The Return of the Juan de Fuca Plate

By Benjamin Massey · June 23rd, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In January 2012 fans on the Vancouver Southsiders message board and the Lake Side Buoys Facebook group decided that they would like to emulate, on a smaller scale, the storied Cascadia Cup. The previous year and scarf manufacturer Ruffneck had put up a trophy for the USL Premier Development League clubs in their native Washington, and anything they could do, we could do better. Both the Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders had PDL teams and their fans, who don’t agree on much, concurred that a supporter-driven British Columbia trophy for the lower-division sides was essential. The Fraser Valley Mariners, also in the league, had no supporters to contribute but were not forgotten by those who did.

By that summer funds were in place, all donations by individual supporters and families. The trophy was commissioned. Drew Shaw, the Lake Side Buoy who’d come up with the original idea, also carved a handsome trophy base out of Western Maple in the shape of the province of British Columbia. A banner was ordered. The trophy got the best name in semi-professional sports, the Juan de Fuca Plate, and one of the worst websites. There were ribbons and brass plates for the winner. It was all done with, by the standards of the supporters involved, immense professionalism, patience, and expertise. When the trophy was first unveiled it was genuinely gorgeous, even if the Plate itself is so light you can use it as a frisbee. (Note to winning players: please do not use it as a frisbee.) The fact that the Plate itself is the perfect size to fit as a lid on the Cascadia Cup is a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one.

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s no point denying that, to players, these things can be a joke. A trophy you get for playing between two and six games, depending on the season. Unbalanced schedules, no prizes or further competitions, not much history, lower-division eccentricity everywhere you look, and a dozen guys screaming like that few hundred dollars worth of wood and silver plate is the biggest prize in soccer. Players, coaches, and supporters have different perspectives, and this goes double in a developmental league like USL PDL when every player’s dream is, ultimately, to leave.

But the Juan de Fuca Plate was never quite risible. The Whitecaps PR staff, to their eternal credit, loved it immediately and went to some lengths promoting it. The Highlanders soon followed. Every game a few more fans came out to cheer a bit louder for this thing, and every year whichever team won it… well, they laughed and they shot the breeze, but they posed for photos, celebrated a little, passed the Plate around with honest interest, and seemed genuinely pleased to triumph. This was important to their fans and, when you’re playing on such a small scale, that importance can’t help but be felt on the field.

Indeed, we built better than we knew. Highlanders and Whitecaps supporters built and piloted the project. Yet everyone was instinctively cautious about perpetually committing it. The engravings on the Plate declare that it was donated “by supporters of football in the province of British Columbia.” The ribbons were procured in the colours of Vancouver, Victoria, and (rolls eyes) Fraser Valley1, but a set of generic BC ribbons were also ordered. Conceived with USL PDL in mind, the trophy is really for “lower-division soccer;” it’s about a BC derby in some form rather than specific clubs or leagues.

This was wise. The Fraser Valley Mariners folded after the first Plate. The Whitecaps PDL team seemed to be in jeopardy every spring and, after the summer of 2014, it was formally shut down. That same year Alex Campbell pulled the plug on the Highlanders and, with nobody left to play for it, the Plate went into abeyance. Two seasons passed. The Highlanders returned under new ownership, alone. As the 2014 defending champion and the sole representative of British Columbia their fans held the Plate by incontestable right, but they could only serve whisky off it in solitude until, late in 2016, it was announced that Richmond’s Total Soccer Systems had bought the Washington Crossfire and would bring them to BC.

It is June 23, 2017. After three years, one month, and one day, the Juan de Fuca Plate will again see the light of day at Swangard Stadium.

In USL PDL, that’s a century. Since the last Juan de Fuca Plate match the newco Highlanders have assembled an almost-entirely-new roster missing, among many others, their formerly totemic brothers Jordie and Tyler Hughes. Cam Hundal, the only three-time Plate champion, is out of the league this year. The Rovers boast several Whitecaps Residency alums but nobody who happened to get into a Plate game. The only player on either team with a second of Juan de Fuca Plate experience is 35-year-old Highlanders forward Blair Sturrock, a veteran of the Scottish and English Football Leagues as well as, much more importantly, the 2013 and 2014 Plates. Indeed Sturrock contributed to the greatest moment in Plate history, when Marco Carducci robbed him blind in the 86th minute of 2013’s final game to get the Whitecaps the trophy.

Yet the Plate remains, its fans loyal as ever. The banner has apparently been lost but the trophy was pulled out of storage and shined up before the Rovers move was even official. It helps that many Rovers supporters are current or former Whitecaps south-end standees, who either feel alienated from the franchise or want local flavour to go along with their full-time MLS fun. A few of the Vancouver donors to the Plate already go to Rovers games. Michael McColl, who took care of the Plate’s on-field history at AFTN Canada, donated to the Plate in 2012 and does Rovers colour commentary in 2017. The Highlanders have been through very tough times, but the Lake Side Buoys are with us still and God willing always shall be.

2017 Juan de Fuca Plate Schedule
Date Time Home Away Venue Stream?
06-23 19:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
06-25 18:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
07-09 14:00 Victoria Highlanders TSS FC Rovers Centennial Stadium, Saanich YouTube

We’re a small community, British Columbia soccer supporters, but we’re good at what we do. The Ruffneck Cup, which partially inspired the Juan de Fuca Plate, has been defunct since 2015 even with two Washington teams remaining in PDL. The Cascadia Cup is stronger than ever but politics, both of the soccer and the non-soccer varieties, have taken away some of the old joy. Nothing could be more oblivious than to praise the purity of an semi-professional soccer competition that hardly anybody knows about and which took the past two seasons off as some moral success. But though the Plate’s grassroots, intimate character is as much a product of circumstance as design, it’s still terrific. Every fan who shows up at tonight’s Plate match is going to get close enough to hold the trophy and get a photo with it, if he so chooses. That can only happen because there are so few, which is a mixed blessing, but it sure is fun.

Not that we shouldn’t want the Juan de Fuca Plate to grow. This very article, in its minute way, will hopefully push a few more fans towards it. Sometimes I fantasize about that very trophy being presented to the professional champion of British Columbia before 25,000 screaming Canadian Premier League supporters. Growth does not have to sever our connection to the trophy we made. The Canadian Soccer Association has handed out the Voyageurs Cup for the past ten years and the main complaints from long-time Vs is that the name of the corporate sponsor was too prominent and the presenting Voyageur only sets the trophy on a plinth rather than passing it to the winning team. If you laughed at how penny-ante those problems are, you understand why I’d love to see the Plate become as big a deal in our league as the Cascadia Cup is in the American one.

Such dreams are years in the future, and not just because a CanPL with multiple British Columbia teams is so far away. The Juan de Fuca Plate has to rise to that dignity. TSS Rovers play the Victoria Highlanders at Swangard Stadium on both Friday and Sunday evenings (tickets $10, online or at the door). The return engagement is in Victoria on Sunday, July 9 at the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium (tickets $12). You should come, if you are at all able, or watch on YouTube if you are not. Do it to support the local game. Do it so you can say you were there when this was all green fields. Do it because it’s a sunny day and Swangard Stadium in the sun is the best place in the world. Most of all, do it because dozens of supporters, players, coaches, and front office people have somehow combined to create a perfectly beautiful gem that you can enjoy on the most intimate terms, in a soccer culture where we’re usually competing to be the most cynical.

The Juan de Fuca Plate Finale: Rain and Ringers

By Benjamin Massey · May 23rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

While I have a moment, my brief thoughts about the upcoming Juan de Fuca Plate finale between the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and the Victoria Highlanders at UBC Thunderbird Stadium (5PM, free admission).

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[1]. 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[2]. 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[3]. 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[4]. 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[5] 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[6]; 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[7]. 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[8]. 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.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate III: Beyond Thunderbird

By Benjamin Massey · May 2nd, 2014 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

This Sunday the third Juan de Fuca Plate kicks off at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park (2:00 PM, tickets $15). As you know the Juan de Fuca Plate is an annual competition between British Columbia’s USL PDL teams, similar to the Cascadia Cup or the pre-2008 Voyageurs Cup. The Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s have taken both previous championships, both times under thrilling circumstances, and the Plate has earned a growing following on both sides of the Strait.

The game is also the opening act of the short but punchy play that is the USL PDL season, and after rave reviews for 2013 this year’s set of players have a tough act to follow. The Whitecaps U-23s had their best campaign in years. Led by a rambunctious attack that tried to win every game 4-3 (and a backline you could take a wheelchair through), they snuck into the final playoff spot in the PDL Northwest Division before going out to the Portland Timbers U-23s on penalties[1]. Victoria did even better. Boasting maybe the most well-rounded attack in the Western Conference plus a solid defense, the Highlanders under first-year coach Steve Simonson won the Northwest Division, brushed aside Portland, and beat the Ventura County Fusion (not far removed from a 1-1 draw with the senior Canadian men’s national team) in extra time. Only Canadian rivals and regular season champions Thunder Bay proved a match for Victoria in the league semi-final. A far cry from 2012, when British Columbia’s PDL teams were at best mediocre and at worst almost historically bad, leading to my writing one of the most hand-wringing articles about USL PDL in history[2].

After that neat 2013, this year sees a change of focus for the Whitecaps U-23 that should be welcomed by your average supporter. Vancouver will carry only seven CIS players on the roster, along with up to three first team loanees per game; the rest of the roster will be Residency players[3] (plus, one suspects, one or two others). While some of the previous Whitecaps CIS players were obvious talents the large majority were, frankly, no-hopers, seemingly brought in just to cheaply fill a lineup card: seven is probably plenty to give blue-chip university players a chance to shine. More importantly, the best of the U-18s can now once again play valuable minutes against grown men, as was done prior to 2012 with such success.

The best CIS player from last year’s Whitecaps U-23s, forward Niall Cousens, is back, as is popular midfielder Harry Lakhan and 2012 U-23 standout Reynold Stewart (not far removed from a crack at the NASL combine[4]). Attacking midfielder/forward Brett Levis is the biggest addition: a member of the 2013 Victoria Highlanders, Levis played magnificent soccer as a PDL rookie, finishing tied with Jordie Hughes for the team lead and joint eleventh in USL PDL with nine goals. This earned him a trial with the Whitecaps first team[5] and 36 minutes of a single Reserves match, with an assist, in Seattle on August 26; I am convinced Levis has professional promise. New addition Cody Cook out of Cranbrook joins Vancouver from a Mount Royal University program that includes former Whitecaps U-23 man Tyrin Hutchings and Thiago Silva (not that Thiago Silva), while Levis’s Saskatchewan teammate Jordan Farahani will help returning diminutive fullback Colton O’Neill bolster last year’s shakey backline. The key missing names are those of Whitecaps-affiliated NCAA players such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, and Brody Huitema. Hopefully we’ll see a few pleasant surprises, but the presense of MLS-contracted professionals will make the NCAA players unlikely to appear.

There’s talent there. I’ve been wild about Levis for a year now. Not only was he arguably Victoria’s best player in the 2013 PDL season, he led Canada West in shots and shots per game despite scoring “only” seven goals (tied for sixth in the conference). Reynold Stewart had one of the best university seasons in the country: captaining UBC to the national championship, finishing tied for fourth in Canada West scoring with Cook[6], and being named Canada West Player of the Year and CIS First-Team All-Canadian. Cousens had a relatively disappointing campaign numerically at UBC, but his performances still looked good and he lit up the national championships enough to be named tournament MVP[7]. Cousens, Stewart, Levis, and Farahani were first-team Canada West All-Stars. Lakhan was Second-Team, and Levis was also Second-Team CIS All-Canadian[8].

The team also has a new head coach, Niall Thompson. You talk about coaching instability, Thompson is the Whitecaps’ sixth PDL boss in six seasons, joining Stuart Neely, Craig Dalrymple, Richard Grootscholten, Colin Miller, and Thomas Neindorf. That said, in recent years the U-23 coaching job has seemed like a bit of a sideshow and Thompson is an admirably ambitious appointment. Best known as a former Whitecap and Canadian international (scoring twice) as well as one of the best players in the amateur ranks late in his career, Thompson comes from outside the program. His most recent success has been as head coach of the Surrey United adult men. Thompson led Surrey to the finals of the 2013 Canadian Challenge Trophy, losing a closer 3-0 game than the score suggests[9] and winning, along with a cabinet-full of team awards, BC Soccer Adult Coach of the Year honours in 2012-13[10].

Then there are the MLS players. The selection will vary from week to week. USL PDL rules allow three MLS loanees in the eighteen per game, and you can almost count on one of those loanees most weeks being goalkeeper Marco Carducci. Carducci played a bit of PDL last year and, more than any other player, was responsible for securing the Juan de Fuca Plate for Vancouver in the final game, including an absolutely heroic double save off Jordie Hughes and Blair Sturrock. His save percentage last season was a frankly obscene 0.882 in three games; it’s impossible for him to keep that up, but won’t it be fun to see him try? Other first teamers will doubtless put in appearances: based on nothing at all I expect to see a bit of Sam Adekugbe, a bit of Christian Dean, a few others. More importantly, some U-18s will try to make the step up. Kianz Froese, a top U-18 midfielder, played some PDL in 2012 and scored a goal. Marco Bustos will (probably) get his first PDL experience this season and ought to bring some playmaking flair. Aspiring professionals like Nicholas Prasad, Dario Zanatta, and Jordan Haynes will get a big opportunity on a higher stage against stronger players. With seven CIS guys plus up to three MLS loanees making ten, that’s a minimum of eight other players in the lineup every game, and it’s great for development. As the 2008 Whitecaps Residency, who advanced to the PDL final on the backs of U-18s Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Philippe Davies, Simon Thomas, Antonio Rago, Gagan Dosanjh, and others could attest, the kids can be pretty competitive too.

The Victoria Highlanders lineup, with their greater success and different priorities, has had less of a makeover but features some big changes. Lower Mainland fans will recognize more than one Highlanders addition. They hit NCAA D2 Simon Fraser University for three new players[11], all with PDL experience. Forward Carlo Basso bagged the winner off a corner in a scrimmage against the Whitecaps Reserves earlier this week and has scored ten goals in 1,453 minutes minutes over 29 games with the PDL Ottawa Fury in 2012 and 2013[12]. Basso also scored eight goals with Simon Fraser in NCAA D2 play last year, fourth on the team[13]. A big, classic target man, Basso’s scored goals before and could be a handful for small Northwest Division defenses. Midfielder Alex Rowley was formerly with the Whitecaps Residency, and while he didn’t get the press of flashier comrades his improving all-round game drew the right sort of attention. He played about six hundred PDL minutes with Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 without scoring, and in 2011-12 had a (cracking) goal and a couple assists in 1,682 minutes with the Whitecaps U-18s. Goalkeeper Brandon Watson was Victoria’s starting keeper in their inaugural 2010 season, playing 1,170 minutes[14] with a 0.731 save percentage and three clean sheets, and will fight the returning Elliott Mitrou for minutes between the sticks. A fourth SFU player, midfielder Tarnvir Bhandal, is a returnee from 2013 where he played 261 minutes.

Another well-known Highlanders addition is Cam Hundal[15]. The Victoria native and UVic student played the last two PDL seasons with the Whitecaps U-23s, recording eight goals and four assists in 2,045 minutes, as well as 19 minutes of MLS Reserves action on June 5, 2013 against Chivas USA and three Canada West All-Star nods with the good Vikes team. He’s an attractive wide-right midfielder and hasn’t looked out of place against the Whitecaps first-teamers at UVic. With his hometown Highlanders Hundal will be alongside several UVic teammates, which can only lead to improved performances. We can argue about whether he squares the balance for the Whitecaps poaching Levis, but either way he’s a dandy addition who’ll bring flair to what was an effective but often workman-like attack. A few ex-Highlanders have turned out for the Whitecaps U-23s over the years such as Sasa Plavsic, Michael Marousek, and now Levis, but I believe Hundal and Rowley are the first to go the other way.

More casual Canadian fans will be most interested in one-time Canadian international Emmanuel “Manny” Gomez, who joined the Highlanders midfield earlier this month[16]. Gomez has spent his entire professional career in Argentina so isn’t really a known quantity in his homeland, but came to national attention in a big way when he was named by Colin Miller to the senior national team’s January 2013 camp for friendlies against Denmark and the United States[17]. Gomez did not appear in either game but it was enough to make him, along with captain Tyler Hughes, one of two Highlanders with senior international experience (Hughes appeared for Frank Yallop at two training camps in 2004 and 2005 while with the Toronto Lynx, also without a cap[18]). While it’s hard for us unfamiliar with Argentine lower-division soccer to say what Gomez will bring, it’s reasonable to guess expectations will be high.

The Highlanders also return a strong core of playoff-hardened veterans including Riley O’Neill, former Football Leaguer Blair Sturrock, the Ravenhill brothers Andrew and Adam, Ryan Ashlee, and defender/captain Tyler Hughes. More than a few of their younger players are coming off high honours. Mitrou and Andrew Ravenhill were first-team Canada West, and forward Cam Stokes was second-team after tying, with Hundal and UBC’s Milad Mehrabi, for the lead in conference scoring[19]. Ravenhill was second-team CIS All-Canadian, continuing a solid career progression for the excellent young defender that a year ago got Ravenhill a trial with the San Jose Earthquakes[20]. They’ve also brought in a few new players about whom I am not well-informed, notably CIS First-Team All-Canadian and Cape Breton University captain Ian Greedy[21].

And of course, the team retains the pair of general manager Mark deFrias and head coach Steve Simonson which paid the Highlanders such dividends last season. Simonson wound out of the USL PDL Coach of the Year running (that went to Austin’s Paul Dalglish, which frankly was fair enough) but I think it’s fair to say everyone was thoroughly impressed during his first year as a high-level men’s coach. Last year’s Highlanders were exceptionally strong and earned their record, and while the loss of Levis is a titanic one, the additions of Gomez, Hundal, and Basso are a good shot at compensating.

Is it enough to win Victoria their first Juan de Fuca Plate? It’s hard to say. The Plate is just a two-leg series and anything can happen over 180 minutes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will deny the Highlanders were a better team than the Whitecaps U-23s last year, but the Whitecaps won the Plate (thanks again, Marco and Niall). So a certain prediction in either direction is bloody rash. But Victoria does seem to be the stronger team, particularly in the early season when most Whitecaps U-23s will be adjusting to PDL pace but the Highlanders will already, by and large, be familiar with each other. And that matters, since the Juan de Fuca Plate ends May 23.

So yes, I have Victoria taking the plate, which is the one way to guarantee they won’t.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate and More On the Line Friday

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2013 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had hoped to make the bulk of these points in episode twelve of Two Fat Bastards this week. Unfortunately, we ran into technical problems with the recording: we did the podcast but recorded it with a different program than usual and it turned out the result was about 50% static. You couldn’t even hear most of what Brenton had to say. So the podcast is off and I’m getting my Juan de Fuca Plate thoughts out in article form.

Obviously, Friday’s match between the Victoria Highlanders and the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s (Thunderbird Stadium, 7 PM) is about as big as USL PDL regular season soccer gets. It’s the finale of the Juan de Fuca Plate, for one thing. Victoria won the opening game in Vancouver 3-2, then the Whitecaps U-23s won in Victoria by the stunning score of 5-3. The result is that Vancouver has the advantage on goal differential. If Vancouver wins or draws, the Whitecaps U-23s retain the Juan de Fuca Plate. If Victoria wins, the Highlanders take the Plate for the first time. It’s as simple as could be hoped for; once again, the Juan de Fuca Plate is coming down to the last game.

PDL Northwest Standings, June 27
Pos Team GP Pts
1 Victoria 9 22
2 Portland U-23 9 20
3 Vancouver U-23 10 16
4 Seattle U-23 9 13
5 Kitsap 10 8
6 Washington 8 7
7 North Sound 9 4
Each team plays 14 games.
First place advances to Western Conference semi-final.
Second and third place play off in a single leg; winner advances to Western Conference semi-final

It also has substantial playoff implications. Victoria is first place in the USL PDL Northwest Division with 22 points in nine matches. They’re two points up on Portland and have a tough schedule: four of their last five games on the road, not a single gimme (Washington is close), and their one home game against the Timbers U-23s. First place is important. Three teams make the playoffs but the second and third-place teams play off while the first-place team proceeds directly to the Western Conference semi-final[1]. Victoria will badly want to hold off Portland and a win against Vancouver will be essential.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps are also in the playoff picture but only just. With 16 points through ten matches, the Whitecaps U-23s are three points up on the Seattle U-23s but Seattle has a game in hand[2]. Nobody below Seattle is a major threat. The good news is that Vancouver’s schedule is relatively easy. Three of their four games are at home and the road game is at North Sound which should be automatic points.

With an easier schedule we can probably count on Seattle taking at least nine points from their remaining five games and very possibly more; the Whitecaps need results. But if Vancouver manages some big wins it’s just possible they’ll reel in Portland. Victoria is probably too far ahead to catch unless they’re swept by the Timbers in their two games (and can probably print tickets to their second-ever PDL playoff appearance one way or another); Portland itself might be just doable. Apart from one game home to Washington Crossfire Portland’s schedule is not easy, and they still have to play in Vancouver. Most importantly, Portland and Victoria still need to play both their games this year. Those two will decide a great deal. But even if the Juan de Fuca Plate didn’t exist, both Victoria and Vancouver would desperately want the three points Friday.

As of this writing the Highlanders have two players in the top ten of USL PDL scoring. Veteran Jordie Hughes is tied for third with nine goals in 810 minutes. USL PDL rookie and University of Saskatchewan product Brett Levis is tied for eighth with seven goals in 792 minutes; Levis is also tied for eighth in assists with four. Hughes and Levis lead the Northwest Division in scoring and Levis is tied for second in assists with Vancouver’s Niall Cousens. Levis is young and, as I expressed hope and confidence in him back in May[3], I’m thrilled to see he’s having a remarkable first USL PDL season. Hopefully he gets attention from the professional ranks. FC Edmonton needs a domestic forward.

Vancouver is getting good offense (six goals and four assists) from Cousens, another first-year USL PDL player but one with professional experience in the Czech Republic. Harry Lakhan has six goals but doesn’t really fit the mould of a high-scoring midfielder and seems likely to come to earth. Beyond that there aren’t many big scorers. The likes of Bobby Jhutty should bag a few here and there (Jhutty is coming off a brace against Seattle) and ex-Highlander Sasa Plavsic is waiting to get off the schneide, but this team is missing Gagandeep Dosanjh.

So give Victoria the advantage in front-line scoring. Meanwhile, Vancouver is down on squad depth. First-team players will be concentrating on Vancouver’s game Saturday against DC United, and the Whitecaps U-23 lineup will have only MLS no-hopers. The Whitecaps U-18s are also likely to be unavailable, having played a Thursday afternoon USSDA playoff game in Texas. The defense will be hurt by the release earlier this week of Adam Clement; Clement was actually not a strong PDL player but he was still one of the regulars in the lineup at left back and occasionally centre back. There is little defensive depth without Clement: captain Derrick Bassi is good, James Farenhorst was terrific in 2012 and deserves more playing time than he gets, but nobody else stands out in a good way. (A good reflection of the first team, that.) Victoria’s defense isn’t sterling, but it is good. Elliot Mitrou is a reliable keeper and Kalem Scott is having another good year.

In the Whitecaps’ favour, they have scored seven of the twelve goals Victoria has conceded this year (nine games). They played Victoria very tough in the game at Thunderbird Stadium, and while I missed the Victoria leg I am told it was a USL PDL classic with both teams hammering each other like heavyweights. In both cases Vancouver acquitted themselves well. The U-23 players (as opposed to the MLS Reserves and the U-18s) also look good for Vancouver this year: Jhutty has improved over last year, Cousens is the real deal at this level, and there’s plenty of quality in players like Bassi, Hundal, Plavsic, and Farenhorst. The main weakness I’ve seen is that the Whitecaps are a bit too donut-like: they’re great on the outside but there’s a big hole in the middle.

One must hesitantly call the Highlanders favourites for Friday. They are playing excellent soccer and Vancouver will be understrength. But these are two of the USL PDL’s better teams clashing for a trophy and more. It looks like we can expect a barnburner.

(notes and comments…)

Juan De Fuca Plate Act Two, Scene One: British Columbia’s Supporters Soccer Championship

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2013 · 3 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Tonight is the first game of the 2013 Juan de Fuca Plate. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23s will take on the Victoria Highlanders on the hallowed Polytan of Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM in USL PDL action. A decent contingent of traveling Lake Side Buoys is expected, given that it’s a Friday evening game, and of course the Southsiders and Curva Collective are both promoting the game to their members. Both Victoria and Vancouver won their first game of the season (thanks, Kitsap Pumas!) so a competitive affair looks to be on the cards.

The Juan de Fuca Plate is a supporter-owned, held, and paid-for trophy to honour the best British Columbia semi-professional soccer team (currently defined as USL PDL). It was created last year by an alliance of Victoria Lake Side Buoys, Vancouver Southsiders, and Curva Collective, driven by Vancouver Island-based Victoria/Vancouver supporter Drew Shaw and named by prominent Lake Side Buoy Ted Godwin. 21 donors collectively raised almost $900 in a matter of weeks[1], paying for the trophy, a wooden base, a banner, and a new supporters championship in the spirit of the Cascadia Cup. There was no corporate sponsorship, no team or league support. It was all by the supporters and for the supporters, just like it should be.

Last year’s Plate was fought between Victoria, Vancouver, and the Fraser Valley Mariners; this year the Mariners are out of PDL so Victoria and Vancouver will duel over three matches. It is the hope of every fan that a third British Columbia USL PDL team arrives soon so the Plate may expand its reach. Indeed, one goal of the Plate is to raise awareness of USL PDL soccer in British Columbia and to draw support in what is a surprisingly excellent level of soccer. You hardly see a supporter who goes to a PDL game and doesn’t enjoy it. The play is fun, tickets are cheap or free, and the banter in the stands brings back memories of Swangard and the USL First Division.

The Highlanders beat Kitsap 3-0 in the very first game of the 2013 USL PDL season. Two of the goals were scored by familiar Victoria soccer faces, with pocket-sized University of Victoria Vikes standout Tommy Mallette scoring the first and Highlanders legend Jordie Hughes the last; Vikes alumnus Joel Wilson stopped a penalty kick. The other scorer was Brett Levis, a standout 20-year-old forward out of the University of Saskatchewan who may be far from the Highlanders’ usual recruitment territory in British Columbia but is off to a good start.

Levis is the sort of player who PDL ideally gives chances to: a fine CIS player, second-leading scorer in Canada West last year behind Gagandeep Dosanjh and first in shots[2] on a competitive Huskies team. Levis was 2008 Saskatchewan Youth Player of the Year[3] but has otherwise never gotten major attention and never played for a Canadian youth national team. A solid PDL campaign represents Levis’s best chance to get attention from the professional ranks, as indeed Dosanjh did when he got a trial at FC Edmonton[4] after an excellent 2012 PDL season captaining the Whitecaps. Other notable CIS recruits from outside BC include the University of Alberta’s Jermele Campbell and St. Francis Xavier’s Ryan Ashlee (though he is Victoria-born). They are, of course, loaded with Vikes and the occasional UBC name as well; that’s without mentioning returning Canadian professional Riley O’Neill or random Scottish veteran and Football League journeyman Blair Sturrock[5]. The Highlanders do it right.

No complaints about the Whitecaps U-23 team either. Some fans and parents have been unhappy that, over the past two seasons, the Whitecaps have prioritized bringing in CIS players rather than just letting the Residency boys play PDL. Certainly, the mostly-U-18 Residency teams of old were great fun and often surprisingly competitive. But in 2012 and now 2013, a collegiate-heavy team has allowed both the Whitecaps and other professional teams to get a look at some forgotten talents. Derrick Bassi, captain of the 2011 Whitecaps Residency PDL team and a trialist at Toronto FC earlier this year[6] is the highest-profile returnee. Dosanjh is back as well, although a potentially nasty leg injury last week against Kitsap might rule him out. Other big names back from 2012 are centre back James Farenhorst (in the running for team MVP last year), excellent University of Victoria winger Cam Hundal, and fullback/midfielder Bobby Jhutty. Residency players Sean Melvin, Sam Adekugbe, Spencer DeBoice, Yassin Essa, and Carlos Marquez will probably be the biggest U-18 names on the team sheet, while others will doubtless slot in from time to time. And of course the Whitecaps can play up to three of their MLS players in any given game.

There are many new additions, the two highest-profile ones both being big forwards. Niall Cousens will be starting at the University of British Columbia this year after a European professional career that included time with the Slavia Praha academy and a number of appearances on the Canadian U-20 national team. The University of Fraser Valley’s Sasa Plavsic will be familiar to Highlanders fans as he played for them last year, managing to be the team’s second-leading scorer with four goals in only 670 minutes. Both Plavsic and Cousens looked dangerous against Kitsap, although it was the old Vancouver hands that did the damage: Hundal and DeBoice scored excellent goals in quick succession, with DeBoice in particular managing a superb left-footed shot from range. Kitsap’s one goal never should have counted as the ball was dribbled out over the end-line before being crossed, but the linesman missed it. That said, the run of play was disconcertingly close, and based only on two games against the Pumas the Highlanders look like a stronger team early.

Good news for Victoria, looking to win the second Juan de Fuca Plate. The Whitecaps won the first in maybe the most exciting PDL game I’d ever attended: after the Highlanders shocked the Whitecaps U-23s at Richmond’s Minoru Park, the Whitecaps went to their spiritual home of Swangard Stadium needing only a win over the Fraser Valley Mariners to take the inaugural Plate. The Mariners had only one point and three goals in PDL play all season; the Whitecaps seemed dead certain to win. Except, incredibly, Fraser Valley gave the Whitecaps a tremendous game, even taking the lead in the second half through Justin Isidro (their first lead in two months). The Whitecaps finally struck with quick goals from Hundal and Dosanjh after eighty minutes, securing themselves the Plate on goal differential in unexpectedly classic fashion[7].

After a first season like that, no wonder teams, leagues, and media are taking an interest in the nascent Plate. The top story on the USL PDL website talks of the “opening game in battle for Juan de Fuca Plate”[8]; the article is a Whitecaps press release which talks of the Plate at what, for a press release, counts as length[9]. Typically, the Victoria Highlanders front page has nothing on the upcoming game, but their Twitter account has been promoting the Plate clash with excitement[10] and they had an article on the Plate last week[11]. Even the Victoria Times-Colonist has started mentioning the Juan de Fuca Plate[12].

If you at all can get to Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM tonight for the game, do so. Admission is free, the soccer is quality, and you might be surprised how many of these college kids you wind up hearing from down the line in the professional ranks. Above all, every fan helps grow sub-MLS soccer in British Columbia. The Whitecaps first team draws 19,000 fans a night and nobody else regularly breaks 2,000. It’s staggering in a province as soccer-mad as ours. The Juan de Fuca Plate is one small thing trying to change that.

(notes and comments…)