BIG READ: How TSS Rovers' magical run 'opened eyes' to what's possible in Canadian soccer
It was a routine day for TSS Rovers forward Erik Edwardson.
As usual, the 26-year-old woke up, got dressed, and went to his day job, putting in a 9-5 shift.
Then, after work ended, he rocked up to Swangard Stadium, donned the TSS Rovers kit, and hit the pitch. This wasn’t any ordinary League1 B.C. game, however – this was the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship, and the TSS Rovers were taking on CPL side Valour FC.
He had a game to remember, too, picking up two assists as his underdog side became the first semi-professional team to knock out a professional outfit in this tournament. The scenes were electric. History was made.
Luckily for Edwardson, he didn’t have a similar grind to deal with this week – his job gave him a couple of days off as they travelled to Vancouver Island to play Pacific in the quarter-finals – but his story is a reminder of why these games are so important for Canadian footballers, everywhere.
Often playing just for the love of the game, a lot of these footballers must balance chasing their dreams with the reality of what life has to offer, which can include paying rent, bills, etc. For many, a pro soccer career may not pan out, but the love of the sport doesn't die, either. Nor does the hope of one day finding something more.
So, games like the ones the Rovers played over the last month show why this competition is oh so important. It's a chance to play a professional team, in a game broadcast across Canada; an opportunity to showcase players who want to make that jump to the next level. Knowing that one shot, one dribble, one tackle or one spectacular goal can change everything, these local talents have immense motivation to play in games like these, even as they juggle everything that life has to offer.
"I’m very fortunate to have people that like are in my workplace that understand that," Edwardson told OneSoccer after the Pacific match.
"This is such a great outlet. Everybody here has their daily stresses. Everybody has things that they have to worry about in their lives. But then when we get to come and play the sport that we love, in front of people that are supporting us? It's such an amazing feeling. I really hope that in the future we're able to do it again."
That's also a feeling that Kyle Jones understands well. The 26-year-old Rovers midfield maestro was blown away with all of the attention his team received after they beat Valour – and it certainly caught him and his coworkers by surprise.
Also a midfielder with local men's league side Coquitlam Metro Ford during the League 1 B.C. offseason, the former SFU player can't say that the TSS Rovers underdog story was something he ever envisioned happening to him while playing. It made for a pretty surreal experience when it all went down.
"It was pretty amazing," Jones told OneSoccer. "I work at a place where people love sports, so I had my boss and one of the cooks come to the Valour game, and some of them saw me on the news after, and that's all stuff never thought I was going to be a part of, and that's cool to be a part of.
"You don't play for the recognition, but to get recognition like that is pretty cool, right?
"Like that’s not something that I'm getting playing for the local Coquitlam team – not that I'm playing for that reason – but to be a part of that and have a Rovers fan base that has people travel all over here is awesome."
When Jones and Edwardson were in their teens, they didn’t have matches like this to look forward to. The Canadian Premier League didn't launch until they were in their early-20s; the Canadian Championship was a three-team competition for most of their lives; League 1 B.C. only came around last summer.
It's safe to say the two, like many footballers in the area, didn’t have much of a chance to dream of nights like this when they were younger, much less one day participating in them in their own backyard. Maybe in Europe, but here? In Burnaby? Impossible.
Add to the story the fact that the Rovers are a fan-owned club, and brought hundreds of supporters over to the Island, too?
That's a Canadian soccer Cinderella story if we've ever seen one!
"Growing up, there was always the idea that when I get older, I wanted to go play in Europe, because you got to play in front of the big crowds, and there's a connection to the fans that you don't that you didn't see here," Jones explained. "Whereas now, you've got all these pro clubs in Canada, you’ve got all of League1 Canada, we’ve got the Swangardians (the Rovers supporters), and they’re incredible.
“I used to play against them when I was playing for Calgary in the PDL, and that was the first time I played against a team where when they score, they light flares, and that has my asthmatic self coughing in the middle of the field, but it's just it's so cool to be a part of.”
Taking it all in, and the message is clear: Nights like these are what makes Canadian soccer grow.
These players might not have had these opportunities to look forward to when they were growing up, but the next generation of players certainly do. And for the kids watching on today, dreams of glory don't need to take you far from home anymore, either. When you look across the crowd from both Rovers matches and see swaths of youth players there from the Rovers academy and elsewhere, they can look at what's happening with the sport in their backyard, and believe that they can be a part of that one day, too.
"For our club, for all of the academy players that we have, this is something that is tangible if you work hard and put in the effort with your teammates," Edwardson stated. "I think it just gives everybody so much belief, because when I was younger, I didn't see this as an opportunity. Like... we didn't have the CPL.
"So us just putting our best foot forward, along with everybody else in the competition, that just gives a lot of young players around the country the belief that the opportunities are here in our own backyard, we don't have to go overseas anymore if you don't want to, you can achieve your dreams here."
While the Rovers are happy to inspire the next generation of players, they've still got dreams of their own to chase.
It’s no secret that a lot of these players want to make that jump up to the professional game, from those who've already been there and had a taste, to those who haven't gotten that chance yet. After these performances, you have to imagine some doors will be opening for them soon enough. They weren't in this competition just to make up the numbers – they competed, and were full-value for their victory against Valour. Plus, they gave a heck of a fight to Pacific FC, too.
So from Edwardson to Jones, to goal-scoring hero Matteo Polisi, and the several unheralded performances from the likes of Justyn Sandhu, Ali Zohar, Ivan Mejia and many more across the way, a path to the CPL has now become a distinct possibility, too.
Perhaps in the weeks to come, or after their League1 B.C. season ends, scouts will certainly take note of what these Rovers showed in these Canadian Championship matches.
“At every opportunity now, people are watching," Rovers head coach Will Cromack proudly stated. "There were some performances out there that were really quite incredible. Some guys that can play, quite obviously can play, can certainly play at other levels and in other competitions, so our goal is to constantly show off the guys and what they're capable of. Now, we will go back into league play and we'll have to be the protagonist, and that's a different type of learning.
"It's a different type of opportunity for guys to show off their skills, so it's important for us to go and give it a good shot, play the way we should, and help show off the players in the best footballing manner, which is to say don’t just defend all the time, but to play as well and to open that up in this level so that these guys can move on to the next level, because they proved they can do both sides of the ball."
Yet that also proves what many have been saying for a few years now since the launch of League1 Ontario, Ligue1 Quebec and now League1 B.C. – there’s loads of talent to be mined in each province across the country.
It's exciting to see what sort of talent can come out of these sorts of circuits in the future, as League1 Canada continues to expand to more areas and launches more teams. All of a sudden, pro outfits won’t have to look too far to find talent: It can often be sitting right in their backyards.
That’s the next big step for the game in the country – to properly nurture these grassroots levels. The ecosystem has now been created, and it works, but just needs to keep opening up.
It's why miracle moments like those of the TSS Rovers can help.
"We couldn't be more proud of the guys with how it ended, even though we didn't get the result we wanted this evening," Edwardson offered.
"I think all of us put our best foot forward in both games, and I think we really showed a lot of people that even if we don't have professional attached to our name, we can still compete at this level. There are a lot of guys that are getting overlooked. But at the end of the day, playing against this calibre of players, you’ve got to take your chances, and they did that tonight, but I think honestly we can be proud of what we did, and what we showed to all of the people that are involved in soccer in Canada, as I think it might open some people's eyes to the lower levels.
"I think it just goes to show that maybe the difference in quality between the levels isn’t as big as people might think, so it can provide belief for people that are playing these lower levels in Canada in League1 across the country, to show that these things are achievable, and it's not impossible to beat the professional teams anymore.
"There are guys in here that are trying to make that jump to that next level, so I think this is so motivational for all of the guys, and now we just have to set our focus back on League 1, and just make sure that we do the business there so that we can get back to this level. This just gives all of the guys so much motivation to focus on their jobs in the league, and if we do that, the rest will take care of itself."
The best thing about all of this? It’s just the start of what's possible. We're still early days.
The Canadian Championship will only keep growing, paving the way for more stories like that of the Rovers.
Everyone across the country has now having gotten a taste of what's possible. Sure, the Rovers are pushing to be a part of it once again, continuing to pave the way for those around them – but it doesn't have to be them. The next story could come from anywhere.
"The fact that it is now possible, the fact that we've proved it's now possible, I think might open doors for other teams," Jones said.
"I don't know if League1 Alberta is going to take part in this next season, for example, as they're so brand new, but there are even more teams in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., and we've shown that it's possible to make it to this next round, and I there might be more coming in the future and it's pretty cool to possible be trailblazers for that sort of upset."
Photo Credits: AFTN / Tom Ewasiuk and Pacific FC