July 9, 2017: TSS FC Rovers @ Victoria Highlanders

Victoria Rovers
32 GK Ty Venhola 30 GK Andrew Hicks
4 DF Sho Goto 11 DF Jin An out 33'
5 DF Stuart Heath goal 61', yellow 78' 5 DF Vaggeli Boucas
12 DF Ryan McCurdy 4 DF Alejandro Varela yellow 82'
15 DF Jonah Smith 22 DF Mitchell Popadynetz
14 MF Owen Pearce out 64' 21 MF Marcello Polisi
17 MF Iskander van Doorne yellow 56' 8 MF Matteo Polisi out 64'
8 MF Francesco Bartilillo out 64' 6 MF Zach Verhoven out 85'
10 FW Andrew Ofosu out 45' 19 MF James MacMillan
21 FW Blair Sturrock 18 MF Ryan Dhillon
2 FW Paddy Nelson goal 30', out 74' 9 FW Brandon Davidson
9 MF Solomon Constant in 45', out 81' 13 DF Kerman Pannu in 33'
19 MF Cody Gysbers in 64' 15 FW Connor Hildebrandt in 64'
13 MF Aidan Moore in 64' 7 MF Race Williams in 85'
6 MF Elie Gindo in 74'
16 MF Bobby Eng in 81'

Home-field advantage or not, it took a brave man to bet on the Victoria Highlanders to win the Juan the Fuca Plate before kickoff Sunday, July 9 at the University of Victoria. The Highlanders were playing their second game in three days, following an ugly 4-1 loss in Tukwila to the Seattle Sounders U-23s. In that game regular starting goalkeeper Simon Norgrove was sent off, earning him a suspension and a USL PDL debut for University of Northern British Columbia product Ty Venhola, actually a pre-season trialist for TSS Rovers.

The Rovers, while hardly at full strength, enjoyed their electrifying UBC star Zach Verhoven's long-awaited return from a Chinese university tournament. On top of everything else the Rovers had the goal difference advantage, meaning that Victoria needed to win out, while for TSS a draw would win their first Juan de Fuca Plate.

Not that either team was anything to write home about at the best of times: the winner, in addition to a trophy, would get pole position in the race to avoid the PDL Northwest Division basement.

A friendly ferry schedule brought a solid Rovers travelling contigent to Centennial Stadium. But there were still hundreds of Highlanders fans willing their team to beat the odds. Their will imposed itself, for on a fabulous day at the University of Victoria the sun seemed to shine on the Highlanders for 90 minutes, and their retention of the Juan de Fuca Plate appeared almost foreordained.

Centennial Stadium's pitch looked better than the author (a UVic alumnus) had ever seen it, and the pity was that the match officials weren't up to the same standard. Their first big decision was an accurate one, as TSS Rovers' Brandon Davidson thought he'd emerged unmarked to head the easiest goal of his life past Venhola. However, Ryan Dhillon had gone behind the endline while trying to bring in the cross and it was a goal kick to Victoria. That aside everything, from offsides to fouls, may as well have been random.

Blair Sturrock got the first chance that would have counted. Just before the half hour, Venhola was dwelling on the ball in his own eighteen, putting a lot of thought into his pass. He lobbed an artillery strike to Sturrock between the Rovers defenders, a stunning route one ball that split TSS and only the poor standard of a seemingly-surprised Sturrock's finish kept it from being 1-0 right there, as Andrew Hicks easily held the ball. But the ball soon went back to Victoria, and off a corner Sho Goto zipped a cross into VISL veteran Paddy Nelson, who headed home to put the Highlanders up 1-0. Almost immediately afterwards Goto had a clean break and was robbed blind by Hicks, then TSS, who had only three outfield substitutes, spent one on an early tactical change when fullback Jin An was replaced by Kerman Pannu.

Nelson, who had an excellent game for the Highlanders, nearly returned the favour by sliding a cross through everybody's feet to Goto, but the Japanese star's shot was well-saved by Hicks. That was almost all the meaningful action of the first half, and Victoria went to the break with a crucial 1-0 lead.

Nobody doubts that the Rovers wanted the Plate but this was not at all their day. Vaggeli Boucas, a good centreback at most times, gave the ball away to Francesco Bartilillo, and only an untidy rush of defenders prevented the insurance marker. With the referee's whistle nobody-knew-where the action was stop-start, and both teams suffered. TSS had several advantages snuffed out but Stuart Heath saw yellow for being low-bridged by Ryan MacMillan in one of the most bewildering decisions in Plate history. Victoria's superiority remained comfortable.

Not long after the hour, another Victoria corner again saw Goto turn provider, when his delivery went by everybody to a wide-open Heath on the far post. It was a tap-in, he tapped it just enough, Victoria was up 2-0.

The Highlanders maintained their ascendency, rushing the Rovers end in numbers, pressuring an overwhelmed defense past the breaking point. With the ball near the penalty spot Nelson hit the post, the rebound kicked out to Sturrock, and his good shot was deflected behind for a corner. "We gotta get our heads out of our asses!" shouted a furious Hicks, but it was not a question of effort. That did spur the Rovers' best chance of the afternoon: turning the ball the other way in a hurry, TSS striker Brandon Davidson stretched back to turn a Dhillon cross into a powerful volleyed shot. Venhola worked hard for the save but spilled the rebound right onto Davidson's foot. Still going down, Venhola parried the second bite at the cherry, a fabulous double-save that went right into Juan de Fuca Plate lore.

Not that Hicks, who has been the Rovers' most valuable player through this PDL season, was going quietly. First he denied Victoria substitute Elie Gondo, who slalomed through every man, woman, and child in the Rovers defense but couldn't beat Hicks's mighty mitt. Then he racked up a double save off his own, denying Blair Sturrock twice from in close. "All that work and you didn't even score!" shouted a frustrated Swanguardian to Sturrock. "I know!" replied an equally-frustrated Sturrock.

Sturrock would get the last laugh, of course: apart from more mad refereeing that was the last rush of the game for either team. Victoria was content to play the game out, and when the final whistle blew there was no doubt who had been the better team. Lake Side Buoy Ted Godwin and Swanguardian Adam Hauck presented the Juan de Fuca Plate to the victorious Victoria Highlanders. Blair Sturrock, who quite literally played everywhere in the outfield for Victoria, became the latest two-time Plate champion.

Scoring Summary

30': 1-0 Victoria Highlanders. Paddy Nelson [1] (Sho Goto)
61': 2-0 Victoria Highlanders. Stuart Heath [1] (Sho Goto)

Match Reports

Victoria Highlanders: Highlanders capture Juan de Fuca Plate with 2-0 win over Rovers.

Full Match Video

Available on YouTube.