The Victoria Highlanders have the lead in the third Juan de Fuca Plate, and are playing good soccer, but there are a few factors in the Whitecaps favour.
It is a credit to both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps how seriously they take this competition. I don’t mean on the field, where technical priorities must always come first, but off it: they hype the Plate up on their websites and Twitter feeds, they mention the competition with an awareness of its history, they give the impression that they gladly support this fan-created endeavour in the spirit it’s intended. This year’s two-leg format means that, for the first time, a draw is a practical possibility: after an approach from supporters the Whitecaps and Highlanders have apparently decided to settle such a draw by penalty kicks. It’s one of those little things that the Whitecaps and Highlanders didn’t have to do, that won’t get big headlines or impress thousands of fans, but will profoundly please a dedicated few. Both the Whitecaps and Highlanders organizations therefore deserve all the praise in the world for the Plate.
I won’t rehash my preview of both the Whitecaps U-23s and the Highlanders from earlier this month. With Vancouver having played only three games, all on the road, and Victoria having played two, both at home, the season is too young to tear up the script, particularly when the games have been close to it. Victoria’s played well, though they have four points when their fans must have hoped for six, while by most accounts Vancouver has promise but is still trying to find their chemistry and their legs.
With that said both teams have big-name help on the field tonight. For the Whitecaps U-23s, attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy is expected to make his first appearance in Vancouver silks. Ballouchy is best-known for playing 74 USL PDL minutes with the Boulder Rapids Reserve in 2005, directing two shots, but has also enjoyed an eleven-season MLS career. That limited PDL experience will have to serve Ballouchy well in his first taste of Juan de Fuca Plate competition. Significantly, his debut with two surgically-reconstructed knees will be on wet Thunderbird Stadium Polytan, which means a chance of re-injury in slick conditions and possible mental concerns on artificial turf. Certainly, if he can go at something like full speed, Ballouchy is liable to give the Victoria back line trouble, but that’s a massive “if”, and it would be stunning if he went the full 90.
Not to be outdone… okay, somewhat to be outdone… Victoria has all-time leading scorer Jordie Hughes back. Hughes won’t start this evening but could still be a significant addition to an offense that has Cam Hundal, Blair Sturrock, Carlo Basso, and Riley O’Neill all looking threatening. Hughes was last year’s joint-leading scorer on the Highlanders (with current Whitecaps U-23 player Brett Levis) and the joint-leading scorer in the Juan de Fuca Plate (with another Whitecaps U-23, Niall Cousens). He’s a solid, veteran forward, the sort of player who isn’t the most remarkable either technically or athletically but can teach young defenders a thing or two every game. And the Whitecaps are liable to have quite a young back line.
Victoria’s most recent game was a 1-1 draw at home to Kitsap in which Sturrock scored and the Highlanders forced six saves out of Kitsap’s Matt Grosey; not great but not bad. Meanwhile, since the Victoria loss the Whitecaps U-23s have played twice more on the road, drawing at both Portland and Kitsap, and in the latter case emerging with less credit than the Highlanders: Vancouver was out-shots-directed 11-5 and the Whitecaps got only one shot on target. The much-ballyhooed Levis is still looking to break through, but he’s been shooting and against Victoria he was highly energetic. Niall Cousens scored in Kitsap but is also looking to recapture his imposing 2013 form. The leading early surprise has been Cody Cook, a first-year PDL player who has two goals and was one of the more impressive Whitecaps in Victoria.
Victoria’s been playing better soccer than Vancouver and, unless a few more MLS loanees come to keep Ballouchy company, might well out-gun Vancouver. There are two major wild-cards, though, that might help the Whitecaps.
The first is that a few Whitecaps players are due to stand up and make an impact. Ballouchy, obviously, has the quality to own this game if he’s fit. Cousens has scored but needs to generate more chances. Levis has only a single assist. Marlon Ramirez has professional experience and might well start this evening. These are all players of known quality at the USL PDL level who, in a very small number of games, haven’t done what we’d hope for. The best of them will have a big day sometime; such players always do. The question is whether they’ll have in the Juan de Fuca Plate, as both Levis and Cousens did in 2013. Levis, in particular, should have a burr up his ass against his former side, and while none of his teammates could get on the end of his service in the first leg he was a hard-running bastard with something to prove.
The second is the Highlanders schedule. Victoria needs to hop right back on the ferry after the game and be at Royal Athletic Park for a 7 PM Saturday start against the Washington Crossfire. If I may speak on the Highlanders’ behalf, I think they’d say that the Whitecaps game is bigger on paper, but they can’t run their team ragged and put on a poor show for the home fans either. The Crossfire have played a lot of mediocre seasons but they’ve picked up some players this year, including Canadian national futsaller Robbie Tice. Even if it’s only unconscious, there will be a certain element of “saving ourselves for Saturday” that might cause the Whitecaps to push just a little harder than their opposition, and that could be the difference.
If the Highlanders win or draw, they will take the Juan de Fuca Plate for the first time in their history. If the Whitecaps win by a two-goal margin, or win 2-1 or 1-0, they will for the third straight year take the Plate while tying Victoria on points. A 3-2 Whitecaps victory and we should be heading to the spot. The two-leg format is a shame, in that the tournament is over in a flash, and I hope more than ever that a third British Columbia USL PDL team comes to strengthen the trophy for 2015. But it’s going to be exciting tonight.
 — Martin, Aaron. “Whitecaps FC U-23 host Victoria Highlanders FC in Juan de Fuca Plate finale.” WhitecapsFC.com, May 22, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/05/whitecaps-fc-u-23-host-victoria-highlanders-fc-juan-de-fuca-plate-finale.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Juan de Fuca Plate III: Beyond Thunderbird.” Maple Leaf Forever!, May 2, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2014/05/02/juan-de-fuca-plate-iii-beyond-thunderbird/.
 — Martin, ibid.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Those Mehdi Ballouchy Statistics in Full.” Maple Leaf Forever!, December 19, 2013. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2013/12/19/those-mehdi-ballouchy-statistics-in-full-2/.
 — Dheensaw, Clive. “Hughes returns as Victoria Highlanders gear up for weekend.” Victoria Times-Colonist, May 22, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.timescolonist.com/sports/hughes-returns-as-victoria-highlanders-gear-up-for-weekend-1.1072167.
 — United Soccer Leagues. “Kitsap Pumas at Victoria Highlanders FC 1:1.” USLSoccer.com, May 17, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.uslpdl.com/scripts/runisa.dll?M2.65936:gp::72014+Elements/Display+E+47107+Stats/+4421160.
 — United Soccer Leagues. “Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 at Kitsap Pumas 1:1.” USLSoccer.com, May 11, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.uslpdl.com/scripts/runisa.dll?M2:gp:763820.8428:72014+Elements/Display+E+47107+Stats/+4421137.
 — United Soccer Leagues. “Official Roster ** Washington Crossfire – PDL 2014 **.” USLSoccer.com. Accessed May 23, 2014. http://www.uslpdl.com/teams/2014/13598705.html#ROSTER.