'A dream come true': How Victoria Highlanders earned CanChamp spot in dramatic fashion
When David Schäfer stepped up to take a free kick in the 90th minute, he felt... calm.
It didn’t matter that his Victoria Highlanders men’s team trailed the TSS Rovers 2-1: He knew that if he could execute his shot, it would be game back on.
Knowing that his team needed two goals to win, he was just focused on just striking the ball and finding the back of the net, giving his team a chance at defeating the TSS Rovers to claim the League 1 BC regular season men’s title, as well as the coveted Canadian Championship berth that goes along with it.
Little did he expect that just minutes later, his team would be jubilantly celebrating a 3-2 win, in which Schäfer had scored both the equalizer and winner off the bench, having completed an unforgettable comeback.
Yet, that’s exactly how it played out. In a dramatic ending for the ages, Schäfer’s powerful free kick managed to find its way in, giving his team a lifeline.
Then, they managed to press the Rovers on the ensuing kick-off and won a penalty, which Schäfer stepped up to take.
From there, the rest is history, as Schäfer made no mistake with the spot kick, completing the impossible for his team.
Despite never having scored a goal for the team heading into this game, after bouncing around the lineup in his first season with the club, the veteran MRU Cougars forward all of a sudden found himself a Highlanders legend in a matter of moments thanks to those pair of set-pieces.
“To be honest, on the free kick, I was probably a bit more confident than on the penalty,” Schäfer admitted to OneSoccer this week. “Yeah, it wasn't my first-ever free kick goal, but it was my first for the Highlanders, and these were my first two goals for the Highlanders, and that was a clutch and amazing feeling to make an impact on the last and most important game like that.”
“I just knew that when that free kick came up, I had to take it, and then on the penalty, I was a bit nervous because I’d never taken a penalty for the club, but the guys trusted me, and it worked out well.”
L1BC: Victoria Highlanders win the league!— Ben Steiner (@BenSteiner00) July 23, 2023
Victoria beats the TSS Rovers 3-2, turning a 2-1 deficit in stoppage time.
They’ve clinched a spot in the TELUS Canadian Championship of 2024.
Crazy stuff, especially this 2-2 free kick strike from David Schaefer.
Messi who? pic.twitter.com/y6ldKsCU1K
Yet, while Schäfer was new to the Highlanders, arriving after a stint in League 1 Ontario last summer with Electric City, for those who follow the game in British Columbia, it’ll be a name that many will know well.
Based in Victoria proper, the club was founded back in 2008, joining USL League 2 for the 2009 campaign. Then, they spent most of their history in USLL2, at the time known as the PDL, except for a season in 2015 when they joined the Pacific Coast Summer League, as they then rejoined the PDL from 2016 to 2019.
Over that time, they developed a reputation as a development club, pushing players such as Callum Montgomery, Sean Young, Josh Heard and Brett Levis to higher levels, doing well to mine talent from Victoria and elsewhere across Western Canada.
Because of that, for them, a moment like this one has been a long time coming for the club. When the opportunity to join League 1 BC arose, they immediately snapped at it, as they and the Rovers made the jump over from USL League 2 in time for the inaugural L1BC campaign in 2022.
Knowing the value that the league would provide to players, creating a pipeline for players to work their way up into the pro game, they viewed it as an opportunity to continue the mandate that had made them a key developmental hub for talent on Vancouver Island over the years.
That’s why head coach Steve Simonson immediately leaped at the opportunity to lead this side last year. A day-one Highlander who was an assistant coach on the inaugural team and then on and off since, the University of Northern British Columbia coach was very excited to be able to lead the club while also balancing those UNBC duties during the U Sports season, knowing the opportunity that awaited him.
“I've always said that my goal with the Highlanders is to try and do the best I can to continue to grow their reputation as much as we can, because this is a good spot for local and Western Canadian players, and that’s been my mandate,” Simonson told OneSoccer. “I'm a believer that stuff like the Canadian Premier League is fantastic, but one league and one level is not enough, we have to continue to grow all of the levels and all of the leagues, and find ways to create more opportunities for players, as each level is important in its own way.”
“So to be able to do that in Victoria, where we have a CPL club, we have a League 1 club, we have the Pacific Coast League, we have universities and colleges, and we have a solid local men's and women’s league, I think we’re putting it all together, it’s important, and it shows why Victoria and the Island is a special place (for the game).”
And given his experience with U Sports players, who make up a majority of the players in the league, it’s made him a perfect fit since day one.
An age group that consists of late-blooming players who have pro aspirations but needed a pathway to prove themselves, he feels it’s one that remains under-represented, even if the CPL’s partnership with U Sports has helped with that in recent years.
Because of that, he’s intent on continuing to push these players onto the next level, first and foremost. If winning a league title or playing in the Canadian Championship helps that? Perfect, but otherwise those are almost secondary to him in that regard.
“I think the different levels are really important,” Simonson said. “And I can only speak for BC because it's where I'm actively coaching, but I'm also coaching in the collegiate world, where there are a lot of people that didn’t make that jump to CPL out of youth soccer, as the jump from youth soccer to CPL is big for pretty much everybody. It's just too big. And so what are we doing with these players (who don’t make it right away? What are we doing with these late-developing players? (Pro teams) solved the answer by going and getting ready-made players from elsewhere, which is fine, I totally understand that, but if someone's not taking care of these late-developing Canadian players from 17-23, we're going to miss out on local and domestic players.”
“So this is my favourite age group to work with, it’s my favourite type of player, and they’re very very hungry to move forward. The hardest part is to try and convince people at higher levels that they deserve a look because it's not lost on me that there are lots of great players playing at the pro levels and across the CPL, so I'm not naive to think that there aren't players they can bring in, but it's our job to keep knocking on the door and to help push these players on, and if winning a league title like this does that for the kids in the team, that's the most important thing for me.”
But while the Highlanders have reached lofty heights this season, it was a slow burn to get to this point.
In their inaugural season, they finished seventh out of seven teams with just 11 points from 12 games, in large part due to their defensive struggles, as they conceded a league-high 25 goals across those 12 games.
Because of that, they were eager to turn things around for the 2023 season, especially after League 1 BC expanded its playoff format, giving them a better shot at silverware.
Armed with a goal of nabbing one of those playoff spots, they were eager to start that turnaround right away.
And after a mixed start on opening day, as they rescued one point late in a 1-1 road draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps, they quickly started to find their feet, rattling off three straight wins to push up the table.
Then, after a slump that saw them lose two and draw one in a span of four games afterward, they really found some rhythm, striking off five straight wins, in which they outscored their opponents 10-2, really showing what they can do at their best.
“We have such a great group of guys, a positive group with positive energy in training, and we're always really confident in the group when we play,” Schäfer said. “Then, we have a lot of good individuals as well, players that can turn games around. Because of that, we gained confidence over the course of the season, kept winning games and that helped us into the last week.”
All of a sudden, that led them to the final game of the season, at home to the Rovers.
There, thanks to that recent surge, they sat in second place with a playoff spot already assured, just two points behind those Rovers, who had rattled off an eight-game unbeaten run of their own (7W-1D-0L) to put themselves atop the table heading into the final matchday.
For both teams, the math was simple - the winner (or in the case of a draw, the Rovers) would be crowned regular season winners, and book a berth to the Canadian Championship as League 1 BC’s representatives.
An honour the Rovers had earlier this year, in which they captured the imaginations of fans across the country with their huge upset over Valour, the Canadian Championship was the big draw, as both teams were certainly aware of what an opportunity like that could mean for a semi-professional outfit like theirs.
Because of that, this clash had eyes across BC and the country watching, seeing which team would claim the honours.
To start, however, it’d look like the Rovers. They nabbed an early lead through Massud Habibullah, and while Victoria’s Michael Henman did well to respond with an equalizer shortly before half time, the Rovers really seemed in the clear when Ivan Mejia made it 2-1 in the 67th minute.
Given that the Highlanders needed two goals to get the win, with a draw not being enough, it was a tall ask, given that Victoria had only scored more than two goals in a game just once all season.
Yet, as the game drew on, they continued to believe. Fortune smiled them in the face as the Rovers controversially had a goal ruled out for offside, but despite that, it increasingly started to look like too little, too late from them.
But then, the Highlanders won that late free kick, scored it, and then everything was back on the table.
On the subsequent Rovers kick-off, they knew that they just had to go for it, so they decided to throw caution to the wind, seeing what would happen.
Having done well to push the Rovers back, Henman managed to win the ball, burst through on goal, and won a penalty, and from there, Schäfer got to work his magic once more to secure the victory.
“When we scored the free kick, it was already into extra time at that point, so we were like, alright, we gotta go for it,” Henman said. “So we sent a wall forward and just pressed these guys as hard as we can, and it worked out, they passed it back too many times, we picked it off and just that one little moment changed everything, as we won the penalty, and then Schäfer stepped up to take it and that was it.”
L1BC Men’s Standings with the regular season in the books 📈— League1 British Columbia (@League1BC) July 25, 2023
It was a season of twists and turns, and a great final match day in Victoria to determine the Men’s Regular Season Champions 🏆#L1BC | #RiseAsOne pic.twitter.com/B3PHkqfVKy
It might not have been the plan Simonson drew up, but his team never stopped believing, and in the end, it allowed them to produce a moment of magic that will live on in Highlanders lore for years to come.
“I'm a believer always that things can happen late in games,” Simonson said. “They often don't, but they can, and that's the beauty of it. Right? The message during the whole game is that we knew that a draw wasn't enough. We knew that we had to be one goal to the good. We called it the plus one, and I said anything that goes against our pushing for plus one is useless. So let's stay focused on that.”
“And that was always the message I had, even if we went down a goal, as worrying about that didn’t help us towards plus one. Right? It sounds kind of cliche, but the focus was always getting that plus-one, and even when they scored the second goal, we just threw everything into action, and we just fully went for it. I don't think you can ever predict it's going to go down the way it did, scoring two goals in a short span in stoppage time. But we always were going to try to do that in that scenario, and it just happened to work out, and it was special because of the type of game it was and how it went down.”
“Credit to our guys, though, maybe the first time they listened to me,” he joked. “They kept a positive mindset when they could have thrown in the towel and packed it in, and they just didn't. Then after that free kick, what happened was just crazy, seeing the guys up front just chasing down the ball, believing that they could do something, and then it worked.”
Now, they’ll look to carry that magic over next year to the Canadian Championship, where they’ll look to become the next Cinderella story in Canadian soccer, in the same way that the Rovers were able to this year.
A moment many at the club never dreamed possible years ago, it’s now tangible and right in front of them, providing them with an opportunity of a lifetime in 2024.
For someone like Henman, the team’s leading scorer this year with seven goals, that’s special.
Having been at the Highlanders for most of his soccer-playing career, it’ll be a dream come true to wear the club’s colours in this competition next year, helping his team go toe-to-toe with a professional side.
The sort of stories that we see elsewhere in cup competitions across the world, it’s a story that Canadians were unable to dream of growing up, and now, those dreams are becoming a reality, highlighting the importance of these competitions.
“Yeah, I've been a part of this club for a long time,’ Henman explained. “I was in the academy back when I was in grade six, and I was consistently in it all the way up until university, so being a part of that, having worn this logo for so long and knowing what it means to the club and knowing what it means to Steve just makes it that much more special for us, and me personally, for sure.”
“It's unbelievable, it's pretty exciting,” he continued. “Most of us haven't really played against a full-strength CPL side or an MLS side, so that we have the opportunity to play against these teams and show what we can do is something we’re really looking forward to, we're super excited about what it could do for soccer on the island here.”
HISTORY!!— Highlanders FC (@HighlandersFC) July 24, 2023
The Victoria Highlanders are your League 1 BC regular season champions! 🥇
In winning the league, the Highlanders also punched their ticket to the 2024 Canadian Championship! 🏆#GoHighlanders #Champions pic.twitter.com/Id3xkM8QAG
From the opportunity to showcase the talent in the lower leagues, to get a taste of that next level and even boost the Highlanders name, it’s all possible now, and that isn’t lost on Simonson, who already believes that some of his players will really get a chance to shine in that environment.
“Cup competitions, they're fun because underdogs can win games,” he noted. “I believe there is a jump from each level, I really do, but I think that for some of the players, the jump is really small, and there are players in this league that can play in those higher leagues. It’ll be fun to go into that and be the upstart team, but it’s not the most important thing for us, for me, this also puts our club in a bit of a better spot recognition-wise, which can help us grow our club locally, and that's really what's the most important thing about this.”
And he’s certainly not the only one bubbling with excitement about that, as these Highlanders players can’t wait to be able to dive into the process of the cup draw, and everything else that the spectacle brings.
“Yeah, it will probably be a dream come true for a lot of guys,” Schäfer admitted. “And I’m definitely looking forward to that next year, I think we're all proud of ourselves and the team that we made it this far, and we've got nothing to lose, so yeah, we're just looking forward to that, finding out who we’re going up against, all of that.”
Before then, however, the Highlanders have big goals for the rest of this year. Because of that, while they’re looking forward to the Canadian Championship, they’ve completely shifted their focus back to the League 1 BC playoffs, which kick off on July 29th.
There, the Highlanders have a simple goal - beat Unity at home in the semi-finals, and then go and lift silverware at BC Place, where this year’s League 1 BC finals will be held.
Knowing how special it would be to lift a trophy on a field as historically significant in BC soccer culture as BC Place, they know that would be the perfect way to end off this season, giving them a boost ahead of next year.
The story of these Highlanders is just starting, and they’re excited to add another chapter, before turning their attention to the exciting opportunity that now awaits them next year.
“Right now, that’s our ultimate goal,” Schäfer finished. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in thinking about the Canadian championship next year, we want to finish strong now and hopefully win a title at BC Place, which will be another small dream come true for a lot of us."
“So yeah, we’re really excited for the next game and are ready to put everything on the line.”
Photo Credit: Victoria Highlanders