'I want back to the pro level': Matteo Polisi underlines TSS Rovers spirit with performance in CanChamp miracle
BURNABY, B.C. – It felt like time had stopped.
When the ball fell to Matteo Polisi just inside the box during the 39th minute of the TSS Rovers' Canadian Championship preliminary round tie against Valour FC, you wouldn’t have faulted him for trying to get off a powerful strike as soon as he controlled the ball.
Given that the Rovers had been outshot 6-2 at that stage of the game – but were still in the match with the score tied at 0-0 – he certainly had every reason to want to urgently strike the ball. As a semi-professional side going up against a full-fledged professional team, chances weren’t going to come often for his team... especially not in a position like that.
Instead? Polisi stayed calm, opting not to shoot on his preferred right foot – it would’ve likely been blocked. Rather, he shaped up as if he was going to shoot, before opening his hips and sliding the ball over onto the left boot.
From there, he spotted another lane and took it, striking the ball low and firm, enough to roll it past the Valour 'keeper with composure.
"Honestly, when it fell to me, I felt time kind of slow down, to be honest," Polisi told OneSoccer after the match. "I knew that when the ball fell to me, I had a little bit of time, a little bit of space as the defender was a yard or two off of me, and so I knew that even if it was on my right foot and I didn't have a clear shot, I thought to bring it over to my left, and then I saw the bottom corner open up and I just slotted it home."
With that goal, the packed crowd at the historic Swangard Stadium went wild, as Polisi and his teammates wheeled off in celebration, certainly aware of the significance of his goal. It was a crucial opener, and ended up paving the way for a miraculous, dominant 3-1 Rovers win.
That goal helped write history, as TSS Rovers became the first semi-professional side to beat a professional team in a Canadian Championship clash. It was a thoroughly deserved victory, too.
In the history of cupsets around the world, teams might require an extreme stroke of luck to win, as they just try to hang on and nab a goal at the other end, but for these Rovers, that was definitely not the case here.
Boosted by the familiar confines of Swangard, and the raucous fans that always support them there, they were nearly perfect on the night, and that was shown in the numbers, as they had more shots on target (8-3), xG (1.77-1.59) and big chances (3-1) despite being out possessed (66-34) and outshot (13-10) by Valour.
But while the numbers were dominant in the end for the Rovers, as they did everything they needed to do in order to win, at the same time, they knew that they needed a bit more than that.
The history of this sport is littered with underdogs that played great, but didn’t take their chances, leaving them to wonder “What if?”.
Because of that, while the Rovers felt that there were certainly going to be moments where they could hang with their opponents, they knew that this game would come down to key moments in both boxes, and that their execution in those areas would determine their fate.
"We just talked about taking it slowly, minute by minute, sticking to the game plan, and then being ruthless when we got our chances in both boxes, in those attacking and defensive areas," Polisi said. "We knew that we were going to have to be ruthless, not let them create a lot, and then when the ball came into our box, to clear it out, and then when we got opportunities in their box, to make sure that we were calm, relaxed and then put it in the net, and we did that.
"We were hungry, we were running tonight, everyone was running selflessly, tracking back, tackling, it was awesome, really."
"We talked about it, you got to take your chances," Rovers head coach Will Cromack added in his post-match press conference. "We have some lethal guys on our team. And what they did off the ball was incredible, but they knew they’re gonna get their chances, and that we had guys that could take them, and that’s important."
Thankfully for the Rovers, that’s where Polisi’s presence came in clutch.
A former Rover, the 25-year-old had played with the club from 2017-2019, as he was just a teenager embarking on a journey at SFU where he scored an impressive 36 goals and added 18 assists in 52 games in the NCAA’s division 2 circuit.
Alongside that, he was also a key figure for the Rovers, sitting as a key talisman in each of his three seasons with the club.
As a result, when he graduated from SFU, it was expected he’d make the jump to the professional level. Because of that, it wasn’t surprising when CPL side Pacific FC gave him a call at the beginning of 2021, allowing him to take that next step.
There, he’d do well for himself, too, playing 39 games across two seasons for the club, scoring three goals and adding one assist, even helping them win the 2021 CPL title with his efforts. Despite playing on a stacked Pacific team, playing only 1100 minutes across those games, he showed that he could’ve been prime to shine if he’d gotten a bigger role, which you’d certainly imagine he could get in 2023.
Yet, as his contract expired with Pacific, that bigger role didn’t come with them, as the club let him go. From there, he looked elsewhere, including having a trial with Valour where he even scored in a friendly against Vancouver FC, but nothing else beyond that materialized.
Because of that, it left him with one option to try and boost his pro hopes - to return to those same Rovers where he first played almost six years ago, as they geared up to take on Valour in this Canadian Championship match.
A chance to play on a big stage and prove that he should be playing at the professional level, all while giving back to a club that helped him get to that level in the first place, it was a true full circle moment for Polisi.
So for him to then go out and get a brace to help them win, against a team that had overlooked him just months earlier, it couldn’t have gone better for him, and you could see what that meant with his celebration on his second goal, as he jumped into the Rovers supporters group, the Swanguardians, in a pure leap of jubilation.
Safe to say, he had eyes on using this game as a call to those around the CPL to sign him, and after this performance, those teams will certainly have been snapped to attention.
"Of course, I want to get back to the professional level," Polisi admitted. "So yeah, a game like tonight, hopefully coaches are watching and they can see that I'm not gone, I'm still here, I want to knock on their door, and we'll see what happens. Who knows, maybe an opportunity will come soon, but I'll still keep plugging away here, and I won't stop.
"I was 18 or 19 when I first played for the club, and I played three or four years with the Rovers, and then I was gone for a bit, and now I'm back. And I’ve played many games here, and this was a special night, and to do it in front of all the Swanguardians again? Yeah, I missed them a lot."
Yet, Polisi’s story is just one of many that the Rovers can be proud of. Brother Marcello is signed to Valour and is in his third year as a pro, while CF Montréal and Canadian international Joel Waterman is also a Rovers alumnus, a list that also includes Patrick Metcalfe, Jordan Haynes, Jordyn Huitema and Julia Grosso, just to name a few players.
And on a night like this, you can understand how the Rovers do it. Nicknamed the “soccer pirates”, they embrace that moniker, as they’re fearless in how they approach things, always embracing the unknown.
Become the first supporters' own team in Canada? Hosting a Canadian Championship tie? Moving players onto the next level? Fixing the lack of BC players that play for Canada’s National Teams? Trying to expose a professional team’s tactical weaknesses?
They attack each and one of those tasks with the same vigour, never straying from their ethos, pushing to get players like Polisi to the next level.
"Attack with the ball, attack without it, that's who we are, we're pirates, man," Cromack proudly stated of his team's ambitions after the game. “We’re going to ride that sea, we're gonna go and take your loot. That's who we are, that's our culture, that's the people we want to be, we want to force the issue to make things better here.
"We are desperate to make BC a place that has players again at the National Team level, as we don't have many of them. But they're here, waiting for their opportunity, getting discarded. They're not in the right place. (For example), this guy (Polisi) needs to be out of here, he needs a job, and that’s what we’re doing."
And now, the Rovers don’t have any plans on stopping any time soon.
Having ticked another item off of the napkin list of dreams that they had when they launched their shares program last year, they’ll now turn their attention to the next task - the start of their League 1 BC season at the end of this month, before shifting to the next round of this Canadian Championship.
They know that while this win will forever live on in the history books, their work is far from over, so they’ll put the napkin back in their pockets, and move on to the next goal in their journey as a club - after a well deserved night of celebration, of course.
"Now, the napkin didn't say we were gonna win, the napkin said we'd like to be involved, and I think tonight we were pretty involved," Cromack said with a big smile. "So yeah, this was like going from basecamp one to basecamp two, I guess.
"And there, we’ll get the tape out, see how big everybody is, how fast they are, where their threats are.
"But tonight, we won't do that from the pub," he concluded, with a well-earned smile.
Image credits: AFTN / Tom Ewasiuk