'It's a big opportunity': League 1 BC's TSS Rovers embracing Canadian Championship debut
In the TSS Rovers camp, there’s one big word buzzing around right now - opportunity.
An opportunity to showcase the club, an opportunity to move up a level, or even just the opportunity to go out and play soccer again - safe to say there’s plenty of motivation for the club to hit the field at Swangard Stadium on Wednesday, as they get set to host Valour FC in their first-ever Canadian Championship match.
The inaugural League 1 BC men’s champions, the Rovers have been waiting for this day for a long time. Canada’s first majoritarily fan-owned club, they've had big goals since launching their share program at the beginning of 2022, including developing some Canadian National Team players, joining the CPL, and participating in cup games like this often.
All dreams that some of the club’s original owners famously put on the back of a napkin when launching their fan-ownership model, this game represents a key milestone for them, as it’s just further proof that your dreams can become a reality if you put your mind to it, and go about things the right way.
“Yeah, it's like reaching base camp,” Rovers head coach Will Cromack said of this game. “Once you finally get there, you know that there's still more of the mountain to go, but reaching base camp means that you’re ready to roll, there’s no going back. And so for us, it's the dreams on the napkin coming true, which is sort of surreal in so many ways.”
“But I think it comes down to that a bunch of people that respect the game, like not this game, but the game. They've been putting a lot of effort and energy behind it and respecting our opponents, and that feels amazing. And I mean, we're just excited and we hope we can kind of get it into the hearts and minds of people that are on the sidelines to come out, feel it, and know that your kid can be there one day, too.”
BE A PART OF HISTORY— TSS Rovers Football Club (@TSSRovers) February 22, 2023
Tickets now available for a David vs Goliath titanic Canadian Championship battle at iconic Swangard Stadium.
The mighty Rovers vs @ValourFootball @League1BC SEASON TICKET pckg now on sale & incl.
Canadian Championship match
Link: https://t.co/bvSeyYkAec pic.twitter.com/8wfdvaPAS7
Yet, that’s why cup games like this one can be so special. A showcase for the growth of soccer in the country, it’s a chance to show that even beyond the professional ranks, the sport is grabbing a foothold at the grassroots levels.
Especially for League 1 Canada sides, as more and more players from those leagues are making the jump up to the CPL, it’s showing that these leagues can be legitimate pathways to the next level, something that the players themselves are starting to recognize.
“Just to play a game like this against a pro team in a cup match, that's huge,” Rovers goalkeeper Justyn Sandhu said this week. “This is something that all of these guys want, that opportunity to get into the CPL as that is the next step for us, especially when you’re in League 1. This is what they're trying to build, for there to be a system from League 1 to CPL, so all of these guys are looking for a contract, as it's a massive game for us.”
“Honestly, I wish we could have more of those,” centre-back Danylo Smychenko added. “This is a great chance for any player to show themselves to higher levels than this league, so yeah, I'm really looking forward to it, hopefully, I will be able to show my best, help the team win the game to get the result we want.”
Plus, making this extra special is the fact that it’s the Rovers hosting the game. Of course, any League 1 team hosting would’ve been fun to see, but the Rovers are a fascinating outfit, given the ownership model that they employ.
Not only that, but they’ve built up a strong fanbase throughout the years, too, led by their supporters' group, the Swanguardians, who always bring the noise, the banter and plenty of smoke to any Rovers game that they play.
Because of all that, a big crowd is expected for this game at Swangard, as the Rovers have pushed to fill their historic home up as much as possible, including an initiative where fans can donate to help get local kids to attend the game.
Safe to say, that should make for quite the atmosphere, something that the players are looking forward to, on a multitude of levels.
“It’ll be good for local footy in Vancouver.” former Pacific forward Matteo Polisi said. “This will be a big stage for us to showcase ourselves in front of a big crowd. And obviously, it'll be broadcasted, and lots of people will be watching.”
“So we're just trying to win this game, as that's how you get noticed, if we come up with a big result, I think people will maybe really start looking at us. So the thing we're focused on is tackling the first minute of the game, taking it minute by minute by minute, and then we'll see how it goes.”
Plus, as for the game itself, the Rovers will be very confident in their ability to go out and get a result. Especially seeing how they qualified for this game, as they beat Nautsa’mawt FC (then Varsity FC) on penalties during the final, that shows that they’re ready for the rigours of tournament soccer.
A match that was also played at Swangard, their crowd gave them a huge boost in that final, too, something that ended up paying off for them in the end, where Sandhu made the game-winning save in the shootout to give his team the title.
“It was pretty unreal,” Sandhu reflected back on with a smile. “I honestly didn't realize we won the game, and I was kind of shocked, to be honest. At first, I got up and everyone was running towards me, and I was like, oh my god, we won, so that was pretty surreal, as the feeling after was just amazing. So hopefully we can do that again, provide an upset on Wednesday and give the fans something to cheer about.”
And the @TSSRovers have won the @League1BC men’s final!— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) August 2, 2022
Fantastic scenes here at Swangard Stadium as the supporters-owned Rovers are crowned the first men’s champion in the league’s history pic.twitter.com/ptaSJZG5of
And given that the Rovers have bolstered their squad for this game, they’ve certainly given themselves a good shot at being quite competitive, too.
The return of Polisi is a big example of that, as he played two seasons with Pacific in the CPL, winning the CPL championship in 2021, but wasn’t re-signed at the end of last season. Because of that, he’s using this game as a chance to show that he should be playing at a higher level, even if he’s relishing playing for a club he came through as a youngster once again.
“Yeah. I'm really excited,” Polisi explained. “Obviously, I'm not exactly where I want to be right now. But I'll take this opportunity and use it to try to get back to where I want to be. Then, in terms of this game, it's a great opportunity for the whole team to show what we can do against a CPL side.”
And Polisi’s not the only player bringing that experience. Returnee Fugo Segawa is an experienced professional who played professionally in Finland and in the CPL for York, while Gabriel Escobar had a taste of life with the Halifax Wanderers last year.
Along with a handful of players that have been around professional environments, it’s given the Rovers a good base of experience to lean upon as they prepare for this game, something that Cromack has been quite pleased to see with his group.
“Yeah, at the end of the day, you're talking about guys who've tasted (that next level), and can then show that with their attitudes,” he explained. “They come back into an environment like ours, and can go ‘Hey, I've seen what it looks like on Everest, you’ve got to watch out for this, this and this’.”
“That’s very important. You know what they say on TV when you're watching the game, how experience can give you a coach on the field? Well, we’ve got a couple now that have walked back in and they've become coaches for us.”
And that’s only adding fuel to the fire that burns within this group, one filled with different stories.
For example, look at Smychenko as someone of intrigue. Born in Ukraine, the 24-year-old Smychenko came over to Canada about a half-decade ago and is now a citizen. A former U21 Ukraine league product, he’s now returning to the Rovers after starting out there over four years ago, and should be a key player in this game.
There, he knows that he has the opportunity to not just make a name for himself as a player, but to represent a country that has gone through a lot in the past year, as well, which he’s seen first-hand as family, friends and other people have suffered through the war that’s raged on there.
Because of that, a game like this isn’t just a chance for him to get noticed and to make that next step, but it’s also the chance to play for an entire country, and for those near and dear to his heart.
“Yeah, it's been tough the last couple of months,” Smychenko admitted. “So when I step on the field, I always think about my family, my friends, and all of the Ukrainian people in general. When I step on the field, I think that I have to show my best, because It’s like I’m representing my country. It’s almost a sort of pressure, but not really, although it’s something that’s definitely in my head.”
“I'm so grateful to Canada for showing huge support to the Ukrainian people, so many people have come here lately and have all gotten help, getting them jobs and places to stay, so yeah, I'm really grateful for this help to us Ukrainians.”
Yet, that just shows what’s at stake for some of the Rovers. Having been at this for a while now, they know what a game can mean, hence the talk of opportunity heading into this.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL— TSS Rovers Football Club (@TSSRovers) November 3, 2022
The napkin list is now complete. The dream has come true.
TSS Rovers will compete in the 2023 Canadian Championships!
Canada’s 1st supporter owned club gets a moment in the sun.
Thank you to anyone that ever dared to think the impossible.#TogetherOne pic.twitter.com/gfpr2VdsvB
Win or lose, the Rovers are now looking to make the most of this opportunity. A huge day for the sport in BC and Canada at large, they know that things might not end up with the storybook ending that they want, but they’re going to do their best to make that happen, and from there, show why this won’t be the last time we hear from this club and its players.
As a famous person said, soccer is nothing without fans, so for this fan-owned Rovers side, they know that this is just the start of their journey in the Canadian soccer ecosystem, a message that they’ve pushed internally for a while now.
“There are a couple of messages,” Cromack said. “First, there’s one for the players, as it’s a big opportunity (for them). Sure, you may win or lose, but you have to show that you deserve to be on the same pitch as them, and that means that you have to be focused, you have to be ready and prepared to do stuff that's dirty, put in the hard work and do all the things that a pro coach looks in terms of character and attitude.”
“And then for our supporters, and all the people that are around this club, it’s a chance to celebrate that the game is growing in this province, and not just growing for the sake of adding numbers but growing for the people are in the thick of it, like we've been in this a long time now, so we want to celebrate this success and to have people come out and party.”