It’s been a long time since the Challenge Trophy was last played for on British Columbian turf, but the Canadian amateur soccer scene heads to the province for the first time in 11 years on Wednesday, with ten clubs looking to lift the famous 105 year old trophy.
Newton Athletic Park in Surrey plays host to this year’s Nationals. At stake is the Challenge Trophy. Founded in 1912 and first played for in 1913, the competition is Canada’s largest national cup competition and one of the older soccer tournaments in the country.
Before professional and semi-pro teams existed, this was the premier trophy in Canadian soccer. Although it’s prestige and perceived importance may have waned since it’s early days, and in particular since the time of the NASL and now MLS, the history and value of the trophy should never be overlooked. This is the pinnacle of Canadian amateur soccer.
Looking to make some history this year are Vancouver’s Club Inter.
Inter are taking part in the competition for the first time after winning their first ever BC Provincial Cup back in May. They will be looking to become the first BC team to win the Challenge Trophy since Pegasus lifted the cup in Charlottetown, PEI back in 2006.
Four British Columbian teams have come close since, finishing as beaten finalists. It’s been a long 13 years without the trophy residing in BC, but the chance to not only win it, but to do so on home soil, is all the motivation Inter are needing this week.
“We’re feeling really good, really excited,” Inter midfielder and captain Alex Marrello told AFTN. “The boys are all pumped up and feeling good about the opportunity. To be able to host it in BC, it’s a bit of an advantage maybe, if you use it in that way. The guys are excited to play in BC in front of their friends and family and compete at the highest level for the national championship.”
If Inter are to have their name etched into the history books, they’ll be joining an elite band of clubs. Ontario’s London Marconi were the last team to lift the Challenge Trophy in their home province back in 2014. PEI’s Churchill Arms FC won it in their home town in 2010.
They’re the only two teams to achieve that feat this century. Norvan ANAF were the last BC team to win it in this province back in 1992.
Inter’s road to the Challenge Trophy is quite the story in itself. The team went on one hell of a run once the snow in Vancouver finally melted away at the start of this year, only clinching a place in the Provincial Cup with a win in their last match of the regular VMSL season that saw them leapfrog into the qualifying spots.
Once there, they came through a number of gruelling encounters, before dispatching of FVSL champions Aldergrove United 2-0 in May’s final to win their first ever provincial title.
“It was a hell of a run, as you said,” Marrello said. “We had to adapt a lot of times in the Provincial Cup. There were a lot of tight games but I felt we did a great job of just managing the game and understanding how to get the wins at the right time.
“I agree at times it wasn’t the most pretty of soccer. We played a lot of pretty soccer throughout the year but we knew at that time it was time to win. We did what we had to do at that time with the players we had. It was a great run and big effort from the guys for sure. They really wanted it.”
This year’s Provincial Cup win was a bit cathartic for Inter following the 2015 final which they inexplicably lost to 3-1 EDC Burnaby despite dominating the match, although some equally inexplicable refereeing didn’t help their cause.
Bouncing back two years later was just the tonic.
“That was a tough one for us to lose,” Marrello admits. “It was definitely motivation coming in to this year knowing that we came so close that year. Even though it came so close, it didn’t happen for us. It stung for a while, so we definitely didn’t want that feeling again, so we knew what that moment was all about and I guess how to manage that and make sure we got the right result.”
Inter have built up a bit of a reputation in the VMSL in recent years for being slow starters, having mixed results in the first half of the season and then coming on strong in the second half. Their excellent run to the provincial title last season was testament to that.
This season though things have to be a bit different, and with the Challenge Trophy coming just one month after the new VMSL campaign began, it’s had to be. After losing their first match 6-2 to current leaders BCT Rovers Tigers United, Inter have found some form with back to back wins over CCB LFC United and EDC Burnaby, and feel they’re prepared as they can be for the nationals.
“Yeah, unfortunately that’s been a bit of our reputation the last few years,” Marrello admits. “That we’ve really started slow and kind of built up steam throughout the year. Coaches, players, everyone is trying to figure out why that always is for us. It’s certainly not planned.
“We seem to get up for the big games. I think that might be part of it, but also, for some of our guys who have graduated from the university program, we get them at the beginning of the year [January] instead of the middle, so that is a huge factor for us too.
“There has been a big emphasis on starting right and getting prepared. We didn’t want to go into Nationals on a losing streak or anything like that, so I think guys have really taken the offseason seriously and prepared as best as they can for this tournament. So it is true, we kind of pick it up at the end of the year, but this year we can’t afford to do that just because what at stake is so high.”
Despite the midweek scheduling of the tournament and some injuries to their squad, Inter have a strong roster ready for the gruelling six days ahead.
“Time off’s not been a problem, but we’ve come across a couple of injuries to our first team,” Marrello told us. “But in terms of availability, everyone’s available. There are a couple of injuries but that’s kind of something we’ve had to deal with as long as I’ve been on Inter. We always have guys missing or injured. We’re pretty good at adapting.
“I think we’re one of the better teams I’ve come across at adapting. For the Provincial Cup run we were missing our top defender or a top midfielder or an important centre for us or a goalie. We always seem to find a way to adjust and do well that way. We’re confident in our ability to adapt and whoever we’ve got on the field always comes to play for us in the big games I find.”
It’s an experienced Inter roster that will take to the pitch in Surrey, and Marrello feels that, and the leadership qualities they bring with them, gives the Vancouver club a big advantage when it comes to knockout competitions like this.
“One thing I can speak to on our team is we’ve got a lot of leadership coming from a lot of different players,” Marrello feels. “You look at our roster and we’ve maybe got eight or nine guys who were a captain at SFU, a captain at UBC, a captain of their college team in the States or a high level.
“There’s leadership coming from all over. Guys are really supportive of each other and that really helps us in the big moments because we’ve got so many leaders in the locker room and managing that.”
Inter will play five matches over the six days from Wednesday to Monday, four group games, then a positioning match on Thanksgiving. Inter find themselves in Group A alongside Calgary Callies (Alberta), Holy Cross SC (Newfoundland and Labrador), Saskatoon HUSA Alumni (Saskatchewan), and Western Halifax FC (Nova Scotia).
The winner of each group advances to Monday’s Challenge Trophy final, with the second placed team in Group A facing the second placed team in Group B for the bronze medal, and so on. Now it’s hard to know the strength of each team taking part, but based on previous nationals, you have to feel that Inter’s first match on Wednesday with Calgary Callies (4pm kick off) could go a long way to deciding the group.
“Yeah, typically going off most nationals, not all the time of course, Alberta have teams that are a big match up usually,” Marrello said. “The team from Alberta last year [Edmonton Scottish] are the defending champs, so that province is the defending number one seed.
“It will be really important to get off on a good foot there and get that first win underneath our belt because then we control our own destiny after that, whereas if we take a loss we’re going to have to hope and be needing them to trip up somewhere along the way and then it’s outwith our hands.
“So first game we’ve really put a big emphasis on coming out strong. There’s no time for a hiccup or a slow start to the tournament, it’s got to be right off the bat, everyone’s got to be focused and ready to go and firing on all cylinders really.”
Inter have some quality players that can do some damage in the tournament, Marrello included. Milad Mehrabi (pictured above) is their key striker, who has won national titles with UBC and certainly knows how to find the back of the net. He already has three goals in three VMSL matches this season, while his former Thunderbird teammate, Bryan Fong, is a rock in the Inter defence and a threat at set pieces.
But with so many games coming up in such a short period of time, Inter will have to make full use of their roster if they want to lift the Challenge Trophy on Monday afternoon.
“Squad management is huge,” Marrello admits. “Our line up is not the oldest, but it’s not the youngest. We have a good mix. It’s not going to be possible to roll the same 11 for the duration of the tournament. We’re going to have to rotate quite a bit.
“Our 20 man roster that we’ve submitted for the national championship, everyone’s more than capable of playing and to be honest, every single one of those players has stepped up and played a big role for us at some point last season or at some point with us at the club. There will be full rotation from defenders, midfielders, goalie, strikers. Everyone’s going to get involved and to be honest, I don’t think we can win without having a deep bench like we do.
“It’s not going to be like the Provincial Cup, where you have a week to rest, and go with the line-up that’s hot, it’s going to be play your games and hopefully someone else is going to come in and do the job.”
We’ll be bringing you coverage of Club Inter and their quest for the Challenge Trophy over the next week here on AFTN. Make sure you check out the tournament’s official section on the Canada Soccer website for all the tournament’s news, schedule, results, and live streaming of all the matches.