Never underestimate the value of an old pro.
The Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps U-23 teams have players those organizations hope to groom for their MLS pro sides.
The Victoria Highlanders have 32-year-old defender Tyler Hughes and 27-year-old midfielder Riley O’Neill, whose pro days are behind them, but who can certainly still play a dominating game at the United Soccer League Premier Development League level.
The Highlanders completed a sweep of MLS-affiliate teams by outpacing Sounder U-23 (0-2) by a 4-1 count before 1,376 fans Sunday afternoon at Royal Athletic Park. That followed a 3-2 victory earlier in the weekend over Whitecaps U-23 (1-1) at UBC Thunderbird Stadium.
“Riley [O’Neill] and Tyler [Hughes] have been key leaders for us. They can control the game with their composure,” said Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson.
The Highlanders scored a combined seven goals over the weekend, respectively, against Canada-capped goalkeeper Simon Thomas, the Oak Bay product who is under contract to the pro MLS Whitecaps, and Earl Edwards of Sounders U-23, who was 10-3-2 this season with the Pac-12 champion UCLA Bruins and a member of the silver-medallist United States team at the CONCACAF championships that qualified for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Of those weekend Victoria goals, the show-stopper was the fourth one Sunday against the Sounders. A pin-point, near pitch-length free kick by Hughes found O’Neill, who headed it into the Seattle net as the six-foot-three Edwards watched frozen.
The Highlanders moved to 3-0 in the regular season and are 5-0 in 2013 when exhibition victories over NCAA Div. 1 sides University of Washington Huskies and Seattle University Redhawks are included.
The only other undefeated team in the PDL Northwest Division is the third MLS affiliate within the division — Portland Timbers U-23 at 2-0.
The high-octane Highlanders’ offence has outscored its opponents 10-3 in the three regular-season victories.
“We have great pace and we’re always looking to break,” said Simonson.
“We have creative players who can finish. That’s always a great combination. We’ve scored in open play, on set pieces and on crosses. We’re scoring in different ways.”
Sounders U-23 were wishing they still had defender DeAndre Yedlin, who was called up to the MLS Sounders. They could have used him Sunday at RAP as goals by CIS second-team all-Canadian and Canada West second-leading scorer Brett Levis gave the Highlanders a 2-0 lead.
UVic Vikes striker Tommy Mallette pushed that to a three-goal advantage. O’Neill drilled home that header, from Hughes’ long free kick, at 61 minutes to leave the Sounders with little chance of a rally.
Miles Byass of Seattle closed out scoring at 63 minutes to deny Elliot Mitrou the clean sheet.
The Campbell River product O’Neill is showing the chops that got him to the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup with Canada, an NCAA Div. 1 full-ride with the University of Kentucky Wildcats and to a pro career as high as the Finnish Premier League and German Second Division.
If younger PDL opponents have been smothered under the experience displayed by O’Neill and former Swedish pro and NCAA Division 1 Coastal Carolina all-conference player Hughes, it could get worse.
Former Plymouth Argyle pro Blair Sturrock, who has 37 goals in 282 pro appearances including two in 21 FA Cup games, hasn’t played yet for the Highlanders. He’s had a few small injury tweaks to iron out since arriving in Canada but the 31-year-old veteran could be ready for next Saturday night’s game at 7 against the North Sound Sea Wolves (0-1) at RAP.
In sports, youth must be served. But not until those with more experience are served first.
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