It was a beautiful night for the Beautiful Game on Saturday at Royal Athletic Park, and the crowd of 2,347 got full value, even though the home team lost.
A big cheer went up as the Victoria Highlanders were introduced as first-time Northwest Division regular season champions in the USL Premier Development League, and the game ended with a rousing standing ovation for the historic accomplishment.
“It’s amazing. I don’t know what to say,” said Highlanders forward Brett Levis, who was awarded the inaugural Supporters’ Choice Trophy, after the game. “It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life this summer.”
The Highlanders came ready to play on Saturday, but the Portland Timbers U23 were still fighting to lock down second place. Down 1-0 at the half, the Timbers rebounded to take the contest 2-1.
Victoria drew first blood, on a goal that began with one of Tyler Hughes lethal corner kicks. Hughes sent the ball to Blair Sturrock, whose header deflected off Sahil Sandhu and into the net in the 24th minute. Portland goalkeeper Blake Hylen got a piece of the ball, but not enough to stop it.
The Timbers came close to tying the game in the 38th minute, but Victoria keeper Elliot Mitrou made the stop, and survived a bit of a scramble in front of his net.
Always a force in the PDL, the Timbers have not always had the consistency coach Jim Rilatt was looking for on Saturday night. He said that’s mainly due to vetting players for the pro Major League Soccer Timbers.
“They’re all very good players, and we owe them playing time,” Rilatt said. “My lineup has never been the same, and it affects you.”
Both teams substituted liberally in the second half — Joel Wilson took over in the Victoria net — and Portland picked up their intensity. They evened the score in the 65th minute on a goal by Jaime Velasco.
Brett Levis nearly put the Highlanders back on top, but his rocket in the 69th minute slammed off a goal post.
Portland kept coming, and the Highlanders got into trouble deep in their own end. Wilson wasn’t able to handle a high ball, and Mark Daus got a foot on it for the winner in the 79th minute.
Sturrock had a golden opportunity to tie things in injury time, but his shot sailed inches over the crossbar.
Six yellow cards — four to Portland — were issued in the game.
“We beat them 2-0 at home, and in this game they might have come at us with with a little bit of a grudge,” Levis said.
In women’s action, which preceded the men’s game, the Peninsula Co-op Highlanders continued their steamrolling parade through the Pacific Coast Soccer League. With their 10th consecutive victory, Peninsula blanked Okanagan FC 6-0.
Despite the score, coach Dave Dew felt his players weren’t at their best through the first 45 minutes.
“We were up 2-0, but it wasn’t the kind of soccer we’d been advocating,” Dew said. “I took a dig at them, and they responded really well.”
Sarah Douglas had a three-goal game for the home side, Mariel Solsberg added a pair, and Abi Raymer also scored. The Highlanders (11-1-2) find themselves entrenched in second place in the PCSL, although not quite able to catch the No. 1 Vancouver Whitecaps (13-2-0), with two games to play.
The Highlanders, who’ve outscored opponents 54-15 this season, are back on the pitch today, taking on Fraser Valley Action, 2 p.m., at Tyndall Park.
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