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Highlanders begin new soccer era Sunday in League1 B.C.

Canadian soccer will continue to grow and evolve when the ­Victoria Highlanders play their first men’s and women’s games in League1 B.C. today on the Lower Mainland against the respective Vancouver Whitecaps Reserve squads.
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Highlanders leadership, from left, managing director Thomas Niendorf, director Brett Large and women's director Corey Volk have the club ready for Leage1 B.C. TIMES COLONIST

Canadian soccer will continue to grow and evolve when the ­Victoria Highlanders play their first men’s and women’s games in League1 B.C. today on the Lower Mainland against the respective Vancouver Whitecaps Reserve squads.

The new league on the men’s side represents the level below the professional Canadian Premier League, which includes Island-based Pacific FC, and which was established in 2019 as Canada continues implementing a proper soccer pyramid to match the pyramid system used by nations around the world.

It is part of a heady time in Canadian soccer. From the Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal last summer in Tokyo to the Canadian men’s 36-year drought-busting qualification for the 2022 World Cup, everything seems to be falling into place.

“[League1 B.C.] is a needed stepping stone for players, especially out of U Sports, who have not yet been picked up by the academies of pro clubs,” said Highlanders men’s head coach Steve Simonson.

“It’s an exciting process.”

League1 B.C. is classified “semi-pro” and is on the same level as the existing League1 Ontario and the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec, meaning that its men’s champion club will play annually in the Canadian Championship for the Voyageurs Cup alongside the eight CPL clubs and the three Canadian teams in Major League Soccer in the national FA Cup-style ­competition.

League1 B.C. seems tailored for Highlanders players such as Isaac Koch out of the UVic Vikes, Mackenzie Cole from the UBC Thunderbirds and Cody Gysbers from the UNBC ­Timberwolves, who played in U Sports, and are now looking for the next step.

“This gets these players in the shop window to show what they are capable of,” said Simonson, also coach of Prince George-based UNBC in U Sports.

The Highlanders women’s team is led by midfielder Katie Kraeutner, the Lambrick Park Secondary product and former Canada U-20 player, who played NCAA Div. 1 for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play at home again after so many years away,” the former Norway and Iceland Euro leagues pro said in a statement.

“I think it’s a really positive time in B.C. with the inaugural League1 season. I just want to do everything I can to help the club reach its goals and have a positive influence in our community. I think it’s really special when you can be just a small piece of something much bigger than yourself.”

Kraeutner will be backed on the Highlanders by former UVic players Stephanie Badilla and Kiara Kilbey, both Canada West all-stars during their varsity careers, and fellow-former Vikes Amy Lawrence, Meagan Faulkner, Abby Mackenzie and Kyra Teetzen.

Highlanders women’s team head coach Neil Sedgwick comes with quite the pedigree as former assistant coach to Bev Priestman with the Canada U-17 team in 2012 and 2014. Out of that group came Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, Nichelle Prince and Quinn who Priestman guided to the Olympic gold medal with the Canadian senior national team last summer in Tokyo.

Joining the Highlanders and Whitecaps Reserves clubs in the inaugural season of League1 B.C. are Altitude FC of North Vancouver, UBC Varsity FC, TSS Rovers of Burnaby, Unity FC of Langley and Rivers FC of ­Kamloops.

The Highlanders men’s and women’s clubs are away to UBC Varsity FC on June 4 before their home openers June 5 at Centennial Stadium against the Whitecaps Reserves. Each League1 B.C. team will play 12 regular-season games running through July 24.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com