So farewell then, Victoria United. On Tuesday, maybe the most storied club in the Pacific Coast Soccer League history announced its end when the non-profit Victoria United Soccer Association decided to shut down, bringing an end to the oldest name in Canadian soccer.
The arrival of the USL PDL Victoria Highlanders in 2009 ate into United’s market. The two clubs had a good relationship that included annual Charity Shield matches. In their final press release, the Victoria United bosses called the Highlanders “outstanding and classy.” But there are only so many fans willing to pay for high amateur or semi-professional soccer, and only so many stadium hours available in the city.
How many times have you seen Victoria United’s name on this website, for one? Meanwhile I write about the Highlanders more than is probably healthy. PCSL, particularly in most of its recent years as a British Columbia-only competition, lacks the allure of USL PDL, and while Victoria United had a devoted crowd they were a conservative lot, not given to supporters culture or high-flying ambition. The city council’s addiction to baseball didn’t help; new baseball teams plus the Highlanders moving downtown for 2012 combined to drive Victoria United out of their traditional home, Royal Athletic Park, and onto an out-of-the-way municipal field.
Yet for six seasons the people of Victoria made it work. Both the Highlanders and United had their own unique personalities, their own fanbases, their own history and traditions. There is a wound in Victoria soccer today, and it can be seen across the country. The history of Victoria United is older than the Canadian Soccer Association itself.
This incarnation of Victoria United dated from 1993, winning six Pacific Coast Soccer League titles and seven Challenge Cups. However, the club’s story begins in 1904, when the Victoria Wanderers and Victoria Capitals merged to form one of North America’s few true “United” soccer clubs. The two sides retained separate identities for several years in local competitions, Wanderers winning the Victoria City League as late as 1907, but it was the United name that lasted.
That team won its first silverware that season with the 1904-05 Garrison Cup, for decades a major prize in Vancouver Island soccer. Victoria United was a charter member of the first Pacific Coast Soccer League beginning play in 1908, then an overarching competition combining many of the strongest members of British Columbia’s thriving regional leagues. The league collapsed in 1910 but Victoria endured the tumult of the First World War and survived to help found the second PCSL in 1925.
Victoria United FC
It wasn’t until 1935-36 and the third incarnation of the league that Victoria, looking much like this 1934 photo, won their first PCSL title. The Depression and another world war ended that PCSL too but again, despite that navy town losing their sons to conflict, Victoria United remained. While soldiers on the West Coast were preparing for Hong Kong United was winning their first Sir John Jackson Cup, a competition very nearly as old as Victoria United itself, in 1941.
Both before and during the war Victoria paid host to a number of touring teams from the United Kingdom. The local competition was mostly area selects rather than a representative club but the opposition could be illustrious including, in 1950, an English touring club featuring Stanley Matthews and Charlton Athletic’s Charlie Vaughan; the tourists won 3-2. The next year, a Victoria all-star team featuring three United starters made history by defeating First Division Fulham 1-0, the first ever victory by a Canadian team over English professionals.
Victoria United won its second PCSL title that year, taking three more in 1966-67, 1967-68, and 1971-72. But the PCSL was suffering in the developing era of live TV, no thanks to competition from the old NASL and the demolition of their spiritual home at Callister Park. In 1973 the PCSL underwent another fitful transformation, eventually leading to the formation of the Vancouver Metro Soccer League, and this time Victoria United could not keep up. It says something about those days that I cannot even find the date of the original Victoria United’s dissolution online: it was certainly before the first “proper” VMSL season in 1982-83.
In the interregnum Victoria finally got professional soccer with the Canadian Soccer League’s Victoria Vistas, playing two seasons at Royal Athletic Park in 1989 and 1990. The end of the Vistas and the fall of the CSL did not take away the appetite for high level in Victoria, however, and renovations to Victoria’s sports infrastructure for the 1994 Commonwealth Games didn’t hurt. United returned in 1994 under the stewardship of the non-profit Victoria United Soccer Association, again playing out of Royal Athletic Park. The new United took the Challenge Cup in their first year back, and in 1995 the Pacific Coast Soccer League championship.
Several Victoria United players became well-known, but the renewed club had some outstanding regulars. Ex-Victoria Vista David Ravenhill, father of future Highlanders Adam and Andrew, spent several years winding down his career on the team, the last as a playing assistant coach. The Williams brothers, Steve and Mike, were one of several successful fraternities, Steve among the PCSL scoring leaders more than once; it probably didn’t hurt that Victoria’s coach for a time was their father Rob. Ben Hooker went from Victoria midfielder in 1998 to head coach in 2007. Dean Anderson, a Gorge FC stalwart for many years, was the last player from Victoria United’s inaugural 1994 season still with the club when he retired in 2009. Kevin Mennie spent 14 years on the Victoria backline and eventually became a club director.
From 2005 to 2007 three different United players won the PCSL scoring title: Steve Scott, Kellen Holden, and Patrick Gawrys. Gawrys became better known as a Victoria Highlander, a cult favourite with nine goals over two USL PDL seasons, while Scott was United’s last senior head coach in the 2014 season.
2004 was Victoria’s finest season. United celebrated its centennial by becoming the first men’s PCSL club to win the Triple Crown: a league championship, the Challenge Cup, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Cup as Pacific Northwest champion. The team was led by head coach Dante Zanatta (father of the Whitecaps Residency’s Dario) and captained by Nando Dunic, while Steve Williams led the team charts with ten goals. That was also the season where Josh Simpson, probably the greatest of the New Victorians, got his big break: having led United in scoring in 2002, Simpson impressed for a Canadian “B” team in west coast friendlies and was scooped up by Millwall, kicking off his successful professional career.
For a low-level team Victoria was nothing like minor. Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer Brian Robinson played for Victoria United in the 1960s, making fifteen caps and scoring one memorable goal in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca. Another Hall of Famer, David Stothard, was the right back for Canada’s first ever attempt to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 1957 before playing with Victoria United in the late 1960s. Nine-time international Ike MacKay was a Victoria United player as a youth, and while with Victoria won the Football Association Trophy on the BC U-23 team in 1966. National legend Buzz Parsons never played for Victoria United, but did coach them for 1996 and most of 1997.
More recently Canadian senior national team regulars Josh Simpson and Adam Straith (whose brother Manny also played through 2013), as well as one-time senior international Simon Thomas came through the team. Forward Nick Gilbert, who made twelve caps for Canada, captained Victoria United after his international days. Nick Stankov, a goalkeeper with the Edmonton Aviators, turned out for United in 2006. Apart from Straith and Thomas other Victoria United alumni, including Geordie Lyall and the Craveiro brothers Chris and Nico, played for the USL-era Vancouver Whitecaps. United youth teams have sent several players to the Whitecaps Residency including goalkeeper Sean Melvin, defender Hamish Walde, and forward Dario Zanatta. Plus one coach: Residency goalkeeper guru Raegyn Hall was with Victoria United from 2004 to 2006.
On the local scene, Victoria Highlanders fans won’t need to be reminded of players like Tyler and Jordie Hughes, Patrick Gawrys, Elliott Mitrou, and Wesley Barrett among others, nor current general manager Mark deFrias, who worked for Victoria United in the 2000s. UVic Vikes Hall of Famer Wally Milligan, who played with the 1951-52 PCSL championship United and helped beat Fulham in that famous upset, was the first coach of the University of Victoria’s soccer program; a scholarship is still awarded there in his honour. And then there’s the most famous alumnus of Victoria United, Steve Nash, who played one game for his hometown PCSL club against Seattle in 2001 and recorded an assist.
Goodbye, Victoria United. You will be missed more than you know.
(notes and comments…)