Most Canadian soccer fans hear very little of the Pacific Coast Soccer League. Sharing the third tier of the Canadian soccer pyramid with an Ontario-based semi-professional league, the Pacific Coast league gets far less national attention than its Eastern brother (which doesn't get all that much to begin with). On a lot of levels, this is fair: the Pacific Coast league plays in areas like Kelowna and the Okanagan valley which aren't exactly hotbeds for national media coverage, and its being an amateur league reduces the interest of the casual fan.
But don't underestimate the PCSL. Even if it's somewhat weaker than the Ontario league, which is by no means agreed upon, the PCSL is still a considerable league in its own right. Its extensive history might shock those unfamiliar with it. Victoria United was actually founded in 1904, making it older than storied clubs such as Chelsea in England. Although Victoria stands alone in its history, even modern sides like the Khalsa Sporting Club and the Okanagan Challenge have a decade and a half of history to look back on: a fair bit in Canadian third division terms.
But as the PCSL lacks for media attention, many Canadian soccer fans know little of the affairs of this little league. As a result, and to fill up space on a bit of a slow news day, Eighty Six Forever is pleased to present a brief, introductory review of the PCSL's 2010 senior men's season.
The premier men's division of the PCSL boasted seven teams in 2010. Two of these teams were based on Vancouver Island: the immortal Victoria United, under the management of former Trinidad and Tobago national Nick Daniels, was always a threat but was also caught in the middle of a youth movement for the 2010 season. Most of the first team was born in 1988 or later, with the few impactful veterans including former Victoria Highlander Patrick Gawrys. The other island team was the Victoria Highlanders Reserves, assembling the usual grab-bag of players a reserve team implies. United shared the large downtown Royal Athletic Park with the Victoria Seals baseball team, whereas the Highlanders Reserves split their facility in Langford with the senior team.
The remaining five teams all hailed from the mainland. The Vancouver Thunderbirds, a club of players from the University of British Columbia, figured to be strong contenders. The Athletic Club of BC, playing out of a stadium in Burnaby, were the other entrants from greater Vancouver and had assembled what was widely known to be a poor side, although we would have to wait until the season began to see just how poor. A bit further afield, the Khalsa Sporting Club were a founding member of the PCSL but only had one title to their credit in fifteen years. Their strong connection to the Coquitlam and greater Vancouver Sikh community meant they never wanted for fans, although sometimes for talent.
Finally, there were the two clubs within the British Columbia interior. The Kamloops Excel joined the PCSL in 2007 and had never been better than a mid-table side, although they had improved their record year upon year. The Okanagan Challenge were also founding PCSL members and the defending league champions, carrying an 11-3-2 record in 2009 and triumphing in the playoff final.
The contenders wasted no time separating from the pack. The Vancouver Thunderbirds opened with consecutive home wins against Khalsa, Victoria United, the Athletic Club, and the Highlanders reserves. Okanagan started out slow with losses to United and the Highlanders in Victoria and a 3-0 pummeling at home to arch-rivals Kamloops. But a 3-2 victory over the Highlanders reserves May 29 started to turn Okanagan on the right track. The Athletic Club, meanwhile, started off surprisingly credibly: a very commendable 2-1 loss to the Thunderbirds was followed up by a walloping of Victoria United, 5-1. High-scoring affairs are more common in the PCSL than elsewhere but 5-1 is not gentle treatment by anybody's standards.
That was the high water mark of the Athletic Club's fortunes. A 3-0 loss at home to the suddenly surging Okanagan Challenge was a disappointment but a tolerable one. 1-1 draws at home with the Highlanders, Thunderbirds, and Challenge again were credible points against strong opposition. But away from the friendly confines in Burnaby the Athletic Club of BC started to lose heavily: 2-0 to Victoria United, 5-1 to the Victoria Highlanders, 4-0 to the Vancouver Thunderbirds, and 3-1 to the Khalsa Sporting Club. Victoria United dropped heavy decisions to the Thunderbirds and Khalsa, dropping them out of the hunt for the top of the table. Okanagan continued to waver between brilliance and basement, and only the Thunderbirds showed any signs of consistent ability: the UBC team was undefeated in June and suffered only two draws in the process.
The nastiest surprise of the season was still to come, though. On July 7, the Athletic Club of BC was suspended by the PCSL. Their games were declared 1-0 forfeits, dropping the Athletic Club to an unenviable final record of 1-11-4 and the worst record in the PCSL since Kamloops City in 2004.
Victoria United and the Victoria Highlanders duked it out for mid-table bragging rights. The Highlanders destroyed Victoria United 7-0 in Langford on July 7 but suffered from a lack of consistency: three days later United took the return engagement at Royal Athletic Park 1-0. Victoria United also got a surprising 3-1 win over the Vancouver Thunderbirds at UBC, the first loss Vancouver had suffered all season, before returning home and eviscerating Khalsa 11-1 in front of what must have been a stunned crowd at Royal Athletic Park. The two Victoria clubs finished tied on twenty points, but the Highlanders wound up getting the derby glory and the final Challenge Cup playoff spot by a +9 goal differential surpassing United's +7.
At the top of the table, there was no chance of surpassing the Thunderbirds, who finished eleven points up on second-place Khalsa. Okanagan, in third, rounded off the 2010 Challenge Cup playoff bracket.
In the Challenge Cup semi-final, Vancouver dispatched the Highlanders reserves by an efficient 2-0 score. But Okanagan sprung a surprise on Khalsa. In their final game of the season, Okanagan had lost the services of goaltender J.D. Blakley, and with no reserve available head coach and former NCAA goalkeeper Clint Schneider was forced into net. Schneider helped Okanagan keep a clean sheet against Vancouver and in the playoffs against Khalsa he was unexpectedly sturdy. Schneider allowed only a single goal, to Khalsa leading scorer Meysam Soltani, while Okanagan's Alex Keller scored a brace and sent the Challenge to an improbable Challenge Cup final.
Once again, Schneider gave himself the start against the Thunderbirds, although Blakley was now available in case of penalty kicks. Tyson Keam gave Vancouver the 1-0 lead with time running out in the first half, putting the Thunderbirds in front while the referee was looking at his watch. The game was tightly fought but Vancouver's superior skill was telling under the ninety-fourth minute: Sang Hwang swiped the ball off a lazy back pass from Thunderbirds defender Jason Gill and tied the championship game with almost no time left.
Two fifteen minute extra time periods solved nothing, and the Challenge Cup final went to penalties. Coach Schneider substituted himself out, and J.D. Blakley did his best coming into the game cold. Ultimately, however, the Thunderbirds ended the Cinderella story, prevailing 6-5 on penalties and winning the 2010 Challenge Cup.