No I-5 bridge over the Skagit River?
No problem for the North Sound Sea Wolves of Edmonds, Washington.
The Sea Wolves, the summer home for several NCAA Div. 1 soccer players including from the University of Washington Huskies, had to take a detour to the border. But when they got to Victoria, they put a detour in the Highlanders early season.
North Sound (0-1-1) gave the Highlanders all they could handle Saturday night in a 2-2 tie before 1,206 fans at Royal Athletic Park. It was enough to deny the Highlanders (3-0-1) a fourth consecutive victory at the start of the United Soccer League Premier Development League season.
“Give North Sound credit. They did not make it easy for us tonight,” said Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson.
“I did not see that tying [2-2] goal coming [scored by David Durrant of the Sea Wolves at 87 minutes]. For the first time this season, I felt our guys thought they were coming into the game as the favourites. You can’t play with that attitude.”
Highlander midfielder Riley O’Neill, a former European pro, agreed.
“They [Sea Wolves] were bringing it to us. And our legs were sluggish,” said the native of Campbell River, who scored a goal from the spot last night.
The 27-year-old was once where the Sea Wolves players are as an NCAA player in his younger days with the University of Kentucky Wildcats.
“Americans love to play soccer hard and they work hard at it,” he said.
Nicholas Hamer, one of two brothers on the Sea Wolves from the Gonzaga University Bulldogs, took a pass from sibling and fellow-Zag Zach Hamer to open scoring at 33 minutes.
It was the first time the Highlanders have been behind this season.
After a glaring non-call on what appeared a clear foul in the box on Highlander midfielder Brett Levis, a Victoria penalty kick was awarded just minutes later on a borderline call when newly signed, quicksilver Highlanders midfielder Sahil Sandhu went down in the box on a break. O’Neill coolly converted at 66 minutes to pull Victoria level.
Then North Sound goalkeeper Ryan Herman, a UW Husky who has played on the U.S. Under-18 team, needed every inch of his six-foot-seven frame to barely deflect a Jordie Hughes shot over the cross-bar.
But Hughes, who led the Island league in scoring with 28 goals, was back moments later to pull the Highlanders ahead 2-1 at 69 minutes with a deflection header.
“We really didn’t start playing until the second half,” said Hughes.
“We fell behind, then got back into it, and then we let the victory slip away from us. It was frustrating. We should have come away with the three points.”
Victoria goalkeeper Elliot Mitrou made a big stop off Nicholas Hamer in the 81st minute. But he could not stop Durrant, a former Nottingham Forest Academy player from England, six minutes later as North Sound escaped with the tie.
“We worked hard to climb back into it, but then in the last 10 minutes, we let up a little bit and it ended up costing us,” said O’Neill.
The elusive Nicholas Hamer was dangerous all night for the Sea Wolves.
“We came in knowing this [Highlanders] was the top team in the league and undefeated,” said the Gonzaga NCAA forward, who grew up just 15 minutes from the campus in Spokane that is most famous for the Zags basketball team.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and it was. We knew we had to fight and that’s what we did. We knew they had older guys while we are mostly collegians with an average age of 19-20. I think we proved ourselves tonight and proved we are not going to be a low-level team in the league this year.”
Simonson described Saturday’s fixture as “a game of waves.”
“We had a lot of early corners and then we went into a big lull,” said the Victoria head coach.
“But give North Sound credit — they were very well organized. Then we got around their organization and climbed back into it and took the lead. Unfortunately, we had that late letdown.”
The Highlanders next play Friday night at RAP against the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23, one of three MLS-affiliate teams in the PDL Pacific Northwest Division along with the Seattle Sounders U-23 and Portland Timbers U-23.
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