Four Highlanders move on to begin road to pro soccer

The good thing with success at the lower levels is that it leads to opportunities at higher levels. The bad thing with success in the lower levels is that it leads to opportunities at higher levels.

The Victoria Highlanders will go into tonight’s key United Soccer League 2 game at Centennial Stadium against the TSS Rovers of Vancouver, and for the rest of the season, minus four players who are headed to Germany for trials.

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Joshua Walter, Alec-Michael Petrizzi and Connor Guilherme left this week to pursue fourth- and fifth-division pro opportunities and Jonathan Walter a U-19 development chance with German clubs.

The Walter brothers are out of Niendorf’s Victoria-based Pacific Elite Soccer Institute and were part of Niendorf’s Vancouver Island Soccer League Jackson Cup champion Westcastle team this spring. Guilherme is out of the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy and the UBC Thunderbirds, while Petrizzi is from Florida.

Niendorf lived for 26 years in Calgary but was born and raised in Berlin and retains close connections with German soccer. Niendorf played a key role in the signing of Calgary-born, former English international Owen Hargreaves by legendary German club Bayern Munich, 50-time Canada-capped Nik Ledgerwood with 1860 Munich and former Canadian internationals Adam Straith of Victoria and Kevin McKenna of Calgary with Energie Cottbus and FC Koln, respectively.

Pre-season training camps are beginning in Europe and the early departure from the Highlanders’ season for the foursome could not be avoided.

“We are down in numbers now, but our mandate is to move players forward,” said Niendorf.

“The Highlanders program is focused on development before making the transition to professional soccer. These are fantastic opportunities for these four young men, and we are incredibly proud of them. And it’s inspiring for all the other players to show they can do this, too.”

In fact, the amateur USL 2 league motto is: “Path2Pro.” When that pro opportunity presents itself, you can hardly deny players the chance, especially if that is the stated goal of the league.

“We’re down to 15-16 players, plus injuries, so the boys will have to rally together,” said Niendorf.

“There are opportunities now for other guys to step up.”

Tonight is the B.C. derby between the two lone Canadian teams in the Northwest Division. The season series winner gets the annual Juan de Fuca Plate. The Highlanders won the first meeting between the teams 1-0 at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.

“You don’t have to motivate anybody for this game,” said Niendorf.

“A lot of our players are from the Lower Mainland so the players on both teams know each other well. This is for bragging rights.”

TSS (2-7-2) has a bigger team, which the Highlanders (6-3-1) will need to counter.

“They are very good in the air and we will have to contest them on crosses,” said Niendorf.

Four teams are in contention for the Northwest Division title heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Lane United of Eugene, Oregon, has 19 points in 11 games and has the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Highlanders, who are on 19 points with 10 games played. Seattle Sounders U-23 have 18 points in 11 games and Calgary Foothills 17 points in 10 games played.

The Highlanders close out Sunday in Sumner, Washington, against Sounders U-23.

In conferences with three divisions, such as the Western Conference to which the Northwest Division belongs, the division champion plus the highest-finishing second-place team in the conference will advance to the conference semifinals.

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