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Highlanders ride soccer's growing tide in North America

It may never rival the big four North American sports, but soccer has found a niche and made a definite beachhead on this continent.
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Victoria Highlanders owner Alex Campbell Jr., left, and general manager Mark DeFrias agree that Victoria is capable of supporting a minor professional team.

It may never rival the big four North American sports, but soccer has found a niche and made a definite beachhead on this continent. Among those storming the shores are the Victoria Highlanders, who open their 2014 United Soccer League Premier Development League season today at 2 p.m. at Royal Athletic Park.

Is that coming on a bit too strong? The Highlanders don’t think so. This is an ambitious organization with goals both on and off the pitch. It doesn’t plan on being in the PDL forever. With Major League Soccer booming, the Highlanders see opportunities opening up everywhere across the continent. Where will it lead Victoria soccer?

“Soccer in North America is a viable sport and is growing. David Beckham is looking to put a [Major League Soccer] team in Miami, the NFL owner of the Falcons [Arthur Blank] is putting a [MLS] team in Atlanta and Man City and the Yankees are looking to bring another team into New York,” Highlanders GM Mark DeFrias said.

“The franchise fee is $100 million for a MLS team. What does that mean for us? It’s increasing TV ratings, awareness and creating a rolling cascade that will trickle down to the lower leagues in terms of interest. We’re a part of it at the very inception. Twenty years from now, there will be systems and processes in place with established North American second divisions to develop and move up players.”

It’s no secret the Highlanders would like to be part of that evolving system.

“It’s a really cool time for soccer,” DeFrias said.

“If I was a prophet, 20 years from now I can see Greater Victoria having a 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium.”

And, obviously, a minor-pro team to go with it.

“It might be USL or NASL [the two current main pro soccer leagues in North America beneath the MLS] . . . by 2015 we hope to have an answer to that question of whether a second division [pro team] is viable in Victoria,” DeFrias said.

Of course, talk is cheap and none of this may happen. But at least the groundwork is seeming to be laid properly in the attempt.

None of this grand dreaming would have been possible without the success of the Highlanders in the PDL, which is North America’s top amateur development league. The Highlanders averaged more than 1,600 fans last season at Royal Athletic Park en route to winning the Northwest and Western Conference titles and advancing to the PDL Final Four in Austin, Texas. That was no small feat, considering the far-flung PDL consists of more than 60 teams spread across North America.

“We would like to see that game attendance bumped to 1,800 this season,” DeFrias said.

His club seems to be at least giving fans a reason to come out. The Highlanders have assembled a roster that on paper is as strong, if not stronger, this season than last season’s division and conference champion side.

In some ways, the Highlanders success in not surprising. The Island is among those markets unique in North America in that soccer has always been a thriving sporting force here. The connection began with the British influence in the coal mines of Nanaimo and Cumberland, which produced many great teams in the early part of the 20th century and continued through a strong Canadian national team presence that produced numerous Island players who performed on up to the Olympics and 1986 World Cup.

The latter era was part of the heady days of the old North American Soccer League, when players such as Victoria’s Ian Bridge and Bob Bolitho and now- UVic Vikes coach Bruce Wilson would battle shoulder-to-shoulder against the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.

The MLS has given the sport its second wind in North America. The question now is: Can clubs like the Highlanders open their sails and catch part of those breezes, too?

DeFrias said the Highlanders operate on an annual budget of between $120,000 and $150,000 in the PDL. A minor-pro budget in the USL or NASL would be about $1 million per season, after a one-time franchise fee of $500,000 is paid.

“We would need 3,000 to 5,000 fans per game to make that work,” DeFrias said.

The Victoria Royals get that in the Western Hockey League, so it obviously can be done in this sporting marketplace. The Highlanders also have an edge over other medium-size markets in that this is maybe the only Canadian city in which soccer might even approach hockey in popularity.

“There is just so much to do in Victoria — from the arts to running road races — but there will be some good conversations to have about that [possibility of pro soccer in Victoria] in a couple of months,” said Highlanders owner Alex Campbell Jr.

“We’re in good shape off the field.”

And on.

“We’re hopeful of another good run [with the Highlanders in the PDL], but it will all come down to execution.”

But there will clearly be more than just this season in mind when the Highlanders hit the pitch today against Vancouver Whitecaps U-23. The ball will be kicked. That we know. Where it lands is the intriguing question.

HIGHLANDERS 2014 SCHEDULE

Today: vs. Vancouver, 2 p.m.
May 17: vs. Kitsap, 7 p.m.
May 23: at Vancouver, 7 p.m.
May 24: vs. Washington, 7 p.m.
May 31: at Kitsap, 7 p.m.
June 1: at Washington, noon
June 7: vs. Portland U-23, 7 p.m.
June 14: vs. Puget Sound, 1 p.m.
June 21: at Portland U-23, 7:30 p.m.
June 22: at Lane United, 1 p.m.
June 28: vs. Seattle U-23, 7 p.m.
July 5: vs. Lane United, 7 p.m.
July 11: at Puget Sound, 1 p.m.
July 13: at Seattle U-23, 2 p.m.
All home games at Royal Athletic Park

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com