Through three games, Vancouver-based expansion club TSS FC Rovers is last in the USL Premier Development League with minus two points. Daniel Davidson appeared for TSS in Calgary before the paperwork for his registration had been completed, saddling Rovers with a three-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player. Given that ill-starred debut saw the Rovers blow a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to Calgary Foothills, this was an unusually direct addition of insult to injury.
TSS lost the second game of their Calgary doubleheader and returned to Vancouver 3 under par after two holes. Fairly frightful, though with many excuses; TSS (short for Total Soccer Systems) has risen to become one of the top private soccer academies in western Canada but this is their first season of competitive, national-level play. Their squad, all-Canadian but drawn from all over the West, had only been training together briefly before the PDL season started. Though many are alumni of the Whitecaps Residency almost none are of an age to have played together. And the Calgary Foothills, defending PDL finalists recently reinforced with former Canadian youth international Ali Musse, are no joke at all.
Even so, there’s no good way to botch paperwork or blow a 3-0 lead this side of terrorism. So when the Rovers walked through the tunnel at Swangard Stadium on Friday evening for their home opener against Eugene-based Lane United it could have been a ghastly experience. Vancouver loves winners, the big leagues, and feeling world-class. Down the Expo Line a popular Irish beat combo was playing a show for a sold-out, though not physically full, BC Place. Vancouver’s had PDL soccer before through the Vancouver Whitecaps, and crowds for those games were typically family members, girlfriends, and a couple resolute diehards even when the Whitecaps challenged for titles and produced national teamers by the handful. TSS is a big outfit but has no history in the spectator game. It could have been bad.
It was not bad. It was magnificent.
The game was entertaining, as the Rovers learned more about each other for 90 minutes, pushing a strong Lane side harder and harder, coming from 1-0 down to a 2-1 lead and control of the game, and settling for a draw only due to a bad but atypical mistake from defender Eric de Graaf. There is talent on this team: De Graaf is better than that blunder and UBC’s Zach Verhoven, a young player who was new to me, demonstrated electrifying pace and trickery down the right flank. If this team gels it’ll be capable of even more highlights than their first goal of the night, a tricky run from Verhoven leading to an even trickier finish by North Vancouverite Kristian Yli-Hietanan.
That’s not the most important thing, though. The Lower Mainland has something back which it lost years ago: high-level soccer free of nonsense. Not a monolithic corporate experience, nor a near-empty park where one is reluctant to speak lest he distract the midfield. A real game, with high quality and a spectator focus, but still intimate and downright fun.
Hundreds of fans filled Swangard Stadium for, to my memory, the best PDL crowd greater Vancouver had ever seen. Many wore TSS scarves. Even five minutes after kickoff the line for tickets was larger than the entire attendance for some PDL games. The girls scanning tickets at the entrance to the stand were almost breathless with amazement. “I really thought it would be just TSS people,” one said.
The Lane United support helped, as six fans made the seven-hour drive with drum, banner, cowbell, and songbook. Away support makes everything better. Former MLS Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit was at the game flogging stereos, and that was neat, but it was pleasant how few fans were there to gush over a celebrity.Fans sat peaceably in the grandstand, chatting, watching the game, enjoying themselves. Others leaned on the rails and talked tactics. Kids kicked the ball around Swangard’s open spaces while the game went on. It is still the best stadium to watch soccer in the country, mountains dramatically backlit by the setting sun through a passing storm, though there are a few more condos on the skyline than I remember. The Swanguardians, TSS’s nascent supporters group, appeared in strong numbers for their first day. Chris Corrigan, one of the ringleaders, had memorized a voluminous songbook based largely off old Tragically Hip singles, the sort of thing which never works. Except that, because these were a couple dozen people there to participate rather than be tourists, it did work, brilliantly, and many of those tunes could become staples.
Anybody who remembers Swangard in the Whitecaps USL days would have recognized the configuration: main grandstand on the west side, steel bleachers to the east and the south, with those on the south safely protected by temporary fences so that the rowdies would have to move slightly out of their way if they wanted to invade the pitch.
The supporters had great respect for these health and safety arrangements. When some decided to flee for the sunny north side they took part of the fence with them. Mamadi Camara stepped up to take TSS’s second-half penalty and supporters moved the fence nearer behind the goal, cheering Camara on to success. There’d been some social drinking but the real joy was in the freedom to enjoy a soccer game, to sing and move and cheer and heckle and have some fun rather than fit into the regimented world of a 20,000-seat stadium with in-house security, a supporters group with bureaucracy and politics, and a front office fretting over PR. There weren’t that many beers about, believe me: mostly we were drunk on liberty. We go where we want, we go where we want, we’re the Swanguardians, we go where we want.
What about the non-standing-and-chanting experience, the majority of the fans there for a good game? There were food trucks, cold beers (not that the evening needed cooling off). There was a constant, knowledgeable chatter in the air. And as mentioned the game, livestreamed on YouTube for the out-of-town crowd, was well worth the $10 for a ticket. Apart from the result, which was hard luck to an improving young team, the night was perfect. I walked away from Swangard feeling like a pain so old that I had forgotten about it had finally, blissfully gone. The arrival of TSS FC Rovers is the best thing to happen to Vancouver soccer in a long time.