It’s one of our favourite times of the year again here at AFTN – Provincial Cup time.
This year’s competitions got underway last weekend with the Preliminary round matches in the Keith Millar B Cup (more on which tomorrow), the A Cup, Masters, and U21 cups all get underway this weekend and, as always, we’ll have you fully covered here on the site.
Vancouver Metro Soccer League (VMSL) teams have won the last seven titles, with Club Inter lifting the famous old trophy at Burnaby Lake last May. Can a Vancouver Island Soccer League (VISL) or Fraser Valley Soccer League (FVSL) side stop the VMSL dominance this year and become the first team since islanders Gorge FC in 2010 to win the cup? Well it’s going to be a tall order, but that’s the beauty of cup football.
16 teams will battle it out for the glory, including defending champions Club Inter (pictured below), VMSL Premier champions BCT Rovers Tigers United, VMSL Imperial Cup winners Rino’s Tigers, VISL Division 1 champions Cowichan FC, and FVSL champs Coastal FC.
The VMSL have six berths this year. The VISL have five, after being awarded the previously floating spot usually afforded to the league of the defending champs. FVSL have five as well.
We’ll be bringing you our usual reports, photos, and videos of all the rounds here on AFTN, and continuing on from last year, we’ll also bring you Canucks4Ever’s previews from the Take The Piss forum. We bring you the first of those below, so enjoy and go out and support some local soccer.
BC Soccer’s showpiece event gets underway this week as the Province’s three top leagues begin to battle it out for supremacy in the A Cup. This year the final will be held at Swangard Stadium, as the sport’s governing body finally seeks to make this an event in the truest sense of the term. Who will be walking out of the tunnel come May 12? Let’s find out…
For those not familiar with my column, I am largely just pulling this stuff out of thin air. I try to find whatever information is readily available online, but ultimately I am just trying to generate some interest in local soccer in BC. If I have omitted or overlooked facts that you consider relevant to your team or league, it’s not done intentionally…get over it!
So let’s get my Completely Baseless Predictions underway…
Coastal FC (FVSL) v Croatia SC (VMSL)
[Saturday April 21 – South Surrey Athletic Park Field 3 – 12.00pm kick off]
We begin with the Match of the Round as FVSL Champions, Coastal FC, take on VMSL Imperial Cup runners up Croatia SC. To understand what makes this particular match so intriguing, you have to first go back a few seasons. In the spring of 2015, North Delta SC were FVSL Champions and Premier League Cup Champions. That powerhouse team narrowly lost a Provincial Cup semi-final to the VMSL’s Club Inter, who would go on to lose a controversial final to Estrella de Chile. With the VMSL long being considered the superior league in the Province, North Delta packed up shop and headed over to try their luck with the Vancouver boys on a weekly basis. Despite their pedigree, come the fall there was no room for them in the VMSL’s top flight and they were forced to take over the spot of the defunct Vancouver Olympics, who had been relegated the previous season.
North Delta could only muster a third place finish, outside of promotion. Their experiment looked to have failed as the team that had been lifting trophies just a season earlier, now was staring at second season outside of BC amateur soccer’s elite. Just as they were contemplating their future, the adult soccer landscape seismically shifted. Surrey United announced that they were leaving the VMSL for a return to the FVSL after the better part of two decades away. This opened up a third promotion spot and, after weirdly almost agreeing to a bizarre four team playoff, North Delta were back in the big time and now on, presumably, the biggest stage.
The 2016/17 season opened with much promise as North Delta were ready to prove that they belonged among the Province’s best and they started off well with a win over promotion cousins Westside and then a draw the following week. That would be as good as it got however, as, despite their immense talent, their season spiraled out of control. By the time they righted the ship they were too far gone and, while they were likely too good to go down and arguably not the worst team in Premier that season, they finished in last and were immediately relegated after just one season. After back to back campaigns in which they floundered outside without a sniff at the Provinces marquee tournament the brain trust had seen enough; it was mission aborted and back to the FVSL.
There was no spot to be had for “North Delta” but Coastal FC, whose adult men’s program had been in the sewer since the old Peace Arch days, was in the midst of a backroom shake up and offered the returnees a landing spot. So here we are again, FVSL Champions and Premier League Cup Champions in their first season back, it must almost feels like they never left. The real question though is, what lessons have they learned from their time away, as they get set to face a VMSL opponent at the first hurdle?
Croatia had a solid season, finishing in fourth and beating every team except Inter at least once. That included not losing to league title winners, Rovers Tigers in either of their meetings, coming away with a draw and a win. Neither team should be rusty in this one as both were involved in cup finals only two weeks back, with Coastal winning the Soccer City Premier League Cup over Langley while Croatia were edged by Rino’s in the Imperial Cup. Both teams boast offensive weapons as well, with Croatia employing the VMSL Premier Division’s leading scorer David Malamura while Coastal will counter with the FVSL’s Golden Boot co-runner up Jake Starheim. The man they called “Big Cat” back in his college days is bang in form as he had all four goals in that 4-0 cup win over Langley.
Croatia meanwhile were stifled by a young Rino’s side and looked as though they just could not keep up at times. One wonders if the cup final was just an off day for the team and talisman Johnny Sulentic, who looked to be off the pace himself, or if the Europeans are running out of steam after a long season. This match sets up as a cracker, but you have to believe that Coastal will have an extra gear. A first round loss to a VMSL opponent will do nothing to silence their critics and I think they will do whatever it take to get this one over the line.
Gorge FC (VISL) v Club Inter (VMSL)
[Sunday April 22 – Hampton Turf, Victoria – 2.00pm kick off]
Defending Provincial Cup Champions Inter had their usual strong finish to their season and turned it on when the games mattered down the stretch. That incredible ability to simply flip a switch once the games begin to “matter” is exactly what led to them winning this crown last year. The “Italians” needed a win on the last night of a hectic season away to then VMSL Premier Champions Coquitlam Metro Ford just to get into the tournament, but they got it and the rest is history.
After a violent incident following Inter’s Imperial Cup semi-final again Rino’s Tigers, winger Milad Rahmati has been indefinitely suspended, pending a hearing with BC Soccer. With this cloud now hanging over their season, Inter must prepare to try and defend their Provincial title without one of the men most responsible for helping them to earn it.
Inter are blessed with other top-level attacking players, most notably Rahmati’s namesake, Milad Mehrabi, who had a team leading 14 goals this season. Though the VMSLers are also without Todd Lucyk and Mike Nonni, who were sent off against Aldergrove during the crazy finish to the Provincial Cup Final against Aldergrove last season. Furthermore, Inter no longer have the services of last season’s Provincial Finals MVP, goalkeeper Erman Ozkan, who has retired.
The “Italians” did have a chance for a pre-tournament tune up and to get used to life without Rahmati in a drab 0-0 two weeks ago against West Van in a final rearranged fixture that wrapped up the VMSL’s Premier League schedule.
Hosting them in Greater Victoria will be Gorge FC. Once one of the top programs in the Province, Gorge are returning to the Provincials after a hiatus. With their close affiliations to UVic’s varsity program, Gorge were Provincial Champions in 2001, 2002, 2008 and 2010. Indeed, the Victoria based side are the only non-VMSL team to hoist the trophy since Victoria West lifted it in 1984.
Gorge did not have a sparkling season finishing sixth in the VISL’s top flight: Division 1, a full 19 points behind league winners Cowichan. Given their league standing, their only hope of qualification and a return to the Provincial Cup was via the Jackson Cup and, much like their opponents, Gorge found a way to get it done when the games mattered most. They knocked off the aforementioned Cowichan in the semis before beating fellow Provincial Cup entrants, Lakehill, in the final to become champions and, in doing so, got into the tournament ahead of a Westcastle team that edged them in the table.
They will need that knockout cup pedigree, along with likely a stellar performance from leading goal scorer John Shah, who had 11 goals, good enough for fourth best in the VISL Division 1, if they are going to have any hope of advancing. Inter are clearly the Goliath in this battle, but their season appears poised on a knife edge. Add in the travel factor and it is not impossible to conceive of a way that the Champions are dethroned. If things start to go against them, perhaps some questionable calls by “Island refs” or maybe a bad decision or rush of blood to the head early in the game and things could unravel for Inter.
The “Italians” are at their best with their backs against the wall and a chip on their shoulder; if they are eager to prove that they have been hard done by of late, watch out because they could attack like a wounded animal. However, if that spark just is not there, then I think the door is open for Gorge. Inter are favourites, but I’ll make this my Upset Special and say Gorge stun the world and find a way to win.
Rino’s Tigers (VMSL) v Aldergrove Utd. (FVSL)
[Sunday April 22 – Burnaby Lake West Field 3 – 1.00pm kick off]
Perhaps no match up will epitomize the rivalry between the VMSL and the FVSL better than this one. Last season Aldergrove helped the FVSL bang the drum as the noisy neighbours, tired of living in the shadow of the VMSL. Aldy won the league on the back of an MVP season from midfielder Connor Hildebrandt and an outstanding season from top scorer Brent Wiens. They were rewarded with a good Provincial Cup draw that saw them drawn at the top of the bracket. This resulted in them hosting back to back teams from the Island, who were dispatched, and then a depleted Westside team, who had finished in seventh place in the VMSL and needed to win a playoff just to get into the tournament, were defeated to book Aldergrove and the FVSL a spot in the Provincial Final.
Aldy gave as good as they got against powerhouse Inter, but in the end succumbed to a pair of goals, one in either half, by Milad Rahmati and lost 2-0. At the end of that match Hildebrant showed a flash of rash immaturity, going in two footed on an Inter defender. Somehow he escaped a red card for his actions, but his teammates Josef Duben and Sam Sinclair were sent off for their roles in the altercation that ensued and will be suspended for this match.
After climbing so high, Aldergrove suffered quite the hangover, slumping to a disappointing sixth place finish in the eight team FVSL Premier Division. They missed the goalscoring of Weins, who left the club part way through the season and has dealt with serious injuries in his past. However, Hildebrant, their heart and soul, flipped a switch and Aldy embarked on an impressive Pakenham Cup run. They needed to be crowned champions if they were to return to the Provincial Cup tournament and they delivered with a win over Surrey United in the final.
Up against them are the cup winners from the VMSL, Rino’s Tigers, who won the Imperial Cup 2-0 over Croatia. This is Rino’s inaugural appearance as a club in the Provincial Cup; the last time they were in the tournament they were a part of Westside. After splitting with Westside, Rino’s toiled in the VMSL’s Division 1 for a decade or so, before an opportunity presented itself to change their reality. After winning promotion to the Premier, fly-by-night club Ayjal Tigers lost their management structure and were looking to merge in the summer of 2015. Rino’s pounced on the chance to seize a coveted Premier spot, though their eagerness may have caused them to overlook the fact that they were ill prepared for this endeavor.
An embarrassing season ensued, as the team failed to win a single game in the Premier, ultimately being relegated with only two points to their name. A year in Division 1, honing their skills and focus, saw them return as Division 1 Champions and get their feet at the highest level. An influx of top college talent made the Tigers one of the top sides in the VMSL and, indeed, the Province as they went on a stunning pre-Christmas run, taking on all-comers. Rino’s posted a record of 5-1-0 from the middle of November through to the winter break, climbing as high as third in the table. They were within striking distance of the unlikeliest of title challenges, however, player availability conflicts saw their form downturn come the New Year.
They were in a dogfight with defending VMSL Champions and perennial Provincial Cup contenders Coquitlam Metro Ford for the league’s final berth in the post season tournament, but the young guns of Tigers never relinquished the upper hand and ultimately booked their place thanks to a fantastic cup run, though they did also finish high enough in the table to make their cup final appearance academic in terms of qualification.
Through it all though, from their days in Division 1 right through until today, you will not be likely to find stronger VMSL stalwarts and boosters than the brain-trust at Rino’s. They are part of the fabric of the league, dating back to their time with Westside and that club’s history. Now, after winning the biggest match in their current club’s short history, they will step out on the local game’s biggest stage against an enemy they have no doubt long wanted to combat.
This should be a classic and, much like the Imperial Cup final, will likely come down to what sort of team Rino’s can field. With their full squad, Rino’s can likely beat anyone in BC, but will their best players be available as a number of them will be on duty with TSS Rovers this summer in the PDL?
There is a reason they were the VMSL’s top scorers on 63 goals. You know what you will get from Aldergrove, but can Hildebrant continue to spur this group on after a season that indicated that perhaps they have taken a step back this year? After watching the way Rino’s approached the Imperial Cup final, it is clear that they will have a game plan and the ability to execute it. Assuming that they have their best 11 available, I think they have to have the edge in this one.
Langley Utd (FVSL) v Surrey Utd (FVSL)
A domestic battle from the FVSL rounds out the top half of the bracket. Surrey United made waves big time when they announced ahead of the 2016/17 season that they would be returning to the FVSL after breaking into the VMSL almost two decades prior when they merged with Vancouver Firefighters. After their initial move, they would win the Provincial Cup in 2003 before becoming back to back Provincial Champions in 2012 and 2013 during the heyday of their program.
With their executive in flux and their adult team in a downturn, Surrey decided to return to where it all began and went back to the FVSL. Here, in what has at times been considered the inferior league on the mainland, the extent of how far Surrey’s program had fallen was laid bare, as they failed to qualify for the Provincial Cup for the first time in recent memory. A season on though and they have seemingly righted the ship, behind a merger of sorts with the now defunct Port Moody Rangers, and led by the performances of top scorer and FVSL MVP Sean Einarsson.
The once Firefighters finished tied for second in the league with their opponents, Langley United. Langley have picked up right where they left off last season after an impressive Provincial Cup campaign that saw them reach the semi-finals before losing narrowly to eventual champions, Inter.
Langley began their tournament last season by traveling to the Island to face VISL top seed Cowichan and then they overturned VMSL runners up, the upstart Rovers Tigers. Langley are led by the impressive Andrew Hicks in goal, who backstopped TSS Rovers as their number one in their inaugural PDL season last summer, and led the FVSL this year with six clean sheets.
The teams split their four meetings this season, with Surrey winning the first two matches in the league while Langley would take their final league meeting as well as a win in the League Cup semi-final. This one looks to be as tight as it gets, but I will tip Langley here. The Willoughby based club has to be hungry after last season and they have that experience to draw on, which can make the crucial difference at this time of year.
Cowichan FC (VISL) v West Van (VMSL)
[Saturday April 21 – Sherman Road Turf, Duncan – 1.00pm kick off]
It is deja vu for Cowichan as once more they return as VISL Champions and the league’s top seed.
It all looked good last year with a home draw against Langley from the FVSL, but they were beaten on their own patch and trounced out of the tournament. It was a similar story in 2016 where they were again seeded from the Island and again, they lost at home, this time in the second round to Croatia. In 2015, the same, VISL Champions and seeded, but they would lose their semi-final to a surprise Estrella de Chile team, who would go on to become unlikely champions.
This is their impressive fourth consecutive VISL title and they must surely be hoping that this is finally their year to show off what they can do on the big stage.
Looking to continue the misery for the Island boys will be a West Van team who finished the VMSL season as one of the league’s hottest teams. After being mired in mid-table mediocrity for much of the beginning of the season, it was starting to look like the former Trollers would be in a dogfight just to make it back into this tournament. However, the North Shore boys hit their stride come the end of November as, after a trio of 1-0 defeats, they would finish their league campaign without another loss 7-4-0.
Their only blemish would be an Imperial Cup semi-final loss to Croatia, though they did add cup wins over both Coquitlam and Pegasus to add to their impressive run. Now they are forced to take their show on the road, though for all of the mainland teams, West Van has likely the easiest journey to Cowichan, hopping on the ferry at Horseshoe Bay and heading down the Island Highway.
They would do well to keep an eye out for Cowichan’s 21 goal scorer Patrick Nelson, when they get there, as his tallies over an 18 game season contributed to Cowichan’s VISL co-leading 50 goals for on the season. More impressively this match up pits the two best defences from their respective league’s against each other. Cowichan only conceded 15 goals and saw keeper Darian Achurch keep a clean sheet in seven of their 18 matches. Meanwhile, West Van only gave up 20 goals over 22 games and kept an impressive 10 clean sheets of their own in the league, plus another in cup play.
This one looks to set up as a cagey affair and quite likely the first goal might just win it. Toss a coin here; West Van are hot, but Cowichan deserve the respect as four time league winners. I will tip the top seed from the Island, but would be in no way surprised to see West Van bring back the W on their return sailing.
Nanaimo Utd (VISL) v Lakehill FC (VISL)
[Saturday April 21 – Merle Logan Turf, Nanaimo – 5.00pm kick off]
A VISL domestic match up made possible by their additional entry into this season’s tournament. The VISL was awarded a fifth berth in the tournament this year and that bonus spot means Lakehill are in instead of a seventh team from the VMSL, which would have been Coquitlam Metro Ford.
To Lakehill’s credit, they boast the VISL’s top scorer, Ryan Andre, among their ranks and he put up a very impressive 24 goals in 18 games. Daragh Fiztgerald led the way in the goal scoring department for Nanaimo again this season with a record of 18 goals that is not too shabby either. So neither side should have the problem putting the ball in the net, which should make for an entertaining affair in this one.
The difference between these two sides looks be on the defensive end as Nanaimo had the second best defensive record in the league, allowing just 25 goals again over their 18 matches. On the flip side, Lakehill actually had a negative goal difference at -2, after shipping 41 goals to their opposition over the 2017/18 campaign. That being said, the league meetings between these two were decidedly tilted towards Lakehill, as they emerged with 4-3 and 4-1 wins, accounting for nearly a third of all of the goals Nanaimo allowed this year.
Lakehill have also proven they can put up results when they matter as they made it all the way to the Jackson Cup final before being beaten by Gorge. They look to be a bit of a bogey team for Nanaimo, but can they put those thoughts out of their head and get the job done to avoid a first round exit for the third time in four seasons? I will follow the stats here and say that the defensive numbers have to pay off for Nanaimo at some point!
BCT Rovers Tigers Utd.(VMSL) v Vic West FC (VISL)
[Saturday April 21 – Cloverdale Athletic Park Field 3 – 4.00pm kick off]
Vic West were a distant second place to league winners Cowichan in the VISL’s Division 1 standings. They did put up just as many goals as Cowichan, netting 50 times in 18 games, but obviously failed to spread them out as effectively as their Mid-Island neighbours. They will travel to face a Rovers Tigers team that knows a thing or two about finding the net. Rovers were VMSL Premier Champions, scoring a solid 56 goals over 22 games. Their main target is former TFC man turned TSS Rovers mentor Nick Soolsma, who banged in an impressive 16 goals and finished second in league scoring.
Rovers are hardly a one man show though as Pavi Dhillon netted 11 times and Ryan Dhillon a further 10 times. Both teams might have to shake off some rust given that neither has played a meaningful game in a few weeks, but Rovers Tigers arrived with a mission this season and I expect their pedigree to show.
Rovers expected to be title contenders in the VMSL last season, but were found wanting by a dominant Coquitlam Metro Ford side. Their season culminated with them limping out of the Provincial Cup at the quarter final stage following a loss to Langley Utd. A year on and they put right their shortcomings from the previous campaign, winning the VMSL title as the class of the league, leading wire to wire.
Despite being humbled out of the Imperial Cup in a lopsided 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Inter, one has to assume that they will approach their second bite at the Provincial Cup apple with the same ruthlessness as they did their league campaign. Add in the fact that Victoria will have to deal with the always relevant travel factor and this one could be a long day at the office for the Island lads.
Pegasus FC (VMSL) v Port Moody Gunners (FVSL)
[Friday April 20 – Newton Athletic Park, Surrey – 8.30pm kick off]
It is the “Oh yeah, them” game of the first round with second place from the VMSL, Pegasus, hosting Port Moody from the FVSL. “Oh yeah, them” might be the best way to describe Port Moody’s season. They finished in fourth place and that is almost all you can really say about it. They did not play in a cup final, bowing out in the semi-finals of the Pakenham Cup and the quarter-finals of the Premier League Cup. They only got into the tournament because Coastal FC won the Premier League Cup and were already qualified as league winners.
The Gunners don’t particularity have a top goal scoring threat, Graeme Meers led the way with nine goals in 21 games. It is all rather blasé… Peg, for their part, had chances to reel in Rovers Tigers atop the VMSL table on a couple of occasions, even pulling level at one point in mid-November, but they always managed to stumble at the crucial moment.
They do boast game breakers in former Whitecaps prospect Sahil Sandhu and the veteran Javid Khan, along with top scorer Azad Palani, who scored 11 times in 22 games. Not sure Peg are title contenders this season, but they are favourites in this one. They certainly cannot take Port Moody lightly though because, despite not having a season that jumps off the page, the Tri-Cities boys are perennials in this tournament and are capable of getting the job done. Certainly not the flashiest fixture of the opening round, but neither team will mind flying under the radar. I’ll take the VMSL side to advance from this one.[You can find all of this weekend’s fixtures in all the cup competitions on the BC Soccer website]