoria defense had been holding on by their fingernails and broke down before the run of Stewart, down the left, who played Cousens through free and clear. Cousens beat Mitrou for his second of the game, his sixth in his two Juan de Fuca Plates, and amazingly Vancouver had come back from the dead to tie the game 4-4. The hundred or so fans in attendance were beside themselves, not least the Lake Side Buoys who, undaunted, roared their Highlanders on. After all, a 4-4 draw still meant the Plate would live in Victoria.

Vancouver kept pressing. Kianz Froese, who had been such a handful all match he'd drawn triple coverage at times, was in his element. Another run through the centre broke the Highlanders midfield and left their defense at sixes and sevens, and his hammered shot appeared for all the world to have gone in, until it skipped out behind the goal having rebounded off the side netting. Some Whitecaps fans thought it had gone through the net but the wish was father of the thought and Froese did not protest. Having held two three-goal leads, the Lake Side Buoys were gnawing their fingers to the bone. They had lost the first two Juan de Fuca Plates on goal difference: was another heartbreaker in the offing?

Far from it. Instead, there was sweet redemption. English veteran Blair Sturrock, who had been robbed of the Plate-winning goal by the heroics of Marco Carducci at Thunderbird in 2013, got the ball just inside the eighteen from fellow substitute Ian Greedy and hammered a glorious winner past the outstretched fingers of Nolan Wirth. It was a 5-4 Victoria final, giving them the aggregate win 8-6.

It was the most glorious of victories for the long-suffering Victoria fans. Lake Side Buoy Drew Shaw and Vancouver Southsider Paul Sabourin-Hertzog presented the hard-earned trophy, for the first time, to captain Tyler Hughes and the Victoria Highlanders, who celebrated and posed for photos on the pitch. After three long years and another nail-biting final game, Victoria had taken the Juan de Fuca Plate.

Scoring Summary

4': 0-1 Victoria Highlanders. Cam Stokes [1] (Riley O'Neill)
7': 0-2 Victoria Highlanders. Ryan Ashlee [1] (Carlo Basso)
9': 0-3 Victoria Highlanders. Carlo Basso [2] (Cam Hundal)
20': 1-3 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Kianz Froese [1]
34': 1-4 Victoria Highlanders. Carlo Basso [3] (Andrew Ravenhill)
39': 2-4 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Reynold Stewart [1]
49': 3-4 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Niall Cousens [1] (Mark Baldisimo)
72': 4-4 Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. Niall Cousens [2] (Reynold Stewart)
89': 4-5 Victoria Highlanders. Blair Sturrock [1] (Ian Greedy)

Match Reports

Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 drop 5-4 thriller to Victoria Highlanders FC
Victoria Highlanders FC: Basso earns brace as Highlanders rally to capture second win of season
Victoria Times-Colonist: Sturrock, Highlanders win wild one against Whitecaps U-23