The 2019/20 Vancouver Metro Soccer League (VMSL) season kicks off this weekend and we can’t wait. There’s new teams, new players, new hope, and some great local football that we can’t encourage you enough to get out and take in over these fall and winter weekends. We’ll be bringing all the action again in our weekly written round-up and You Tube highlights videos, so to get everyone in the mood we’re going to bring you two season previews – one for the Premier Division and one for Division 1 – courtesy of Canucks4Ever over on the Take The Piss forums. If you haven’t checked that site out yet, make sure you do for all your local, national, and international football banter (not for the easily offended!!).
We brought you the preview for Division 1 earlier, now we turn our attention to the top flight, the VMSL Premier Division. Here’s the runners and riders in hoping for championship glory, a BC Provincial Cup berth, or at the very least looking to avoid the drop.
And so we sit upon the edge of the start of yet another VMSL top flight campaign. After a couple of years out at Newton, Opening Day will be at Empire this season, which hopefully means a good turnout and fun atmosphere to begin the season. It is always a great chance to see all the sides together in one place and surely many of the teams will be keen to get a first look in at this year’s competition! The action is on from noon to 6pm, with two matches kicking off at 12, two at 2, and two at 4pm. You can find all the details on the VMSL official site.
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, it’s not done intentionally… get over it!
As usual the teams have been busy in the off-season, bustling about to try and find ways to entice the Lower Mainland’s top players onto their squad. CCB, of course, have been one of the busiest again, however, it goes without saying that they will never be able to replace the loss of Brandon Bassi, who passed away in a car accident just a couple of weeks after winning the Provincial Cup with his teammates. His memory will live large in the minds of his teammates this season and, no doubt, he will be remembered by the league and all of us in the local soccer community throughout the year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the where CCB and the rest of the teams in the VMSL’s top division might finish:
(1) CCB LFC United
The newly minted Provincial Champions threw away their bid to do the double when they choked down the stretch and were pipped to the VMSL title by Croatia. After a complete summer overhaul, CCB had to overcome a few early growing pains to prove themselves the class of the league, so it came as quite a shock to see them not be crowned champions. They did however, as mentioned, show their class in winning the Provincial title and will now have to juggle early season VMSL matches with their preparations to represent BC at Nationals in October. CCB have suffered two major losses to their roster. The first is the well known and tragic passing of central defender Brandon Bassi. The other is leading goal scoring Milad Mehrabi, who has signed for Shaheen in Division 2. In response CCB have gone on another summer “spending” spree.
No one can ever replace Brandon Bassi the person, but doing his best to fill his shoes on the pitch will be Elie Gindo, who moves over from Rino’s Tigers. This is the third team in as many seasons for Gindo who is trying to pull off the “Marian Hossa” and finally win a trophy after losing in back to back Provincial finals as a member of Langley United and Rino’s Tigers. Also coming over from Rino’s is striker Kristian Yli-Hietanen after finishing his UBC career, and he will be relied upon to fill some of the void offensively created by Mehrabi’s departure. In addition to those two, CCB have pillaged the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello, as well from Tigers, though the Surrey side will need to wait for the TSS Rovers pair to complete their league season at SFU before they can slot them into the line up.
Beyond that they have signed former Whitecaps and Canada National youth player Jordan Haynes, who is with UBC to begin the year, plus added some depth with the likes of former UBC player Rylan Sangha, who jumps ship from local rival Rovers Hurricanes, and cover for goalkeeper Luke O’Shea by signing Hudson Nelles from Capilano University. The Surrey boys will also have a full season of Milad Rahmati at their disposal as he is now eligible to return following a lengthy suspension after an incident from when he was a member of Inter. All this, plus motivation to atone for throwing away last season’s title, has to make CCB the favourites this year.
Nationals are always a distraction and perhaps CCB’s form might suffer slightly as it approaches. They had a dip in form last season though and were able to recover to look dominant. This season they have added even more weapons and if they can sweep the board they could very well become the first team since Westside in 1994 to hold all four trophies available to VMSL teams at one time. That year Westside had won the Provincial Cup and National title in 1993 before going on to add the VMSL Premier title and Imperial Cup in 1994; although they were unable to defend their Provincial Cup that season. BCT Rovers Hurricanes had a chance to hold all four last season but lost the Imperial Cup final (though technically they had already been supplanted as VMSL Champions by Croatia at that point) and in 2004 Pegasus were Provincial and Imperial Cup Champions to go along with their National title, but the VMSL Premier title eluded them. Can CCB become this dominant? We shall soon see.
(2) West Van FC
It has been somewhat of a grind for West Van over the past few seasons as the North Shore boys rebuilt their program. They managed to do it without dropping entirely off the radar, however, finishing in the top half and qualifying for the Provincial Cup all the while. Now though, they are most definitely on the radar. After lifting the Imperial Cup, West Van have proven their squad is one of the elite in the VMSL. They too were in the title race right up until the final knockings, finishing only six points off the pace. That being said, a rather blase finish to the league campaign saw them fall all the way to fifth, however, that form can perhaps be excused given their focus on the Imperial Cup and the fact that they new they had already secured a berth in the Provincial Cup. Alas, once more their season ended on a sour note as right after lifting the over 100 year old domestic trophy with a win over Rovers, the former Trollers were quickly trounced once more at the first hurdle in the Provincial Cup with Rovers immediately avenging their cup defeat.
Expect to see a focused group this season on the North Shore, as after proving to themselves and the rest of the league that they are once more a force to be reckoned with, the Amblesiders must surely have winning the VMSL title for the first time in five seasons as their goal for this campaign. Known for their resolute defending, West Van are surely ruing last season as a missed opportunity after a closer look at the stats of champions Croatia. Croatia allowed the fewest goals in the league, 19, but it was only one less than the 20 that West Van conceded, and while they did outscore the North Shore boys as well, Croatia’s 47 goals for were only five more than the 42 West Van netted. All indications then would point to the age old adage of “defence wins championship” holding true as Croatia’s goal total was only the fourth highest in the league. Add it all up and six more goals at the right moments last season could well have seen West Van crowned champions. They will hope this season they can find those goals in those crucial moments!
(3) Croatia SC
Everything seemed to come together for Croatia last season to win their first VMSL title. After quietly hanging around all season, it looked as though Croatia’s title hopes were toast when they lost to Metro Ford near the end of January. However, they turned around a stunned the league a week later, beating champions-in-waiting CCB. The power was still all in CCB’s hands though as a combination of the snow and a run to the Imperial Cup semi-finals left them holding multiple games in hand. In a match that seemed likely to be meaningless, Croatia netted a stoppage time winner to beat Rino’s Tigers in their final league match. Those points took them to the top of the table, but it seemed unlikely to hold with CCB only four points behind and holding two games in hand against Inter and Pegasus, both of whom had nothing left to play for, as neither could reach the Provincials nor be relegated.
Enter Pegasus, who rounded off a below par season with a 1-0 win to stick it to their local rivals and crown Croatia champions. It was truly a team effort with leading scorer David Malamura finding it tougher sledding in front of goal last season, having to settle for a final tally of only 10 goals after winning the Golden Boot with 19 the previous season. A total of 15 other players were on target for Croatia, but it was their commitment to defending that really pushed them over the top as they posted the best defensive record in the league, allowing only 19 goals against.
It will likely take a similar Herculean effort if they are to repeat as champions, with enough goals from Malamura and more stalwart defending from midfield maestro Colin Jaques. They certainly will not be able to rely on everything they had go right for them this season down the stretch manifesting itself again though, so while you can expect Croatia to be in the conversation at the right end of the table again this year, perhaps they just might come up slightly short this time around.
(4) Coquitlam Metro Ford Wolves
Early on it seemed like Metro Ford were set for another rather ho-hum season when they scored only five goals and picked up only seven points out of a possible 18 through their first six games of the campaign. A year on from missing out on Provincial Cup football for the first time in the memories of many involved with the club, it looked like getting back there was not going to be easy. However, Coquitlam then won their next six games and, all of a sudden, they looked like the Wolves of old again. The mid-season acquisition of Adam Jones helped to ease the offensive burden on talisman Carlo Basso and the two combined for 24 goals.
In the end, Coquitlam pulled away from the battle for Provincial Cup berths and finished comfortably in fourth place. It should be noted though that they were the benefactors of a pair of forfeits by Campo and Guildford, but you would have expected them to win those matches anyway. This season Metro Ford will surely be looking to continue the march back to the penthouse of the VMSL. One thing the Tri-Cities boys can always rely on is the machine that is Coquitlam Metro Ford to continue churning out soccer talent with a strong connection to the club. If Wolves can continue to surround their veterans with more and more talented youngsters, then there is no reason why another fourth place finish, or even perhaps slightly higher, cannot be on the cards.
(5) Rino’s Tigers
No team took the brunt of CCB’s summer retooling harder than Rino’s, who have lost four top players to the Surrey outfit. Rino’s also lost Ahmed Alghamdi when he earned a professional contract with CPL side Pacific FC at the start of May. While that is certainly a good news story for the club overall, when it comes to their squad in the VMSL, it definitely detracts somewhat. Rino’s have been happy to allow head coach Blaise Nkufo to use his connections to try and procure professional playing chances for several players over the years, including the likes of Declan Rodriguez, Alberto Perez, and Connor MacMillan, however, while there are always fresh young academy players ready to step up and take their place in the line up, it is difficult to replace that level of quality on a consistent basis.
Sometimes those players return to Vancouver and, while they are back, are happy to suit up for Tigers while they consider their next opportunity. So perhaps that type of situation might offer Rino’s relief at some points throughout this season. Overall, however, after coming within a few points of the VMSL title and reaching the Provincial Cup final last year, it is likely to be perhaps a slight step backwards for Tigers this season as they revamp their roster. Even without the aforementioned players, Rino’s were able to have a successful summer in the PCSL, finishing runners up in the league to Victoria Highlanders before getting their revenge over the Island boys in the cup final.
That success came largely on the back of the offense provided by veteran Farivar Torabi and, despite Rino’s best efforts, they are yet to secure his signature from Division 1 Burnaby Metro Athletic ahead of the VMSL Winter Season. Torabi would be a huge boost to Tigers after he was Division 1’s leading goal scorer last season and proved that he could also score in the PCSL. Without him though, a good season for Rino’s is likely securing a Provincial Cup berth as their young squad gains experience at this level.
(6) BCT Rovers Hurricanes
It seems to be a case of “once more unto the breach dear friends” for Rovers this season. They have been supplanted as top dogs out in Surrey by neighbours CCB and looked well off the pace last season in truth. After a draining run to finally capture BC’s first National title since 2004, the ‘Canes could not muster much of a push to defend their league title, finishing fully 12 points back of CCB. Rovers showed that they still had bite though, making a solid run to the Imperial Cup final before coming up short against West Van. They also reached the Provincial Cup semi-final before losing out on their bid to defend that title when they were beaten in extra time by Rino’s. Perhaps this is what we can expect from Rovers going forward.
Certainly when they have their full roster and are up for it Nick Soolsma, Cam Hundal, the Dhillon’s, Ryan and Pavi, and the rest of the orange clad crew are capable of knocking off anyone in the league. However, as an aging group, it may be difficult to expect this level of quality on a weekly basis. As long as they have former TFC man Soolsma in their line up they are a threat to win, but he alone cannot make them a dominant force.
Rovers finished sixth last season and were in a real dogfight just to qualify for the Provincial Cup before they allayed any of those fears when they reached the Imperial Cup final and secured a berth via that route. It would seem like a similar fate awaits again this season with Hurricanes shaping up as a mid-table outfit that will be in the conversation for a Provincial spot. Certainly watch out for them again in the knockout competitions and any time they are able to field a rested, full roster, but week in week out it might be a bit of a grind this season for the Surrey boys.
(7) Club Inter EDC Burnaby
Once a major player in attracting some of the Lower Mainland’s top talent, this once “Evil Empire” has seemingly lost some of their allure. An off season coaching change to install former goalkeeper Steve Kindel as head coach was about the only news to hit the radar out of the Inter camp. After falling short of defending their Provincial title in 2017/18, the newly merged Inter EDC took an even further step back last season in failing to qualify for the post-season competition entirely.
With the teams around them in the VMSL all appearing to be adding pieces and getting stronger, it is difficult to see how Inter can change that this year sticking with the status quo. Perhaps there is another 20 percent that Kindel’s coaching can unlock inside the current roster, but overall it looks fairly bleak. Along with long time Inter stalwart defender Brian Fong, Inter’s leading scoring, Mohammed Habib, left the club in early February to head abroad. Habib was absolutely the linchpin in Inter’s offense as they only won three games in which he was not on the score sheet, with one of those wins coming via forfeit.
Relying on veteran Rizal Ganief to provide the yeoman’s share of the offense does not sound like a sustainable formula for success for the “Italians” and with no rumours of any marquee signings over the summer, it is tough to see from just exactly where that offense is suppose to come. Maybe this is a new leaf for Chinter where they play things much closer to the vest, but outside of that, it is hard to see how this team climbs back into the top half of the VMSL’s elite.
(8) NVFC NorVan
Certainly last season had to be qualified as a success for NorVan. After winning Division 1 they consolidated their spot in the top flight and were well safe coming down the stretch. The North Shore side are a close knit group and that camaraderie definitely helped deliver them results; that and the 10 goals supplied by Blake Burgon, a man who spurned playing Masters to return to Open and lead NorVan, first to promotion and then to safety. NorVan’s defensive record helped as well, as they allowed only 33 goals against, good enough for the seventh best defensive record, which belied their ninth place finish and saw them end with a goal differential of only -1.
The top half of the VMSL Premier table, along with the places in the Provincial Cup that accompanies finishing there, is incredibly tough to break into. Every year it seems like the rich just get richer. However, that certainly will be the goal for NorVan this season. Moving up from ninth to sixth will be a monumental task, but if they are able to perhaps attract one or two difference making pieces, it could be attainable. At the very least, the North Shore boys should be able to keep their eyes firmly looking up the table this season, rather than worrying about being dragged into a relegation fight.
(9) SFC Pegasus
Getting a read on what is going on with Pegasus is proving difficult these days. After a season that saw the club sink like a rock from VMSL Premier runners up to having to muck it out in the relegation zone en route to an eighth place finish, change was inevitable. Many veteran players have decided to finally take their talents to the Masters division and, in order to ensure there were enough bodies to cover all bases, Pegasus have aligned with SFC and Temple United. Temple pulled the chute on their time in the FVSL and will also field a Division 3 squad under the Pegasus banner. Where this leaves the open team is anyone’s guess though.
Temple did win BC Tiger’s Miri Piri tournament and the $13,000 prize that went along with it, but how many of those players might lineup for Pegasus this fall is a mystery. For whatever reason, last season the squad struggled. With several veterans moving to Masters, you wonder how the team will improve. This merger may hold all the answers and last year could well have just been a strange outlier for Peg, but until there is some evidence of a rebound, it is hard to put much faith in the Surrey boys bouncing back.
Of course as long as former Whitecap Sahil Sandhu remains with the club there is every chance the horsemen can be competitive, and Sandhu did appear to be absent for long stretches last season. Perhaps if he returns to being a regular and the likes of Chetan “CJ” Jhooty and Javid Khan can return to form, Peg might factor in the Provincial Cup conversation. It all seems to be plenty of “ifs” and “maybes” though and not much solid evidence to go on.
(10) Burnaby Selects White Eagles
Division 1 winners Burnaby White Eagles return to the top flight for the first time since 2011. Back then they were known as Serbia White Eagles and it has been a long path back to Premier that included the club spending some time mired as far down as Division 2. Staying up will be no easy task as the gap between Premier and Div. 1 seems to grow every year. Still, having worked hard to climb so high, White Eagles will surely make a go of things.
Their strength in Division 1 in the two seasons they spent there after earning their way up from Division 2 has been their offense, as they scored 132 goals in their time in the second tier with Vuk Erbez and Matlash Vladyslav accounting for 34 and 30 of those goals respectively. Last season Alex Roe and and Mladen Ljumovic both emerged as prolific target men as well, netting nine apiece. The once Serbians will need that sort of offensive touch to continue if they are going to stay up this season, even if output is slightly reduced at this higher level.
However, the real key to White Eagles being crowned Division 1 champions was a newly found commitment to defending. Last year they went from allowing 46 goals against the previous season to just 28 during their promotion campaign, an improvement of 18 while not at all hampering their offensive production. That commitment to defense will likely be even more crucial at this level than the goal scoring if they hope to be able to better at least two other teams and stay up come March. If they revert to their previous ways of bleeding goals and hoping to score their way out of trouble it could be a short stay back in Premier for White Eagles.
(11) ICSF Columbus
The other newly promoted side, Columbus, is hoping to put a stop to their recent yo-yo form and finally reestablish themselves as part of the VMSL Premier elite. It will be far from easy however, as, in the years while Columbus have been messing about in the lower levels, Premier has strengthened exponentially. The Italians will be happy to be back, no doubt, but this could be somewhat of a long season if they cannot find a way to score goals regularly.
Columbus had the best defensive record in Division 1 last year, allowing only 20 goals against through 22 games, but it is surely unrealistic to expect that level of success moving up to Premier. At the other end of the field though, the East Van come Burnaby boys did not have a single player in double digits for goal scoring with Naoya Inoue leading the team on just nine goals. Long time talisman Steve Deblasio finally departed for Masters at the beginning of last year and the team was evidently unable to fully replace his goal scoring. Their teamwork and commitment to defending was enough to get them promoted, but it is difficult to believe that it will be enough to keep them up.
Columbus have wrangled in some reinforcements this summer however, with Mark Baldisimo leaving Coastal FC in the FVSL to join up with the Italians in the VMSL. While perhaps not quite the pedigree of his younger brothers Matthew and Michael, who play for Pacific FC and the Whitecaps respectively, Mark has been a foundational piece of a Coastal squad that has won multiple FVSL trophies, including the Premier league title, and has been named a league all-star in successive seasons. Columbus could do with a few more signings of that nature, particularly at the top end of the pitch. They will put in a shift this season, but it is going to be a grind from start to finish.
(12) Guildford FC FASA
After narrowly surviving relegation in their first season with a tenth place finish, Guildford FC called time on their men’s Open program. It was somewhat of a sad end after the club spent so many years fighting to earn their way into the top flight. The 2016 U21 Provincial Cup champions spent three seasons trying to get out of Division 1 and, once they did, it all ended rather anti-climatically. Citing a lack of player interest and ability to commit to playing top level football, Guildford put their spot on the market, though there was not exactly a bidding war. Enter FASA, or Football Art Soccer Academy, who were slated to enter a team in Division 3 with the goal of progressing quickly to Premier, until a Premier spot became open to them, presumably, for the right price.
FASA is headed up by Othmane Kabbadj and, as with any new team, information is limited. Kabbadj is said to have had some connections to Division 1 champions Burnaby Selects White Eagles, and it was mooted that he may try and poach a few players to help his new squad adapt to life in the top flight, but, recent intel suggests that is will be a team of mostly academy players with a few coaches acting as veterans to help guide the team. Unfortunately, the VMSL Premier division does not have a history of being kind to teams with this type of resume, the last of which being Rino’s Tigers during their first year in Premier following a similarly structured merger with Ayjal.
Rumours persist about the team struggling in pre-season friendlies and with Opening Day just around the corner, the opportunity to iron out any growing pains is quickly evaporating. Signs are beginning to point to this perhaps being a slightly ill-fated endeavour, but, maybe long term it could work out, it certainly did for Rino’s.