Like Lightning In A Bottle: The Story of the Rovers
The first time I had heard of TSS Rovers was when they opened their club up for share ownership, sometime in 2021. I was thousands of kilometers away, finishing up my Masters in the Netherlands, when I stumbled upon an opportunity.
It was the first of its kind in Canada, a shared club where fans and wonders alike helped the club reach new heights. I was curious, then enthused, to join and become a shareholder. But I never imagined way back then that joining the club in this initiative would help lead them to what they have achieved now.
Fast forward two years, and now the name TSS Rovers is known to all soccer fans across Canada. The incredible Canadian Championship run has thrust them into the spotlight, with people from the Atlantic to their native BC speaking about them.
And as someone who has just recently moved to British Columbia to embark on a new journey, I cannot help but be inspired by their journey.
As a newcomer to the province, hailing originally from Ontario, I also cannot pretend to share the same enthusiasm or passion as those who have grown up alongside Rovers, from when they were playing in the USL and before.
I cannot imagine what it must be like for the fans, former and current players and staff, to see what this club has become after many years of hard work and dedication.
But I can resonate with their story, and recognize their ambition. For as a soccer fan growing up, who had to look East towards Europe and England, it’s a story that I had seen before, although never on these shores.
Upon following the English leagues, you hear about “the magic of the cup”, a tell-tale saying from Great Britain that exemplifies the miracles and upsets that occur frequently in their continental competition of the FA Cup. It’s where minnows topple giants, and David’s beat their Goliaths. It seems like each year there is a new whimsical fairytale story that whisks you up in their storyline.
I do not know if it’s scientific, sociological, or psychological, but humans can’t help but root for the underdog. And that’s what makes cup competitions like the FA cup so incredible. But for the longest time, it felt like such competitions were reserved for the European stage, where club history long extends memory and into legend. Never had I imagined that I would be able to see, let alone participate, in such a story. That was until the Rovers came along.
Once Canada Soccer had announced last year that the winners of the League1 British Columbia would join the previously admitted winners of League1 in Ontario and Quebec in participating in the Canadian Championship, the door cracked open for some magic to happen.
We had seen upsets before in this competition, like the infamous 4-3 victory at Starlight Stadium, where Pacific FC defied the odds and knocked out favourites Vancouver Whitecaps, the first time a Canadian Premier League side was able to do so in a one-off knockout match. But the possibility of a semi-pro team knocking out a pro side led many to believe that it was only a matter of time before an even greater upset could occur.
Was it to finally happen this year?
In April’s first round of the 2023 Canadian Championship, the two other semi-pro sides in FC Laval and Vaughan Azzurri crashed out at the first time of asking. The dream of the biggest “cupset” of them all rested on the shoulders of the Pirates of Burnaby. And they were up for the challenge.
In the buildup to their match against Valour at Swangard, the Rovers were doing their best to accrue resources. One vital flaw in the structure of the competition that still remains is that those who host a match have to cover all the costs of the visiting team, which is usually fine in the case of pro sides hosting other pro sides, but for a semi-pro team like Rovers, it was a tall order.
As the only semi-pro side team to host this year, all hands were on deck. They flooded their socials with posts about ticket sales, promoting that you could even donate your ticket to help out the cause, and utilizing the historicity of this match as their main marketing tool.
The Rovers brought more than just quality to the table. They brought history, experience, belief and a strong philosophy. Their story was so infectious that soon other teams in BC and across Canada were promoting their posts to ensure that they could succeed in their hosting. And it worked.
Queue the Miracle at Swangard, where over 2000 fans cheered on their team to an unprecedented 3-1 victory over Valour. Being there at the match was incredible. The crowd’s energy was so electric, it was like lightning in a bottle. The cheering was infectious, and the atmosphere was super-charged. Even as a journalist who was trying to maintain that journalistic neutrality and integrity, it was hard not to be wrapped up in the moment and cheer the side on. It was the first time that a semi-pro team has knocked out a pro team in this competition and, being at that game, you could tell how much that meant.
The cheers at the final whistle made the 2000 plus sound like 20,000. The flares, flags and fans were flying high, as the songs and chants lasted long into the night.
After the game, the man with the biggest smile on his face was Will Cromack, the TSS head coach that had master planned that game. When asked about what he said before such a match to make sure the players were ready for it, he simply replied “I told them to go make history”. And history they made.
He also explained the core pillars of the club, explaining that their job was to get these players to get to greater heights. Their goal was to wave goodbye to all their players as they went to bigger and better things, and then work on the next crop of young superstars, hungry for success. Such selfless nature from Cromack and the team makes it easier to understand how a small club from Burnaby was able to defy the odds because they embody what soccer is about, especially in a country that is still finding its feet in the sport, which is developing talent.
It’s a pure, wholesome intention that transcends what is often seen at top level, which is treating the game as a business or as an entertainment corporation. It’s simply about playing the beautiful game that we all love and cultivating it for something greater.
And although the Rovers lost 2-0 in the next round after an admirable fight against Pacific FC at their home ground, the spirits of the fans and coaches did not falter. The group of 200 who made the journey across the Strait made sure that their voices never faltered, even after the final whistle blew, after the players left the field, and until they were the last ones in the stands.
At the post-match conference, you could see that for Matteo Polisi, the hero of Swangard who scored two goals to sink Valour not a fortnight ago, the result was gutting. Disappointment was etched across his face, as one can expect from a player whose career has taken many turns, and whose ambitions strive for greatness. What was perhaps unexpected was that his coach, sitting beside him, was wearing that same smile that he wore a couple weeks prior.
But as the conference wore on, you could understand why his temperament was as it was. From the perspective of Will Cromack, Chris Corrigan, Colin Elmes, Brendan Quarry, Darren Russcher, and all the other backbones of the team, they had achieved what they set out to do since the beginning, when the club was nothing more than scribbles on a napkin. They showed off their players, made their names known across the country, and proved that they were at a level that could compete with the big boys.
When asked what he hopes is remembered by fans, players and clubs down the line from their historic run, he replied “I hope they remember the players, but I also hope that they remember that a team [like us] did it, and they can too.”
“Beat us, go do it yourself, and go prove it in another community. We would love to see that.”
That message was not just for his players back in the locker room, nor even for their rivals in League1 BC. It was aimed towards all the teams across Canada. For all those teams that started from nothing and grew alongside their community to bring the wonder of soccer to their backyards. It was aimed at all the up-and-coming players, who have the privilege of seeing such a story unfold before their eyes, to match this ambition and strive to be there themselves.
For while Canada might not be anywhere near that of England, Germany, or Italy in how deep their soccer roots go, this story shows that the game is growing. That soccer from the grassroots to the national team, for both boys and girls, is filled with the same passion and fervor that is seen across the Atlantic.
And it is up to all of us, as journalists, players, coaches, analysts, fans, parents, siblings, and members of our community, to continue to nurture it so that it too can outlive our memory, and live on into legend.
And one day, we can look back at this Rovers team and remember them as the first to sail into these uncharted waters and map out the path for the next generation.