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, 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 on a competitive Huskies team. Levis was 2008 Saskatchewan Youth Player of the Year 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 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. 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 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.
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”; the article is a Whitecaps press release which talks of the Plate at what, for a press release, counts as length. Typically, the Victoria Highlanders front page has nothing on the upcoming game, but their Twitter account has been promoting the Plate clash with excitement and they had an article on the Plate last week. Even the Victoria Times-Colonist has started mentioning the Juan de Fuca Plate.
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.