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Professionals vs. Amateurs: More Equal Than It Sounds

Victoria Highlanders striker Riley O'Neill, left, tries to outplay FC Edmonton fullback Paul Hamilton in a friendly match at City Centre Park on August 8, 2010. (Benjamin Massey/The Maple Leaf Forever)
Victoria Highlanders striker Riley O'Neill, left, tries to outplay FC Edmonton fullback Paul Hamilton in a friendly match at City Centre Park on August 8, 2010. (Benjamin Massey/The Maple Leaf Forever)

Editor's note: this article was originally posted to the Maple Leaf Forever on August 9, 2010. I went to the game hoping it would be the first news post in Eighty Six Forever history; instead, technical difficulties relegated it to the last news post in Maple Leaf Forever history. And because the technical difficulties were with importing the old Maple Leaf Forever posts, it didn't even make the jump over with the rest of the archive.

Since the subject matter is still current and the Edmonton media, along with FC Edmonton's website, has almost ignored the game, I feel no shame in reposting it here for a wider audience.

Yes, I have now seen two FC Edmonton games this exhibition season. No, I didn't have to board a plane to get to this one. Edmonton had announced months ago that they would be playing the Victoria Highlanders at Foote Field in Edmonton but it was only recently announced there would be a game in Victoria as well, at the still-ironically-named City Centre Park in Langford.

First, I will repeat my most frequently-voiced criticism about FC Edmonton. Three weeks ago, I paid $34 for a general admission ticket to Commonwealth Stadium when I watched Edmonton take on Portsmouth. Today, I paid $13 for an assigned seat to watch Edmonton take on Victoria. It's true that FC Edmonton isn't quite as expensive a booking as Pompey, but general admission for the return engagement against Victoria will start at $20 before taxes and fees. It will probably come to twice the price to watch the same matchup in Edmonton as opposed to watching it in Victoria.

In spite of the bargain price and a spectacular night in Langford, attendance in Victoria was disappointing. Though not announced, it couldn't have been much more than one thousand. The normally-strong Lake Side Buoys supporters' section was literally down to one guy, who rode the traditional supporters' bus in alone and blamed the bad supporters' turnout on a combination of the weather forecast (as late as yesterday afternoon the prediction for today was rain) and the simple fact that August is a big vacation month in Victoria.

Even before kickoff there was a surprise, as it was announced that striker Riley O'Neill, late of SV Wilhelmshaven in the German Regionalliga Nord, would be starting up front for Victoria. My astonishment at a five-time goalscorer in the German fourth division moving to a post-season trial with a USL PDL club was such that I couldn't believe it was the same Riley O'Neill: I wound up asking around the stands and on Twitter and eventually got confirmation that yes, it's the same guy.

Next to the ex-professional O'Neill, the biggest name in Victoria's lineup was Jordie Hughes. I've seem Hughes play in person a number of times and each time I've come away impressed. Hughes is a 5'10" midfielder who plays bigger, runs like the wind, is the best amateur ballhander I've seen, was a star in the American college ranks before a leg injury, and bluntly deserves better than the USL PDL. He averages better than a goal every two games for Victoria from midfield and could certainly be a contributing player for most NASL or USL-1 teams. He's 26 years old and not getting any younger, but his exile from the professional ranks is a mystery.

The first half was primarily an even affair. Victoria had the advantage of mostly playing an entire season together, with only a couple reserve players and newbie O'Neill rounding out a good first eleven. They were more-or-less equal with Edmonton athletically, and the dynamism of Hughes and O'Neill was effectively countered by Edmonton's Shaun Saiko at defensive midfield and Paul Hamilton at fullback. Saiko was a former Middlesborough youth player, was predicted to be one of the team's stars, and is living up to it, but Hamilton has to me been the surprise star of Edmonton's lineup. Twice now, against Portsmouth and Victoria, I've been flabbergasted by Hamilton's poise and off-the-ball effectiveness. Of all the Alberta metro players in Edmonton's lineup, Hamilton is the one I'd predict to survive in the NASL.

Shaun Saiko of FC Edmonton. (Benjamin Massey/The Maple Leaf Forever)
Saiko, however, was clearly the star. Although lining up at defensive midfield he had a roving commission, playing the "destroyer" role best exemplified in the Canadian ranks by the young Julian De Guzman (and wearing Jules's #6 into the bargain). No Victoria player could match Saiko's pace and he mixed that with tremendous ball control, an extremely intelligent style, and a shouting, commanding presence in midfield unusual in a twenty year old. I was not struck by his tackling but then it occurred to me that Saiko was simply playing smart and athletically enough that he didn't particularly have to tackle: he simply ran the opposing players out of options. He made the centre of the pitch a no-go zone for the Victoria attack, caused Riley O'Neill to die on the vine for want of service, started most of Edmonton's best opportunities, and in the 38th minute scored the first and best goal of the game with a screaming effort from distance that rippled the top of the goal.

So impressed was I by Saiko's first-half performance that, in spite of the uninspiring calibre of opposition, I was growing quite excited. Saiko had also been excellent against Portsmouth and got rave reviews for the game against Colo-Colo: maybe we really have something here. Only once did he falter, around the 27th minute, when Jordie Hughes began a run down the right flank and Saiko did not take the threat seriously enough. Saiko stuck back a bit and Hughes suddenly cut to the middle in front of him, splitting the Edmonton central defense and releasing a low shot that kissed just wide. This was the closest Hughes would come to troubling the scorekeeper, but he still had a dangerous all-round game.

Edmonton held their 1-0 lead into the half and almost immediately upon resuming play added to affairs. It wasn't a dignified goal but it counted: Matt Lam had come on for first-half captain Chris Kody and promptly poked home a ball on a scramble in front of goal, giving Edmonton a 2-0 lead in the 48th minute.

Unfortunately, complacency began to set in. They got a few chances off the feet of Michael Cox and Milan Timotijevic but Victoria goalkeeper Brandon Watson put on a show, making more than his share of fingertip saves. Conversely, Jas Gill in goal for Edmonton (starting in lieu of Eredivisie veteran Rein Baart) inspired no confidence. He was a combination of nerves, mistimed aggression, and poor handling all night. In the second half, these problems began to come home. Jordie Hughes started a nice counter after an Edmonton chance and as Romaie Martin bore down on goal Gill came out much too far. Martin easily bypassed Gill and with the keeper out of the play had all the goal in the world at his feet. But he flubbed his shot, striking it through the box. Had Gill kept his head he would have intercepted the ball and all would have been well, but as it was he was out of position and Chris Arnett converted the accidental cross to cut Edmonton's lead.

From that point on, play was even and tempers started to flare. Victoria right back Kevan Brown, a tall ginger drink of water, infuriated FC Edmonton all night long. He provoked Thiago Silva into a shoving match and a warning from the official as well as goading Timotijevic into a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct when the Serbian import petulantly threw the ball away on a throw-in. Brown was also conspicuously effective defensively and made Edmonton work for opportunities on the right: normally a reserve player for Victoria, Brown was regardless the most impressive of the players I'd never heard of.

The truculence came from other venues as well. After a Victoria chance was thwarted by a hard tackle from Paul Hamilton, Riley O'Neill took exception and got into a vicious if short scrap with Hamilton behind the touch line. The two exchanged words, shoves, and a little more before the referee charged in to restore order, assessing both O'Neill and Hamilton yellow cards.

Riley O'Neill of the Victoria Highlanders (Benjamin Massey/The Maple Leaf Forever)Riley O'Neill was physically dominant but struggled to assert himself. Had he played for Edmonton matters might have been different, for the Edmontonians were being badly let down by their strike force. But aside from Jordie Hughes the Victoria midfield was unable to get traction against Edmonton, and Hughes is not the sort of distributing midfielder that gets his strikers chances in bunches. O'Neill was constantly active but almost entirely lacked service. There may have been rust on him, but in any event with his midfielders not providing O'Neill was unable to make his own plays. His best chance came around the eighty-second minute when a Victoria midfielder finally got a ball to O'Neill on the run. O'Neill outpaced the Edmonton defender easily and came up against Jas Gill, whose aggression for once served him in good stead. Gill charged out to meet O'Neill while the striker was still rounding his defender, and no sooner had he seen off one challenge than O'Neill was facing another. Gill more-or-less shoulder-checked O'Neill; not much of a play but he was able to outmuscle the German veteran and O'Neill scuffed the resulting shot wide. Immediately following this miss, O'Neill was substituted out.

By this point, Victoria had also removed Jordie Hughes, depriving them of the best part of their firepower. And they were soon down to ten men thanks to a careless challenge from reserve Davis Stupich. Meeting Paul Matthijs at midfield for a fifty-fifty ball, Stupich went in wildly with his leg up and caught Matthijs on the leg with his spikes. Matthijs went down in a heap and was immediately substituted, being helped off the field without putting any weight on his right leg. Stupich was given a straight red card.

Victoria kept up the pressure, to their credit. In stoppage time, Romaie Martin bore down the centre. Martin was up against Paul Hamilton for the ball and played Hamilton physically: so physically, in fact, that Martin actually wrestled Hamilton to the ground. I was not twenty feet away when it happened: Martin got his arms around Hamilton, who tried to ineffectively grapple back, and pretty much flipped the Edmonton defender over. But the referee kept his whistle in his pocket, only to pull it out when Martin was fouled by the Edmonton defender rushing back to Hamilton's relief. A clear foul in the box, but what on earth was the referee doing even letting play get that far?

With no time left, defender Tyler Hughes stepped up to take the penalty. Jas Gill guessed the right direction but missed the ball: the game was tied at two. Edmonton actually mustered a half-decent chance in the dying seconds but for nothing: it was a 2-2 final.

It was clear that FC Edmonton had taken their foot off the gas when Matt Lam scored. All the same, Edmonton deserved a win: had Rein Baart been in goal instead of Jas Gill it would have been 2-1 at worst. The most egregious dip came from Shaun Saiko, who with the score 2-0 ceased his destructive attacking charges and let up defensively as well. He played too many poor balls to Victoria's feet (one actually led to Martin's chance and the ensuing penalty) and the sublime dominance he showed in the first half was almost canceled out by his mediocrity in the second. Most of Edmonton's defense and midfield went in with less intensity and played the ball with less thought, letting Victoria sustain scoring opportunities. Although Brandon Watson was tremendous in goal for the Highlanders Edmonton had chances they ought to have scored on anyway and failed to put away.

There was more to be happy than upset about for Edmonton supporters. This is a young team, and many of its players won't be around when the games start counting. Of the core parts, most acquitted themselves well. They coped with Jordie Hughes and Riley O'Neill, the sorts of players that are dangerous in the NASL, well. And let's not forget that although they let Victoria back into the game, once it was tied they showed some surprising pluck in charging the Highlanders goal for a last-ditch winner. Given the skill level of these players, it's a credible result.

But it could have been a win, should have been a win, and if Dwight Lodeweges isn't letting them know that he isn't doing his job.